Bening and Moore, coincidentally, also turned in two other less-noted performances this year that only solidify their legends as two of the finest working actresses in America right now. It’s essential that these more off-the-beaten path turns be remembered alongside their work in The Kids are All Right. Moore’s erudite turn in Atom Egoyan’s overly-lambasted Chloe is much better, more refined, and more interesting than most people are giving her credit for, while Bening, I have heard many a critic argue, and I completely agree with, is even better in Rodrigo Garcia’s beautiful Mother and Child. Playing a lonely, sour middle-aged woman who was forced to give her baby up at age 14, and who has been empty ever since, Bening hits a career high. It’s a fearless, breathtaking performance of a character who, despite the steely facade, is pure tremulous vulnerability beneath. As she rounds the impossibly melodramatic edges of the story out carefully, we see flashes of pure electricity in Bening’s eyes that recall the evil twinkle of conwoman Myra Langtree in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters or the cool yuppie dissatisfaction of Carolyn Burnham, another conwoman of sorts, in American Beauty. Moore, speaking of self-referencing, evokes the haunted, raw sexuality and dissatisfaction of Amber Waves in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, as well as the catalog of women she has played over the course of her career who have challenged the spectator’s conventional wisdom about female sexuality. These are two of the best, at the heights of their respective powers, to ignore them is foolish, so I will not: I hereby declare my Best Actress prize to be a tie between Bening and Moore for their inspiring work this year and across their filmographies.
Looking at some international art house successes, it makes me heartsick to know that these women from all corners of the globe don’t stand a chance at Oscar hosannas. Though she did recently pull a surprise win from the Los Angeles Film Critics as Best Actress, Mother‘s Kim Hye-ja is still obviously very much a Hollywood outsider, despite a long, prestigious career in Korea. Isabelle Huppert has somehow (shamefully) never been nominated by the Academy (a la her countrywoman Jeanne Moreau), so her bold turn in Claire Denis’ White Material probably isn’t the right vehicle to bring her a first nomination. Isabelle Adjani is a French actress who has fared better than most of her contemporaries – with two Oscar nominations as Best Actress for The Story of Adele H. (1975) and Camille Claudel (1989) – but her powerhouse professor in Skirt Day is probably too edgy for traditional Academy voters’ taste. Danish actress Paprika Steen’s performance in Applause showcases it’s leading lady by not only giving her the chance to play a recovering alcoholic actress, but also the alcoholic version in flashbacks while she plays Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on stage. Talk about a tour de force. Steen was pure electricity and star charisma in the role.
Then we have the fabulous Tilda Swinton, whom I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing earlier this year, in I Am Love. In the film, Swinton speaks Italian and Russian, casts all vanity aside, and uses her expressive face in the film’s near-wordless passages to convey more with a glance than most performers do with an entire script. When you look at her haunting, almost silent film-quality acting in comparison to her leonine, bonkers-in-the-best-way work in last year’s Julia, the question needs to be asked: what in the hell does Tilda Swinton – one of the most adventurous, thoughtful actresses making movies today – need to do to get another freaking Oscar nomination? Surely Oscars are the last thing from Tilda’s mind, and during my interview with her she let slip that she had no idea what had happened at the ceremony the year before, but still, to not reward risks like the ones she takes in I Am Love feels like a huge step backwards, in terms of the Oscar’s credibility.
It’s interesting to note the presence of a dynamic range of younger female actors doing very interesting character work in the past year, many are teenage girls going on impossible journeys, who take center stage and more than acquit themselves. Even though I wasn’t as terribly impressed as my fellow critics were with newcomer Hailee Steinfeld’s debut as Mattie Ross in the Coens’ True Grit (clearly leading performance, not supporting as it’s ludicrously being campaigned), there was still thankfully Jessica Chastain, Katie Jarvis, Jennifer Lawrence, Noomi Rapace, Emma Stone, and especially Michelle Williams (the most brilliant actress of her generation), pouring their souls into sharp characterizations, while Catherine Keener’s addled mom in Please Give is trying to provide sound guidance to her teenage daughter throughout her film. These young ladies – and their moms – need to be given credit for illuminating the teenage and young adult female experience in magnificent new ways in a time where most entertainment geared towards young women is often devoid of wit, heart, charm, humor or brains, or simply not geared towards young women at all.
It was a banner year for women in film, where ladies of all ages have showed up, in force and en masse, to the movies – and the industry is finally starting to change for them. It’s an exciting time. Now we just need to have a year that isn’t all about white actresses exclusively. Besides Hye-ja 2010 has not been a stellar year for women of color in leading roles. To that effect, Kerry Washington’s understated, strong work in Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, a tough look at how the militant activism of the Black Panthers affected black communities in the 1970s, is a nice step in the right direction, and Washington’s game work in not only this film, but also in supporting roles in Mother and Child and For Colored Girls, is purely delightful to watch.
1. (TIE) Annette Bening … The Kids Are All Right & Mother and Child and Julianne Moore … Chloe & The Kids Are All Right
2. Lesley Manville … Another Year
3. Natalie Portman … Black Swan
4. Michelle Williams … Blue Valentine
5. Paprika Steen … Applause
6. Tilda Swinton … I Am Love
7. Isabelle Huppert … White Material
8. Kim Hye-ja … Mother
9. Isabelle Adjani … Skirt Day
10. Catherine Keener … Please Give
11. Katie Jarvis … Fish Tank
12. Emma Stone … Easy A
13. Jennifer Lawrence … Winter’s Bone
14. Nicole Kidman … Rabbit Hole
15. Noomi Rapace … The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
16. Kerry Washington … Night Catches Us
17. Sally Hawkins … Made in Dagenham
18. Jessica Chastain … Jolene
19. Sylvie Testud … Lourdes
20. Patricia Clarkson … Cairo Time
Note: One performance I would have loved to have seen before we went to press is Halle Berry in her Golden Globe-nominated turn in Frankie & Alice. Multiple requests to screen the film were made to both the film’s production company and to the film’s publicists went unanswered. Oh well, Best Actress is full enough without me having to beg someone to screen a turkey, and without the always hit or miss – mainly miss – Berry pulling out all of the Actress! stops playing a stripper with multiple personality disorder, one of which is a white racist.