The Best Female Film Performances of 2011

by PopMatters Staff

16 January 2012


15 - 11

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Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie


Carey Mulligan

At the very least, Mulligan’s performance in Shame destroys any potential for pigeonholing her as a sweet, young, and innocent character caught in the middle of sexual or violent impropriety (as seen in An Education and Drive). Luckily, it is also a powerful addition to an already great collection of performances, an incredible mix of frailty, melodrama, and bravura. If we’ll never think of Mulligan as sweet and carefree again, it is because the image of her as the emotionally scarred Sissy Sullivan is now seared in our minds. Tomas Hachard


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Super 8

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills


Elle Fanning
Super 8

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s best film, was Elle Fanning’s de facto debutante ball. She already had an impressive list of credits as a very young actress, but Somewhere seemed right in step with her emerging teenage years and the wise-beyond-her-age quality Fanning can bring to a role. J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is as different a film from Somewhere as you’re likely to see, but it is an ideal next step for Fanning’s arrival as a major talent. Operating on the conventional wisdom that girls mature faster than boys, a major subplot of Super 8 has the young teenage boys of the film consistently befuddled in their classmate’s presence.

She’s Alice, the lone girl of the group, and Fanning plays her as a young woman not yet fully aware of her power over young men. When she recites a dramatic monologue in the film the kids are making, the boys stand off camera, unsure of how to deal with her convincing passion. In another scene, her young admirer interprets her “zombie” embrace as a romantic overture. Fanning breezes through these complex moments like an innocent creature surrounded by a band of brothers who don’t know what to make of her, and that intrigues them even more. As such, her performance unearths another alien aspect of young teenage life—one that has nothing to do with the film’s sci-fi set pieces. Thomas Britt


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Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Jessica Barden, Michelle Dockery


Saoirse Ronan

Saoirse Ronan has done a lot already in her young career, but she breaks new ground as Hanna, a badass teenage assassin. Raised in isolation by her father (Eric Bana), Hanna knows a hundred different ways to kill a man, how to survive in the wild, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of science facts. What her father failed to teach her, however, is how to act around other human beings. Hanna gives Ronan the chance to do some incredibly cool action work, from taking out the CIA squad sent to kill her to escaping from a secret underground installation using only her wits. Where she really shines, though, is when Hanna travels with an ordinary English family on vacation. Hanna doesn’t know any social norms, and her carefully practiced cover story falls apart almost immediately. Ronan manages to make Hanna believable in both the action sequences and the scenes where she desperately tries to learn how to interact with other humans. Chris Conaton


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The Help

Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney


Octavia Spencer
The Help

Any Oscar pundit worth their salt is predicting Octavia Spencer as a lock for a Best Supporting Actress nomination later this month. Many of these same prognosticators who cast Spencer as the one to beat for the nod announce this news with a sort of wet blanket caveat: many proclaim she has no shot at winning. They dismiss Spencer’s work in the pivotal role of maid “Minny Jackson” as too “comedic”, too “light”. I’m sorry, but did I see the same movie? Because what I saw was a moving, engrossing portrayal of a woman being battered not only by the shocking racism in the not-so-far-in-the-distant past Mississippi, but also at home by her husband. Yes, there were a couple of great jokes and one epic just-desserts moment, but behind most comedy there is frequently great tragedy. Spencer, who was a real life inspiration for the character, bravely plays Minny’s sharp tongued realness in equal measure to her vulnerability and her pragmatism, in a region that had been historically, shamefully hostile toward African Americans, women in particular.

As Minny sends her eldest daughter off to her first day of service, what begins initially as a scene of humor turns, quite unexpectedly, into one of pathos and heart as Minny reminds the young girl to not talk back to her white employers. When her daughter laughs off the suggestion, a deadly seriousness shoots from Minny’s eyes, and with a laser beam focus, she repeats her instructions verbatim, in a tone that implies years of history and experience. It paints Minny as a steely survivor whose advice is always to be listened to despite her frequently cheerful exterior. This is anything but a comic relief role and to dismiss it as such is egregious, to not see Minny’s details—years of heartbreak and cruelty buried underneath a quick-witted veneer—completely misses the point of the performance, the film, and the character. The sheer gravitas that Spencer, as a storyteller, brings to her key moments throughout The Help are more than enough for her to land the Oscar nomination, yes, but make no mistake that in a fair world her work as an instantly iconic character in a hugely successful movie should also be more than enough to earn her a deserved win. Please don’t make a terrible awful mistake, Academy voters. Matt Mazur


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Like Crazy

Director: Drake Doremus
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley, Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead


Felicity Jones
Like Crazy

Strong actors can perform well in bad movies. Felicity Jones, in the poorly constructed Like Crazy, takes it one step further: she transcends the picture with incredible warmth for a character so tortured by love. The film’s title is meant to convey youthful ignorance as well as that unique feeling one gets when they’re falling head over heels for someone new. Jones captures both of these with the command of an older actress who has the personal experience to create a layered, endearing character like Anna. She portrays her romantic struggle through a wide array of looks, gestures, and vocal tics. Like Crazy uses small moments to suggest massive problems, forcing the actors to convey quite a bit through very little. Jones excels even when the movie doesn’t—the mark of an incredibly talented thespian, young or old. Ben Travers

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