The Best Female Film Performances of 2011

by PopMatters Staff

16 January 2012


10 - 6

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Midnight in Paris

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Carla Bruni, Kurt Fuller, Tom Hiddleston, Mimi Kennedy, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll


Marion Cotillard
Midnight in Paris

A dream in the midst of nightmares (or perhaps vice-versa) in 2010’s Inception, the almost-ethereal Cotillard returns in Woody Allen’s time-travel comedy as a muse, a lover, a socialite and nearly every character’s “the one that got away”. With grace and sublime ease, Cotillard brings Adriana to the forefront of the viewers’ hearts and minds, even when we should be rooting for Gil and Inez to make things work in the modern era. With a simple smile, wink or shrug, Cotillard makes both Gil and the audience forget about logic, commitment and even fidelity, and we want her to get exactly what she desires, no matter what that is. Simply put, Cotillard make Adriana the embodiment of Desire, and Midnight in Paris is all the more magical for it. Kevin Brettauer


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Albert Nobbs

Director: Rodrigo García
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers


Glenn Close
Albert Nobbs

Some have complained that Glenn Close’s work as the titular character in this rich, literary drama is too mannered and stiff for it to be believable that she could pass as a man, even in 1890s Dublin. This seems to miss the point entirely, and not because the character of Nobbs is in fact a highly mannered and stiff person. Close isn’t just trying to play a woman playing a man, she’s getting into the skin of a woman who’s been living a lie for so long that it’s not her gender that’s being hidden, it’s her entire being. A heart-breaking reminder of Close’s greatness. Chris Barsanti


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My Week with Marilyn  

Director: Simon Curtis
Cast: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Judi Dench, Dougray Scott, Derek Jacobi


Michelle Williams
My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams does such a great job of embodying the late, great Hollywood bombshell that you might miss the more nuanced aspects of the performance. Blink and you might not see the sequence where a flummoxed Monroe decides to don her noted persona for the workers at a local estate. Scoff and you may not witness the warm and inviting way this forlorn icon both repels and attracts her suitors. Dismiss the casting as something akin to a stunt and you’ll never navigate the intricate ins and outs of this breathy biopic. Almost everyone knows there was more to Marilyn Monroe than cheesecake and psychosis. Williams walks all the lines of her perplexing personality, and creates a classic. Bill Gibron


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Young Adult

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Charlize Theron, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Reaser, Patton Oswalt


Charlize Theron
Young Adult

Playing the protagonist you love to hate is a challenge in and of itself, but the selfish, snobby, Mavis Gary in Jason Reitman’s dark dramedy Young Adult straddles the love/hate line more than any other character this year. Charlize Theron captures both sides of Mavis beautifully by illustrating her unappealing habits without remorse. Usually these kind of imperfect protagonists have little moments of saving grace. Not this time. Mavis is either talking down to her hometown’s locals, scheming to steal a married man, or failing to pity a partially crippled former classmate (Patton Oswalt with a performance to rival his own in Big Fan). Theron’s is a subtlety powerful performance you can’t help but love, even if you hate her onscreen alter ego. Ben Travers


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Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland, Cameron Spurr


Kirsten Dunst

I’m convinced that Kirsten Dunst is the best actress of her generation and has been for many years. Still, the remarkable range she has shown throughout her career—in films spanning from Interview with a Vampire to Bring It On to Marie Antionette to her brilliant turn in the upcoming Sundance player Bachelorette—didn’t fully prepare me for the refined, mature and deeply soulful nuances that Dunst brings to the elegantly manic depressive character of Justine in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. In a performance that plays like a piece of classical music (perhaps “Death and the Maiden”), Dunst navigates an extreme spectrum of highs and lows, uncovering the troubled mind of a young bride who must come to terms with impending doom. What power does the planet Melancholia have over Justine? To quote another Von Trier film, Dancer in the Dark, she’s “seen it all, there is no more to see”. Her burden seems to be bearing the knowledge of the world’s destruction before anyone else, and this knowledge unravels her.

While her premonitions will eventually be proven true, Justine will experience debilitating anxieties and depression, just until the end of the world. Following an intense, reptilian-eyed showdown with her caretaker sister, Justine, freed of the anxiety that once pummeled her into the ground, sets out to construct a “magic cave” shelter with her nephew in preparation for the last act’s planetary collision as her sister falls apart. Dunst swings her character’s arc into one of redemption, of strength, just as Earth is destroyed, without it ever being cliched or gooey. Justine’s nephew calls her “Auntie Steel Breaker”, a term that is never really explained, but I think that implies he sees her as being strong enough to break through steel, she is his hero. When he calls her this while she is in the throes of despair, laying paralyzed with grief, it is hard to listen to.

However, by the film’s end, as Dunst reveals Justine’s solid core, she earns that moniker as Justine shockingly becomes the story’s most grounded, sensible, strong voice. No matter how flawed the heroines of Von Trier’s oeuvre may or may not be, each one of these women is expertly drawn by the performer and Von Trier. These are wholly original, daring and cinematic female characters. Whether you love him or hate him, he is still one of the only major working auteurs to consistently depict interesting, complicated women with such razor sharp edges and subtleties. Dunst’s prickly, coolly venomous portrayal of Justine is a work of vision and bravado that hints on even greater things to come. Bring it on, apocalypse. Matt Mazur

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