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From a precocious young girl bravely battling the elements to much older women waging war with their own demons, 2012 was a standout year for actresses, with these being some of the very, very best.


 

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Smashed

Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Smashed


Playing an alcoholic, or any kind of chemical or pharmaceutical “dependent”, is often seen as showboating for actors. They get the creative benefit of a destructive crutch while allowing the malady to do most of the heavy psycho-dramatic lifting. Not the case here, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead showcasing not only the inner turmoil her heavy drinking creates, but the fallout all around her. Demonstrated in small, solid steps, the eventual fall from grace feels real, and seems as authentic as any stagey, showboating turn. The key here, however, is Winstead’s own inner transformation. Recovery is not just about stopping; it’s about struggle, and we get intriguing examples of said battle all throughout this amazing performance. Bill Gibron


 

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Your Sister’s Sister

Director: Lynn Shelton
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt, Mark Duplass

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Rosemarie Dewitt
Your Sister’s Sister


Lynn Shelton makes small-scale, dialogue-driven films that lack movie stars and high production values but are rich with observations about human relationships. Though her most well-regarded work features males learning to express and test the bonds of friendship, the dramatic situation in Your Sister’s Sister is a love triangle complicated by well-intended secrets and lies. The (awkward) title of the film refers to Rosemarie DeWitt’s character, Hannah. Recently broken up and at a crossroads in her life, she acts on a romantic impulse when her sister’s best friend enters her life.


That sister Iris (Emily Blunt) is secretly in love with best friend Jack (Mark Duplass) is one of many pieces of information withheld for much of the film’s running time. DeWitt bears the bulk of the drama, as Hannah becomes her sister’s confessor even as she struggles to keep her own secrets from both Iris and Jack. Of DeWitt’s many memorable scenes in the film, one extended scene of mostly wordless acting is particularly noteworthy. In bed, with her back turned to Iris, she receives and processes information that strongly complicates her own situation. The way she breathes, the activity of her eyes and the stillness of her body convey more feeling and conflict than a monologue could. Shelton’s movies are often very talky, but with an actress of DeWitt’s caliber, even the act of listening can be executed with undeniable magnetism. Thomas Britt


 

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The Deep Blue Sea

Director: Terence Davies
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Harry Hadden-Paton

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Rachel Weisz
The Deep Blue Sea


Having already earned her Oscar for The Constant Gardner, Rachel Weisz has been lost in a kind of career conundrum. After all, she got her start in both small art efforts and big, loud examples of commercial bombast (The Mummy, Constantine). Now, she finds a role that requires her to be both brittle and brave, facing the aftereffects of a doomed love affair. Married to a stoic, stiff upper lipped judge and transformed by an affair with a volatile, damaged war vet, our heroine decides to end her life. But even then, there is failure… and discovery. Proving she is more than just a woman scorned, Weisz turns Hester Collyer into a cautionary example of passion unleashed and ill-placed.
Bill Gibron


 

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Lincoln

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader

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Sally Field
Lincoln


Sally Field was born to play Mary Todd Lincoln. I don’t know of any other Southern-born actor with her singular blend of tenderness, flintiness, and neediness, who could convey the contradictions in Mary Lincoln’s character. As the Civil War rages on, Mary is fighting her own war. She’s still mourning the death of her young son Willie who died of typhoid fever three years before. Field plays Mary Lincoln as a woman growing into her own consciousness in the role she has to play as Lincoln’s wife. In her showdown with Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens—one of the high points of the whole movie—she’s a barracuda swathed in crinoline. It’s a scene where two great actors are matched to perfection, and it’s amazing to watch them banter, barely masking their mutual loathing of one another. It’s great period acting at its best. Farisa Khalid


 

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The Impossible

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast

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Naomi Watts
The Impossible


Let’s face it, Naomi Watts has been robbed of her Oscar moment at least twice in her near two decades onscreen (yes, she’s been around that long). The first time was for her amazing work in David Lynch’s undeniable masterpiece, Mulholland Dr. The second was her heartbreaking turn in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. Now, she takes on the tale of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding turn, taking on the inhuman elements as well as her own inner failings to find the courage to continue on. It’s a tough turn, one that’s often impossible to watch. Still, with her strength and sense of duty as both a wife and mother, Watts wins us over, and makes us care about what happens next to this accidental victim of nature’s fury.
Bill Gibron


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