The Best Female Film Performances of 2012

by PopMatters Staff

6 January 2013


5 - 1

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Rust and Bone

Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero


Marion Cotillard
Rust and Bone

Give her credit for making the most of her relatively minor introduction into the world of mainstream international superstardom. After bagging her well-deserved Oscar for the role of Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie En Rose, Marion Cotillard went from major league project (Public Enemies, alongside Johnny Depp) to major league project (Christopher Nolan’s Inception and The Dark Knight Rises). In this return to her “roots”, so to say, she plays an aquarium trainer who suffers a horrible accident. Unable to walk, she is befriended by an aimless, unemployed man who reawakens her desire for life. While the role might seem tailor-made for over the top scenery chewing, Cotillard makes her handicapped character very grounded, and very real. The result is a simple story taken to near epic emotional levels—all thanks to an actress whose place in the pantheon of modern greats seems all the more secure with each new effort. Bill Gibron


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Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler


Jessica Chastain
Zero Dark Thirty

In 2011, she was “IT”. She was in everything, from the esoteric Terrence Malick head scratcher Tree of Life to the craven crowd pleaser The Help, with a couple of indie turns (Take Shelter, The Debt) thrown in for good media measure. But in 2012, Jessica Chastain truly came into her own as the CIA “motherfucker” who persevered in the search for, and eventual death of, Al-Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden. While some have questioned the film’s veracity and (questionable) support of torture, the true center here is Chastain. Wearing every year of the hunt on her increasingly haggard face, she’s not afraid to confront the Washington big wigs and bureaucrats who make her job all the more ‘complicated’. When her target is finally taken down, the look on her face says it all. It’s a combination of relief… and realization, and it’s the moment when the War on Terror hits home for anyone invested in its outcome, and this amazing film. Bill Gibron


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The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty


Amy Adams
The Master

Silent supporter. Manipulative ruler of the house. Dismissive overlady. Femme fatale. All these phrases apply equally to Peggy, the wife of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), as portrayed by the revelatory Amy Adams. While the film’s title is deliberately ambiguous, there are no bones about the validity of its relevance to Peggy. She is the unspoken, but altogether very clear, “master” of her family, using everything from sex and emotions to the power of suggestion to get what she wants. A scene midway through the film where Peggy manually pleasures her husband could have been an unnecessary display of sexuality, but the unrelenting disinterest in pleasure derived from Adams’ eyes as she stares at her screen husband is overshadowed only by her drive to get what she wants out of him. Kevin Brettauer


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Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert


Emmanuelle Riva

Amour is a simple film. We watch as an elderly couple, both of them former music instructors, deal with the consequences of the wife’s sudden stroke. Then things get worse. Much worse. Initially, Emmanuelle Riva is merely lost, looking for the life she once had while slowly slipping away from said reality. But as the illness becomes more aggressive, her deterioration becomes more severe. Eventually, she turns into a thing, a monster in the other room, moaning incoherently and tormenting her unraveling spouse. But this is no mere example of “playing sick”. Instead, Riva uses her eyes and inflections to accentuate the truth about what’s going on. Trapped in a dying body, this is an artist who still wants the vitality of what she once was. Sadly, it is never coming back. Watching someone slowly drift off is never pleasant. In the hands of this amazing actress, it’s painful, but insightful, and incredibly emotional as well. Bill Gibron


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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Director: Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Gina Montana, Lowell Landes


Quvenzhané Wallis
Beasts of the Southern Wild

Most kids like to be on camera. For some, the more you tell them to ignore it, the more they gesture, wave, and perform. The key is to get them to forget the camera is there. Child actors know not to interfere with the camera, but they often seem too aware of the camera’s presence in another way: They’re presentational, slipping in and out of expressions that play like a chart of emotions. Here I’m happy. Here I’m sad. Here I’m angry. Beasts of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis is such a refreshing screen presence in part because she never once seems to be performing for the camera. So immersed is Wallis into the pivotal role of Hushpuppy that she helps to blend the movie’s farfetched, magically realistic elements with its naturalistic ones.

There would be no believing this story (or caring very much) without the convincing entryway Wallis provides. And Hushpuppy is no easy role. She and her family/friends in the fictional Bathtub are cut off from the “civilized” world and yet she’s determined to be remembered after disaster strikes. Her protection of her father and quest for her mother are journeys that would be daunting for any actor of any age. Wallis, just six years old when the movie was shot, leaves us hopeful that Hushpuppy will succeed in her mission and absolutely certain that her performance won’t soon be forgotten. Not since Victoire Thivisol’s role in Ponette has a child actor been so indispensable to the emotional core of a film. Thomas Britt

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