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It was a particularly strong year for women in film. These sensational performances remind us that, when all is said and done, it’s character and how an actor or actress creates them that matters as much to a movie as a script, a director, or an idea.


 

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Enough Said

Director: Nicole Holofcener
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette,. Catherine Keener, Ben Falcone, Toby Huss

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Enough Said


Enough Said is the first film to feature Julia Louis-Dreyfus on screen since Deconstructing Harry—a Woody Allen comedy (in which she appears only briefly) released during Seinfeld‘s final season. Since then, she’s starred in three sitcoms, won a bunch of Emmys, and generally conducted herself as a national treasure—but not appeared on film. She returns in Enough Said, playing a masseuse embarking on a new relationship as she begins the feel the pangs of empty-nest syndrome, with her best big-screen performance yet: witty, relaxed, loveable, and kind of a mess. Jesse Hassenger


 

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The Bling Ring

Director: Sophia Coppola
Cast: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Georgia Rock, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann

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Emma Watson
The Bling Ring


Alexis Neiers of E!‘s Pretty Wild is an easy target. Her former public image—that of a fame-obsessed teenager turned star of a reality series, convicted burglar, and drug addict—is emblematic of the vices of celebrity culture in Los Angeles. Sofia Coppola‘s The Bling Ring is a satire about the burglaries committed by Neiers’ social circle, and Emma Watson appears in the Neiers role as “Nicki”. Watson avoids playing the role as a caricature or treating her character’s inspiration with derision, despite the absurdity of Neiers’ performance in the media. Watson turns the “dead behind the eyes” quality that many have observed about The Hills set, into a conscious performance. Her Nicki is always acting, always auditioning, and always seeking the available spotlight. Coppola and Watson find within Nicki a Millennial Norma Desmond, desperate for stardom but lacking the credentials to justify the affectation. Thomas Britt


 

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The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner

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Margot Robbie
The Wolf of Wall Street


She’s got the blond supermodel moves down cold. The minute Leonardo DiCaprio’s stock broking conman sees her, we realize both he and she are doomed. During their stormy relationship, Ms. Robbie has a moment destined to live in cinematic infamy. After discovering yet another of his many personal peccadilloes, she sits across from his compliant character and—well, let’s just say she does her best pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone. While the audience is not privy to the moment, DiCaprio’s sure is, and it’s within that sequence where we witness where all power within this relationship lies. Toward the end, when everything is about to implode, Ms. Robbie has another sexually charged smackdown that emphasizes her strength as a character and as an actress. Bill Gibron


 

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The Conjuring

Director: James Wan
Cast: Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston

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Lili Taylor
The Conjuring


One of my favorite stories about actors’ real immersion into fictional roles involves Lili Taylor. The story goes, she was so into her role as a vampire in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction that she bit a would-be mugger on the neck. After seeing The Conjuring, I’m more inclined to believe that tale. By the end of the film, Taylor’s character Carolyn Perron has been completely overtaken by an inhuman spirit that haunts her home. Her Carolyn is a great example of a performance in three acts. At first, she’s a meek and quiet mother. Then she’s a dogged but vulnerable protector. As the film reaches its climax, she has become the vessel of evil. Taylor is convincing in each incarnation, and especially so in her horrific transformation, which is crucial to the effect of a film that ends with a quotation validating the fears therein: “Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today.” Taylor’s performance powerfully authenticates that belief. Thomas Britt


 

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Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus and 2012

Director: Sebastián Silva
Cast: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann, Sebastián Silva

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Gaby Hoffmann
Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012


As the freewheeling hippie incarnate Crystal Fairy, Gaby Hoffman lights up the screen in Sebastián Silva’s surreal drug movie Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012. Crystal is the antithesis to Michael Cera’s uptight Jamie, and as he insults and undermines her, Hoffman does a terrific job of balancing aloofness with genuine hurt. We get a sense that there is a lifetime of pain concealed behind Crystal’s carefree veneer, and Hoffman gradually peels off the layers—and literally takes off her clothes—in order to show us the sadness she has kept hidden. It takes a while to warm up to Crystal, but by the film’s end, we are better for having known her. Jon Lisi


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