Tough and Tender - The Top 20 Female Performances of 2008

by PopMatters Staff

13 January 2009


10 - 1

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Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Amy Ryan, Geoff Pierson, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, Colm Feore, Michael Kelly

(Universal Pictures)
US theatrical: 24 Oct 2008

Review [18.Feb.2009]
Review [24.Oct.2008]


Angelina Jolie Changeling

More than the plate-smashing, sociopath-accosting Oscar-ready clips, Angelina Jolie’s most impressive scenes in Changeling are the more understated moments where her Christine seems to be mustering every ounce of effort to try and remain sane, in particular several series of haunting reaction shots: one while being condescended to and dressed down with loaded questions by a corrupt doctor at a mental hospital; another in response to dirty looks from the LAPD officer who had her committed, during his day of reckoning in court; and, finally, being told by a helpful pastor that Christine and her missing son would meet again—in Heaven—a thought that appears to provide her little comfort or reassurance. As the most famous mother since the Virgin Mary, the act of watching Jolie’s performance is comparable to seeing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, near the end of their marriage, bicker and brood their way through Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut—voyeuristic, to be sure, yet utterly transfixing. Josh Timmermann

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Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Joan Pera

(The Weinstein Company)
US theatrical: 15 Aug 2008 (Limited release)

Review [15.Aug.2008]


Penelope Cruz Vicky Christina Barcelona

Maria Elana’s reputation precedes her by a good half hour of screen time. By the time we finally get to meet Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, described as insane and murderous by everyone in the film, there’s almost no way she can live up to our expectations. Penelope Cruz obliterates them. Her fiery, passion-driven artist is an explosion of chaos into what was otherwise a breezy summer flick. Her chemistry with real life boyfriend Javier Bardem is a staggering blend of true love and murderous intentions, driving the film’s point about fairy tale romantic love home fiercely. Aaron Marsh

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Synecdoche, New York

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Weist, Tom Noonan

(Sony Classics)
US theatrical: 24 Oct 2008

Review [24.Oct.2008]


Dianne Wiest Synecdoche, New York

The strongest central development within Synecdoche, New York, a movie obsessed with infinity and replication, is the shift from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard is the conduit for that movement, but Dianne Wiest’s dual roles as Ellen and Millicent provide its fulfillment. As Caden becomes Ellen within his own play, he depends on Millicent’s direction to guide him. Wiest imbues the roles with a sweetly stabilizing nature that delivers the protagonist from his torment and likewise relieves the audience from an intellectual exercise. In her presence (to paraphrase H.I. McDunnough), the emotional seeds scattered throughout the film finally find purchase. Thomas Britt

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My Winnipeg

Director: Guy Maddin
Cast: Darcy Fehr, Ann Savage, Amy Stewart, Louis Negin, Brendan Cade, Wesley Cade

(IFC Films)
US theatrical: 13 Jun 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 4 Jul 2008 (Limited release)

Review [13.Jun.2008]


Ann Savage My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin’s mom must have a wonderful sense of humor, or else secretly hates her son’s guts. One-time noir queen Ann Savage’s riff on The Theoretical Construct Known As Guy Maddin’s Mother is less grotesque than Gretchen Krich’s sci-fi she-monster in last year’s more overtly fictionalized Brand Upon the Brain!, but that’s not really saying much, is it? It must say something, though, when Savage’s caustic, hyper-critical hag constitutes the weird heart and acidic soul of Maddin’s semi-autobiographical film—as well as, certainly, its most magnetic presence. Situated somewhere between Lady MacBeth and Medusa, Guy Maddin’s Mom is quickly joining the pantheon of great, unflattering parts; until further notice (or, perhaps, until Maddin persuades his real-life mum to step in front of the camera), Savage owns the role. Josh Timmermann

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Wendy and Lucy

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Patton, John Robinson, Will Oldham, Larry Fessenden

(Oscilloscope Laboratories)
US theatrical: 10 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (Limited release)

Review [7.May.2009]
Review [12.Dec.2008]


Michelle Williams Wendy and Lucy

Throughout Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams’s Wendy has a loose, natty bandage wrapped around her ankle, and the injury beneath the gauze is never mentioned, much less explained. The same is true of the character’s hardscrabble circumstances. As Wendy, a young drifter on the brink of financial ruin, Williams is both vulnerable and tough—and absolutely riveting. The audience mourns her losses and regrets her ill-advised decisions while all the while admiring her perseverance. We may never how Wendy arrived in her situation or where she’ll end up, but thanks to Williams’s raw performance, we’ll likely never forget her. Marisa Carroll

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Revolutionary Road

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn

(Paramount Vantage)
US theatrical: 26 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 30 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [31.May.2009]
Review [24.Dec.2008]


Kate Winslet Revolutionary Road

The suburban housewife, unsettled and discontent within her white picket fence world, is not a new character type within the motion picture drama, but no one has taken the dissatisfaction and run with it quite like this endearing English rose. In Sam Mendes remarkable return to the American Dream as nightmare (this time circa the ‘50s) Winslet walks the fine line between shrew and shrewd flawlessly, making her displeased spouse both the subject of pity and scorn. While she will probably win her first Oscar for playing the sexually open war criminal in The Reader, this was the much braver performance. Her scenes with co-star Leonardo DiCaprio are simply electric. Bill Gibron

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The Wrestler

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest “The Cat” Miller

(Fox Searchlight)
US theatrical: 17 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [30.Apr.2009]
Review [16.Dec.2008]


Marisa Tomei The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke’s heartbreaking return as The Ram in The Wrestler has been justly feted, but Marisa Tomei is equally poignant as his love interest, Cassidy. The stripper “with a heart of gold” is a timeworn Hollywood cliché, but Tomei’s performance here is deep and sympathetic. Her Cassidy is by turns gentle and guarded, sometimes both at once—just watch the competing reactions flicker across Tomei’s face when The Ram sees Cassidy without club makeup and tells her she looks “clean.” Because the audience grows to love The Ram, we can’t help wishing that Cassidy will love him too. But Tomei never lets us forget the stakes for her character, so we always understand exactly where she’s coming from. Marisa Carroll

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Frozen River

Director: Courtney Hunt
Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior, James Reilly

(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 1 Aug 2008 (Limited release)

Review [9.Feb.2009]
Review [1.Aug.2008]


Melissa Leo Frozen River

When well-known actresses play “poor”, there is usually a clunky artlessness that infiltrates their attempts, something distinctly artificial. Consummate character actress Leo, though, makes her trailer park ma Ray Eddy into a mythical, tragic mother lioness propelled by sheer survival instinct to feed and protect her cubs. She is haggard, she is pissed off, and she has had it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Ray, through writer-director Courtney Hunt’s deliciously-scripted details, begins to smuggle people into the country for money. Leo, constantly smoking, doesn’t shy away from the script’s desperation, and plays each of Ray’s rough edges with commanding, queenly authority. This studious actress molds an anti-heroine that feels right at home in our fraught economic times, where it isn’t so unbelievable to think that sometimes kids don’t get dinner. The glorious, Bette Davis-esque close-up of her that opens Frozen River, though, is the heart of this woman: broken but not beaten. Leo speaks volumes in her silence, letting her face tell the story sans make-up, sans affectation; she knows Ray. Matt Mazur

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Rachel Getting Married

Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, Bill Irwin, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe

US theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (Limited release)

Review [7.Oct.2008]


Anne Hathaway Rachel Getting Married

You can almost taste the acid seeping from Hathaway’s performance even as the first sarcastic line leaves her mouth. It’s a dream anti-star turn that is not afraid to show how ugly things can get. Her child-like pettiness is only matched by her deep, passionate feelings towards sisterhood (but not so much towards her sister). And while it could be incredibly easy to write this character off as trouble incarnate, Kym never blames her circumstances on anyone but herself. And considering what’s happened, that’s absolutely heartbreaking. Even if you do want to smack her quite often. Aaron Marsh

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Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough, Sinead Matthews

US theatrical: 10 Oct 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 18 Apr 2008 (General release)


Sally Hawkins Happy-Go-Lucky

The fairytale Amélie fulfilled even the most sweet-toothed filmgoer’s appetite. While Mike Leigh could never be mistaken for a director who would share that film’s saccharine-and-sepia worldview, a lesser actress than Hawkins might have chosen that key for the role of Poppy, to woeful results. Fortunately, Hawkins brings multifaceted warmth to Poppy that encompasses an enormous range of emotions but deftly blends them all into an earnest optimism. She brings to Leigh’s working class milieu a breath of fresh air that brightens the darker corners of the film. Especially in the scenes where she simply listens to another character, her focus and generosity are electrifying. Thomas Britt

Topics: a christmas tale | alexandra maria lara | alexis zegerman | amy adams | amy ryan | amy stewart | andrea riseborough | angelina jolie | anjelica huston | ann savage | anna deavere smith | anne consigny | anne hathaway | best film of 2008 | bill irwin | brad william henke | brendan cade | bruno ganz | catherine deneuve | catherine keener | changeling | charlie mcdermott | chiara mastroianni | choke | colm feore | darcy fehr | david harbour | david kross | debra winger | dianne weist | doubt | eddie marsan | elizabeth banks | ellen burstyn | elsa zylberstein | emily watson | ernest "the cat" miller | evan rachel wood | françois cluzet | frozen river | geoff pierson | happy-go-lucky | hope davis | ioan gruffudd | james cromwell | james reilly | jason butler harner | jason ritter | javier bardem | jeffrey donovan | jeffrey wright | joan pera | john malkovich | john robinson | jonah bobo | josh brolin | kate winslet | kathryn hahn | kathy bates | kelly macdonald | kristin scott thomas | larry fessenden | laurent capelluto | laurent grévill | leonardo dicaprio | lise ségur | louis negin | marie-josée croze | marina hands | marisa tomei | mark boone junior | mather zickel | mathieu amalric | melissa leo | melvil poupaud | meryl streep | michael kelly | michael shannon | michelle williams | mickey rourke | misty upham | my winnipeg | nathalie baye | penélope cruz | philip seymour hoffman | rachel getting married | ralph fiennes | rebecca hall | revolutionary road | richard dreyfuss | rosemarie dewitt | sally hawkins | sam rockwell | samantha morton | scarlett johansson | scott glenn | serge hazanavicius | sinead matthews | synecdoche, new york | tell no one | thandie newton | the reader | the wrestler | toby jones | tom noonan | tunde adebimpe | vicky cristina barcelona | viola davis | w. | walter dalton | wendy and lucy | wesley cade | will oldham | will patton
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