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.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
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
Your Sister’s Sister
Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt, Mark Duplass
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
The Deep Blue Sea
Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Harry Hadden-Paton
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.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader
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
Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast
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.
10 - 6
Safety Not Guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
Safety Not Guaranteed
The Aubrey Plaza we meet at the beginning of Safety Not Guaranteed is a familiar one. As Darius, a sarcastic, cynical intern at an alternative weekly paper, her character is reminiscent of her previous roles in Scott Pilgrim and Funny People. But much like Plaza’s ever-evolving April on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, there is more to Darius than her cynical exterior. As she goes undercover to try to determine whether local weirdo Kenneth (Mark Duplass) has actually built a time machine, she finds herself drawn in by his passion and paranoia. The role requires Plaza to gradually begin to believe Kenneth, and even more gradually fall for him, and she pulls off that difficult, subtle transformation with aplomb. She goes from over-the-top seductress, treating Kenneth as a joke, to trusting him enough to open up about the death of her mother.
It all comes to a head late in the film, as Darius goes to interview a person who makes Kenneth’s whole story seem like a lie and then confronts Kenneth about it. The contrast between her quiet crumpling during the interview and the subsequent argument is a perfect illustration of just how much Darius had come to trust Kenneth, and the pain of that apparent betrayal. Plaza does the sort of great, subtle acting in Safety Not Guaranteed that deserves awards. That is, if award-giving bodies actually recognized great, subtle acting. Chris Conaton
Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Forget Susan Boyle. If your only exposure to the (by now, overexposed) song “I Dreamed a Dream” from this famous stage spectacle is via the dumpy former Britain’s Got Talent winner, you’ve been done a grand disservice. With the voice of a dying angel (recorded live during filming—kudos to you director Tom Hooper) and an acting interpretation that’s just devastating, the actress also known as Batman’s feline nemesis kills it. She takes a piece of pop culture trivia and turns it back into what it always was—a sickly mother’s call for hope. Yet when Anne Hathaway addresses the song’s last lines (“I had a dream my life would be / So different from the hell I’m living / So different now from what it seemed / Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”), you immediately realize her pleas are for naught. It’s one of 2012’s most distressing moments and brilliant bits of acting. Bill Gibron
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald
It took me a long time to come around to Keira Knightley, but she won me over last year with her skittish turn in A Dangerous Method. Now she’s solidified her position as one of the best working actresses with a stunning turn as the titular Anna Karenina. Knightley handles the transition from proper lady to enraptured mistress with understated eye flickers and head tilts that make the ensuing scenes of passion all the more fervent. Once Anna realizes what her desire has cost her, though, that’s when Knightley really shows her range. Driven mad by an oppressive society and contradictory cravings, Knightley’s take on Karenina’s spiral is something to behold. I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next. Ben Travers
Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin
In Jessica Yu’s 1996 documentary profile of his life and work, poet/journalist Mark O’Brien talks about the duality of his body and soul. He says his disability makes him more fervent in his belief in the soul, since it means his true identity transcends his diminished physical condition. In Ben Lewin’s The Sessions—a feature film adaptation of O’Brien’s essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”—O’Brien does consider that duality as he consults his priest. But sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) has an equally powerful (and unexpected) transformative experience of her own body and soul. Hunt’s fully nude scenes in the film have received a lot of press, which is a shame insofar as many of these accounts suggest something much more prurient than what the film actually offers.
While one could debate the necessity of her degree of exposure, there is much to praise about how Hunt subtly transitions from the strictly professional to the complicatedly emotional. Cheryl walks into the film certain of her ability to compartmentalize, but scene by scene Hunt expresses signs of that certainty slipping away. Many critical assessments of The Sessions focus on what O’Brien learns about his body through intimacy with his surrogate. Yet Cheryl’s growth is just as poignant, as we see her realize that she cannot resist the growing attachment with her patient. A late scene in the film foregrounds her attention to the sacredness of her body, but by then Hunt has already conveyed to us both the joy and the toll of her closeness with O’Brien. Thomas Britt
The Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell
Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Chris Tucker, Jacki Weaver
The Silver Linings Playbook
Though she may have put herself on the A-list with March’s blockbuster The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence reminded everyone she got her big break because of her acting chops with a nuanced turn in Silver Linings Playbook. As the widow Tiffany, Lawrence was asked to switch from bitterness to sorrow to anger at the drop of a hat. She went from 0 to 60 in even less time. We were with her all the way. The complexity of Tiffany wasn’t just in her background. Her decision-making was questionable (at best) and we had to be behind her if the love story was going to work. Lawrence took us there, and the movie was all the better for it. Ben Travers
5 - 1
Rust and Bone
Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero
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
Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler
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
Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty
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
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
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
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Gina Montana, Lowell Landes
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