Tough and Tender - The Top 20 Female Performances of 2008

[13 January 2009]

By PopMatters Staff


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Doubt

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

(Miramax; US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (General release); 2008)

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20

Meryl Streep Doubt

There is no ‘doubt’ Streep would be good in the role of Sr. Aloysius Beauvier in the big screen adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. It’s the kind of part she could play in her sleep. But having to carry the entire moral conscious of the film, which focuses on some unsubstantiated accusations against a priest in a 1960s Catholic school, is quite a chore for both the character and the actress. Yet Streep is nothing short of magnificent as the mean on the outside, frail on the inside nun who must uncover the truth and remove all reservation. Her confrontations with co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman set the tone for the entire narrative. Her final scene confirms our deepest fears. Bill Gibron



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W.

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Ioan Gruffudd, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Wright, Jason Ritter, Toby Jones

(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 17 Oct 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 7 Nov 2008 (Limited release); 2008)

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19

Thandie Newton W.

You can never win playing a current political figure. You either come off as doing an impression, or making a mistake and missing the mark all together. Leave it to Oliver Stone to find the right combination of stature and surrealism in this UK beauty. Playing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Newton adopts an oddball accent and cadence, the better to bring out the inherent bureaucratic double-speak of the bumbling Bush Administration. Like a reverse Greek Chorus, this version of the Cabinet member is all swallowed pride and imperfect policy. If her boss weren’t so bumbling, the entire set up would be scary. Newton’s nonsensical depiction makes it that much more frightening. Bill Gibron



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A Christmas Tale

Director: Arnold Desplechin
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Anne Consigny, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto

(IFC Films; US theatrical: 14 Nov 2008 (General release); 2008)

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18

Catherine Deneuve A Christmas Tale

As the de facto Grand Dame of French Cinema—or is that, at this point, European Cinema?—it’s only appropriate that, in Arnaud Desplechin’s latest intimate-epic ensemble piece, Catherine Deneuve portrays the matriarch of a neurotic, dysfunctional yet oddly congruous bourgeois clan. In a film marked by tonal shifts informed by the dynamics of whichever characters happen to be sharing a scene, her moments opposite the equally terrific Mathieu Almaric manage to stand out; they’re the ones you remember most—something that almost always seems to be the case when Deneuve is involved. Josh Timmermann



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Choke

Director: Clark Gregg
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke, Jonah Bobo

(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 26 Sep 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 21 Nov 2008 (General release); 2008)

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17

Anjelica Huston Choke

When one thinks of aging and Alzheimer’s, the standard sainted Hallmark hearts and flowers come to mind. We like to think of the elderly and demented as noble and naïve. But in this stunning, savage performance, Huston strips away the concept of death with dignity to offer up a sharp-tongued take on failing mental faculties. Driving her son Sam Rockwell to criminal distraction, this misguided matriarch with a felonious past (which may include kidnapping) endears us to her plight with her simple rejection of reality. And as someone who has always lived by her own rebellious rules—fact or fiction—we find this self-delusion quite satisfying. Bill Gibron



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Doubt

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

(Miramax; US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (General release); 2008)

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16

Viola Davis Doubt

Viola Davis may only have one scene in Doubt, but I guarantee that it’s the scene you’ll remember. Her off-kilter psychology upsets the entire balance of the film and sets a whole new tone for future scenes. The scene in question is a two person conversation between her and Meryl Streep, and about a minute into the talk Davis becomes so captivating that it’s easy to forget Streep is actually in the film. She sells the complex structure of the woman’s maternal love perfectly so that you are completely on board with what is essentially lunacy. A five-minute wonder. Aaron Marsh



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Tell No One

Director: Guillaume Canet
Cast: François Cluzet, Marie-Josée Croze, Marina Hands, Kristin Scott Thomas, Nathalie Baye

(Les Productions du Trésor; US theatrical: 2 Jul 2008; 2007)

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15

Mikaela Fisher Tell No One

German actress Mikaela Fisher is at the fringes of Tell No One. But in a film that paints its female characters with a less detailed brush than its male characters, Fisher uses five minutes of screen time to create an unforgettable villain and elevate the entire work. As Zak, who manipulates pressure points to force victims into submission, Fisher almost wordlessly dominates the film’s sizable world of heavies. Her face fixed in a defiant Dame Judith Anderson stare, Fisher’s reaction to getting shot is just to keep walking. This is a brief but bold performance that could generate fandom for Fisher akin to Zoe Bell’s following in the wake of Death Proof. Thomas Britt



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The Reader

Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, David Kross

(Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 10 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 2 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)

14

Kate Winslet The Reader

Selling both lust/love for a teenager and sympathy for a concentration camp guard (herself) is quite a tall order; then again, we’re talking Kate Winslet. Both tasks are so vital to the life of the film that without someone who completely sells, everything simply disintegrates. But Winslet is not content simply to “make it work”, but elevates her odd tale and catches you off guard with the raw emotion on display. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself incredibly moved by the film’s close on her work alone. Hanna Schmitz is just another vibrant, memorable role by our greatest working actress. Aaron Marsh



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I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime)

Director: Philippe Claudel
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill, Lise Ségur

(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 24 Oct 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 26 Sep 2008 (General release); 2008)

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Kristin Scott Thomas I’ve Loved You So Long

Many performances by Kristin Scott Thomas have a remote, icy quality that makes it difficult for the audience to sympathize or find a way into the character and her situation. I’ve Loved You So Long—a perfect match of performer and material—fully capitalizes on that quality. As Juliette, who has just been released from prison and into her sister’s home, Scott Thomas uses obstinate will to hide the myriad mysteries of the character. Reminiscent of Miranda Richardson in Damage, her masterful investment in suppression yields a concluding flood of emotions that transcends the film’s flimsy third act plot devices. Thomas Britt



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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

(Sony; US theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (Limited release); 2008)

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Debra Winger Rachel Getting Married

Two strangers on a train told me some gossip that supposedly occourred at the Toronto Film Festival: an antagonistic reporter badgered Winger, promoting her most well-written, best-executed film role in years, about (alleged) diva behavior on the Terms of Endearment set more than 25 years ago. After answering the question, and then being gracious while being intensely grilled for more explicit details two more times, the no-BS Winger had him ejected. Whether this story is true or not, there is no denying the hurricane-force power of this disgustingly under-employed actress as the poisonous Abby. She is an anti-mother whose grief and rage over the loss of a child is masked by a glacial reprieve toward her living children that could induce hypothermia. If her reputation is to be believed, than truly no other actress could have endowed Abby with such simmering volatility and hid it behind an empty smile the way she does. When William Hurt or Robert Duvall or other similiarly scandalous male stars do that, they get Oscar nominations. When Winger does it, she is erroneously labeled difficult and harassed. That reporter is lucky she didn’t bitch-slap him like she does her onscreen daughter in Rachel’s pivotal scene, because I bet that is what Hurt or Duvall would do. 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

(Sony; US theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (Limited release); 2008)

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Rosemarie DeWitt Rachel Getting Married

In a film which features Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger chewing up the dialogue like champions in every scene they are in, someone had to hold down the emotional middle ground here. Thankfully, Jonathan Demme chose the dynamic DeWitt, a career TV performer making a rare big screen turn. As the title bride, our heroine must deal with inquisitive in-laws, an incredibly messed up sister, and a distant mother who can’t quite decompress from a devastating family tragedy. While some might call the Buchmans dysfunctional, Rachel would probably disagree. Instead, she would see them as typically tragic, the perfect symbol for the social structure circa 2008. It’s a message DeWitt delivers flawlessly. Bill Gibron


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Changeling

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; 2008)

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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); 2008)

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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; 2008)

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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); 2007)

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7

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); 2008)

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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); 2008)

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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); 2008)

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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); 2008)

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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

(Sony; US theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (Limited release); 2008)

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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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Happy-Go-Lucky

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

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

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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


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/68691-tough-and-tender-the-top-20-female-performances-of-2008/