The Best Female Film Performances of 2009

Some in the media would have you think it was a sparse year for women on the silver screen. One peak at this amazing list of 20 girl power performances will have you giving said sentiments a specious second look.

Film: Crazy Heart

Director: Scott Cooper

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall


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Maggie Gyllenhaal
Crazy Heart

As thankless tasks go, playing the put-upon love interest in a rather four-square flick about a faded country musician with a drinking problem is just about at the top (or bottom) of the heap. But somehow, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes the role of Jean Craddock, a journalist and single mother who falls for the much older and well-named singer Bad Blake, and makes it something extraordinary. She comes into the relationship seemingly with eyes wide-open. But even though the audience knows exactly what Jeff Bridges' whiskey-sodden Blake is going to do to her heart, Gyllenhaal invests Craddock with such lived-in vulnerability that they have a difficult time judging on her decision. Gyllenhaal's Craddock might be the spectrum opposite of Sherrybaby's scheming junkie Sherry Swanson, but it's fully that performance's equal. Chris Barsanti


Film: Up in the Air

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman


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Vera Farmiga
Up in the Air

In a better world, Vera Farmiga would be mentioned as one of the greatest living actresses just as often as, say, Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep. But since this isn't that better world, we'll just have to say it for ourselves. If you looked at nothing other than Farmiga's playing of Alex, George Clooney's female opposite in Up in the Air, one could easily claim that there are few, if any, English-language actresses of her equal currently working. Forceful but warm, a businesswoman with a sly smile, quick wit, a great big secret and a backbone of steel, her Alex commands the screen with ease every moment she saunters onto it. With almost anyone else playing opposite Clooney, some of their scenes together would have degenerated into rom-com squishiness, but Farmiga's cool wit and flashpan eroticism keeps their drama ticking along much longer than it has any right to. Chris Barsanti


Film: Where the Wild Things Are

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, Catherine Keener


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Catherine Keener
Where the Wild Things Are

As Max’s mother, Catherine Keener’s performance in Where the Wild Things Are is one of great gentleness and warmth. In a few soft-spoken lines, she conveys great feeling for her son. Yet there’s also a deep sense of weariness etched in her face, an uncertainty how to relate to her over-dependent child, and a wide-eyed hurt when she berates him for being “out of control”. It’s a heavy, difficult role, forming the catalyst for Max’s own imaginative journey in the film. Keener has only a few scenes, yet her performance allows us to draw our own conclusions. It captures heartbreakingly the ambivalence in the delicate relationship between mother and son. Andrew Blackie


Film: The September Issue

Director: R.J. Cutler

Cast: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington


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Grace Coddington
The September Issue

Perhaps the main lure of watching The September Issue is the morbid hope you'll see Vogue's Anna Wintour lapse into Devil Loves Prada antics and eat her victims for lunch. No such luck. (Too many calories?) Instead she comes across as a fiercely decisive, driven woman with an absolutely brilliant eye -- and where's the fun in that? Fortunately filmmaker R.J. Cutler also dotes on Grace Coddington, Vogue's creative director. With her unruly red hair, baggy black clothes, and comfortable shoes, she doesn’t fit the mold of a high-fashion player. But if anyone can evade the imperious gaze of Wintour (seemingly always hidden behind those signature dark glasses), it's Coddington. In asides, she champions the work of her colleagues, defends her own artistic decisions, and pointedly bitches when her pages get cut. As delightful as these moments are, the real magic is watching her cull inspiration for Vogue's lavish fashion spreads from myriad sources, both high and low. It's then when you see how she coaxes the clothes from the realm of the beautiful to that of the utterly fantastical. Even Wintour has to admit the girl's got vision. Marisa Carroll


Film: Observe and Report

Director: Jody Hill

Cast: Seth Rogan, Ray Liotta, Anna Faris, Michael Peña, Celia Weston, Collette Wolfe


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Collette Wolfe
Observe and Report

First appearing on viewers' radars as Denise in The Foot Fist Way, Collette Wolfe exuded an undeniable girl-next-door charm but did not receive much screen time. So when she shows up as Nell, the innocent foil to Anna Faris' bawdy Brandi in Jody Hill's Observe and Report, one could be forgiven for expecting another pleasant but minor role. Yet Wolfe becomes the single crucial bit of heart in the nasty, nihilistic comedy. Although she works for a jerky boss at the mall's food court and is partially incapacitated because of a broken leg, Nell remains optimistic for disturbed lead character Ronnie. She provides a kind of brightness he's too dim to recognize. When her cheerfulness is challenged late in the film, Nell has an emotional breakdown in front of Ronnie, and in this scene Wolfe provides some of the most naturalistic screen acting in recent memory. This is an individual moment that succeeds way beyond the film trying to contain it, and the effect is a desire to see a whole movie about that character (or at least with that actress). If this isn't a star-making turn, then Hollywood is clearly not paying attention. Thomas Britt


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