Everything in its Right Place: The Best Female Acting Performances of 2009

To be sure, a separate, lengthy column could be filled with praise for the women who exploded the glass ceiling-ed boys club of film directing this year (Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Lucrecia Martel, Lone Scherfig among the most notable). But this month’s Suffragette City will instead take a closer look at the achievements of the great female acting performances of 2009. Addled bloggers the world over, eyes bugging out of their poor heads (bless them), can usually be found around this time of year braying like donkeys about the alleged absence of truly great women’s roles in cinema. However, over the past decade it feels as though significant attempts to revolutionize the kinds of roles women play have taken place.

Women like Meryl Streep becoming box office titans. Contemporaries of Streep’s such as Jessica Lange and Sigourney Weaver having late-career-slump resurgences in top shelf cable television films, and favorites like Judi Dench and Helen Mirren who continue to change public perceptions about just how exactly an “actress of a certain age” should behave. And it is really exciting. The old lazy rhetoric of “there were not five good female performances to even be nominated this year” indicates to me that people who think there are not enough great female roles in cinema need to be looking to alternative venues for contenders. The great performances are out there, waiting to be discovered. Below are my top ten favorite supporting and leading actress roles of 2009, featuring stars, great actresses and a few women (and films) that you may not have ever heard of before.

Best Supporting Actress

1. Mo’Nique … Precious

2. Kim Basinger … The Burning Plain

3. Gwyneth Paltrow … Two Lovers

4. Marion Cotillard … Nine & Public Enemies

5. Mozhan Marno … The Stoning of Soraya M

6. Penelope Cruz … Broken Embraces & Nine

7. Melanie Laurent … Inglorious Basterds

8. Samantha Morton … The Messenger

9. Edith Scob … Summer Hours

10. Patricia Clarkson … Whatever Works

Mo’Nique in Precious

Since it’s premiere at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, it has been pretty much a forgone conclusion that Mo’Nique was going to win every award known to man for her blistering, scary work in Precious. That is a lot of hype to live up to. The magical thing about the former stand-up comedienne’s turn as a Harlem harpy is that she actually delivers onscreen. Mary, the mentally ill mother of the title character, is a performance for the record books and there is no denying her gravitas in the part. Even despite what seems to be a smear campaign against the actress for not navigating the awards circuit and campaigning like a starlet, Mo’Nique has consistently taken nearly every Best Supporting Actress trophy, deservedly, and she takes mine as well.

In most major award-voting organizations, the supporting actress contenders have included Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air, but frankly I found those performances to be lifeless fantasies sprung directly from the minds of white heterosexual dudes. Farmiga and Kendrick’s characters exist solely to serve the male protagonist in the story and to function as his personal Greek chorus. In the end I do not get why they are being singled out for serious awards consideration (especially since Farmiga has been completely devastating in indies like Down to the Bone).

For truly inspired supporting character work by a woman opposite a leading man, one needs to look no further than the career-best performance last year from Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow (Best Actress, 1998 for Shakespeare in Love. In director James Gray’s wonderful Two Lovers Paltrow plays Michelle, a lost, romantic young woman who becomes entangled with Joaquin Phoenix’s depressed loner. She transfixes in each scene she appears in, and the viewer falls in love with her much as Phoenix’s character does, but also perhaps hates her just as much too. Why do we want what is wrong for us, in love? It is an eloquent, simple question that Paltrow’s challenging take on the blithe spirit provides an answer for. This is her strongest dramatic acting to date.

“Love” is the major theme for Oscar-winning women like the also career-best Kim Basinger in Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain, a film that languished for a year before getting dumped into theaters inconspicuously and then was consigned to the purgatory of cable and On Demand. In this layered tale of doomed romance, secrets, and mother-daughter relationships, Basinger, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in L.A. Confidential, played a small town woman who survives breast cancer and becomes entangled in an erotic re-awakening much to her husband and children’s chagrin. Marion Cotillard was the bright spot in two otherwise uneven films, Nine and Public Enemies, playing a gangster’s surprisingly resilient moll opposite Johnny Depp in the latter and the beleaguered wife of a narcissist film director in the former.

These two exquisite performances in mediocre films – in which the French performer speaks English, sings her heart out, dances, and charms — reaffirm the actresses’ talent and prove that her Oscar-winning tour de force in La vie en Rose was not a fluke. Similarly, last year’s Supporting Actress victor Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), who co-starred in Nine with Cotillard, seems to only get better and better with each passing year as well as more and more beautiful, if that is even possible. It is a true shame that her gorgeously melancholic, reflective work in collaborator Pedro Almodovar’s homage to cinema Broken Embraces was not more fully…embraced.

Shohreh Aghdashloo in The Stoning of Soraya M.

A little bit lost amidst the cacophony of star turns, that could easily be placed in either the lead or supporting categories, were a handful of true character actresses doing what they do best: Mozhan Marno, stunning as the title character in The Stoning of Soraya M., showed Western audiences what it can be like for an outspoken woman living in contemporary rural Iran, and how the insidious hatred of women can often be found in that region masquerading as religious hysteria; and Edith Scob brought an understated grace to the haunted, elderly matriarch of Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours.

Patricia Clarkson, as is her custom, managed to make one of the worst Woody Allen movies ever watchable thanks to her eccentric, meddling Southern Gothic mama who heads to New York City only to find her Lolita-esque daughter with a man old enough to be her granddaddy and then ends up becoming a chic, bohemian artiste with a penchant for threesomes (how ridiculous is it that she has had only one Oscar nomination?). Clarkson, like Samantha Morton in The Messenger or Melanie Laurent in Inglorious Basterds, steals the show in her key scenes and provides a feminine, radiant intelligence that grounds the otherwise macho action.

Best Lead Actress

1. Charlotte Gainsbourg … Antichrist

2. Yolande Moreau … Seraphine

3. Catalina Saavedra … The Maid

4. Shohreh Aghdashloo … The Stoning of Soraya M.

5. Jessica Lange … Grey Gardens

6. Tilda Swinton … Julia

7. Meryl Streep … The Fantastic Mr. Fox, It’s Complicated, & Julie & Julia

8. Gabourey Sidibe … Precious

9. Maria Onetto … The Headless Woman

10. Cameron Diaz … The Box

I think there are two essential elements that should be pointed out with this particular top ten. Number one is that when critics decry that there are no great roles for women, usually they are only looking in their own American backyards – this year Argentina, Chile, Iran and France were represented by strong turns from unexpected performers. Secondly, Meryl Streep is God. We cannot deny this anymore. I have admitted in this column space that I am not the biggest Streep fan in the world; in fact, I generally find her shenanigans to be grossly overrated. Yet there is no denying the woman’s power, talent and sheer tenacity in the business.

Her three box office successes this year will likely lead to her winning (finally) the third Oscar that has eluded her for some 27 years. As Julia Child in Julie & Julia, an extremely Academy-friendly biopic, Streep did a soft, loving impersonation of the popular culinary icon, gave her the patented “Streep” treatment (injecting a fair bit of “Meryl” into the character) and came out with one of her strongest turns of the decade. Streep’s trifecta likely took in more at the box office than all of the films starring the other women in my top ten combined. She is a force.

At the polar opposite end of the spectrum is one Streep’s true peers, her contemporary Jessica Lange. For my personal year-end accolades, I do not differentiate between television films and features released theatrically and throughout my many years of watching the Oscar race and stumping for favorites, I have included the most unforgettable performances that premiered on television first on my lists. Barbara Hershey’s one-two punch of A Killing in a Small Town and Paris Trout, Emma Thompson in Wit, and S. Epatha Merkerson in Lackawanna Blues are worthy of inclusion with any of the film world heavyweights in most years. It does not make sense to me to not include them.

Lange’s performance in Grey Gardens was a triumph, a kind of acting she had never experimented with before (the prosthetics, the make-up, the accent, the mimicry, etc.) and it ranks amongst her finest screen work in Frances and Titus. Had Grey Gardens been shown in theaters first, we would be watching another Lange versus Streep Academy Awards, just like back in 1982. Ah, the good old days where the Academy Awards were actually a little bit more edgy than they are now.

Speaking of “edgy”, what about the stunning array of women over 40 kicking the ass of international art house cinema? Tilda Swinton’s off-the-rails work in Julia? The film has not even made $2 million worldwide, yet the Oscar-winning actress (who took the supporting gold for Michael Clayton back in 2007) has been a strong presence on most critic’s year-end lists of great female performances. While her indie film does let her down in places, the fearless Swinton, playing the titular alcoholic anti-heroine, holds the inconsistent fragments together like Krazy Glue.

Sebastien Silva’s The Maid, which provides a similarly offbeat showcase for his leading lady Catalina Saavedra, has made considerably less money than Julia internationally, but has also found stateside champions thanks to the highly original story about a wealthy Chilean family’s live-in domestic and the unique, silent-film influenced performance of Saavedra. Seraphine, the life story of Seraphine de Senlis, a middle-aged, impoverished French charwoman who is discovered to be a master painter, has been more successful at the box office than Julia and The Maid and provided star Yolande Moreau, age 54, with one of the most intriguing, challenging female roles of the year that made the actress the focus of international critical adoration, even leading to her winning Best Actress recently from the Los Angeles

Film Critics over favorites like Streep and Precious’ newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. Sidibe and former Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (in The Stoning of Soraya M.), shined in a challenging films that celebrated two very different kinds of female protagonists. Aghdashloo’s just, devout Muslim spinster and Sidibe’s battered, obese ghetto youth are definitely not traditional leading ladies by Hollywood standards, yet they remain firmly in control of their story’s dramatic action.

These independent roles are played by a wonderful range of women of all ages, sizes, backgrounds and acting styles. There are interesting stories about unique women being made, all one has to do is a little searching to find the gems. Once in a blue moon, you can find a couple of these “gems” in mainstream fare like Streep’s films, and then sometimes you end up finding them in the most unlikely places: Cameron Diaz’s solid genre turn for Richard Kelly in The Box was one of her most assured and most unseen, while Maria Onetto’s mysterious work in Lucrecia Martel’s excellent The Headless Woman was consistently engaging.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe in Antichrist

But to find the female performance of the year, one needs to look no further than to the most recent Lars von Trier film, Antichrist. Having directed many women to genius performances in provocative films, it really is not surprising to find strong, divisive female performances in a film by von Trier. It is probably the most egregious sin in the eyes of feminists that I am choosing to name Charlotte Gainsbourg for Antichrist my personal “Actress of the Year”. Directed by the Danish von Trier, who has (perhaps unfairly) throughout his career been labeled public enemy number one by feminist critics, Gainsbourg took Best Actress honors at the Cannes film festival this year for her portrayal of “She”.

As the nameless female character who is mourning the death of her infant son, Gainsbourg literally goes to places onscreen that no male or female performer has before, and whether or not her director is Satan incarnate as some would have you believe does not really matter. The role is a major, challenging one for any female actor, and Gainsbourg is able to navigate the film’s absurd highs and depraved lows with relative poise. I’m not sure any other actress could have played the part. The film is perhaps one of the darkest looks into a woman’s soul that has ever been committed to screen, and for the actress to pair with von Trier in the face of an international chorus of people chanting “misogyny” is in itself a feat of bravery.

But when one takes into consideration the mechanics of Gainsbourg’s role — the sheer physical challenge of playing a woman so broken, so depressed and so lost that she can’t get out of bed at first – credit must be given to the actress for even considering playing a character that was bound to be hated because of not only the associations to the overly-reviled von Trier, but also the bluntly in-you-face sexual nature of the piece. The violence and horror film elements of the film pale in comparison the full-on assault on traditional sexual values and mores and it is high time Gainsbourg receives a little credit for making this character her own while also creating something completely new in terms of cinematic portrayals of female sexuality.

Let’s face it: American audiences are freaked out by sex, but particularly by what might be considered abhorrent or unusual female sexuality. There is an innate prudishness in our culture surrounding this topic where sex is considered the ultimate taboo. There are so many taboos smashed in Antichrist thanks to Gainsbourg’s work, which frequently incorporates explicit nudity, blood, penetration, disfigurement and terror.

Wandering through the film in a coal-eyed fugue, the actresses’ performance can be read in many ways and I appreciated that paradox of having both something extremely explicit yet also very ambiguous. Because Gainsbourg and von Trier offer the spectator so much autonomy to make decisions about the character, I think most people will be turned off quickly, but this is a work that begs to be reconsidered and reevaluated for its ground-breaking, visceral undoing of conventional female character acting. The character of “She” evokes the great Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s notions of character where there is no back story, no name, no details, just figures propelled by dramatic action.

Gainsbourg’s symbolic “She” is at once classic in the theatrical sense and vivaciously modern. “She” is also greatly misunderstood and underappreciated, a towering performance lost in the anti-von Trier hype.

Like other von Trier leading ladies of this century, Bjork (Dancer in the Dark) and Nicole Kidman (Dogville), expect Gainsbourg’s challenging work to be shamefully ignored by mainstream critics and static Academy voters who would rather reward such audience-patronizing nonsense as the Republican, Christian white lady who becomes an illiterate black man’s savior (Sandra Bullock in the preposterously phony, offensive The Blind Side) or that trusty old trope of the real life suffering wife prone to operatically hysterical, plate-smashing diva antics (Helen Mirren in The Last Station).

These two performances are of course heavy favorites to be nominated at the Oscars in February 2009 and it shows a rigid unwillingness to recognize actual breakthroughs in acting. There is no room for sexual deviancy, genital mutilation and penises spurting blood at the Oscars, after all, which is a shame because Gainsbourg’s high wire act is new, cutting edge and fearless.