Essential Film Performances - 2010 Edition

PopMatters updates our annual best performances feature with 50 new performances and features interviews with five of the actresses selected, including Melissa Leo, Pam Grier, and Margaret Cho.

Edited by Matt Mazur / Produced by Sarah Zupko

Naturally, after last year's 100 Essential Female and Male Performances lists, we felt the need to further explore the performances by those great male and female actors that did not initially make our epic lists. Whether through the helpful suggestions in the comments section, grueling grad genre studies or just good old-fashioned movie watching, I have been made aware of some truly great performances over the past year that I think deserve a similar treatment, deserve to have the spotlight shined on them.

No repeats (yet)! On the first list, I felt as though there was a degree of responsibility to address certain key performances. Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard should be permanent fixtures on any "best of" acting, male or female. With the update, the interest was in casting the net wider to include an even more diverse array of talent and wit from wildly disparate modes of cinema, from indie to studio, from Germany to Japan, from genre to genre. While no performer from our initial lists of 100 men and 100 women reappears here for work in different films (yet!), the previous rule of only one performance from any given film has now been abolished, mainly as my admiration for Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown swells with each repeat viewing. There was also no way I was going to leave Pam Grier off this time (co-star Robert Forster made the initial Male performances last year for his work as Max Cherry in the film).

Though our initial lists of 100 were divided into "Male" and "Female", further updates will merge the gender barriers for equality's sake, queuing the honorees in alphabetical order, 25 men, 25 women. Some of the people on the list already transgress the boundaries of what is male and what is female: to categorize a performance like Volker Spengler as Elvira in Rainer Werner Fassbiner's In a Year of 13 Moons by solely by gender makes little sense. In addition to taking the gender division out of list for this round, we are keeping the categories from the first list (Life Support, The Dark Side, Classics You Should Have Seen By Now, From Page to Screen and Under the Radar), though we are no longer ordering our lists bycategory.

Even though our update is not necessarily divided into male and female lists, we are proud to have this presentation of the series revolve around the theme of celebrating the career of the working actress in all of her glorious forms. After all, Michelle Pfeiffer is, to a degree, as much a "working actress" as Setsuko Hara, Gunnell Lindblom and/or Melanie Lynskey, who makes the cut for Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, are. I spoke to Ms. Lynskey, who is fast becoming a go-to supporting player after last year's trifecta of sharply-rendered women for Sam Mendes (Away We Go), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), and Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!, about what inspired her to become an actress in the first place:

"I always wanted to be an actor. Since I was a tiny child, it was always what I wanted to do. I come from kind of a small town in New Zealand where it wasn't really possible (laughing). Nobody sort of went out and became actors, so everybody was saying to me 'find something else that you want to do'. So I started thinking 'well, if I can't be an actor, what else can I do?' I though maybe I could write plays. I would write plays all the time at school and put them on. I would get Premiere magazine which came to me from America, and it would take like a month and a half to get to me but I would get it every month and spent a crazy amount of money on it. I thought maybe I could be a film critic or write about movies because I just loved everything about it. The performances that really moved me, that I loved a lot were Laura Dern in Wild at Heart, I was obsessed with David Lynch. I really loved the Mike Leigh movie Naked. Katrin Cartlidge in that movie, I thought 'wow, that's what acting is. That's a great actress...' And I got to work with her when I was 20 [on Mihalis Kakogiannis' 1999 adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard]. What a joy!"

A rabid fan of Cartlidge and Dern myself, as well as actresses in general, I have actually been accused of being too "actress" focused in my work, and while this may be a valid point, the truth of the matter is, as a gender and film scholar with a passion for great performances, who views Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape as my Bible, my writing will be "actress focused" until more equality for male and female actors in the film industry achieved (though I feel optimistic that things are looking up). I am proudly, as my colleague Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience puts it, an actresssexual. We have included a deliberately eclectic combination of performance styles -- from diva Maria Callas' operatic turn in one of the premiere Greek tragedies directed by one of the most visionary queer punk directors of all time, to highlighting some of the best, most solid work from more obscure foreign language film greats, male and female, who too often go unnoticed.

Honoring this ongoing commitment to to uncovering the truth about what the reality is like for women working in the film industry, PopMatters is pleased to welcome a diverse array of female performers, from a range of experiences, to help to shed some light onto the process of film acting as the industry rapidly, permanently moves forward at breakneck speed, often threatening to leave behind the women on whose backs the business was actually built. Gender, race, age, sexuality, politics and inspiration are the common themes you might pick out in this exclusive set of interviews with women who appear on the list for their own unique cinematic contributions. Margaret Cho kicks off the week of coverage, precisely because her performance in the filmed stand-up comedy routine The Notorious C.H.O. dares to transgress so many filmic boundaries, to help redefine the casual misconceptions about what a great film performance is and can be, at least in my opinion. Every day this week we will bring you a new in-depth interview with a female performer who has made the list.

Maybe next year we will even talk to some boys, just to be fair.

We hope you enjoy our annual update, and, as always, polite feedback is encouraged in the comments if we missed your favorite. There's always next year and we always welcome suggestions for films that might be off our radar.

-- Matt Mazur

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