The Best Female Film Performances of 2013

It was a particularly strong year for women in film. These sensational performances remind us that, when all is said and done, it's character and how an actor or actress creates them that matters as much to a movie as a script, a director, or an idea.

It was a particularly strong year for women in film. These sensational performances remind us that, when all is said and done, it’s character and how an actor or actress creates them that matters as much to a movie as a script, a director, or an idea.


Director: Nicole Holofcener

Film: Enough Said

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette,. Catherine Keener, Ben Falcone, Toby Huss

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Enough Said

Enough Said is the first film to feature Julia Louis-Dreyfus on screen since Deconstructing Harry — a Woody Allen comedy (in which she appears only briefly) released during Seinfeld‘s final season. Since then, she’s starred in three sitcoms, won a bunch of Emmys, and generally conducted herself as a national treasure — but not appeared on film. She returns in Enough Said, playing a masseuse embarking on a new relationship as she begins the feel the pangs of empty-nest syndrome, with her best big-screen performance yet: witty, relaxed, loveable, and kind of a mess. img-1035 Jesse Hassenger


Director: Sophia Coppola

Film: The Bling Ring

Cast: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Georgia Rock, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann

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Emma Watson
The Bling Ring

Alexis Neiers of E!’s Pretty Wild is an easy target. Her former public image — that of a fame-obsessed teenager turned star of a reality series, convicted burglar, and drug addict — is emblematic of the vices of celebrity culture in Los Angeles. Sofia Coppola‘s The Bling Ring is a satire about the burglaries committed by Neiers’ social circle, and Emma Watson appears in the Neiers role as “Nicki”. Watson avoids playing the role as a caricature or treating her character’s inspiration with derision, despite the absurdity of Neiers’ performance in the media. Watson turns the “dead behind the eyes” quality that many have observed about The Hills set, into a conscious performance. Her Nicki is always acting, always auditioning, and always seeking the available spotlight. Coppola and Watson find within Nicki a Millennial Norma Desmond, desperate for stardom but lacking the credentials to justify the affectation. img-1035 Thomas Britt


Director: Martin Scorsese

Film: The Wolf of Wall Street

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner

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Margot Robbie
The Wolf of Wall Street

She’s got the blond supermodel moves down cold. The minute Leonardo DiCaprio’s stock broking conman sees her, we realize both he and she are doomed. During their stormy relationship, Ms. Robbie has a moment destined to live in cinematic infamy. After discovering yet another of his many personal peccadilloes, she sits across from his compliant character and — well, let’s just say she does her best pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone. While the audience is not privy to the moment, DiCaprio’s sure is, and it’s within that sequence where we witness where all power within this relationship lies. Toward the end, when everything is about to implode, Ms. Robbie has another sexually charged smackdown that emphasizes her strength as a character and as an actress. img-1035 Bill Gibron


Director: James Wan

Film: The Conjuring

Cast: Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston

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Lili Taylor
The Conjuring

One of my favorite stories about actors’ real immersion into fictional roles involves Lili Taylor. The story goes, she was so into her role as a vampire in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction that she bit a would-be mugger on the neck. After seeing The Conjuring, I’m more inclined to believe that tale. By the end of the film, Taylor’s character Carolyn Perron has been completely overtaken by an inhuman spirit that haunts her home. Her Carolyn is a great example of a performance in three acts. At first, she’s a meek and quiet mother. Then she’s a dogged but vulnerable protector. As the film reaches its climax, she has become the vessel of evil. Taylor is convincing in each incarnation, and especially so in her horrific transformation, which is crucial to the effect of a film that ends with a quotation validating the fears therein: “Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today.” Taylor’s performance powerfully authenticates that belief. img-1035 Thomas Britt


Director: Sebastián Silva

Film: Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus and 2012

Cast: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann, Sebastián Silva

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Gaby Hoffmann
Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012

As the freewheeling hippie incarnate Crystal Fairy, Gaby Hoffman lights up the screen in Sebastián Silva’s surreal drug movie Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012. Crystal is the antithesis to Michael Cera’s uptight Jamie, and as he insults and undermines her, Hoffman does a terrific job of balancing aloofness with genuine hurt. We get a sense that there is a lifetime of pain concealed behind Crystal’s carefree veneer, and Hoffman gradually peels off the layers—and literally takes off her clothes—in order to show us the sadness she has kept hidden. It takes a while to warm up to Crystal, but by the film’s end, we are better for having known her. img-1035 Jon Lisi

15 – 11

Director: Alexander Payne

Film: Nebraska

Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk

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List number: 15

Display Width: 200June Squibb

You probably don’t recognize the name. After all, Ms. Squibb has appeared on both television, the stage, and in movies, and yet her most recognizable work may be her brief turn as Jack Nicholson’s late wife in Alexander Payne‘s About Schmidt. Reunited with the director here, the actress soars as the disapproving if loyal wife of Bruce Dern’s determined lottery “winner”. In her buttery black and white facade, in her controlled cadence and rural Montana mannerisms, she’s the sanity inside her slipping relationship, the bond branded between father and his forlorn son (Will Forte). At 84, she is comfortable in the role of mom, her Midwestern upbringing providing a solid foundation to deal with the decidedly odd men in her life. img-1036 Bill Gibron


Director: Stacie Passon

Film: Concussion

Cast: Robin Weigert, Maggie Siff, Johnathan Tchaikovsky, Ben Shenkman, Janel Moloney, Emily Kinney, Laila Robins

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Robin Weigert

By all rights, Stacie Passon’s Concussion, about a bored lesbian housewife who starts moonlighting as a prostitute in Manhattan after getting conked on the head, should have been a solid drag. Passon makes it a wittier piece of work than that synopsis would suggest. But Robin Weigert’s daffy, winning performance is one of the greatest reasons for seeking this film out. The film’s unspoken joke is that she’s suffering from some kind of personality-altering concussion and doesn’t quite understand the ramifications of what she’s doing. Weigert, previously seen as Calamity Jane on Deadwood, plays the comedy with an understated and wry verve that hits every note just right. img-1036 Chris Barsanti


Director: Shane Caruth

Film: Upstream Color

Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

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Amy Seimetz
Upstream Color

At the beginning of Shane Carruth‘s Upstream Color, a sort of devil deceives Kris (Amy Seimetz). Her captor, known only as “Thief”, drugs her and robs her of her will. The story that follows is enigmatic. Sharing a theme with Carruth’s Primer, Upstream Color concerns the futility and/or danger of trying to control life’s narrative threads. Dialogue is of little importance in the film. It’s up to Seimetz to convey the tragedy of the plot mostly with her body and face. Seimetz plays Kris as a woman locked off — uncertain of the specifics of her trauma and determined not to lose herself again. When Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), she discovers an opportunity to unlock a mystery.

The film provides several variations on the concepts of harmony and discord, and Seimetz masterfully modulates Kris’s mood and its effects on the audience. Kris is caught in a cycle, reinforced by the repeated image of her swimming to the surface of a pool, falling, and rising again. Seimetz convinces us of the possibility of mastering forces beyond one’s control. Then suddenly, she reverses course, hurtling back into the confines of the unknown. Therefore, by the end of the film, Kris the deceived has become a deceiver, causing the audience to perceive a happy ending where there is no such thing. img-1036 Thomas Britt


Director: David O. Russell

Film: American Hustle

Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence

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Jennifer Lawrence
American Hustle

At first, she’s like a cartoon, a young actress’s idea of what a young New Jersey housewife circa 1979 would talk and act like. But then, as with all brilliant performances, everyone’s favorite tentpole anchor (she’s equally amazing in the Hunger Games films) moves directly into the depth her harried homemaker requires. When she walks into a room filled with wise guys, the rest of her merry band intimidated by their mob enforcer finery, she merely throws back her shoulders and goes in for the kill. Toward the end, when she’s explaining to her husband (Christian Bale) that all the bad she’s done was a way of “motivating” him to move forward, Lawrence has gone from laughable to legit to legendary. img-1036 Bill Gibron


Director: Lake Bell

Film: In a World

Cast: Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro

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Lake Bell
In a World

Lake Bell has appeared in more average to awful romantic comedies as a supporting player than any actress of record. She’s too funny, too quick, and too flat-out gorgeous to go unnoticed, and yet, for the most part, somehow she did. Until now. Bell’s directorial debut In a World also features her best performance as an actress. Bell’s sporadic, obliviously joyous demeanor is so likable she could be seen as playing herself, Her timing is spot on, though, making you think there’s more going on than meets the eye. It takes a master craftsman to play a character a notch slower than normal folk. Bell’s voice over artist Carol isn’t exactly slow — she’s just cruising under the radar a little longer than expected. Huh. I wonder where she came up with that? img-1036 Ben Travers

10 – 6

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Film: Blue Is the Warmest Color

Cast: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Catherine Salée, Aurélien Recoing, Sandor Funtek, Alma Jodorowsky

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Display Width: 200Lee Seydoux
Blue Is the Warmest Color

If Adele Exarchopoulos’ Adele is the force of nature that can’t be stopped, Lea Seydoux’s Emma is the catalyst through which she faces the facts of life. We first see Emma through Adeles’s eyes, as they cross paths in a random street, her blue hair with traces of what once was blonde, she haunts the young Adele’s dreams before she even knows her name. Once she meets her, it’s impossible for her and for us not to fall head over heels over someone who exudes talent and effortless sensuality. Seydoux allows Exarchopoulos to project all her strongest desires on her, and as such gives a performance that’s equally powerful but certainly quieter. The beauty of her Emma is that when the movie ends we realize that we all have known her and once we all loved her too. img-1037 Jose Solis


Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Film: Blue Is the Warmest Color

Cast: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Catherine Salée, Aurélien Recoing, Sandor Funtek, Alma Jodorowsky

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Adele Exarchopoulous
Blue Is the Warmest Color

There is a certain amount of bravery involved in acting. Sadly, it only comes up when a nude scene is involved. By now, anyone who knows anything about Blue Is the Warmest Color knows this certainly applies. Yet the film’s lead actress, Adele Exarchopoulous, deserves more praise for the choices she makes with her clothes on. In what was almost constantly an extremely tight frame, Exarchopoulous utilizes every inch of her limited space. The bravado role requires incredible range, and to display such a spectrum with only a few inches available makes her performance all the more incredible. She draws you into her world at every turn, even when she can’t physically turn. Brave doesn’t begin to describe her achievement. img-1037 Ben Travers


Director: John Lee Hancock

Film: Saving Mr. Banks

Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell

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Emma Thompson
Saving Mr. Banks

Few people are as delightful to watch onscreen as Emma Thompson. The British legend who had been conspicuously missing from screens in recent years is back to play Mary Poppins’ writer P.L. Travers in a film that deals with the process through which Walt Disney (played with infectious gusto by Tom Hanks) convinced the tough Australian writer to let him make a movie out of her beloved books. Fluff of the best kind, the film is a concoction so sugary that Travers herself would surely disapprove of everything at hand except perhaps for Thompson’s honest portrayal of a woman who learned from an early age that she was all she had in the world. The brilliant actress delivers the catty one liners with unbridled pleasure, but it’s during her quieter moments when we see Travers’ humanity and loneliness shine through. img-1037 Jose Solis


Director: Steve McQueen

Film: 12 Years a Slave

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard

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Lupita Nyong’o
12 Years a Slave

At times it can be hard to distinguish a great performance from an endearing character. You probably see it every awards season, mainly do to the politics, but also because it’s basic human instinct. You fall for what you see, when you see it. No need to separate. No need to worry about it. This could be the case for some when it comes to Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, but it certainly shouldn’t be. Yes, Patsey is a person for which sympathy is felt at a constant and fervent rate, partly out of the aforementioned human instinct but also because Nyong’o embodies her character with a quiet dignity that slowly morphs into deadened desperation. Her eyes tell her story, and those are all Nyong’o. img-1037 Ben Travers


Director: David O. Russell

Film: American Hustle

Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence

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Amy Adams
American Hustle

If there is a heart, and a soul, to David O. Russell’s love letter to the looser elements of the Me Decade, it’s this petite blond flower. At first, breasts barely exposed in lower than low cut dresses and hair tousled like the day after a bad salon job, we believe that her English gentlewoman via a desperate stripper will be nothing but a buzzkill. But as plans flourish, as partnerships are tested and the law becomes involved, Adam’s Sydney Prosser shows her true grifter skills. Working everyone against each other while it slowly destroys her, she’s the counterbalance to the craziness, the ebb in the lunatic flow between her lover, the FBI, and anyone else who will step in front of her need to be on top. A truly great performance. img-1037 Bill Gibron

5 – 1

Director: Richard Linklater

Film: Before Midnight

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

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Display Width: 200Julie Delpy
Before Midnight

Actresses are often deemed “bold” for baring their bodies on screen. But the boldness of Julie Delpy in Before Midnight has nothing to do with her flesh or figure. Once upon a time, her “Céline” captured the heart and mind of Ethan Hawke’s “Jesse” in Before Sunrise. Now, nearly two decades later, the romantic tension she created in that film and raised to a boiling point in the finale of Before Sunset has transformed into a consuming anger.

As one of the writers of the film, Delpy has some control over this dramatic shift of her character. But she fully resists any temptation to be precious about Céline, so much so that the character openly rejects/resents her role within the mythology of their relationship as written by Jesse, who is an author within this series of films. Once an idealistic character whose political activism aimed to change the world, Céline now sees herself as the victim of all manner of oppression. In the film’s final third, Delpy plays her as a lawyer with an overbearing certainty of Jesse’s guilt. Delpy dares to make Céline unlikable, and in doing so she stays true to the arc of a character that was never destined to be happy with stasis. img-1038 Thomas Britt


Director: Spike Jonze

Film: Her

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson

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Scarlett Johansson

If my operating system came with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, I’d have a hard time not falling in love with it. It’s a testament to Johansson’s daringly brilliant work as Samantha, Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) artificially intelligent computer, that we actually believe he would form a romantic relationship with the machine in Spike Jones’ timely Her. But we do believe it, precisely because Samantha seduces us with her every syllable, making us wonder what life would be like if her voice was the first sound we heard when we woke up in the morning and the last sound we heard before we went to bed at night. What a soothing sound it is, full of sweet longing and soulful tenderness. Make no mistake: Johansson’s vocal performance in Her is film acting of the highest order. img-1038 Jon Lisi


Director: Woody Allen

Film: Blue Jasmine

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg

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Cate Blanchett
Blue Jasmine

For a little while there, it looked like Cate Blanchett had lost interest in real movie-acting, focusing on theater work and cashing checks as Galadriel. But in Woody Allen’s Tennessee Williams-esque dramedy about Jasmine, the wife of a Bernie Madoff-like figure who’s forced to move in with her working-class sister after losing everything, Blanchett reminds us why she’s very simply the best female actor out there. Blanchett’s Jasmine wafts through the film on a tightrope of anxiety, prescriptions, and delusion, certain that the perfect life is her due and is waiting for her just around the corner. That audiences don’t hate this eye-rolling faker is testament to Blanchett’s ability to show us Jasmine’s rottenness and trauma all in one fluttery glance. img-1038 Chris Barsanti


Director: Destin Cretton

Film: Short Term 12

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield

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Brie Larson
Short Term 12

Brie Larson really came into her own in 2013. The veteran of United States of Tara, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and 21 Jump Street hit it big with an even more impressive trio of films. Don Jon, The Spectacular Now, and, most notably, Short Term 12 made Hollywood and the rest of the world take note: Larson is an actress to be noted. The role requires Larson to be introspective for most of the movie. We get to see a few private moments the other characters don’t, but Larson is still charged with the difficult task of depicting a woman slowly losing her emotional armor. Each scene seems to peel away another part, and Larson adjusts incredibly well as the movie progresses. It’s a notable performance from a young actress clearly capable of many, many more. img-1038 Ben Travers


Director: Noah Baumbach

Film: Frances Ha

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Esper, Grace Gummer

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Greta Gerwig
Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig plays a sort-of dancer in Frances Ha: a struggling but game apprentice failing to find regular work in her profession of choice. Some actresses might then take the opportunity to show off a dancer’s grace, and Gerwig does, to a point: her leaping and twirling across the streets of Manhattan is one of the year’s most joyous images. But Gerwig also uses her physicality to show Frances in conflict: sometimes tentative (her nervous blanch at a date’s advances is wonderful), sometimes stumbling (she does a pratfall running from an ATM), still getting comfortable with herself. As a performer, though, Gerwig is enormously comfortable, and one of a kind. img-1038 Jesse Hassenger