The Best Female Film Performances of 2014

The world of cinema in 2014 is blessed with a host of performances by female actors at the top of their game. From zany sci-fi to lamentations on aging, the performances on these list will follow the viewer long after she leaves the theater.

The world of cinema in 2014, as with previous years, is blessed with a host of performances by female actors at the top of their game. From zany sci-fi to lamentations on aging, the performances on these list will follow the viewer long after she leaves the theater.

Film: Under the Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Krystof Hádek, Jessica Mance, Scott Dymond, Joe Szula, Michael Moreland, Lee Fanning, Ben Mills, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Jeremy McWilliams

Studio: A24


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Scarlett Johansson
Under the Skin

If it's hard to be the girl in Marvel's universe, it's nearly impossible to be Scarlett Johansson, at least this version of Scarlett Johansson. This much is apparent in Under the Skin, Jonathan Gazer's edgily poetic remix of Michael Faber's novel, where she plays an unnamed alien come to Earth. The alien first takes shape on screen as light and sound, a series of flashes that turn into an iris and pupil, and bits of recorded noise that's soon recognizable as words running backwards. To inhabit Earth, the alien needs form, and skin, too, and so the film, per its title, proceeds to ponder this idea, as metaphor and abjection. The alien is provided with a dead girl, whose clothes she takes off and then puts on her own body. But while skin makes physicality possible, skin doesn't make you sensitive or good or even human; it only makes you feel, physically. Just so, the alien, whose skin is not like yours, doesn't feel like you do. That is the sensation the film evokes, this utter difference, what you can't know.

As an alien in Under the Skin, Johansson is also representative, standing for something else whether she wants to or not. Indeed, the question of desire is at the center of Under the Skin, but it's not the alien's desire. As the movie guesses at her, wants her, is repelled by her, and cannot fathom her, you are left to figure out your own position, under your skin. Cynthia Fuchs

Film: Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Mathieu Alaric, Emmanuelle Seigner

Studio: IFC Films


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Emmanuelle Seigner
Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

Playing dumb is a great defense, and in Venus in Fur, Emmanuelle Seigner lives for it. One stormy night in a Parisian theatre, she turns up late and clueless to an audition for a first-time director’s (Mathieu Amalric) racy play, but despite her bumbling appearance, she’s anything but uninformed. Roman Polanski directs this mad descent into a world of mistaken identity, sexuality, and rapidly evolving power dynamics. It’s a spiraling, thorned game played between director and actor, master and mistress, god and disciple. Boxed into a single space with one other actor and a camera, Seigner leaves behind an unforgettably elegant, sexy performance. Taylor Sinople

Film: Maps to the Stars

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson

Studio: eOne


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Julianne Moore
Maps to the Stars

Julianne Moore, for better or worse, is often cast for her ability to crumble into hysterics. However, even her most stubborn detractors will find something to champion in this Cannes-winning role directed by David Cronenberg. Here, she impresses with an agile, fluid performance that finds her fading Hollywood starlet character “keeping up with appearances” while truly flailing in her private life. One split-second transition from her carefully crafted (and entirely fake) persona to her true, bitter self, was so jarring and disturbing, I couldn’t help but curse aloud in shock. In the end, Cronenberg finds real sympathy for her character’s reprehensible vapidity, a challenging feat and a real achievement by Moore, who is working at career-best levels. Taylor Sinople

Film: The Zero Theorem

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Christoph Waltz, Gwendoline Christie, Mélanie Thierry, Rupert Friend, Ray Cooper, Lily Cole, David Thewlis, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare

Studio: Well Go USA


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Mélanie Thierry
The Zero Theorem

When Bainsley, Mélanie Thierry’s complex, fascinating character in Terry Gilliam’s beautiful The Zero Theorem, walks into Qohen Leth’s (Christoph Waltz) life, she doesn’t roll in like a hurricane or even like thunder. Instead, she explodes into his home with the fervent intensity of a personal tragedy, letting Qohen know right away that his life will never be the same again. In their second meeting, she stabs him with her eyes, using them to project fire, insistence, purpose. When she moves, asking Qohen to kiss her finger to “make it all better”, she puts every fibre of her being into it, focusing the totality of her physical and mental intent into that one request. When he finds it difficult to comply, she sends the excess tension she feels into other parts of her body, most notably her eye, to help put the moment at ease. When she approaches him at the end of the film, asking him to run away with her, she’s swathed in blankets from head to toe, her gestures small and self-conscious, a far cry from the heavily flirtatious woman in the party dress we'd been introduced to, or the bomb-bursting vixen in the latex nurse outfit we later came to know. If there were two words to describe both Bainsley and the work of the artist portraying her, they’d be “clear intent”. If there were another two, they’d be “wholly honest.” Kevin Brettauer

Film: Fading Gigolo

Director: John Turturro

Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber

Studio: Antidote


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Vanessa Paradis
Fading Gigolo

Fading Gigolo writer/director John Turturro has the good sense to acknowledge his film's ridiculous premise in a scene of comic dialogue with Woody Allen. Turturro stars as Fioravante, a regular guy who gets talked into sleeping around for money by longtime friend Murray (Allen). Murray reasons that Mick Jagger is not beautiful, but he's somehow "hot", and that's the sort of quality they're selling in Fioravante. Turturro the director doubles down on the unlikelihood of these guys succeeding in their endeavor by casting Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara as two women who line up to be among Fioravante's first customers. To say Fading Gigolo strains credibility is generous, and the film is tonally confused throughout.

The most outstanding member of the ensemble is Vanessa Paradis, who singlehandedly imbues the film with a heart and proves to be a grounding presence for viewers confused by the dissonance. As Avigal, a grieving widow, she's the cloistered foil to the showier roles of Stone and Vergara. Yet she's absolutely mesmerizing as the only female character with a complete interior life. She shines in all of her scenes, but the emotional high point of the entire film arrives at the midpoint, during Avigal's first meeting with Fioravante. She visits him in response to Murray's advice to reach out "beyond a rabbi, something more" because "everybody needs contact." As Fioravante gently massages her back, Paradis wordlessly communicates the sum of months of grief and loneliness. She lends profundity to a profoundly silly movie. Thomas Britt

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