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. img-833 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. img-833 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. img-833 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.” img-833 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. img-833 Thomas Britt

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Film: The Theory of Everything

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis

Studio: Keep Your Head

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Felicity Jones
The Theory of Everything

In most cases, the failure or success of a biopic is dependent on the ability of the lead, the one who plays the film’s subject. Eddie Redmayne plays the lead in this year’s Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, but, even though the film is an overall success and his performances is flawless, he is not the film’s brightest star. That title belongs to Felicity Jones.

Perhaps Jones steals the show from Redmayne because she plays Jane Wilde Hawking, the ex-wife of the legendary theorist who wrote the memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen in which the film was adapted from. But regardless of the reason, it is Jones who makes The Theory of Everything more than the formulaic, overly sentimental film it nearly becomes. In one of the more passionate, nuanced performances of the year, she reveals the ingredients that are needed and the sacrifices that must be made for a marriage to work — even if it isn’t forever. The conflict she grapples with between her character’s love of Hawking and her exhaustion –equal parts mental, physical, and emotional — is what sets this film apart from the herd that makes up the biopic genre. This film proves that Jones is a force to be reckoned with. img-834 Christopher Forsley


Film: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zack Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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Emma Stone
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is a film about the freedom to be selfish. Michael Keaton is a fading superstar mounting a supremely risky stage play in order to prove his worth to the world. Edward Norton is a supporting player having his own way with the script, regardless of the effects on other actors. Lindsay Duncan is a critic choosing to torpedo the play without giving it a chance.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki themselves lean on camera operator Chris Haarhoff to execute the film as an unbroken visual journey through previews and opening night. The character of the camera roams freely, seeing everyone, perhaps enjoying its power more than any other character in this picture of selfish ambition and vain conceit; and that’s saying something!

Emma Stone’s “Sam” is essential to Birdman because she’s the only character that seems to have the power to outdo the camera. In a perhaps too-obvious bit of blocking/design, she often sits outside of and/or above the action. Is she the film’s conscience, its brain? We know Sam recently returned from rehab, so perhaps she’s ready to focus on others for a while. And in a show-stopping monologue about her father’s need to be relevant, Stone becomes the film’s loud, lone voice testifying to the more lasting freedom of getting over oneself. img-834 Thomas Britt


Film: Boyhood

Director: Richard Linklater

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater

Studio: IFC Films

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Patricia Arquette

Filmed over a 12-year period and lacking any of the action, plot-points, and cinematic elements we have come to expect from a movie, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is unlike anything we have seen before. Unsurprisingly, then, no actors have had to accomplish what its cast did. Every member of the cast — Lorelei Linklater, Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette — successfully fulfill Linklater’s impossible vision by helping him tell an incredibly intimate story of the most epic proportions. It is Arquette, however, who turns what could have be nothing more than an interesting experimental work of art into a work of art that not only mirrors humanity but also reflects it in all its glory and complexity.

While the two child actors and Hawke do exactly what they are meant to do and provide us with a dozen or so remarkably heartfelt scenes between them that could on their own be enough to develop the feelings and themes Linklater is going for, Arquette adds an additional texture to the film that in effect elevates Boyhood from a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable film to a true masterpiece that is guaranteed to stand the test of time. Because her character is a single-mother trying to get an eduction (and later a career) while raising two children and enduring abusive relationship after abusive relationship, Arquette could have easily used the readily available pop-culture cliches to portray such a character. But she doesn’t. Arquette refuses to play her character as a victim even though she often is one, and she doesn’t project any misconceptions about life. There are ups and downs, good times and bad, but there is rarely a happy ending, and if there is one, it isn’t permanent. Because of Arquette, Linklater’s Boyhood gives viewers an entirely new perspective on the passage of time, on aging, and on life itself. img-834 Christopher Forsley


Film: The Immigrant

Director: James Gray

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee

Studio: Keep Your Head

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Marion Cotillard
The Immigrant

Marion Cotillard had the difficult task of delivering two of the best performances of the year, and it is a shame that the Academy likely won’t nominate her for either of them. Her best shot is her harrowing turn in The Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, but I prefer her quieter, more soulful performance in James Gray’s embarrassingly underrated The Immigrant. Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant whose experience in America in the ’20s is not quite what she expects. With this role, Cotillard solidifies her status as Europe’s most captivating actress, and she earns comparisons to iconic screen legends like Ingrid Bergman. Cotillard brilliantly conveys Ewa’s desperation as she tries to survive in a harsh new world. She is hopeful that she will reunite with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) and lead a better life. Despite numerous setbacks, including a doomed relationship with the brutish Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) at the center of the film, she remains defiant until the end. Ewa’s journey isn’t always easy to watch, but Cotillard makes us care about her every step of the way. The Immigrant is ultimately a survivor’s tale, and as the film concludes on a note of bittersweet reclamation, we can rest knowing that Ewa is well-equipped to withstand life’s harsh caprice. img-834 Jon Lisi


Film: Gone Girl

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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Rosamund Pike
Gone Girl

The feminist criticisms of Gone Girl, David Fincher’s take on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, arise out of a concern of the utmost importance. In a world where rape victims are frequently discredited or accused of inciting the rape perpetrated on them, a story where a woman tries to frame her husband for assault and murder no doubt has the potential to play into the hands of “men’s rights” advocates and slut-shamers. Despite the nuances of both Flynn’s novel and Fincher’s film, some have twisted the film’s layered meanings into the most simplistic, misogynistic claims. Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike), these claims hold, is nothing more than a manifestation of the “psycho bitch” stereotype, whose only goal is to ruin the lives of the men in her life, namely her husband Nick (Ben Affleck).

Both the feminist criticisms of Gone Girl and the ideological men’s rights activists, however, miss the point. The “psycho bitch” stereotype holds that women are merely capricious harpies out to inflict their evil wills on nice guys that have done no wrong. By contrast, Amy is not arbitrary in her revenge plot against Nick, and Nick is certainly no nice guy. Moreover, while there is an indisputable problem with the depiction of women in Hollywood, the solution is not to put women in roles where they only act virtuously. Hollywood needs well-rounded female protagonists and antagonists, and although female villains are often reduced to one-dimensional tropes, Pike’s turn as Amy is a genuine revelation. Her motives are complex, as is her elaborate scheme to frame Nick for her disappearance and, eventually, her death. She’s the smartest person in whatever room she’s in. Pike’s performance is of a depth and ingenuity that few men or women have ever been able to achieve. She brings out the malevolence that can build up in the family home — ostensibly a tranquil place — and becomes a grandiose representation of the mutually assured destruction that accrues in a toxic relationship. Though Amy spends much of Gone Girl in hiding, leaving the camera to focus on Nick’s attempts to locate her, Pike dominates this film with a devilish genius. Her presence is felt forebodingly in every frame, and in every moment after you’ve left the theatre. Of the many victories for women in film in 2014, including those fine performances captured on this list, no one topped Pike’s Oscar-worthy turn as Amy. img-834 Brice Ezell