Film

Tough and Tender - The Top 20 Female Performances of 2008

Twenty talented ladies, 20 performances worthy of multiple little gold men. Unfortunately, as in all years, someone has to come out on top. But after looking over this impressive list, picking the preeminent turn of 2008 seems almost impossible.

10 - 1

Director: Clint Eastwood Film: Changeling Studio: Universal Pictures Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Amy Ryan, Geoff Pierson, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, Colm Feore, Michael Kelly MPAA rating: N/A First date: 2008 Distributor: Universal US Release Date: 2008-10-24 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/c/changeling-poster.jpg

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List number: 10

Angelina Jolie

Changeling

More than the plate-smashing, sociopath-accosting Oscar-ready clips, Angelina Jolie’s most impressive scenes in Changeling are the more understated moments where her Christine seems to be mustering every ounce of effort to try and remain sane, in particular several series of haunting reaction shots: one while being condescended to and dressed down with loaded questions by a corrupt doctor at a mental hospital; another in response to dirty looks from the LAPD officer who had her committed, during his day of reckoning in court; and, finally, being told by a helpful pastor that Christine and her missing son would meet again -- in Heaven -- a thought that appears to provide her little comfort or reassurance. As the most famous mother since the Virgin Mary, the act of watching Jolie’s performance is comparable to seeing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, near the end of their marriage, bicker and brood their way through Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut -- voyeuristic, to be sure, yet utterly transfixing. Josh Timmermann

Changeling

Director: Woody Allen Film: Vicky Cristina Barcelona Studio: The Weinstein Company Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Joan Pera MPAA rating: PG-13 First date: 2008 US Release Date: 2008-08-15 (Limited release) Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/v/vicky_cristina_barcelona_p.jpg

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List number: 9

Penelope Cruz

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Maria Elana's reputation precedes her by a good half hour of screen time. By the time we finally get to meet Juan Antonio's ex-wife, described as insane and murderous by everyone in the film, there's almost no way she can live up to our expectations. Penelope Cruz obliterates them. Her fiery, passion-driven artist is an explosion of chaos into what was otherwise a breezy summer flick. Her chemistry with real life boyfriend Javier Bardem is a staggering blend of true love and murderous intentions, driving the film's point about fairy tale romantic love home fiercely. Aaron Marsh

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Director: Charlie Kaufman Film: Synecdoche, New York Studio: Sony Classics Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Weist, Tom Noonan MPAA rating: N/A First date: 2008 Distributor: Sony US Release Date: 2008-10-24 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/s/synecdochenewyorkposter.jpg

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List number: 8

Dianne Wiest

Synecdoche, New York

The strongest central development within Synecdoche, New York, a movie obsessed with infinity and replication, is the shift from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard is the conduit for that movement, but Dianne Wiest’s dual roles as Ellen and Millicent provide its fulfillment. As Caden becomes Ellen within his own play, he depends on Millicent’s direction to guide him. Wiest imbues the roles with a sweetly stabilizing nature that delivers the protagonist from his torment and likewise relieves the audience from an intellectual exercise. In her presence (to paraphrase H.I. McDunnough), the emotional seeds scattered throughout the film finally find purchase. Thomas Britt

Synecdoche, New York

Director: Guy Maddin Film: My Winnipeg Studio: IFC Films Cast: Darcy Fehr, Ann Savage, Amy Stewart, Louis Negin, Brendan Cade, Wesley Cade Website: http://www.ifcfilms.com/viewFilm.htm?filmId=617 MPAA rating: PG-13 Trailer: http://www.apple.com/trailers/independent/mywinnipeg/trailer/ First date: 2007 US Release Date: 2008-06-13 (Limited release) UK Release Date: 2008-07-04 (Limited release) Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/m/my_winnipeg-poster.jpg

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List number: 7

Ann Savage

My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin’s mom must have a wonderful sense of humor, or else secretly hates her son’s guts. One-time noir queen Ann Savage’s riff on The Theoretical Construct Known As Guy Maddin’s Mother is less grotesque than Gretchen Krich’s sci-fi she-monster in last year’s more overtly fictionalized Brand Upon the Brain!, but that’s not really saying much, is it? It must say something, though, when Savage’s caustic, hyper-critical hag constitutes the weird heart and acidic soul of Maddin’s semi-autobiographical film -- as well as, certainly, its most magnetic presence. Situated somewhere between Lady MacBeth and Medusa, Guy Maddin’s Mom is quickly joining the pantheon of great, unflattering parts; until further notice (or, perhaps, until Maddin persuades his real-life mum to step in front of the camera), Savage owns the role. Josh Timmermann

My Winnipeg

Director: Kelly Reichardt Film: Wendy and Lucy Studio: Oscilloscope Laboratories Cast: Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Patton, John Robinson, Will Oldham, Larry Fessenden Website: http://www.wendyandlucy.com/index.html MPAA rating: R Trailer: http://www.wendyandlucy.com/n_trailer.html First date: 2008 Distributor: Oscilloscope US Release Date: 2008-12-10 (Limited release) UK Release Date: 2009-02-06 (Limited release) Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/w/wendyandlucyposter.jpg

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List number: 6

Michelle Williams

Wendy and Lucy

Throughout Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams’s Wendy has a loose, natty bandage wrapped around her ankle, and the injury beneath the gauze is never mentioned, much less explained. The same is true of the character’s hardscrabble circumstances. As Wendy, a young drifter on the brink of financial ruin, Williams is both vulnerable and tough -- and absolutely riveting. The audience mourns her losses and regrets her ill-advised decisions while all the while admiring her perseverance. We may never how Wendy arrived in her situation or where she’ll end up, but thanks to Williams’s raw performance, we’ll likely never forget her. Marisa Carroll

Wendy and Lucy

Director: Sam Mendes Film: Revolutionary Road Studio: Paramount Vantage Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn MPAA rating: R First date: 2008 US Release Date: 2008-12-26 (Limited release) UK Release Date: 2009-01-30 (General release) Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/r/revolutionary-road-poster.jpg

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List number: 5

Kate Winslet

Revolutionary Road

The suburban housewife, unsettled and discontent within her white picket fence world, is not a new character type within the motion picture drama, but no one has taken the dissatisfaction and run with it quite like this endearing English rose. In Sam Mendes remarkable return to the American Dream as nightmare (this time circa the '50s) Winslet walks the fine line between shrew and shrewd flawlessly, making her displeased spouse both the subject of pity and scorn. While she will probably win her first Oscar for playing the sexually open war criminal in The Reader, this was the much braver performance. Her scenes with co-star Leonardo DiCaprio are simply electric. Bill Gibron

Revolutionary Road

Director: Darren Aronofsky Film: The Wrestler Studio: Fox Searchlight Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest "The Cat" Miller Website: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/thewrestler/ MPAA rating: R Trailer: http://video.aol.com/video/the-wrestler-trailer-no-1/2343224 First date: 2008 Distributor: Fox US Release Date: 2008-12-17 (Limited release) UK Release Date: 2009-01-16 (General release) Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/w/wrestler-poster.jpg

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List number: 4

Marisa Tomei

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke’s heartbreaking return as The Ram in The Wrestler has been justly feted, but Marisa Tomei is equally poignant as his love interest, Cassidy. The stripper “with a heart of gold” is a timeworn Hollywood cliché, but Tomei’s performance here is deep and sympathetic. Her Cassidy is by turns gentle and guarded, sometimes both at once -- just watch the competing reactions flicker across Tomei’s face when The Ram sees Cassidy without club makeup and tells her she looks “clean.” Because the audience grows to love The Ram, we can’t help wishing that Cassidy will love him too. But Tomei never lets us forget the stakes for her character, so we always understand exactly where she’s coming from. Marisa Carroll

The Wrestler

Director: Courtney Hunt Film: Frozen River Studio: Sony Pictures Classics Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior, James Reilly Website: http://www.sonyclassics.com/frozenriver/ MPAA rating: R Trailer: http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1809959635/trailer First date: 2008 Distributor: Sony US Release Date: 2008-08-01 (Limited release) Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/f/frozen-river-poster1.jpg

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List number: 3

Melissa Leo

Frozen River

When well-known actresses play “poor”, there is usually a clunky artlessness that infiltrates their attempts, something distinctly artificial. Consummate character actress Leo, though, makes her trailer park ma Ray Eddy into a mythical, tragic mother lioness propelled by sheer survival instinct to feed and protect her cubs. She is haggard, she is pissed off, and she has had it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Ray, through writer-director Courtney Hunt’s deliciously-scripted details, begins to smuggle people into the country for money. Leo, constantly smoking, doesn’t shy away from the script’s desperation, and plays each of Ray’s rough edges with commanding, queenly authority. This studious actress molds an anti-heroine that feels right at home in our fraught economic times, where it isn’t so unbelievable to think that sometimes kids don’t get dinner. The glorious, Bette Davis-esque close-up of her that opens Frozen River, though, is the heart of this woman: broken but not beaten. Leo speaks volumes in her silence, letting her face tell the story sans make-up, sans affectation; she knows Ray. Matt Mazur

Frozen River

Director: Jonathan Demme Film: Rachel Getting Married Studio: Sony Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, Bill Irwin, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe MPAA rating: R First date: 2008 US Release Date: 2008-10-03 (Limited release) Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/r/rachel-getting-married.jpg

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List number: 2

Anne Hathaway

Rachel Getting Married

You can almost taste the acid seeping from Hathaway's performance even as the first sarcastic line leaves her mouth. It's a dream anti-star turn that is not afraid to show how ugly things can get. Her child-like pettiness is only matched by her deep, passionate feelings towards sisterhood (but not so much towards her sister). And while it could be incredibly easy to write this character off as trouble incarnate, Kym never blames her circumstances on anyone but herself. And considering what's happened, that's absolutely heartbreaking. Even if you do want to smack her quite often. Aaron Marsh

Rachel Getting Married

Director: Mike Leigh Film: Happy-Go-Lucky Studio: Miramax Cast: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough, Sinead Matthews Website: http://www.happygoluckythemovie.com/ MPAA rating: R First date: 2008 Distributor: Mirimax US Release Date: 2008-10-10 (Limited release) UK Release Date: 2008-04-18 (General release) Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/h/happy_go_lucky.jpg

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List number: 1

Sally Hawkins

Happy-Go-Lucky

The fairytale Amélie fulfilled even the most sweet-toothed filmgoer’s appetite. While Mike Leigh could never be mistaken for a director who would share that film’s saccharine-and-sepia worldview, a lesser actress than Hawkins might have chosen that key for the role of Poppy, to woeful results. Fortunately, Hawkins brings multifaceted warmth to Poppy that encompasses an enormous range of emotions but deftly blends them all into an earnest optimism. She brings to Leigh’s working class milieu a breath of fresh air that brightens the darker corners of the film. Especially in the scenes where she simply listens to another character, her focus and generosity are electrifying. Thomas Britt

Happy-Go-Lucky

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Sarah Milov's The Cigarette restores politics to its rightful place in the tale of tobacco's rise and fall, illustrating America's continuing battles over corporate influence, individual responsibility, collective choice, and the scope of governmental power. Enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 5. "Inventing the Nonsmoker".

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