Friday, October 9, 2009

Top 10 Lead Actresses of the New Millenium

Hello all. Massive apologies of the blogging laziness two-fer that is not posting yesterday and posting a list today. Life has this annoying tendency of sneaking up on me and disrupting my online habits. Oh well. It's a Friday, which means that it's a list day, so here we go!
Today, as a companion piece to last week, I'd like to offer the 10 best performances by a lead actress of the millenium; I couldn't let the men have all the glory, could I? In fact, looking at both lists, I've got to be honest: The women are far more impressive than the men thus far. The top five performances on this list are particularly moving. I highly reccomend that you check out all top five performances, whether it be seeing the movies, or just youtubing clips. They're all worth seeing.

10. Nicole Kidman-The Hours (2002)
The Hours provides rich dramatic opportunities for all of its trio of ladies, but Nicole Kidman is undeniably the standout of an accomplished acting ensemble. Kidman plays Virginia Woolf during one of her slow descents into madness and depression. Of course, the madness is played wonderfully; a glint in the eye here, a little hand movement there, just little gestures to show that something's just not quite right. What puts the cherry on this performance, however, is watching Kidman-as-Woolf attempting to be a gracious hostess during all of it. Putting on a dinner party is stressful enough without the strains of one's psychosis. Kidman's performance is always threatening to boil over: the beast threatening to take over the well-mannered wife. A great performance, and deserving of the Oscar it received.

9. Keisha Castle-Hughes-Whale Rider (2003)
Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Paikea, the daughter of her Maori tribe's chief. Though her bloodline and her personality suggest that she take the place as leader, tradition dictates that a male must lead. Castle-Hughes' performance is astounding in its maturity, especially given the fact that shed filmed it when she was 13. The depth of emotional nuance that she captures is impressive: the child struggling to become a woman, trying to accept her fate when her personality tells her to try harder, discovering her absentee father only to discover that she's the adult in the situation. Castle-Hughes never tips her hand: you can't catch her "acting" in any traditional sense: she has absorbed the character into herself so as to reflect that person into the camera.

8. Sally Hawkins-Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
The absolute best compliment that I can give Sally Hawkins is that she's not annoying for the entire movie. ...Perhaps I should elaborate. Hawkins plays Poppy, an eternally optimistic, maniacally sunny Brit whose goal is to spread joy into the lives of everyone around her, whether they want it or not. While, on paper, this seems like a wonderfully happy little movie, in reality, eternally optimistic people are as welcome as a case of gangrene. Hawkins never makes Poppy a caricature, which could have easily happened in the hands of lesser artists: instead, she creates a woman from the inside out who simply doesn't have any buried sadness or cynicism. This performance is incredibly organic, lending the proceedings a touch of realism that benefits the film considerably.

7. Meryl Streep-The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
I know, I know--how on earth did a comic role in a lightweight movie get onto a list of the best of the decade? Perhaps, dear reader, I'm biased. I must confess: I'm deeply, madly in love with Meryl Streep. ...Or at least her career. That's it. I'm deeply, madly in love with Meryl Streep's acting career. This little fact, however, does not change Streep's Miranda Priestley's right to take a spot on this list. Priestley is such a fascinating character, made all the more interesting by the details: that ridiculous voice, the million different ways to say "that's all," and, my personal favorite, the way her eyes bug out of her head just slightly when she's surprised by events, before she quickly regains her composure. This performance is an absolute joy to watch. Every second Streep is on screen, she's creating something fantastically original. And watch her scenes in Paris especially closely: it might be the only time we actually see Miranda Priestley. Everything is in New York is Miranda Priestley acting like whom the magazines want to believe Miranda Priestley is. This performance is practically perfect in every way.

6. Helen Mirren-The Queen (2006)
Helen Mirren's performance is a fascinating display of subtlety. She plays Queen Elizabeth II during the events surrounding Princess Diana's death. Mirren, like Elizabeth herself, never allows herself to fall into emotion. Everything is subdued, internalized, and dealt with properly. She is the picture of "quiet dignity," as the film puts it. A lesser actress would have overplayed the role, but not Mirren: she understands that, to succeed, she can never show the audience her cards. The performance is an astounding display of control, and its success shows that Mirren is an actress with singular ability and talent.

5. Ellen Page-Hard Candy (2006)
I feel like this should come with a warning: if you love Juno, if you think Ellen Page is the most adorable actress in the history of cinema, you should never, ever watch Hard Candy. Because if you do, you'll never look at Ellen Page again, and will become a vocal advocate for aborting teen pregnancies. To put it simply: this performance is absolutely terrifying. Page plays a teenager who meets a pedophile, drugs him, ties him up, and casually informs him that she's going to castrate him. If only the movie turned out that nicely. The scariest part of Page's performance is how nice she is: her character is well-spoken, intelligent, and a little flirtatious. As she sharpens knives, prepares for surgery, lies to the neighbors, she skips around the house, telling little anecdotes, pretending that she might not follow through, and generally being a terrible person. Only at the very end does she let the hurt show through: only in the last scene do we grasp what the character's true intentions are. I don't know about you, but this movie made my blood run cold. (I've got to link to this one: . It's a great stand-alone moment.)

4. Julie Christie-Away From Her (2007)
Were it not for one other performance (coming up shortly), I would easily consider this the saddest performance on the list. Christie plays Fiona, a woman who is slowly sinking into Alzheimer's. The movie makes the right move in allowing the viewer to get to know Fiona before her disease strikes: we see Fiona as a luminous, intelligent individual. Then, we watch as all of that drains away. It's really very horrific, but kudos must go to Christie for knowing her character so very intimately. We don't see one full person: we see snapshots of a personality drifting to the top of a facade of polite confusion. Watching her part with her husband for what seems like the last time (to her, it is: to him, it's the first in a series of painful goodbyes) is absolutely heart-rending. Fiona knows that she's receding; all she can hope for, she says, is a little grace.

3. Uma Thurman-Kill Bill (2004)
Uma Thurman's Bride is a magic trick: she takes a person whose character was written with a large rubber stamp, and turns it into one of the most compelling characters of the decade. This is Acting; the kind that earns the capital A. Thurman runs the gamut of emotions: the pain of losing a child, the iciness associated with withdrawing from life, the naive joy of starting a new life, and finally, coming to grips with who she is and what she's done. That's what makes the performance: the character's struggle with what she's doing. Sure, most of the time she's efficient and ruthless, but there are moments where she doubts herself, and they shine through. Watch her face right after she performs the 5-point-palm exploding heart technique on Bill: is it disbelief on her face? Regret? Fear? It's all three at once, and it's amazing. The best Uma scene, for my dollar? The very end: she's laying on the bathroom floor sobbing, and then the sobbing segues into laughter, and she says "thank you" again and again as she hugs her daughter's teddy bear. It's an incredibly moving, nuanced performance, and deserved far more than a crappy Golden Globe nomination. I'm looking at you, Academy. (...Hilary Swank? Really?)

2. Charlize Theron-Monster (2003)
God, what an affecting performance. Charlize Theron plays Aileen Wournos, the "first woman serial killer," and she somehow manages to make her one of the most sympathetic characters of the decade. The movie doesn't approve of Wournos' actions, nor does it shy away from showing her seven murders in graphic detail. What it does, however, is try to show that Wournos was a real person with real emotions and real motivations, instead of burying her in the cliches that come associated with the term "serial killer." Yes, she was evil. But she was also a person. And Charlize Theron captures this beautifully. There are almost unbearably painful moments--moments in which the viewer almost feels indecent for invading the privacy of these lives. It's and incredibly daring performance, and it pays off in the best of ways. (I also need to link to this:

1. Ellen Burstyn-Requiem For a Dream (2000)
I could try to describe why this performance is the most heart-breaking and accomplished performance of the decade, but instead, I'll provide you a link and let Sarah Goldfarb speak for herself. ) There's nothing I can say that that scene doesn't say for itself. Thank God for Ellen Burstyn.

Who'd I miss? Who should be on here differently? Did I actually include The Devil Wears Prada? Speak up!


  1. Great list! I feel bad that I have only seen two of the performances. Ellen Page's performance was amazing (nice warning by the way!) and incredibly different than anything I have ever seen her do before. All of the links worked except for the Ellen Burstyn one, but I think I found the right scene here:

  2. Man, that Ellen Page was pretty much a shout-out to you, loyal reader. I know how fond you are of Hard Candy. And thanks for the link spot! I'll change that immediately.