My Favorite Female Lead Performances of 2012

I’ve said a bunch of times that I thought this year was ridiculously weak for starring female roles. Most years we complain about the lack of starring roles for women, but this year — it’s actually the case. Other years, I’d have at least twenty or so starring female roles to choose from for something like this. Here, I barely had twenty worth considering. And I’m not even talking of a certain quality or anything — I’m talking just straight numbers. There weren’t actually that many to choose from. And that’s sad.

I’m hopeful 2013 is gonna have a lot more female performances in it.

But, either way, here are my favorite female lead performances of 2012:

1. Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

I’m very open about being a fan of those “force of nature” performance. Where an actress gives a performance so strong that their presence just takes over all the energy in the film. That’s the kind of performance this is. In most years, this might not be a #1 performance for me, but this isn’t most years. This was a horrible year for female leading roles. And the thing that really sold me on this performance was that one scene where she comes in to confront his family after he gets arrested at the game. That’s the point where I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m all in with this one.” The one knock I could have against it is that her character arc isn’t really there — most of her dramatic stuff happens off-screen before the film begins, then she sees Cooper, decides she likes him, pursues him, and then there’s the dance competition. There’s not really much she actually does. However, the performance is spectacular. Which is the flip side to Jessica Chastain, who I felt had the arc there, but the performance wasn’t totally there (for a variety of reasons which I’ll get into when I get to her performance below). So, in that case, I’ll almost always side with the performance. I just loved how she took over this film when she was in it. I hope she wins the Oscar (though I don’t know what her chances are looking like at the moment).

2. Naomi Watts in The Impossible

I’m worried she might not really be a lead here, but I don’t care. I loved the performance, and I loved the film. It’s gonna be on one of these lists — might as well be here. The Academy nominated her for leading, I’m gonna list her as leading. I was very impressed with what she did here. I bet I’ll be even more impressed the second time I watch it. Because the first time you watch, you’re caught up in the events of the film. The second time, I’ll watch her performance more closely and go, “Damn… she’s doing some great stuff here.” Because if I saw it the first time, I’ll see it more the second time. (Also, see this movie! Not enough people have.)

3. Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed

This was one of the performances of the year, and nobody saw it. What hurt it is that it was an indie film. And I mean that in the sense of — not a lot of people got to see it and a bigger film would have added some more scenes and had enough of those big dramatic moments (performance-wise, not narrative-wise) to where people would have had to take notice of how great the performance is. Not that it’s lacking now, since she really did a hell of a job with this. Everyone in the film did a great job with it. But I was especially impressed with Winstead’s performance since — it’s hard to keep a performance anchored when your character ends up smoking crack within the first ten minutes of the film. So I was impressed that she was able to bring it back for the rest of the film. I was a huge fan of the scene where she was trying to buy liquor at the convenience store and the clerk wouldn’t sell it to her. I think this was one of the best female performances of the year, and I think it’s a shame that almost no one saw it.

4. Kirsten Dunst in Bachelorette

She plays a raging cunt in this movie and it’s wonderful. I don’t even have that much more to say. Just watch the performance. She really hits this one out of the park. It’s a shame that not many people have given her props for it.

5. Ann Dowd in Compliance

This is a leading role, even if they were gonna potentially vote her in Supporting. And man — she’s so good here. You totally buy everything she does. If you haven’t seen this movie — go watch it. I’m telling you. It’s all sorts of fucked up. The key with it going in is to know that it’s not an isolated incident. So don’t start going, “No, no… that would never happen,” and turn on the movie. Other than that — you’ll see why her performance is so good.

6. Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

I liked the performance, but — I have some doubts. One — Chastain just feels ill-suited to the role. Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. She just felt — frail — for this type of role. I guess that’s the point. I just don’t know if I fully believed it, is all I’m saying. And then there’s the way the movie is structured — mostly what I’m getting at — I see the good work in this performance, I just don’t know if I could put it any higher than this, the way most other people are doing. I feel like a lot of that is people just going along with what everyone else is saying. Nomination, but not win is what I’m saying. That’s what I felt about the performance.

7. Leslie Mann in This Is 40

This was a performance I wasn’t necessarily expecting. I know Leslie Mann always gives good performances, but I just wasn’t expecting this performance. My knock against the Apatow films is that they try to do too many different things at once. You can’t go for straight comedy, the James L. Brooks thing and gross out humor at the same time. It just doesn’t work. There’s not a good balance. But, even so — Leslie Mann still manages to deliver a really touching performance in this movie. From those scenes where she’s talking to her daughter at night, to that scene where she berates the kid who said something mean about her daughter — she gets a nice range of emotions across in this. I expected her to be good, but I didn’t expect one of those performances that made me actually go, “Wow… that’s actually really strong work.”

8. Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina

Shout out to her Seeking a Friend for the End of the World performance, too. I’m predisposed to liking her performances, so I’ll make this brief — I thought she did a good job with the role, and that she fit perfectly within what Joe Wright had designed for the look of the film. What he did is the kind of thing that doesn’t lend itself to bravura performances. You can’t give an Oscar-winning performance and have the type of film that this Anna Karenina film is, so I respect Keira for tailoring her performance to the kind of film Wright made. And even so, she still delivers a really great performance.

9. Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

What’s really impressive about the performance is the fact that she has to carry the movie at her age. And she does it beautifully. I’d be lying if I said I was a fan of the technical aspects of the performance, but in terms of having to carry a movie and handling it as good, if not better than most established actors, that earns a ton of respect from me.

10. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Just watch the movie. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

11. Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks

Very impressed by this one. I loved the range of emotions she had to portray with this character, as well as the little flourishes, such as the fluent French, and the sudden mood changes. Sometimes in order to get a great part you have to write it yourself. And she wrote a good one.

12. Gina Carano, Haywire

Big fan of this performance. Since they knew what she could do and what she couldn’t do (and I say couldn’t do just because — she hasn’t acted before, therefore it’s not fair to throw her into the deep end of having to give a three-dimensional performance. There’s only so much you can expect from her the first time), and they tailored the movie around her strengths, and the whole thing turned out beautifully. She handles the action scenes exceptionally well, and she does a good job with everything else. Sure, it was maximized around her strengths and all, but do I care? I saw a kickass performance in a good movie. That’s all I need.

13. Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed

What I liked about this performance was that I got to see more than just the usual Aubrey Plaza thing. Most of the time she just sort of deadpans her lines and glares a bit and that’s it. (I’m exaggerating of course.) Here, I got to see a full range of emotions, and even actual happiness. Plus the arc of the character — I was really impressed with what she did with her first starring role.

14. Ari Graynor, For a Good Time, Call…

I always knew she was an actress who stood out in her films, often due to her willingness to do anything for a scene or for a laugh, but this was the first time I saw her get a hold of a fully-fleshed out character to work with. And I have to say — I was very impressed. There are a lot of difficult moments she has in this film, a lot of which, in the wrong hands, wouldn’t work at all. But she manages to make it all very charming. And I wanted to recognize that rather than put on one of those typical “classy” performances that everyone would put on this list. This one impressed me more.

15. Maggie Smith, Quartet

I had no one else and I loved the film, so at least this is another reason for me to tell you that I loved Quartet and that you should see it.

One response

  1. JamDenTel

    Good list. You have three of my Best Actress nominees on here (Chastain, Plaza, and Graynor–the other two are Lauren Anne Miller from FOR A GOOD TIME and Rachel Weisz from THE DEEP BLUE SEA), plus you give props to Gina Carano, who was…no other word for it, kick-ass.

    If you’re doing a separate column for Supporting performances, I hope (seeing as you cited Dunst) to see Lizzy Caplan’s work in BACHELORETTE get a mention.

    January 26, 2013 at 12:35 am

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