My Favorite Female Lead Performances of 2017
Every January, I make myself pick out specific performances I loved from the previous year. I spend so much time talking about movies, but I don’t actually give credit to specific performances. The only time I’ll talk about them is when I’m going over the Oscars. Which isn’t the same thing.
The great thing about lists like this is that it forces you to consider everything. You immediately start thinking of the performances that are nominated for the awards. But if you consider each and every movie you saw from the year (and I did. All 400 of them), and think about how you really felt about all the specific performances, you’re gonna be surprised which ones you actually liked best. (Especially if you can be honest about it and don’t think about what’s already out there, which few people are willing to be.)
Today I’ll be covering all the female lead performances I loved. They’re in order, but they’re not really in any order. The numbers don’t matter. These are just the ones I enjoyed the most. We’re not talking about awards-worthy or whatever.
So here are my favorite female lead performances of 2017:
1. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
This is that one performance that feels like it encapsulates 2017 as a year. The pain and the anger and the determination to never let something like that happen again. And even though we don’t really have control over anything, we can still do what we can and make our voices heard and get something to change. Any ripple can count. Of course, that all goes sideways, in that Martin McDonagh way, in this movie, but still. Frances McDormand was absolutely perfect for this movie, and this was the perfect role for the right actress at the right time. And everything about it resonates. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s kickass. It’s everything you want. THIS is my superhero. For a lot of reasons. The way she won’t take any shit. That scene with the priest. The steely-eyed determination, no matter what. Sure, she takes it a bit too far, but I loved everything about the character and the performance. I’m all on board with her winning Best Actress next month.
2. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
She is the greatest actress of her generation. Truly, anything she is in is made better because of her. She’s incredible. There’s such authenticity to her work. I love everything she does in Lady Bird. It’s the kind of performance where, no matter how you grew up or when you grew up, there are shades in all of our childhoods in there. I’m constantly amazed every time I see her act.
3. Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
How awesome is Margot Robbie? This was a really difficult project to take on, and she not only produced it, but found the right tone, went full-steam into it, and delivered an incredible performance. She actually skates in this. You can see her actually skating for full sections of the ice scenes. She’s also really committed to playing this unreliable character, never once trying to make her seem either completely innocent or completely guilty. She plays her in such a way that you can see how she can be both completely innocent and completely guilty and all the shades in between at the same time. It’s a really terrific performance and firmly places her as an all-around force to be reckoned with for years to come. Very excited to see where she goes from here.
4. Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project
She’s 7 and she has to carry an entire movie on her shoulders. I tend to love child actor performances and be more forgiving toward them than most. I know what all the detractors will say about a performance like this, but I see it as a huge asset that a child gets to be a child. Being able to hold your attention on screen is not easy, no matter what age the actor is. Prince brings a perfect air of innocence to the film, and then really turns the screws once you get to the latter stages of the film, where she needs to put on the dramatics. That final scene is truly heartbreaking. One of the most emotionally affecting performances of 2017.
5. Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth
The greatest discovery of 2017. Florence Pugh is a star. She is spellbindingly good in Lady Macbeth, one of the year’s three most underrated movies. Within ten minutes, you can’t take your eyes off her, and she carries the film so steadily on her shoulders that you’re amazed this woman hasn’t broken out way, way sooner. Truly one of the most remarkable performances of the year and perhaps the one performance of the year that made me go, “Whoa, who is this?”
6. Margaret Qualley, Novitiate
I’ve been becoming a fan of hers since The Nice Guys, which was only her second role. A lot of people first saw her on The Leftovers, which I have not. But since then, I’ve been quietly impressed by her performances. And here — she gets a real showcase for herself. She conveys so much with her eyes, which is something I love when actors can do well. I also felt she showed the right amount of outward expression, while also allowing the audience to read so much into her inner state. I felt like a lot of her scenes were just her sitting in silence as stuff went on around her for long periods of time. And she made those really riveting to watch. This is a film full of great performances, by even the smallest of the supporting cast, and Qualley leads the pack with a powerhouse performance that is well beyond her years. I’m fully on board with whatever she wants to do from here going forward.
7. Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread
Talk about an auspicious debut. Vicky Krieps comes out of nowhere to deliver a beautiful performance, and holds her own against Daniel Day-Lewis, which is not the easiest thing to do. It’s not exactly difficult, since he does somehow manage to lift the others up around him on top of doing what he does (most of the time. He did suck up a lot of the air in There Will Be Blood, but that might have been a function of the character he played), but it is tough to come in and make an impression opposite him. And this is one of those times where it was not only possible, but necessary. Since Krieps has to be the woman who wins this man’s heart, and be an equal, and even a better in certain circumstances. And man, does she do some wonderful things in this movie. Those last twenty minutes alone…
8. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
I always respect a mute character. They have to act with their eyes and body language, and it’s just something that appeals to me, going back to the Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx days. And on top of that, Sally Hawkins is a perennially underrated actress who is finally getting a chance to shine, so all of that really appealed to me. I’m not gonna say it’s the greatest performance of all time, but in a year like this, so few of them truly appealed to me on an emotional level, and this was one of the ones that did.
9. Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game
She’s always great, and Aaron Sorkin always writes incredible dialogue for his actors to perform. It’s a match made in heaven. Not really a whole lot to add on this one. Is there ever a doubt that a great actor performing Sorkin dialogue is gonna give a great performance?
10. Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$
This is the real life A Star Is Born. Talk about a showcase. Danielle Macdonald is so great. Talk about the definition of a ‘winning’ performance. She gives you everything you want to root for. And she raps! She’s Australian, by the way. So she’s doing a New Jersey accent, and she had to learn how to rap for the movie, which is very much passable. There’s a lot more to the performance than just the acting.
11. Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman
It’s not the straight up acting with this one, it’s everything else. This character is so likable, and represents so much for empowerment and good that it’s hard not to love the performance. Gadot was a savvy choice for the role, and as much as it seemed ‘whatever’ at the time, and when we first saw her in the Batman v. Superman movie, she really brought this character to life in a way that I can’t say for almost any other superhero out there. Iron Man is the top, that’s for sure. But everyone else — they’re just kinda good because you’ve seen them for so many movies. This is one of the few times we became so endeared to a character so quickly. She actually helped us not think about how generic the plotting of the movie was.
12. Anne Hathaway, Colossal
This movie was more of a sideshow to me from the moment it was announced. I didn’t think there was any way there’d be anything of value here other than an elevator pitch. And I was blown away by what I got. And central to why the movie works is the performance of Anne Hathaway, who makes the character feel so real, and makes her so empathetic. She can sometimes come off as annoying on screen, and there’s none of that here. Her alcohol problem is front and center. This is a broken woman. It’s far different from how you’ve seen Hathaway on screen. I loved the journey this character went through, and it’s one of the few times on screen where I wasn’t indifferent toward her performance, as much as I want to like her.
13. Tatiana Maslany, The Other Half & Stronger
Also, shout out to Orphan Black, which is one of the great TV performances I’ve seen in a long time. She played so many characters and never betrayed any of them by seeming like herself. I’m such a huge fan of her on that show. That said — The Other Half is a little indie that no one saw where she plays a bipolar woman. It’s a really great performance. And then Stronger, which is an underseen movie, but at least a movie people may be aware of or even seen. She plays Jake Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend who has to deal with not only his immaturity and inability to commit but also the fact that his legs just got blown off. It’s more of a strong supporting role, and a lot of people will consider it supporting, which is fair, but I wanted to shout it out here, because she’s really good in that role, and it’s the kind of role that is destined to get overlooked next to the more showier role that Gyllenhaal has. I’m excited to see what direction her career takes now that the show is over.
14. Jennifer Lawrence, Mother!
I don’t necessarily think it’s the greatest performance ever, but she does have to carry the movie and the performance is tricky because she has to keep you rooting for her, interested in what’s going on without tipping to what is really going on, and also having to basically be the person on screen for almost the entirety of the film. I’m always impressed when someone can do that. It takes a certain amount of star power to do that, and she has it.
15. Bel Powley, Carrie Pilby
I’ve been a fan of Bel Powley’s for a few years now, after seeing her a couple years ago in both The Diary of a Teenage Girl and whatever the title of the Queen Elizabeth/VE Day movie. I think it was A Royal Night Out. And I’ve been intrigued to see what choices she makes. And this is her getting to star in her own quirky, romantic comedy of sorts, and it’s a really great role for her. She plays a hyperintelligent woman who struggles to exist in a world of average to below-average people. So she retreats into her own world, constantly puts people off by correcting them and saying things that most people have the tact to not say. She’s wonderful. It’s one of those roles that will always appeal to me, and seeing someone I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of do it makes me really happy.
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