Mike’s Favorite Female Lead Performances of the Decade (100-91)

I make ‘favorite performance’ lists every year, and I get that these lists, more than the rest, are the most subjective one can make. Because it’s really about what you see in each performance and what you respond to; There’s no objective way to truly rate a performance as better than another. With whole films, it feels easier to make that distinction. So with these lists, I’m just gonna focus on some performances from the decade that I really, really enjoyed, and the goal here is just to shout them out and maybe get some people to watch the films if they hadn’t or reevaluate each of the performances the next time they watch the films.

These are my favorite female lead performances of the decade:

100. Laia Costa, Victoria

Mostly what I’m impressed about is the fact that the entire film is shot in a single, unbroken, two-plus hour take, and she’s the main character. So everything she does has to be both carefully practiced and rehearsed but also spontaneous in a way that doesn’t mess up the take and make them have to go back and do it all again. It’s not like theater acting where it’s just in the moment. This is in the moment and technical, having to know where cameras are gonna be, at what point in the scene you have to hit this mark and go over here so they can move over to this next part. I have to shout the performance out on that alone.

99. Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman

It’s not strictly the acting so much as what the performance symbolizes. Leave it to D.C., who’ve fucked up just about every other superhero they’ve touched since Nolan left, to provide the one uplifting female superhero character out there. Marvel tried… but Marvel hasn’t achieved what Gal Gadot achieves in this film. There’s a real purity to her character that allows us to fully root for her, and the way she plays things is really something little girls can look up to as a symbol for strong women. And I think that’s as important, if not more, than great, showy acting performances are.

98. Viola Davis, The Help

It’s Viola Davis doing the thing she does in every movie, but she’s great doing it, so who cares. It’s a really affecting performance, capped off by the most emotional scene in the film, at the end when she talks to the little girl before leaving. You can pretty much just put any Viola Davis performance on this list, to be honest.

97. Brit Marling, Another Earth

You know how there’s two levels of indies? The darling indies and the true indies? The darling indies are the ones who get the indie label but get real budgets and real success and get to dabble in studio stuff and eventually just become the norm. The true indies are the ones that never get the proper amount of viewers no matter how good they are, and they’re constantly having stuff fall through and are never properly appreciated. That’s Brit Marling and her films. She’s true indie.

Here, she plays a woman who finds out she’s gotten into MIT (en route to her dream of studying astronomy) and, after a night of celebration, gets into a car accident that puts a man in a coma and kills his pregnant wife and child. Several years later, after serving prison time, she becomes a janitor and has avoided all contact with people. Only, she runs into the man again one day and, trying to atone (and without saying who she is) starts working as a cleaner at his house, trying to do anything she can to make it better. Meanwhile, this is all set around the discovery of a second Earth-like planet that appears in the outer atmosphere.

The sci-fi element is the selling point, but the crux of the film is the emotional journey of Marling’s character and William Mapother’s character. And there are some really terrific and devastatingly emotional moments in there for her to work with.

96. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

What a beautifully tragic portrait of getting old this film is. And Riva’s performance is just devastating. I love the way she plays some really difficult moments the film provides for her. There’s a real selflessness to the performance, and it’s one of those that admittedly is one I know I will come to appreciate more and more as I get closer to the age of these characters and the problems they live with start to become more of a reality. But for now, I can really appreciate the incredible work they’ve exhibited within these roles.

95. Cate Blanchett, Carol

This film has grown so much on me in the year since it’s come out. There’s just a real simple beauty to this film that is irresistible. It’s a same-sex romance film about a housewife and a shopgirl. And it’s just beautiful. Cate Blanchett is just so perfect here. It took a few years for me to fully come around on the performance, but the more that time goes by, the more I like it. It’s a tender portrait of love in an era when its kind wasn’t allowed. Blanchett has a difficult role to play. She’s unafraid to live her life as she wants, but also is fighting to keep a child, in an era when her living her life would allow her to do anything but. It’s a really fantastic piece of work.

94. Rooney Mara, Carol

It’s a two-hander of a film, so the performances should be back-to-back. I’ve always appreciated Mara’s performance more, because here’s a woman who is living life as she assumed she should, but there’s something just out of place, and until Cate Blanchett walks into her life, she doesn’t know what it is. It’s a really nice portrait of someone who starts to learn about themselves and put the pieces together while realizing that they were all out of place to begin with and dealing with the consequences of that fact. Both leads are incredibly strong in this film, and it’s one of the best romance films this decade has provided us.

93. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Fast Color

I’ve been a fan of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s for a few years now, starting with her performances in Belle and Beyond the Lights. She’s popped up in some things throughout the rest of the decade, but nothing (film-wise) really showed the kind of range I know she had. So I was thrilled to see her in this film, which is the first real showcase of her talents that I’ve seen since those other two films.

It’s essentially the indie drama version of a superhero movie. Kind of like Midnight Special, but even smaller in scale than that is, if you can believe it. It’s about a woman born with powers who has been running away from them for years, suppressing them with drugs to the point of seizures that cause large scale power outages. Of course, the shadowy government agents are after her for these powers, so she’s on the run. And all she wants to do is get back to her mother’s house so she can get back into her daughter’s life. What’s great about this movie is that it’s essentially a metaphor for black girl magic. It’s about black women suppressing their powers to exist in a world that doesn’t properly understand them. And it’s a wonderful film that’s anchored by an incredible lead performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Trust me, if you weren’t a fan of hers already, you will be after seeing this performance.

92. Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks

Zoe Kazan is another actress who goes on the list of ‘most underappreciated’. She delivers great performances every time, and honestly considering how few things she appears in, her number of performances that end up on lists like this versus how many she provides us with, it’s a really strong ratio.

This film is one she wrote that’s directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris, who did Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes. It stars her and her husband Paul Dano. He’s a writer who discovers that the fictional dream girl he’s written on the page has come to life. It’s a twist on a premise you’ve seen before, only here, he can literally make her be anything he wants her to be. So they live in this perfect existence for a while, until he starts to realize that she has her own interests. And ultimately the film is about reality versus fantasy and the need for effort to make relationships work. It also dabbles in power dynamics in a really dark way at one point as well.

Kazan is incredible here, as her character often has to change gears in the middle of sentences as Dano rewrites her entire existence. It’s a really strong performance that gives new meaning to ‘manic pixie dream girl’ in a smarter way than I’ve seen most people attempt.

91. Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose

If there’s one thing I very much go for, it’s that electric, star-making type of performance. Where you can just feel the star power jumping off the screen and know, “This person is a great actor.” Jessie Buckley started on a singing competition show in the UK and then moved into stage and TV acting (her biggest projects were the War and Peace miniseries from a few years ago and Taboo, with Tom Hardy, and of course Chernobyl, which she did after this). This was only her second film! Of course, now she’s gonna start appearing in everything now that people see how incredible she is.

Here, she plays a Scottish woman who aspires to go to Nashville and be a country singer. She’s a single mother, fresh out of prison, and the film is about her trying to get her crazy life in order while also attempting to live her dream. It’s one of those performances that jumps off the screen at you. There’s just a magical quality about her, that’s doubled by her incredible singing voice. Truly one of those ‘star is born’ moments.

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