Mike’s Favorite Female Lead Performances of the Decade (80-71)

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:

80. Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

This performance was really something. She got nominated for it, and historically, it’s difficult for foreign language performances to get nominated, even if they’re by someone who’s won an Oscar previously.

It’s a Dardennes brothers film about a woman who finds out she’s about to be laid off by the factory where she works because they can’t afford to keep her and pay the other employees their year-end bonuses. So she’s given the weekend to convince her fellow employees to give up their bonuses in order to keep her job. So the film is basically a couple of days in the life of this incredibly stressed woman trying to maintain her livelihood. And Cotillard is fantastic here. It’s an exercise in stress, the performance, and of course with an actress of her caliber, the results are terrific.

79. Alicia Vikander, The Light Between Oceans

This whole movie got a bad shake. It was the last movie as part of a deal between studios separating, so basically the studio releasing it essentially dumped it at a time when no one bothers to watch things and it quietly faded from view without anyone really noticing. Plus, it’s an old-fashioned type of melodrama, the kind of which no one really responds to nowadays unless it’s got some sort of modern twist to it (like Carol).

It’s the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who try desperately to have a child, only for bad luck to keep befalling them. Then, one day, like a miracle, a baby washes ashore in a rowboat. And it’s like the universe answering their prayers. So they raise the child and they’re happy… until they meet a woman searching for her own child who seem to be the mother of the child they found.

Vikander is really great here. It’s a really tender performance of a woman who just wants to have a normal life. She wants to be a wife, she wants to have a child. And through no fault of her own, she can’t do that. She’s a failure. So now this child means everything to her. And the way she plays all of it is really great. She had that two year stretch where she was great in a lot of great things, and this is very much part of that.

78. Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

The forgotten David O. Russell movie of this recent run. Sure, it’s — to put it in comparison to the arc of the David Lean epics in terms of charting it (not to compare the films directly to one another, to those of you who will willingly misinterpret what i’m saying) — it’s the Ryan’s Daughter, while The Fighter, Silver Linings and American Hustle are Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. But Ryan’s Daughter is still a great movie. We just don’t talk about it like we talk about those other three.

The film is a biopic of Joy Mangano, a housewife who invented a self-wringing mop and became a Home Shopping Network phenomenon. The film is very much in the vein of his other films of this run… character-oriented, with the same stable of actors and that chaotically fun tone. And Lawrence — who is always good and feels authentic on screen almost no matter what she plays — is really terrific here. It’s a more mature performance out of her than the others, and one that I think is gonna go unnoticed when people go back to this period in her career. But it’s very much some of the best work she’s done.

77. Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Powley is an actress who came onto my radar very strongly and very suddenly. I saw both this film and another of hers (A Royal Night Out, in which she plays Princess Margaret and steals the movie) within a couple weeks of one another. And man, did she jump off the screen.

The film is based on a half-novel, half-comic story about a 15-year-old girl who begins sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend. Powley plays the girl, and man, it’s unsettling how easily she passes for 15. Of course, it’s 1970s 15, which today could be like 25. But still. The film is about an underage girl sleeping with an adult man, and I felt uncomfortable watching it because I just felt like she really was an underage girl (knowing full well she wasn’t). But it speaks to the strength of the performance that she was able to pull that off so convincingly. She’s an actress who still hasn’t found that one perfect role to get her noticed, but she’s one of the better actors working nowadays and it’s always great when she pops up in stuff because I know she’s gonna deliver the goods.

76. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

How great is this movie? I remember when I saw this for the first time and truly just could not believe what I was watching (and yes, partially because that restaurant where they shot it is practically around the corner from the place I worked for many years and like five minutes from where I live). It just felt so real and vibrant. He shot the whole thing on an iPhone and used first-time actors, which really made the whole thing feel like he was capturing what could be happening on the streets at any given time.

Rodriguez plays a trans sex worker who gets out of prison, only to find out her boyfriend has shacked up with another woman. So of course, that puts her on the warpath. And the film takes place over the course of a day as we follow her and her friend around. And it’s just wonderful. She’s so good here and gives one of the most authentic performances you’ll see… ever, really, but let’s say from this entire decade.

75. Rooney Mara, Side Effects

This was, for a few years, meant to be Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical feature. Of course, he’s come back and that’s all a thing of the past, but that only means this has gotten further left under a rock and few people have bothered to go see it. And I think that’s part of the reason why he ‘got out’ when he did, because his movies were in this weird place where the studios spent all this money to market them but they were always midlevel movies that rarely made that much money at the box office. All his movies are great, but people always seem to discover them after the fact. The Limey, Che, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant, Contagion, Haywire, Logan Lucky, Unsane — I’m sure people still don’t even know about most of those. This is very much of that ilk.

The film is essentially a Hickcockian thriller. I don’t use that term lightly, but that’s what this is. It’s a Hitchcockian thriller about the opioid crisis, which also came way before the opioid crisis became something they talked about in films. Rooney Mara plays a woman whose husband has just been in prison for insider trading. After a suicide attempt, she goes to see a psychiatrist and is prescribed antidepressants. Which leads to some… (insert title here). It’s a great movie. Mara, in particular, plays her part perfectly. She’s gotta go through a lot of character shifts throughout the film, as things unravel, and she really does a fantastic job with it. She’s always great, but this one in particular… well, watch it, you’ll see what I mean.

74. Sennia Nanua, The Girl with All the Gifts

Probably one of the top five discoveries I had this decade. And I mean both the film and her performance. But since the film is going to appear on other lists coming up, I’ll focus this entry on Nanua’s performance.

The film is based on a novel about a post-zombie apocalypse world. A virus has turned most people into zombies, but because viruses have to learn how to adapt so as not to kill their hosts, it learned to blend itself to the DNA of the second generation of hosts, the children. So while the initial set of zombies are straight up zombies, the children are basically regular kids who also just happen to have the craving for flesh and blood and all that stuff. And that’s how we meet our main character — she’s in a class of child zombies in this military base, who are taught just like regular kids their age… only chained to desks and restrained so they don’t murder people once they get near them. And she’s the brightest girl in the class and the most human of the bunch. And of course, zombies take over the base, so the survivors take her with them as they travel through the country, searching for a cure.

It’s such a terrific performance by Nanua. I always like when people have to play one thing while wishing/thinking they’re another. So here, she’s trying to be a human, but of course she still has those zombie urges she can’t control and everyone treats her like as if she’s subhuman. And watching the arc of her character play out… it’s a really strong piece of work. Coming of age movie mixed with zombie movie is an interesting paradigm. And Nanua — this is her first film. And it’s just an incredible piece of work.

73. Mia Wasikowska, Tracks

Another movie I saw almost randomly that I loved. It’s a biopic of a woman who, in 1977, traveled 1,700 miles across Australian deserts with just her dog and some camels. Wasikowska plays the woman and it’s just a wonderfully determined performance. She’s one of those actresses who always picks interesting material but never seems to get the proper notice for her work. Here, she plays someone who just wants to do her own thing. She’s a true iconoclast, who doesn’t care about how things are supposed to go — this is what she wants to do and she’s gonna do it. And, being the only person on screen a lot of the time (aside from the camels), the film hinges on Wasikowska’s ability to be interesting and for us to believe and root for her character. And she does that wonderfully. It’s a really uplifting performance that more people ought to have seen.

72. Samara Weaving, Ready or Not

This one’s not about the acting as much as it’s about the awesome. She’s the horror/action heroine that you root for because not only is she great, but she’s also being put through hell. Weaving’s had a few of these performances in the past couple of years (and each time, I’ve been impressed by her screen presence and charisma on the screen), but this is the one that finally (hopefully) gets her to break out as a real star.

The film’s a high-concept thriller about a woman who marries into a board game empire, and as part of the family’s ritual, they have to play a game on the wedding night. Of course, most of the time, it’s just a game, but, if it’s ‘Hide and Seek’…. well, that means the family all gets weapons and hunts down the bride (or groom, depending) and kills them if they catch them. You know… in-laws.

Weaving gets to play the innocent woman who thinks it’s all a game until the shit goes down, then she plays the scared damsel in distress… only to finally emerge as the badass heroine who isn’t gonna take shit from anyone. It’s an awesome performance, by any measure.

71. Charlize Theron, Young Adult

I love this performance. It’s so cynical. The whole movie’s so cynical, and I love that.

Theron plays an author of children’s novels — Babysitter’s Club type high school stuff. She’s divorced, an alcoholic and basically refused to grow up. And she returns to her hometown because she finds out her high school boyfriend just had a child and thinks this is the perfect time to go get him back. It’s a wonderfully acerbic performance, and the ultimate realization at the end makes it even sweeter.

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