Mike’s Favorite Female Lead Performances of the Decade (70-61)
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:
70. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Does anyone ever have to justify Meryl being on a best performances list? She’s always great. Here, she gets a Pulitzer Prize-winning play to work from, and gets to play a loud, caustic, drug-addicted cancer patient. Of course she goes all out and the results are fantastic. What more is there to say?
69. Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Before she won for Room, this was the Brie Larson performance everyone was talking about. She plays the supervisor of a home for troubled teens, who is secretly dealing with her own personal shit on top of their shit, including an unwanted pregnancy. And Larson is just tremendous here. It’s the kind of rocket ship performance people give that immediately catapults them into bigger and ‘better’ (financially, not quality-wise) films. You can just see the trajectory of her taking off from this. It’s so apparent from the work. And also, everyone else in the film too, but since we’re focusing on her here, we’ll only talk about that. Anyway, she’s great in this.
68. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
Lars Von Trier. He gets great performances out of people, especially actresses. Kirsten Dunst is one of those actresses who is always terrific, but also somehow never seems to get the proper praise she deserves. This is, by most accounts, her best performance of this decade. And she’s really great here. The film takes place in two parts: first, during Dunst’s wedding and second, pretty much at the end of the world, as a planet is about to collide with Earth and kill everyone. And she’s just terrific in it. Sure, it’s just a giant two-hour block of depression, but she plays it so well. It’s not a performance (or film) for the faint-hearted, but it’s a terrific piece of work nevertheless.
67. Allison Williams, The Perfection
Okay, so this is a film that’s gonna appear a lot on these lists because I don’t think anyone truly knows about it. It’s from Richard Shephard, who did The Matador (that great hitman dark comedy with Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear), The Hunting Party (a great satire with Richard Gere), and Dom Hemingway (a nice little Jude Law movie no one saw… noticing a trend?), and it’s one of those movies where, the less you know going in, the better. But, the setup is: Allison Williams is a former music prodigy who had to give up her studies when her mother got sick. And now, ten years later, her mother has died and she’s returned to see a performance by the girl who essentially took her place. And that’s all you need to know. Trust me on that. It’s better to just go along for the ride.
The film does a really good job of playing off her performance in Get Out, making you not really sure what her true motivations are and just what’s gonna happen. There’s a twenty minute sequence in the first half of this movie that’s one of the most tense, thrilling things I have ever seen. And Williams completely carries that scene, because part of you just assumes one thing is going on, but you’re not quite sure, and even if you are sure in either direction, you still don’t really know what’s going on or where it’s gonna go after that. And the beauty of Williams’ performance is — you never know. And then when you do, she’s already played so many different angles of it that you’ve completely bought in the entire way. It’s a really great performance in a movie that needs to be seen by more people, pronto.
66. Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
It’s, in many ways, a ‘wife’ role, but I feel like she plays it really strongly and I always felt it was a hell of a performance. Ultimately, yes, she plays the wife of Stephen Hawking, and within that gives her a limited amount of scope to work with in terms of the character. But she pulls it off really well, and every time I watch this film I always find myself more impressed with what she’s doing over what he’s doing. Mostly because I think I just assume what he’s doing is really good and understand the complexities of all that. But she’s also really good and I like what she does with what could have been a very thankless role.
65. Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Revenge
This is just a pure badass performance. This movie is also wildly underseen. If I had my own theater and did double bills, I’d put this on a double bill with The Revenant. This is the B movie companion of The Revenant.
The film — okay, she plays the mistress of a rich businessman who accompanies him on a getaway with two other guys. Things start off fine, but pretty soon… something happens, things go wrong and she ends up left for dead in the middle of the desert. And, well… you can imagine from the title… it’s not that easy.
Lutz is so awesome here. You’re just rooting for her all the way. You want her to fucking kill all these dudes. And that’s the strength of the performance. If you’re all in on her getting her (insert title here), then the performance has done its job. Simple as that.
64. Kathryn Hahn, Private Life
People tried to get others to notice this one, but it never fully took. Hahn is generally known for comedy, and I think people are always leery when actors known for comedy do drama. I don’t know what it is. But she’s incredible here.
The film is from Tamara Jenkins, who has only made three films, and her last one was The Savages, which everyone forgot about, but when you think back, you realize, “Oh yeah, that was really good.” This is Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a couple trying to conceive using IVF, and all the stresses and issues that brings with it. She’s really incredible in this. It’s the kind of unflashy performance that makes it feel almost uncomfortably real, and therefore universal. It’s the kind of performance that’s so good you almost know instinctively that people are gonna ignore it.
63. Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
I mean, I think we all know how great she is here. She’s, in one way or another, all of us at that age. And that’s what’s so great about the movie. You just feel every single ounce of what this girl is going through and you so badly want to tell her that it’s going to get better. That’s the beauty of Fisher’s performance. And that scene at the end just gets me every time, when she finally breaks down. I really love this performance a lot.
62. Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk
The camera just loves her face. She just leaps off the screen every time the camera hits her in this film. It’s also a really tremendous performance in a film of tremendous performances. The film pretty much hinges on her. She’s the main character. I know the boyfriend is also the main character, but in most ways… it’s her.
The film is Barry Jenkins’ followup to Moonlight (I hate that I have to say that, but you’d be surprised how few people actually bothered to even see this), and is based on James Baldwin’s novel, about a couple who is very much in love whose lives are turned upside down after he’s thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And it’s just a stunning achievement on every level. Layne plays the main character, who has to deal with the love of her life being in jail and also being pregnant with his child. I’m telling you, it’s impossible to not come out of this movie and go, “She was incredible.”
61. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
It’s nice to see Sally Hawkins get a great leading role, since she’s so fantastic. This isn’t an easy role. She has to play deaf, so all her acting has to be done with her face and body language. Plus, she’s using ASL the whole time. Oh, and that whole, falling in love with a fish man aspect, too. Somehow that’s the easy part.
This is one of those performances people tend to overlook because the scope and synopsis of the movie are what they are. But when you go back… she really makes you believe everything about her character. It’s one of those unheralded great performances. Befitting of an unheralded, but great actress.
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