Mike’s Favorite Female Lead Performances of the Decade (60-51)

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:

60. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Faults

Oh, yeah. See, I’m someone who will always find different films and performances than others to shout out. I’m not always one to go along with everything else. And sprinkled throughout the list will be certain performances that you’ve probably never heard of. I was about to say that this is the part of the list where that stuff was gonna start to appear more, but thinking about it… it’s pretty uniform across this entire list, isn’t it? I feel like there’s at least 10-20 performances everyone else making this list would have on there that I just don’t, and another 10-20 that I have on that most people wouldn’t even think about. Anyway, that was the reflective portion of our list.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an actress who came onto my radar for a different performance from this decade that also made this list, and since then, I’ve made it a point to see every performance she’s given since then (I suspect most people will really only recognize the 10 Cloverfield Lane performance and haven’t seen stuff like All About Nina or this). She’s one of those people who’s eternally underrated and really needs that one performance that brings it all together (like Brie Larson got with Room).

This film is about a cult deprogrammer. That is, a man who writes books about helping people deprogram from being in cults. He’s hired by some worried parents who say their daughter has joined a cult. So he essentially kidnaps her off the street and takes her to a motel where he intends to ‘break’ her of all this new stuff that’s in her head. Of course, things turn out more complicated than expected. She plays the daughter/cult member, and is absolutely incredible in the film. To say anything more specific is to do a disservice to the changes the character goes through over the course of the film. This performance alone should show you just how underrated an actress she is among those of her generation.

59. Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

It’s funny, because I’m always the first person to call her a movie star over a great actor (not that she’s not a great actor, but in terms of performances like this… I’ve never really felt that way about her all that often as maybe compared to others), and yet, here we are… I think she outdoes Meryl in this movie. They pushed her Supporting so as to get both nominated, but this is very much a lead role, and arguably the lead role of the film. I think she steals the film from Meryl, too, which is not something that happens all too often.

What’s great about her performance is — she’s playing the woman in danger of becoming Meryl’s character. She’s got that mean streak in her, and the film is basically her realizing, “Oh shit, I might actually turn into her.” It’s a really great piece of work, and among the best of Roberts’ career.


58. Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

She won the Oscar for this performance, even though most figure she won for a combination of this and Ex Machina. As such, people tend to ignore this one, but she’s quite great in it. Sort of like what happened with Felicity Jones in Theory of Everything, I found myself sort of drifting away from the Redmayne performance and toward the ‘wife’ role.

It’s a complicated part — she’s a painter who marries another painter but then realizes that the man she married really identifies as a woman. So she’s in this awkward position of reconfiguring her relationship to the person she married. It’s a high wire act, where she has all her emotions but also is supportive of the person she loves living their truth. I think she does a fantastic job with it.

57. Felicity Jones, Like Crazy

I fell so hard in love with this movie (and by extension Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin) when I first saw it. It’s a pure John Cassavetes-type film, with a largely improvised feel to it and made on a shoestring budget.

It’s about an American student and a British student who begin a relationship, only to become tested when her visa runs out and she’s deported. So they have to do it long distance, which brings about its own trials and tribulations. It’s an incredible film. The performances by both actors are so intense, and their chemistry so palpable. Felicity Jones just jumps off the screen with her work, and it’s the reason she’s become the star she’s become in the ensuing years.

56. Anna Paquin, Margaret

One of the true hidden gems of the decade. This is Kenneth Lonergan’s second film, after You Can Count on Me. It spent several years in legal hell (they filmed it in 2005, and it took six years to get it released because of all the lawsuits), and when it finally came out, it barely got any notice whatsoever. And a lot of people consider it one of the unheralded masterpieces of the decade.

It’s — much like Manchester by the Sea is — a study in grief. Anna Paquin plays a high school student who, while flirting with a bus driver, indirectly causes a fatal accident in which a pedestrian is killed. And the film is about the aftermath of that accident, and how each person involves deals with the trauma of the incident. It’s a really beautiful film (though difficult to watch, much like The Sweet Hereafter is) and Paquin is absolutely wonderful in it. There’s a real power to the performance and a major catharsis that occurs at the end of the film. It’s the best work of her career.

55. Awkwafina, The Farewell

It was hard for me to take her seriously as an actress before this because of the stage name. But any doubts I had were completely erased with this performance. It’s incredible.

The film is based on Lulu Wang’s actual family experience, where her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and the family collectively decided not to tell her and instead forced together a family get together so they could all see her as a family one last time before she died.

Awkwafina plays the main character, the granddaughter of the dying woman, who is told not to go to the event because she won’t be able to hide her emotions from her grandmother and give up the whole game, but decides to go anyway. And she gives a really delicate performance. As the audience substitute, we see all the emotional stress she’s under, and see both how she’s feeling about everything and how badly she wants to say something while also seeing her have to hide it. She’s got some really incredible scenes and hopefully continues forward with performances as terrific as this one.

54. Viola Davis, Widows

I love this performance. People seem to have completely ignored this movie, or if they’ve seen it, discounted the performance as something ‘action’ oriented, but it’s really not. This is a straight drama with some action in it.

It’s Steve McQueen’s first film since 12 Years a Slave and it’s about four wives whose husbands all died during a botched heist. Now, struggling to make ends meet in various ways, they band together to pull off a job their husbands had planned for the future. Davis plays the main widow, married to Liam Neeson, the mastermind of all the heists. And she’s terrific. Because you get to see the steel-eyed determination of her as she goes about all this, having to hide her feelings away and get shit done, but also the real grief her character is going through. Especially… well, you’ll see. There’s some great stuff here. It’s a terrific performance out of Davis, who never gives a bad one. And there’s much more here than you’d think there is. Watch it again, or just watch it if you haven’t seen it.

53. Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

This is a performance that most of us agree was pretty universally regarded and universally overlooked at the same time. I kinda get it, given the subject matter. It’s tough for people to want to go there. But still, it’s hard to deny the strength of this performance.

Swinton plays the mother of a boy who committed a mass shooting at his high school. And we see her both in the present and in flashback. Both sides of the coin are powerful. You get to see her as a mother struggling with her son’s behavioral issues and trying to pretend everything’s okay even when it’s clearly not. And then in the present, you see her struggle with being ostracized for being the mother of a monster. It’s really strong stuff, but not an easy watch at all.

52. Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game

Everyone’s great when they’ve got Aaron Sorkin writing the dialogue. Chastain has to pull off a lot of dialogue in this movie, and she’s a great one to do it.

The film is about Molly Bloom, a woman who ran a high stakes poker game that became legendary and eventually got her indicted. It’s an incredible movie, and she’s the core thread throughout it. It’s a hell of a story — world class skier who has to cut her career short due to injury and then ends up doing the poker thing in between what was gonna be law school. Hyper smart and very determined, Chastain plays up all the best sides of the character. She’s just great here, and this is one of those performances that’s pure awesome all around.

51. Saoirse Ronan, Hanna

Saoirse Ronan never ceases to amaze me. Truly the best actress of her generation and she honestly has a chance to get to Meryl status when all is said and done. Come to think of it… this is her first appearance on the list, isn’t it? Well, it won’t be the last, trust me.

This was her first major performance post-Atonement (no one saw Death Defying Acts and we all immediately forgot about City of Ember as soon as it was released. Oh, and The Way Back is the other one everyone just went, “Oh yeah, that exists too.”). It reunited her with Joe Wright, who’d only made The Soloist after Atonement and is just an incredible film. It’s one of those films I had to say was amazing for a decade, and I think it finally took them making what I’m told is a good TV show out of it for people to realize that maybe there was something there all along.

Ronan plays a girl who was raised in the middle of the forest by her father. He ruthlessly taught and trained her to fend for herself, and in all forms of combat. Think the best possibly spy you could think of, but now that’s all she knows. And he’s trained her for the day when she’d eventually be sent back into the world, on a collision course with an agent who is after both her and her father. And that’s the film — her going into Europe to go kill Cate Blanchett. It’s pretty awesome.

What’s great about the performance is that you get the ruthless killing machine aspect of her but also get to see her slowly becoming human, getting to experience human things for the first time, and getting that moment of, “Oh, she really is just a regular person like the rest of us.” It’s a really great piece of work from her. Of course, she’d outdo it three times over before the decade was out, but still, she was 16 when she made this, and for 16, this is better than most adult performances out there.

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