Mike’s Favorite Female Lead Performances of the Decade (50-41)

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:

50. Ana de Armas, Knives Out

I was waiting for her to break out, and finally, she did it with this performance (with the Blade Runner performance as a primer for people). It’s hard not to love her in this movie. You just see that spark she has, and that innate likability as a person.

The film is, as I’m sure most know, a whodunnit. She plays the nurse of a famous mystery writer who is found dead the night of his 85th birthday party. And what’s great about her performance is that she doesn’t take any twists and turns with her character, but rather the twists and turns take place around her, so she’s just kind of weathering the storm. It’s really terrific how the film handles the character, allowing us to root for her all the way, even when, in some cases, she looks to technically be guilty.

49. Claire Foy, Unsane

Yet another underrated and underseen Steven Soderbergh movie. He shot this entirely on an iPhone, but honestly, while you’re immediately aware at the beginning of the film, you forget that pretty quickly.

Foy plays a woman who seems like she may be borderline unwell, who is convinced she has a stalker. She goes to a counseling session at a mental hospital and soon finds herself committed, seemingly of her own accord. She’s convinced she never allowed them to admit her, and they have forms that say she did. So now she’s stuck in this place, and it becomes an ‘is she or isn’t she crazy’ kinda movie, mixed with ‘is the stalker real or not’. She’s really terrific here, and the way she plays the woman is really terrific. For most of the movie, you truly don’t know if she’s crazy or not. And even then, when you find out the answer, it’s still really powerful.

48. Lupita Nyong’o, Us

This is a really tricky performance. Took me a bit to fully come around on it, but realize — she’s playing two characters here. And not only is she playing two characters, when you fully realize everything that’s going on at the end of the movie, both performances come across way stronger in retrospect. She’s always terrific in things, but her in particular she elevates what is otherwise a pretty standard horror movie that is a bit too complicated for its own good.

47. Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

Everybody loves an actor playing an alien, right? This is one of those movies that made everyone turn their heads. Jonathan Glazer is like that as a filmmaker.

Johansson plays an alien in Scotland who drives around and picks up men and brings them back to her house, whereupon they are submerged in a mysterious liquid and killed. It’s a very slow, visual film, but stunning. And Johansson is really great as the alien whose motivations and thoughts are only hinted at but never spoken aloud. And it’s that aspect of the performance that I think makes it so strong. I love that she just is, and you never really get answers about any of it.

46. Anne Hathaway, Colossal

I adore this movie, and I think the performance here is some of the best work of Hathaway’s entire career. Rachel Getting Married is still the gold standard there (with Les Mis as a nice chaser), but this ranks right up there among those.

This film is thoughtlessly called the ‘Anne Hathaway Godzilla movie’, and in a way that’s direct, but simply thinking of it as that diminishes the actual substance of the product. The film is really about her and her struggles with alcoholism and an abusive relationship. Her life falls apart because she’s a drunk, then goes back to her hometown and ends up working in a bar, which only makes things worse. And around the same time, a giant monster appears in Korea, which she slowly figures out has a connection to her. And the monster becomes a metaphor for who she is when she’s drunk, and it’s a really striking metaphor and one she really runs with. Because her character is a fucking mess, and she does not play it in any flattering way whatsoever. Truly some of the best work she’s ever done in a movie that is sneakily way better than you’d think it is based on the premise.

45. Sandra Bullock, Gravity

It’s a movie about her floating through space by herself with no one to help. Kind of a one-woman show that hinges on how much you believe her. And she goes a fantastic job with it. It is a perfect performance for the kind of movie she’s in, and you’re with her every step of the way.

44. Kirsten Dunst, Bachelorette

I loved her in this. So, so much. This movie is also what I thought Bridesmaids should have been. I’ve openly said for most of the decade that I think this is a far better movie than that one. And part of that is because of the performance at the center of it.

The film is about three high school friends who find out a fourth friend, who none of them particularly liked but hung out with anyway and made fun of behind her back, is getting married. Getting married before the rest of them, that is. So now they’re reconvening for the wedding, and much of the film takes place over the course of one night before the wedding during the bride’s bachelorette party. Dunst plays the friend who is still in contact with the bride, and is her maid of honor. She’s a type-a, very driven… super bitch. But in a way that gets shit done. And so her drive throughout the course of the film is just really the basis for a lot of the comedy (especially since the other two friends she’s with over the course of the night… one of them is laid back and sarcastic and the other is the one who goes overboard and becomes the drunken comic relief for a lot of it). It’s one of the most underrated performances I saw this decade and one of my favorites of hers (which… is quite a tall list).

43. Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

She is the titular ‘dying girl’, and I became a fan of hers for life after seeing this movie. She really knocked this one out of the park.

The film, if you don’t know (and a lot of people seemingly don’t, since the film wasn’t all that wildly seen), is about a high school senior who is forced by his mother to befriend a girl with cancer in his class. He does so begrudgingly at first (she’s not particularly thrilled about it either), but soon finds himself becoming really good friends with her. And it’s a really beautiful piece of work.

For Cooke in particular, it’s great seeing her character slowly work her way up to being one of the main characters in the film. She’s got this deadpan delivery for the early scenes, but soon settles into some really great dramatic work. There are a couple of really long-take scenes where she handles a lot of different emotions over the course of them. It’s wonderful stuff.

42. Zoe Kazan, The Monster

One of the most underrated actresses giving one of the most underrated great performances of the decade in a film no one saw. It’s by the director of The Strangers, his followup to that. The film is a monster movie, but one that’s about something. You know how The Babadook is really about mental illness? Well, this is about addiction and motherhood.

It’s a simple story — woman and her child break down on the road in the middle of the woods, and there’s a monster lurking in the forest and they need to survive. That’s it. But, on top of it, Kazan’s character is an alcoholic and an abusive mother, and the drive they’re taking is to send her daughter to stay with her father (which the girl wants to be permanent). So, the simple story of a mother and daughter fighting a monster becomes so much deeper when you put the metaphor of addiction and abuse and the things both the mother and child are going through because of that.

Kazan delivers such an incredibly powerful performance. It’s the kind of dramatic work that goes far and beyond what you’d think a simple monster story would deserve, and rises to the level of ‘truly great’.

41. Florence Pugh, Midsommar

How can anyone argue with this performance? You can argue with the movie, and the places it makes her go, but you can’t argue with the performance. What I think the saving grace of it is (if you had any doubts about it) is those opening scenes. That entire opening sequence and then that moment right afterward on her couch when she’s screaming is just so heartbreaking that, pretty much from that point on, you feel for her no matter what happens. And the crazier it all gets, it still feels kinda grounded because you’re aware of the shit she’s been through/is going through. Plus, also… my god, does she go through an emotional ringer, this character. Florence has to go all over the map in what she has to play, and honestly, it’s one of the most complete pieces of work you’ll see this entire decade.

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