Mike’s Favorite Female Lead Performances of the Decade (30-21)

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:

30. Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

We’re about to hit a mini-run of ‘non-actors’ giving great performances. I put it in quotes because the idea is these are people who hadn’t acted before and they gave incredible and unforgettable performances from this decade.

We start with the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Actress, in a film that is one of those I find myself returning to because it’s got this real authentic energy to it that I can’t describe. It’s about a young girl living with her father in a bayou community cut off from the rest of the world. She’s the focal point of the film, and you just can’t take your eyes off her. It’s an incredible performance by someone who hadn’t acted before, and sticks out as one of the most memorable performances for me of anything I’ve seen this decade.

29. Yalitza Aparicio, Roma

She’s a revelation in this film. Alfonso Cuaron structured the whole film loosely around his childhood and his and his family’s relationship to the maid they had, so here he tells the story from the maid’s point of view. Aparicio was about to become a teacher before she auditioned for this movie. But great performances can come from anywhere, and this is a prime example. She’s just riveting in this film. You cannot take your eyes off her, and there’s a real beauty to the normalcy of her performance. Sometimes people performing everyday emotions can lead to the deepest revelations.

28. Sasha Lane, American Honey

The story with Lane is, apparently Andrea Arnold saw her on a beach and asked her to audition for her movie. And this performance (and her subsequent career) is the result. The film itself is a three hour film about twenty-somethings traveling around the country, selling magazines. Which sounds like a movie most people wouldn’t want to see on paper, particularly me, but it’s really quite good. And Lane is the movie. She plays a girl living with an abusive father with two younger siblings who decides to pick up and go off with this magazine crew. And we just watch her go do this, and get embedded with these people.

Lane is captivating in this film. You just want to watch her no matter what’s going on. I think the fact that she hadn’t done professional acting before this helped her because there’s a freedom to the performance you don’t see with most actors. There’s also an unmistakable star power there as well. This is one of those rare ‘wow’ moments you get when you discover someone new who is also really talented.

27. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed

Seriously, how is she not more well-known as one of our best actresses? This was the performance that did it. She had smaller roles in stuff like Death Proof and Scott Pilgrim and Die Hard, but this was the performance that showed how incredible she is as a dramatic actress.

The film stars her and Aaron Paul as married alcoholics. And we follow her and see the kind of life it makes her lead… until she decides she’s gonna get sober. Which of course makes her marriage more difficult, since alcohol was something she and Paul had in common, and now they no longer have that. It’s an incredible performance. It really is. One of those that never got its proper due at the time and then ended up being forgotten about and swept under the rug behind bigger, shinier films. But trust me… this is every bit the kind of performance that Brie Larson in Short Term 12 is, to give you a similar type of great indie performance people talk about as being one of the unheralded great ones from this decade.

26. Naomi Watts, The Impossible

I’ve always loved Naomi Watts, but this performance is one I was not expecting. This film was not something I was expecting. I had no idea at all what it was about, and by the time the tsunami sequence happened, I was on the edge of my seat. The film, for those who don’t know, is about a family on vacation in Thailand. And then, a tsunami hits, so the rest of the film is them surviving it, both during and afterward. Watts is stunning here. The entire disaster sequence is hers, as we experience it through hers and her son’s eyes, and then in the second half of the film, she fights for her life in the hospital, with all sorts of internal injuries, slipping in and out of consciousness. It’s an incredible performance, the likes of which you don’t always see in disaster movies.

25. Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread

Krieps has been acting, but this is the first time most people took notice of her in a film. That tends to happen when people are in Paul Thomas Anderson movies. It’s a tall order of a performance — she has to match (and equal, in a lot of ways) Daniel Day-Lewis. And there’s a real slow-burn to her work in this film. She comes on in the periphery — a waitress Day-Lewis spots and becomes taken with, and then we watch them on their date and watch him making the dress for her and we’re not really quite sure what to make of her. But as the film goes on, the character really starts to come into her own in a powerful way. Each time I revisit this film, I’m more and more impressed with her work in it. There’s a real magic to the performance, and it melds perfectly with what Day-Lewis is doing in very surprising and unexpected ways.

24. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

I love Michelle Williams. Every three or four years she comes out with one of those undeniably great performances where we all realize that she’s truly one of the absolute best actors we have. This one came out right before I think the public at large fully realized it. Compare this performance to where she was at the end of the decade, with Fosse/Verdon. Far cry.

Anyway, this is essentially a John Cassavetes type movie that tells the story of a romance at its beginning and its end. Two timelines, one of a couple falling in love and the other as their marriage is falling apart. It’s a great piece of work and both leads are fantastic in it. Williams especially is really incredible here. Gosling gets to have the louder, showier type of part, but she’s the one doing more of the emotional heavy-lifting. It’s some really great work, especially considering how improvised the whole film is.

23. Judi Dench, Philomena

It’s funny to me that Judi Dench’s screen career has spanned about 60 years, yet it’s really only the past 25 that we know her from. It started with GoldenEye in 1995 that most people knew who she was, and then there were those string of late 90s Miramax films that really cemented her status. And along the way, she’s delivered some incredible work. Most of that, to me, pales in comparison to what she delivers with this role.

The film is based on a real woman and is about an Irish woman who gave birth while living in a convent. And because the Catholic Church is what it is, because the child was born out of wedlock, the nuns separated the woman from the child and sold the child off (as they did many children during that time). And now, many years later, her daughter (from a later marriage) turns to a reporter to look into the story, which begins a journey of the reporter and the woman going to find out what happened to the child that was taken away from her.

What I love about this performance is how down-to-earth and matter of fact Dench is in the role. She’s just this unassuming woman who is very understanding and forgiving, and often takes these very surprising turns out of nowhere with the most banal line of dialogue. It remains my favorite performance from its year just because of how surprisingly poignant it is in the most simple of ways. Just because we’ve seen Judi Dench do these types of roles does not lessen the impact this one in particular has.

22. Amy Adams, Arrival

This is another performance I find myself more and more impressed by as time goes on. Because it’s a very simple performance on the surface — good, but kind of straightforward. And then as the film goes on, it takes this turn where you realize… oh, there’s more going on than I expected. But when you watch the film again (and again), you realize just how much Adams has to do in any given scene and any given moment. It’s an incredible piece of work that, while I should be marveling at the work itself, all I think about whenever it comes up is, “They nominated her for (x and y and z) and not this?” But I promised myself I’d stay away from that sort of talk for this list, sine it really should be about the work.

But truly, Amy Adams is one of those actors who always delivers the goods, and this, to me, is probably the finest work she gave us this decade, in a career full of astounding performances.

21. Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

She really is the actress of her generation, and I find myself more and more impressed with each new piece of work she gives us. This is one I wasn’t quite expecting to love as much as I did when I was first presented with it. Because I’ve seen Little Women three other times, and I loved all three of them, and I couldn’t see what I was gonna get out of this version of Jo March that I didn’t get out of the others. I figured I’d like the performance, but it would be more about the entire film than specific performances. Boy, was I wrong. Thank you for that, Greta Gerwig (and all the actors).

This version of the film, and Ronan’s version of Jo is so much a breath of fresh air for the character, it’s almost as if I’d never seen the character before now. I haven’t had as much time with the performance as I have some of the others on this list, but honestly, I feel like it could even go higher as time goes on. That’s how much I love it. I love her intense desire to be her own woman and be independent and not adhere to the norms of society, but also I love that she allows the character to show these intense moments of vulnerability. I can’t say enough about this performance, and I suspect I’ll find even more to say the more I have time to go back and revisit it over the years.

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