Mike’s Favorite Female Lead Performances of the Decade (20-11)

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:

20. Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Right, though? How great is everyone in this movie? I always seem to come out on Weisz third among the three because I feel like her character is already established so much of what she’s doing is just trying to maintain her status. I love how she plays it, though, and the performance is amazing. It reminded us all of how amazing she is, since she had a few years there where she wasn’t really in stuff like this that let her ability shine properly.

19. Emma Stone, The Favourite

You kind of have to put them back-to-back. They’re both so great in this movie. I prefer Stone slightly more than Weisz, but they’re both incredible. I only make the distinction because I have to.

I love watching her go from victim/survivor to someone who is going to get ahead at all costs. The transformation really tracks, and the way she plays it is just so wonderful.

18. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

She is just a dynamo on that screen. Sometimes a performance is measured by how much it overpowers you and makes you go, “Oh my god.” You just see it sometimes. It’s just sheer force of energy and star power that’s being exuded, and this is one of those times for me. We all knew who she was because of Winter’s Bone and X-Men and Hunger Games, but aside from the one indie performance, we never really saw what she was fully capable of. And I think this was the eye-opener for us all.

She really just explodes off that screen in a big way. Such a big way that you don’t really know too much about her character or anything like that. I always think that as I watch the movie. She just takes such command of the movie that even though the movie kind of explains the backstory and all that… it’s really pretty bare, and she’s so good that it doesn’t even matter. It’s hard to not be impressed by what she does here… especially that scene in the living room. How great is that scene? That scene alone is worth a high place on this list.

17. Aisling Franciosi, The Nightingale

My favorite performance of its year. Franciosi absolutely blew me away with her work in this film. I went in expecting to like it because of the director and instead came out raving about the actress.

The film takes place in 19th century Tasmania and is about an Irish convict who is kept essentially as a servant to the British army. When she tells the commanding officer her sentence has been paid and asks for a letter of release… bad things happen. And then even worse things happen. And the rest of the film is this woman, having lost everything, going out into the wilderness to hunt down these soldiers and murder them for what they’ve done. And there is just an intense single-mindedness to this performance that I just was not able to shake. Franciosi is absolutely incredible here and delivers an unforgettable performance that should turn her into the next great star.

If you want to know just how great she is in this performance — her next role is in a BBC miniseries version of Black Narcissus, in which she’s playing Sister Ruth. Now, if you’ve seen Black Narcissus, you’ll know… Sister Ruth… not just anyone gets that part. That’s how good an actor she is.

16. Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth

This is the film/performance that gave us Florence Pugh. And it wasn’t long before she took the world by storm with a slew of great performances. But this is the first one. This was where that train got started.

The film is not based on Shakespeare, but instead based on a Russian novel. Pugh plays a woman essentially sold into marriage to an older man. And… after some tense first weeks as a new wife, her husband suddenly and without warning leaves for a long stretch of time, seemingly to never come back. And during that time, she finds herself with a growing attraction to a farmhand on the property. And that of course leads to an affair, which leads to her blossoming as a woman and as a person, which then leads to her husband returning and throwing everything into flux. And… well, let’s just say there’s a real growth to this character. She definitely ends up in a vastly different place, emotionally, from where she starts.

It’s impossible to watch this film and not sit up when watching Pugh’s performance. You immediately know she’s a star, and she delivers one of the most unforgettable performances you’ll see. Everything about this shows what kind of an actress she is and offers you tantalizing glimpses to the promise she’s now showing us in all the other work she’s doing.

13. Emma Stone, La La Land

I love her in this movie. And I can’t fully explain why. It’s a combination of both star power, acting ability and singing ability. And while there are performances lower on this list that I could point to as being ‘technically’ better and all that stuff… but there’s a feeling I get when I watch her in this movie that I can’t describe. You just want to keep watching her. It’s really that audition scene that seals the deal for me. That one-take song where she’s just singing her heart out and baring everything about her character in that one moment. That’s everything in a nutshell for me about why I love the performance, the film and Emma Stone as an actress.

14. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hopefully it speaks volumes about what I feel about this performance that Noomi Rapace had just played this exact character two years prior to this film coming out — really well, mind you — and I still would rank this performance where I rank it. It’s rare to have a character that fresh in your mind and then see someone else play the exact same story. But the way both actresses play the character is very different, and those differences are why I feel each version stands on its own. Mara in particular… there’s a vulnerability to the character that I just didn’t feel when Rapace played her. The character is really strong on its own, and most actors could have a great go at it. But the way Mara plays her really landed for me.

13. Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

This was her FIRST MOVIE. She’d done nothing but shorts and two small bits on TV episodes before this. And I always ask myself with performances like this in Coen brothers films… is it them or is the actor just really good? And fortunately, having had a decade of performances from Hailee Steinfeld now to back this up… it’s both.

True Grit is a great novel and has led to two great films. This one in particular, though, really leans into the Mattie Ross character, which the original only partially does, since the original is basically the John Wayne show. Mattie is the main character of the story, and this film shows you that. Steinfeld is incredible here, as a headstrong woman who is determined to avenge the death of her father at all costs. And in the early scenes, you see how that headstrong nature helps her (the bartering for the horse, crossing the river, etc), but then, as the danger becomes more real and she begins to wade deeper into those waters, you start to see how she might not be fully prepared for what she’s set herself out to do. The encounter with Chaney at the river is evidence of that. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the character, that moment. Where she’s finally faced with the moment of finding and killing the man who’s the reason for this entire journey.

Steinfeld is just incredible in this film, which features great performances by Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon alongside her. Which is crazy to me, that she’s next to these two great actors and manages to deliver the type of performance that stands alongside them, despite never really having acted before on this level. It’s a great piece of work.

12. Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project

I’m constantly amazed when child actors turn in truly remarkable performances. Because almost always, no one really knows who they are beforehand, and then they suddenly get careers afterward, and start popping up in more and more things. But, you realize… there aren’t a lot of great roles for children out there, so when you see them in schlocky studio stuff, it only makes the work in that film that made them break out stand out even more.

This is a Sean Baker film, and his talent is finding non-professional actors and giving them these incredible boundaries to play in and craft these completely realistic characters. This film in particular is essentially the Brooklynn Prince show. She plays a young girl living in a motel with her mother just minutes from Disney World. And the film is mostly about her daily existence, wandering around the grounds of the motel with other kids who live there and nearby. It’s a performance that sneaks up on you with its simplicity. But by the time you get to that final scene where all the emotion comes pouring out… it’s hard not to feel something.

11. Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

I constantly struggle when famous singers get acting roles that require them to sing, because I’m never sure just how much of the performance is based on the singing portion of the performance or the actual acting. I think I’ve finally reached the age where — I don’t care. I take the performance as it is and think, “Do I believe this?” And in this case… I very much believe it. A Star Is Born is one of those movies where I know the story inside and out, having seen it four previous times before this was made (three by the same name and one that’s essentially the same thing). So I knew what I was getting with this performance by and large. And I knew that no matter what happened in the dramatic sections, Gaga would wow us all with the singing, since while her music is more pop-oriented, she is an incredible singer.

I’m still not totally sure where I come out on the dramatic portions of the performance. To an extent, I feel like certain aspects were made easier for her and it’s not the most technically incredible acting performance. But again… I’m kind of at that point where I don’t care. The performance affected me the way all the other ‘Star is Born’ performances affected me, and I wholly believed the character. And honestly, that’s really all I care about anymore. It’s a great piece of work.

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