Mike’s Favorite Female Lead Performances of the Decade (10-1)

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:

10. Olivia Colman, The Favourite

This is the performance of that film. It’s engineered to be such, but nobody cares. It’s too great to matter. Weisz and Stone are both fantastic, but both of their performances only work if this one works. And boy, does it work. Olivia Colman delivers one for the ages here. And it’s instantaneous too. From that opening scene of her not knowing the country was still at war, to her screaming at the child (“How dare you?! Avert your eyes!”) to literally every other scene she has in the film. Somehow she’s a lead character who also manages to steal the movie. I don’t know how that is pulled off, but Olivia Colman does that in this film.

9. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

This is definitely also on the list of most iconic characters of this decade. There’s something so beautifully universal about her performance here. I said it when I first saw the film and it remains true — this is all of us at that age. In some way, it’s all of us. I am not a girl, nor did I grow up in Sacramento, nor is the film remotely representative of my experience in almost any way… yet I completely felt like that character was what I was at that time in my life. And that’s the beauty of the performance. It’s also a stunning piece of work. After a while, we’re all gonna start taking Saoirse for granted because of the home runs she hits every time out, but I’m gonna try to appreciate every single one of these great performances she delivers. She’s got, I think, four performances on this list for this decade? I hope she has eight next decade.

8. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

This one’s more about ‘most effective character of the decade’. Because who can forget this one? David Fincher is a master of casting. Having Rosamund Pike in this role is truly a stroke of genius. Because if you had a major star in the role, then you’d be watching the first half of the movie wondering, “There’s no way these flashbacks are just all we’re gonna get with her.” But Pike… who’s been around and feels like she’d get that sort of ‘murdered wife seen only in flashback’ kind of role… mostly you’re just wondering if Affleck did it and what the particulars are there. And then when the movie takes that turn in the middle, that’s when everything jumps up to a whole other gear. And it becomes the Rosamund Pike show. She’s so good as that character. It’s all so twisted and fucked up that it actually becomes funny by the end. To me, one of the greatest lines of the entire decade is at the end, when she tells Affleck she’s pregnant, as part of that chess game they’re playing once she comes back, and he calls her out and says he wants to get a blood test (because clearly the child isn’t his), and her response is a simple, “I love tests.” It’s the most unsettling, perfect line (and delivery) I can ever imagine. And that line is a prime example of why this performance ranks where it does on this list.

7. Natalie Portman, Jackie

I really wasn’t expecting this performance to be as good as it is. I went into the film knowing I’d like it, because it looked interesting and it looked like a good lens into a particular person and event I hadn’t seen before. And from the outset, in the trailers, you see Portman doing the accent and you think, “Okay, sure.” But man, by the end of this movie, you really feel like she’s Jackie Kennedy. It’s uncanny. I’m not the first person to run and praise Natalie Portman either. There are some actors I’m very willing to proclaim most of their performances as great, but with her… I’m usually more measured, for whatever reason. She’s usually very good in things, but I find that when she’s great, she’s really great. And this is one of those circumstances. I must have watched this movie about five times within the first six months of it coming out, because I just wanted to keep revisiting the performance and see how she played it. It’s a performance that’s so good, I don’t quite understand why it isn’t talked about as truly one of the best of the decade. People respect it and give it good notice, but I’m not sure most people are quite on the level I’m at with it. But hey, great is great.

 

6. Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

This is her best performance of the decade. Honestly, were she not up against Brie Larson that year, she’d have her Oscar already. This is… each actor tends to have that one performance of theirs from the decade that exemplifies their work above all others. In the 2000s, even though she didn’t do that much work that decade, it was Atonement. This decade, it’s this performance. Maybe over time, Little Women could overtake this, but if you’re looking for her best all-around work, this is the film. This is the one that elevated her to full ‘adult’ status. In terms of… she was still playing kids and teens before this (and still kind of after this, with Lady Bird), but this was the one that really marked that crossover into people being able to see her as coming into her own. Which is also an element of the character.

I’m sure people know about the film (it was only nominated for Best Picture, lest we all forget that), but it’s the story of an Irish girl who moves to America to start a life on her own. And we follow her on that journey as she ventures across the ocean on her own, goes to work, finds love, has severe homesickness, the whole thing. It’s a stunning film and an incredible performance from Ronan, who, as we all know, is always great in things. But here in particular, there’s a special level of greatness to the performance. You really feel everything she’s going through, particularly in the scene pictured above, when she finds out her sister’s died. That scene, to me, personified everything about the character: here she is, having been determined to follow her dreams and make a life of her own, but in an instant, every negative feeling that she had to hide comes flooding back. The guilt, the homesickness, the thought of, ‘this might not have happened if I didn’t leave’… she lands all of it. And she lands it throughout the entire performance. It’s performances like this that make her the best actress of her generation.

5. Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline

One of two performances in this top ten most people wouldn’t immediately recognize. Of course, anyone who’s followed this site knows how strongly I feel about this performance, and have since the moment I saw it. This was the single best performance of its year for me, and truly one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen.

The film is about a girl with a borderline mental illness (the kind like in Woman Under the Influence, a title I do not drop lightly, where you can tell something’s a little off about Gena Rowlands, but it’s not that type of performance either) who works in an improvisational theater troupe. And she takes her craft very seriously, to the point where, when the theater director begins encouraging her to put more of herself in the performance and the lines between acting and reality start to blur, it begins to take a toll on her sanity. In a weird, very indie way, it’s kind of like a Black Swan meets Whiplash. The theater director is slowly manipulating her to get the performance she wants while the girl is starting to lose her sanity in pursuit of her craft. But it’s not at all like either of those two films. That’s just the comparison for what the character is going through.

Howard gives a performance that is stunning. Rarely do you see an actor so free in how they approach something. I couldn’t take my eyes off anything she did, because I truly didn’t know what she was gonna do next or where each scene was gonna go. I suspect the film’s almost abstract tone (and ending) is what kept people from fully embracing the performance, but this is a situation where the performance is so good, I can’t not tell you it’s one of the best of the entire decade.

4. Brie Larson, Room

The trend with all the performances in this top ten is, as soon as you see them, you just know. There’s sort of that no-brainer quality to it. To me, that generally means awards and such, because that’s obviously where my brain goes, but in the broader sense, you just sense greatness when you’re watching it.

This is a film that sounded right up my alley, and I remember hurrying to see it at an advance screening. And I sat there stunned, because I truly did not know the type of film I was in for. And I came out saying it was one of the best films of that year (and that year is a great year for movies). And you just sort of knew immediately that Brie Larson had delivered something special.

The first half is great because you’re essentially watching two people confined to a tiny space living their lives. Larson has to be a mother to her child, who doesn’t know anything except this place, while also knowing that she’s a captive who is being raped by her captor and trying to navigate that whole situation while keeping her son safe and finding a way to get them out of there. But the real bulk of the performance comes after they get out, watching her adjust back to normal life, and seeing the mental toll it’s taken on her, even if she refuses to admit it. It truly is a stunning piece of work and there was really no scenario where this wasn’t in my top five for the decade.

3. Rebecca Hall, Christine

I still don’t understand why more people aren’t talking about this performance. This was, by far, the greatest performance I saw in its year, and still is something that I’m not sure most people even know exists. It’s just a stunning piece of work from Rebecca Hall.

The film is based on Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who killed herself live on the air in 1974. I almost hate to have to say that up front, since the movie builds toward it, but if I just said ‘it’s about a news anchor who struggles with mental issues while trying to advance her career’, it wouldn’t sound as interesting. And my goal here is to get people to see the performance. Plus, the minute you search for it, the real story is all over the internet. So just deal with it. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

What Rebecca Hall does in this movie is nothing short of brilliant. You really start to see the cracks show around the edges in the early stages of the film, and then you just can’t look away as she slowly starts to lose her grip on her sanity, building toward that big moment at the end. Honestly, catch me tomorrow, I’ll say this was my #1 performance of the decade, that’s how great it is. If you at all care about great acting performances, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not having seen this one.

2. Natalie Portman, Black Swan

That’s two in the top ten for Natalie Portman. Would not have expected that if you just asked me to approximate a top ten off the top of my head. But hey, she gave two all-time performances this decade. This is the one less likely to be argued with. She rightly won her Oscar for this and it remains one of the iconic performances of the decade. It’s a really intense, dedicated performance, the kind you saw and immediately recognize as great. Between the dancing, the body transformation and the utterly compelling version of a woman slowly losing her shit in the pursuit of perfection — honestly, this was almost my #1.

1. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I had to. I just… there’s something inherently powerful about this performance and the way she delivers it. From the opening scene, where she hatches her plan to the final moment, it’s just an incredible performance. I love that she’s a woman on a mission for the majority of the film, refusing to let her guard down in public for fear it might compromise her goal. And then you get those quiet moments where she allows the grief to seep through. Plus, it’s all mixed with some incredible scenes and moments, like the scene where she tells off the priest or the moment where she desperately tries to put out the fires on the billboards. It’s just an unforgettable piece of work that feels like the right performance to personify this decade in film.

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