Mike’s Favorite Female Supporting 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 supporting performances of the decade:

20. Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis

Not enough people talk about how good this performance is. Not enough people talk about how good she is. She hasn’t worked all that much — since An Education and her Oscar nomination, she was in 10 films. Which basically means, this decade, she was in 10 films. Most people have seen them all. And here’s the thing — she’s memorable in all of them. Wall Street 2 is the first one, and sure, maybe less memorable there because most people don’t remember the film. But then, Never Let Me Go, Drive, Shame, Gatsby, this, Far from the Madding Crowd (okay, maybe people didn’t see it, but you know the story at least), Suffragette (maybe also lesser seen, but the cast is such that people might have seen it), Mudbound and Wildlife. Honestly, I could have had her on my lists for half of those performances. She’s really great.

But anyway, this performance specifically. The film itself — aside from being perhaps the most underrated Coen brothers movie of all (and I’m someone who will defend Intolerable Cruelty to my death. I don’t need to defend Burn After Reading anymore, I think people have finally come around en masse to that) — is largely centered around Oscar Isaac. And with good reason. But also, there’s this parade of cameos that take attention away from her, it feels. Timberlake as a star is taking a lot of attention on that alone. But Adam Driver, Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman — they all get remembered. People kind of gloss over her. But she’s incredible here. Singing aside, those scenes where she’s just dryly miserable and angry at Isaac are just perfect. Because you understand everything about their relationship from that. She hates him, but she still sleeps with him every once in a while, and she hates that she feels that way about him. But also, they’re cordial and still get coffee and talk. It’s such a great piece of work. And I know the Coens always give people great material to work with, but I feel like Mulligan is adding a lot of subtext with how she plays it, and that, to me, is what makes the performance as great as it is.

19. Julianne Nicholson, Novitiate

She’s already been featured on this list once before, and I was screaming to the heavens (I guess that counts as a pun, given the film) about how good she was in this movie. Of course, all anyone saw her in the year this came out was I, Tonya. But this was the performance for her. It’s an incredible piece of work. The film is Margaret Qualley as a girl in the early 60s who decides to become a nun. And Nicholson plays her mother. And you get a great sense of her character at first — she’s constantly bringing home different boyfriends, has a pretty laissez-faire parenting style (but is still a fine mother) and thinks the idea of going to church is a joke. But then her daughter gets super into it, so she has to put up with it. And you watch her grow as a mother over this whole ordeal, becoming increasingly worried for her daughter while also trying to support her in what she wants. She has some incredibly emotionally charged scenes in the latter parts of the film, as she only gets like, once a year to see her daughter (because the nuns are cloistered). And it’s like someone visiting a relative in prison. She does some amazing dramatic work here and it’s a shame no one saw it, because it’s the best work of her career and one of the best pieces of work all decade.

18. Emma Stone, Birdman

Kinda weird how this was the one performance where Stone solidified herself as an amazing all-around actress, and yet it wasn’t really hailed as that. Was it? She won an Oscar two years after this, but even when this movie came out and she got nominated for it, most of the attention was on the men. And at best it was, “Yeah, she was really good.” This wasn’t hailed as, “Oh my god, what incredible work. She can do everything.” Because she’d really only done comedies and rom coms before this. The most dramatic she’d gone was The Help, which… yeah. This is a huge change of pace for her, and one that weirdly she didn’t go back to all that much since. Pretty much just Battle of the Sexes. Though I guess that (and even The Favourite) and this to an extent are kind of comedies. I don’t know where I was going with that, but the point is, she’s amazing here. She’s got some great scenes and completely holds her own even though her character does get sent to the sidelines for a bit more than maybe it should.

17. Berenice Bejo, The Artist

I love this film. I love this performance. She’s a great dramatic actress in her own right, but here, she just exudes the perfect energy to play the aptly-named Peppy, the aspiring actress who befriends George Valentin right as the transition to sound happens and her career rises while his falls. She has some incredible moments in the film. The ‘dance off’ behind the screen is amazing, as is the moment with the jacket. It’s hard to talk about a silent performance because you don’t see them anymore. And it’s all there on the screen, visually. It’s a different dynamic than a standard performance. But just watching her, you can see that it’s an incredible piece of work. She conveys emotion really well, and mostly just lights up the screen with her charm, which is exactly what the film and character require.

16. Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

My, how everyone’s forgotten about this one. Remember 2014, when the dozen of us who saw this film/performance were screaming about how she should have been nominated for it? And guess what? She wasn’t, and then the film got forgotten and this performance got forgotten. Some of us remember both, but it’s kinda nuts how limited that scope is in the broader sense. She’s so great in this movie, playing Oscar Isaac’s wife, who is a much stronger character than a typical ‘wife’ role might suggest. She gets some of the films meatiest scenes, and leaves an impression long after the film is over. One of the most underappreciated performances of this decade.

15. Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell

Simple — she’s everyone’s grandmother. Doesn’t matter that she’s Chinese, doesn’t matter that she’s speaking Mandarin and the film takes place in China. You watch her on screen and that, in some way, feels like all of our grandmothers. It’s an incredible piece of work to be able to play something like that. You can play a grandmother, sure. But rarely do you watch a performance that manages to go so universal that she feels like we could call her up on the phone anytime because she’s part of our family.

14. Joan Allen, Room

It’s kind of a small performance, but it lands volumes above most others. She plays Brie Larson’s mother, and isn’t even in the first half of the film, essentially. The first half takes place entirely in Room and then is the escape. We see her briefly rushing into the hospital, but her scenes really don’t begin until Larson and Tremblay get sent home. And at first, her scenes are kind of low key. She gets some nice moments, but it’s not a very showy kind of role. But the strength of her and the performance all coalesce in one moment, which is when she gives Tremblay a haircut and he, out of nowhere, says, “I love you, Grandma.” And she just starts crying.I can’t watch that moment without crying, and it’s because of the character Allen created within the parameters of her screen time and the presence she exudes that make that work as well as it does.

13. Carey Mulligan, Shame

Our second Carey Mulligan performance in this article alone. This might be the best performance I’ve seen her give, next to (and maybe including) An Education. She’s so great here. She rivals Fassbender’s work in the film in every way. She’s the perfect counterpart to him, as his sister. He’s this internal guy with a porn/sex addiction, but mostly keeps to himself a lot. She, meanwhile, doesn’t have the addiction, but is very outward and sexual. It’s like, the ultimate temptation for him, were she not his sister. And she also perfectly encapsulates this unspoken trauma or whatever it is that made them both the way they are. It’s a fantastic performance, and such a fascinating character. That moment when she sings “New York, New York” is one of the most vulnerable pieces of singing/acting I’ve ever seen.

12. Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

We all know Alicia Vikander because of this movie. She had like four this year, but this is the one that made her a household name. I’m not sure there’s a person who doesn’t love this performance. Because it’s just incredible. She’s playing a robot, essentially. And the idea is that Domhnall Gleeson is gonna talk to her as part of a Turing test to see if artificial intelligence can pass as human. But of course the idea isn’t even just that — she’s so human that she’s able to manipulate him. And it’s great seeing the performance unfold, as Vikander and the film twist and turn us to the point where things become murky as to motivations and what’s really going on. It’s truly an amazing piece of work.

11. Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

She’s so great. In everything, but also very much here. She’d sort of taken a back seat after she won her Oscar. Remember in the 2000s when she was everywhere in seemingly turning in amazing performance after amazing performance? Honestly, since 2008, most people will have trouble naming five movies she’s been in. And then if I told you that you had to take out the Divergent movies, it would be even more difficult. And while she was in Labor Day, which no one saw, and Carnage, which no one really saw, and Contagion, which is more of a supporting part, this was the one that brought her back into the fold, where we all remembered, “Oh yeah, she’s like, one of the best actresses we have.” Here, she plays Joanna Hoffman, one of Jobs’ executives and basically his right-hand woman, who keeps his life in order and is there to sort of take him to task when he’s being out of line. While most people in the film can and do talk back to him, she feels like the one who has the most license to, and the one he’d listen to the most. It’s a really great performance. You can see so much about this woman in the way Winslet plays her, and a lot of stuff you pick up about her isn’t even verbalized in the script. It’s just there on screen because of the performance. This is probably my favorite supporting performance of that year. It’s incredible.

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