The 10 best female performances of 2011

The 10 best female performances of 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

Acting! It’s perhaps the most subjective craft in the entire moviemaking process. What better way to celebrate its unquantifiable nature than by ranking our favourite performances of the year? Look past the inherent ridiculousness of comparing a batch of boisterous bridesmaids with sisters awaiting the end of the world and join us in congratulating some of the finest actresses working today. Each of these performers have created something unique, indelible, and wonderful. No matter the type of role they played, or the genre in which their film falls in, they helped contribute to an excellent year in cinema. Good on them!

Check out the top 10 male performances here!

First, the honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter, Jessica Chastain in The Help, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, Cecile de France in The Kid With A Bike, Jennifer Ehle in Contagion, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia, Rachael Harris in Natural Selection, Sally Hawkins in Submarine, Miranda July in The Future and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre.

10. Elle Fanning in Super 8

Elle Fanning gave one of the best supporting performances of 2010 in Sofia Coppola‘s Somewhere, perhaps second only to Rooney Mara‘s brutally underappreciated appearance in The Social Network. In 2011, she almost equalled it with a single sequence in J.J. AbramsSuper 8. Playing a budding actress, Fanning delivers one of the year’s most affecting moments via monologue in the film within a film. It precedes a spectacular train crash, but her speech was likely responsible for far more shivers up spines.

9. Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy

In Abbas Kiarostami‘s Certified Copy, Binoche plays an art lover who offers to take an author (William Shimmell) on a tour of Tuscany. Somewhere along the way, the two strangers get their identities tangled up and begin to treat one another as bitter husband and wife. Or are they strangers? Regardless of the answer to Kiarostami’s puzzle, Binoche devastates and provides laughs in equal measure, reminding us why she’s one of the world’s greatest.

8. Viola Davis in The Help

The Help is filled with wonderful actresses, though none impress more than Viola Davis as the sad-eyed nanny and housekeeper Aibileen who cares more for her baby charges than their own mothers. She leads a pack of ladies that could have comprised a fairly impressive ‘top 10 female performances’ list on their own.

7. Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life

There aren’t so much performances in The Tree of Life as there are ethereal presences; but few are as mesmerising as Jessica Chastain’s! Though she could have rightfully earned a place here for her turns in Take Shelter or The Help (see our honourable mentions), it was as the angelic figure at the centre of Terrence Malick‘s magnum opus The Tree of Life that made the biggest impression. She seemed to come from nowhere in 2011. Now that we’ve found her, I hope she never goes away.

6. Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin

It’s telling that Tilda Swinton’s worst role is the one that earned her an Oscar in 2007 (Michael Clayton); even in that, she’s still pretty good. In We Need To Talk About Kevin - a flick for which she’ll likely win her second Oscar – she’s spellbinding. Told from the delirious perspective of a grief-stricken mother dealing with the knowledge that her son is a monster, Swinton brings humanity and honesty to one of the year’s most stylistically alienating pictures.

5. Leila Hatami in A Separation

Leila Hatami is the second party in Asghar Farhadi’s impeccable divorce drama A Separation, opposite Peyman Moaadi (our #3 male performer). Considering she plays a wife who abandons her husband and his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, you would think her character, Simin, would be fairly unsympathetic. Not so. This is an emotionally complex and humane movie, and much of that is thanks to the actors. We’ve only recognised two of its stars, but there are many more who deserve acclaim. (A Separation opens in Australian cinemas early 2012. It played at the Melbourne International Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival.)

4. Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids

Comedy fans have been waiting for Kristen Wiig to break into the big-time since she debuted on Saturday Night Live in 2005. But how could anyone have possibly predicted that the woman behind Gilly, Virginia Horsen, and the tiny-handed Lawrence Welk singer Dooneese would write and star in a smash as big as Bridesmaids, and give us a performance that is both hilarious and heartbreaking? Next up: the Garth and Kat movie (we pray).

3. Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia

This one was a surprise. Kirsten Dunst returned from a self-imposed hiatus to play a young bride suffering from crippling depression in Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia (also, the world is ending, but that’s by the by). Many films about mental illness feature tic-heavy and twitchy performances, but Dunst’s is perfectly calibrated. It’s her best ever. Her second best? Reacting to Lars’ ‘I’m a Nazi’ comments at Cannes. Still funny!  (Melancholia opens in Australian cinemas December 15, 2011.)

2. Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene

It’s a prerequisite to mention that Elizabeth Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. That won’t be the case for long, however, thanks to her star-making turn in the disturbing Martha Marcy May Marlene. Olsen plays three variations of the same girl, an escapee from a sex cult and its imposing leader (John Hawkes, our #8 male performer). Throughout the pic, her paranoia grows and her psyche shatters. It’s hard to watch, but Olsen is undeniably magnetic. (Martha Marcy May Marlene opens in Australian cinemas January 19, 2012. It played at the Melbourne International Film Festivaland Sydney Film Festival.)

1. Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids

Breathing life into a comic character can be just as difficult as portraying mental illness or soul-crushing guilt on screen. Based on the trailers for Bridesmaids, it seemed Melissa McCarthy’s flatulent Megan would be an interminably groan-inducing caricature. Instead, she revealed herself to be the big heart in the middle of one of the year’s sweetest pictures. McCarthy was gifted with the funniest lines (“I swear to God that dolphin looked not at me, but into my soul”), and she still managed to build a real, lovable, endlessly surprising character around them. It takes a lot of comic energy to steal a movie from the brilliant cast assembled here, but McCarthy has it in spades. We don’t want a sequel. We want a Megan-centric spin-off.

Discuss: OK, who did we miss?

2 Responses to “The 10 best female performances of 2011”

  1. The year is not over yet… will you not consider Meryl Streep and Glenn Close?

    • I wasn’t able to check out ALBERT NOBBS before publishing, but I can promise you that Meryl Streep’s turn in THE IRON LADY was not at all considered here. That film … yikes.

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