Thursday, December 17, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Lead Actress Performances

1. Liv Ullmann - Scenes from a Marriage

There's a scene early in Ingmar Bergman's movie where the camera stays on Liv Ullmann's face for minutes on end, as she's mostly silent. It's one of the great shots in cinema not because of its visual invention, it's a rather mundanely framed shot, but because of the extraordinary nature of Liv Ullmann. Bergman loved faces, and Ullmann's is expressive, but obviously hiding many things under the surface. We can tell immediately that things are wrong in this outwardly happy marriage. As the movie goes on, Ullmann's performance grows and deepens as her character matures. It's my favorite performance I've ever seen from an actress and I think really can be felt by seeing the movie better than it can be explained with words.

2. Meryl Streep - Sophie's Choice

Almost an afterthought because it's the best performance from our best actress, but still. This is extraordinary work from Streep. She takes us through the trauma of the titular choice (as a concentration camp prisoner she's made by an SS officer to choose which one of her two children will be allowed to live) to the recovery and attempt at life years later. The accent is wonderful, allegedly even speaking Polish accented German, but I obviously can't verify that. But it's what's going on underneath that elevates this performance into the realm of must see and all-time great.

3. Marion Cotillard - La Vie en Rose

Marion Cotillard's star making performance in La Vie en Rose is one of the times I was totally bowled over by the all encompassing brilliance of an actors work. The movie as a whole is just good, but every frame is worth watching for Cotillard, who takes us through the life of legendary singer Edith Piaf. She goes through seemingly every emotion possible, and takes us pretty much through the entire adult life of the great singer. It's a life filled performance in every possible way, and even with Cotillard's Oscar win, I think this performance is underrated.

4. Q'Orianka Kilcher - The New World

Although she has continued to act, we haven't really seen Q'Orianka Kilcher since The New World, and that's a shame because she gave one of the great performances in Terrence Malick's lyrical take on the Pocahontas story. Kilcher is staggering in the growth she shows on screen, starting out as a curious teenager connecting with Colin Farrell's John Smith, they end up sharing their language and hearts with each other before Pocahontas grows up to marry Christian Bale's John Rolfe and eventually become a young mother and aristocrat in England. That Kilcher was just 14 or 15 when she did this work makes it even more amazing. I wrote when I first saw it of Kilcher's "startling depth" and I haven't stopped feeling that way.

5. Ingrid Bergman - Notorious

I could've easily gone with Bergman's great turn in Casablanca, but her better work is in this Hitchcock masterpiece. As the drunken beauty with a checkered past and Nazi family ties, Bergman is extraordinary. She believably falls for Cary Grant, and we sit frustrated as he pushes her away on assignment to infiltrate Claude Rains' uranium enriching former Nazi. She goes along against her better judgment, while Grant resents her for playing her part well and doing what he told her to. We see her internal conflict as she gets subtly poisoned and more wearied each time she and Grant meet. Though Grant's character is the one of action, his work and the success of the movie overall wouldn't happen without Bergman as the centerpiece.

6. Brigitte Mira - Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

The newest (to me) performance on the list, Mira's work as the 60-ish German woman, Emmi, falling in love with 35-ish young Moroccan Ali really blew me away. To see her in the beginning, a conservative widowed cleaning lady, probably given up on life sexually only to be awoken by the connection she immediately shares with the strapping Ali, it's really terrific work from the actress. And then as writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder doesn't just give us a simple love story, but adds the complexity of the racism against the couple, the shock of the age difference, and the difficult reality they face if they want to stay together. When Emmi breaks down at the restaurant and says she wishes it were just the two of them in the world, we feel the desperation of this woman who had given up but now has a chance at real, true, unfiltered happiness and struggles against the world who doesn't approve of her life and desires. It's great and unforgettable work from Mira.

7. Bibi Andersson - Persona

Hard to separate this performance from that of her co-star Liv Ullmann, as in my mind they're playing the same character, but Bibi Andersson was always the less renowned of Ingmar Bergman's great leading ladies and her work in Persona is really tremendous. Watching Alma go from sort of wide eyed and happy, to euphorically sexy, confused, vindictive, and so much in between is really one of the great joys of Bergman's masterpiece of a movie. It's a two hander, and if one side falls down in such a situation the whole movie is ruined, somehow Andersson not only doesn't fall down, she transcends and elevates. Her ethereal beauty can't overshadow the brilliance of her performance.

8. Kim Novak - Vertigo

Sometimes overshadowed by the extraordinary work from co-star Jimmy Stewart, and by her iconic director as well, Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo is really one of the sadly under appreciated great pieces of work from an actress. So much more than the icy blonde Hitchcock presents her as, in the dual performance as Judy and Madeleine, Novak adds startling depth and nuance to the character that isn't there on the page. Her yearning for the love and approval of the man she unexpectedly falls in love with, as he tragically falls into madness, is the best work Hitch ever got from an actress, despite their contentious working relationship.

9. Kate Winslet - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This was a performance it actually took me a while to appreciate. I connected so heavily to Jim Carrey's Joel that I overlooked Kate Winslet's performance as Clementine. But the more I've watched this masterpiece of a movie the more intrigued I am by Winslet's character. Her free spirit, intelligence, beauty, all the things that made Joel fall for her, but also Winslet's ability to flawlessly portray Clem's confusion, spitefulness, and other qualities that made her a bit of an enigma. Winslet, of course, is one of our great actresses. And although she has a wide breadth of great characters, and this isn't her showiest work, I think it's her best.

10. Julie Delpy - Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight

Okay, definitely cheating on this one but I love Julie Delpy's creation of Celine too much to choose which movie she was best in. The performances are all so specific to this character at these certain times in her life. The romantic Celine in Before Sunrise, the more cynical Celine years later in Before Sunset, and the struggling against the trappings of normal life Celine in Before Midnight. Delpy, working opposite Ethan Hawke, has come up with a fascinating look into the complex mind and heart of a character who grows and changes and develops in wonderful ways. Unprecedented in its return to its characters (co-written by Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater) every 9 years, I hope we get to see Delpy continue this development, as Celine is one of the great characters in cinema, and Delpy's performances are the big reason why.

Don't forget to check out Clint's blog, Guy with a Movie Blog,with his top 10 Lead Actress Performances too.

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