I watched “Black Swan” recently and thought Natalie Portman’s performance was the best I had seen in quite some time. It made me look back and re-evaluate other performances from the past decade.
(I know, it’s technically been 11 years, but using 2000 as a stopping point for this project was much easier than 2001, so bear with me).
So here are what I believe are the top 10 female performances since 2000. I’d love to hear what other people have to say, whether you agree or disagree.
10. Viola Davis – Doubt (2008)
I remember when “Doubt” was about to be released, the film’s advertising campaign centered around it’s star-studded cast. Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman were sure to make this film a huge success, right?
Well, technically yes. But who knew it would be the little-known Viola Davis who stole the show? She probably saw less screen time than any other actress on this list, but absolutely stole every scene she was in.
9. Penelope Cruz – Broken Embraces (2009)
Like Winslet, it was tough to chose just one film my Cruz. She gave at least four great performances over the past decade (“Volver,” “Vanilla Sky” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” are the other three that immediately come to mind), but I ultimately went with “Broken Embraces” because of the level of difficulty that came with this performance.
Like several actresses on this list, Cruz transforms in this film from a nobody to a star and you can see her character change drastically as time goes on.
Cruz’s character is dramatic by nature, but the scenes she employs never are. You believe every bit of what she is doing.
8. Catalina Sandino Moreno – Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Perhaps the least known of anyone on this list, Moreno’s performance works because of the fear of the unknown.
Moreno’s character epitomizes the struggle for survival and the need to do whatever it takes to get by. You see her struggle with certain decisions in her life, but you see through her actions that survival is the No. 1 goal.
There isn’t a time during this film where Moreno takes over with an impassioned speech or defining stand against authority, but there doesn’t need to be. Her character is just simply trying to survive and make money, and that’s all she does.
7. Gabourey Sidibe – Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
I feel as if I was in the minority about Sidibe’s performance last year, but in my eyes, she was the easy choice for Best Actress over Sandra Bullock or any other contender.
Sometimes it’s better to do nothing that to do too much, and that’s what Sidibe does in this role. You can see her struggle with her adolescence, her abusive mother and father, her ability to fit in at school. You can never quite tell what she’s feeling, but that’s the point of the performance. Precious’ character is obviously tragic, but you never get a feel for what she’s thinking (aside from the inner monologue), and Sidibe’s performance is beautifully subtle in pulling that off.
6. Meryl Streep – Adaptation (2002)
It’s no surprise that Streep was fantastic in “Adaptation”. She’s arguably the greatest actress of all time.
But Streep’s performance is unique to anything else she’s done in her latter years. Her performance is all about finding something to be passionate about and she sells the performance despite seeming like a strange choice for this role.
Streep’s body of work is what makes her great, but it’s performances like this that show her true talent and how broad her horizons can be as an actress.
5. Kate Winslet – The Reader (2008)
It took me a while to decide which Winslet performance to go with on this list. Between “The Reader” and “Little Children,” I ultimately decided on “The Reader” because of the rarity of such a role.
At the beginning of the film, Winslet is a strange woman you know little about. You hardly catch any glimpses of her as the relentless Nazi guard, but by the end of the film you almost sympathize with her fate.
She hardly cries out for innocence, but you can see the remorse in her eyes. You never know if the remorse is because of what she did, or because of the fate that awaits her. It’s an incredibly complicated role that only Winslet could pull off.
4. Julie Christie – Away from Her (2007)
As has been the theme throughout this blog, it’s the subtleties of Christie’s performance that make it work so well.
It may be tough in a film to make the audience believe there is real love transpiring. Perhaps tougher is the task of making an audience believe you have no feelings for someone you are supposed to love. That’s what Christie does.
As Alzheimers takes over her body, Christie drifts from her husband and becomes affectionate toward one of her fellow nursing home mates. The performance isn’t about her, but about the disease, and that becomes painfully obvious as the film moves along. It’s a beautifully sad effort.
3. Ellen Burstyn – Requiem for a Dream (2000)
One of the most overlooked performances in recent memory is likely because she wasn’t one of the two or three principle characters in the movie. But the fact that Burstyn got a Best Actress nomination in 2000 is a credit to how powerful her performance was.
The majority of Burstyn’s scenes in “Requiem” were by herself, slowly going insane over an obsession over weight loss and a TV contest. As a viewer, you see the cycle her character has caught herself in, but it’s a highly complicated role because of the agonizing cycle of emotions she goes through.
She’s a normal single mother who is worried about her son’s drug habits, but soon becomes enthralled in her own drug habits, just of a completely different nature. It’s an insane cycle that makes for a rare performance that won’t soon be duplicated.
2. Natalie Portman – Black Swan (2010)
When compiling rankings based on the emotion of a recent performance, it’s difficult not to get swept up in the power of “now.” After all, Portman’s performance is the most fresh in my memory of any of these 10 performances. But just because it’s recent doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive.
Without giving too much away, there is a point toward the end of “Black Swan” where you look at Portman and have to think back to what her character was like an hour and a half ago. You realize that the character you see on stage is completely different than the one you saw at the beginning of the film.
Couple that with the difficulties of dancing (according to IMDb trivia, Portman performed most of the moves herself, and suffered several injuries throughout filming), as well as the way she pulled off playing a character nearly 10 years younger than her, and it’s tough to rank many performances higher than this. Which is why I ranked only one.
1. Marion Cotillard – La Vie en Rose (2007)
2007 was the year of “Juno” and everyone was going crazy about Ellen Page in her performance. Few people had seen “La Vie en Rose,” a French biopic centered around singer Edith Piaf.
Most pundits went the way of the trendy pick that year, expecting Page to run away with the award. As one of my movie-loving friends put it prior to the awards “Marion Cotillard does more acting in one scene of ‘La Vie en Rose’ than Ellen Page does in all of ‘Juno’ put together.”
He was absolutely correct. Cotillard captured every bit of Piaf’s emotion in an incredibly complicated role. Some may say it’s tough to fake an accent or learn how to sing or dance for a role. All of that is true, but to fake emotion, love, hatred, fear, joy, takes a subtle skill that isn’t always appreciated. Likewise, Cotillard played Piaf from her youth to her death, and was believable throughout. A rare accomplishment.
Carey Mulligan (An Education, 2009); Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, 2009); Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married, 2008); Rosemary Dewitt (Rachel Getting Married, 2008); Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, 2007); Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal, 2006); Maria Bello (History of Violence, 2005); Felicity Huffman (Transamarica, 2005); Amy Adams (Junebug, 2005); Julie Delphy (Before Sunset, 2004); Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby, 2004); Uma Thurman (Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, 2003-04); Naomi Watts (21 Grams, 2003 and Mulholland Drive, 2001); Emily Watson (Punch Drunk Love, 2002); Salma Hayek (Frida, 2002); Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball, 2001); Juliette Binoche (Chocolat, 2000); Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, 2000); Bjork (Dancer in the Dark, 2000).