Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Actress

There is very little certainty in this year's Best Actress race, outside of the Top 2, which keeps things exciting - and potentially devastating. Just the way I like it. It's been called a "weak" year for female performances, but with this line up of contenders, I can't agree. What they do lack is a clear frontrunner, but that's the case in all the major categories this year, except Best Actor.

1. Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
On the back of massive box office and surprisingly solid reviews for The Hunger Games, the extremely likable, down-to-earth and hard working (these things matter in an Oscar campaign) Ms Lawrence is still a sure thing as a damaged, impulsive, mildly manipulative nymphomaniac with a heart of gold in David O'Russell's Silver Linings Playbook. For a while, she's been the one to beat for the win, but she's got tough competition in Jessica Chastain's intense, Zero Dark Thirty military operative (combine Chastain's Maya & Lawrence's Tiffany and you've pretty much got Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison on Homeland), and the heavily overdue Naomi Watts doing suffering & maternal in The Impossible.

Lawrence is great in Playbook, though. She brings an unapologetic, fiery chaos to the part that often catches you off guard and adds grim truthfulness to what could have been another feisty, adorably troubled fantasy girl (Reese Witherspoon already showed how easy it is to win an Oscar by shouting some common sense and throwing stuff around because you love a difficult man). Playbook is both a comedy and a drama and Lawrence excels at both without compromising either. She gives her character real backbone and at least sells the idea that Tiffany and Pat are rescuing each other from themselves. Personally, it feel like, at 22, Lawrence may still be too young for her Oscar, but hey, Audrey Hepburn kicked off her career with an Oscar at the tender age of 24 for Roman Holiday, and Lawrence is already a respected, and now bankable, name in Hollywood.

She also has the Weinstein Company Oscar mojo behind her, which worked a charm for both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in O Russell's The Fighter just two years ago, and her film remains at least an outside contender to win Best Picture, which never hurts.

2. Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Expectations for Zero Dark Thirty built to fever pitch while it was still shrouded in secrecy. Since it's big reveal, it's bowled over critics, briefly became the Juggernaut frontrunner for Best Picture and Best Director, and with it Best Actress, and was promptly shot down with grim and fervent accusations of being torture porn. Only time will tell if Zero Dark Thirty and Kathryn Bigelow can survive the backlash but, for now, Jessica Chastain remains a strong threat for the big prize. The film revolves entirely around her character's determination and focus in a decade-long struggle to bring down Bin Laden. By any accounts a true American hero, but bearing all the predictable brunt you'd expect a woman in that position to get (some of which Bigelow is getting now for telling her story). She may be less lovable and explosively expressive than Lawrence's Tiffany, but she charts the intense, thankless journey of a tenacious woman with all the brilliance you'd expect of 2011's Wunderkind. Which brings us to the other reason she's still a real threat to win - in 2011, Chastain went from relative obscurity to critical darling and Oscar nominee by turning in no less than seven diverse and brilliant performances, from the bubbly / tragic Celia Foote in The Help, to the embodiment of maternal Grace in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and a fantastically devoted small town wife in Take Shelter, there's no doubt Chastain got everyone's attention, and she's sealed the deal with one of 2012's most significant female leads  

3.  Naomi Watts - The Impossible
With a quick succession of nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, Watts went from being a dark horse to a lock almost overnight. And it's about time. Watts has been a perpetual also-ran for her brilliant, brilliant work in King KongThe Painted Veil, Eastern Promises, Fair Game & Mother and Child, not to mention her astonishing breakthrough in Mulholland Drive, so she is hugely overdue for some Awards attention. Say what you want, awards mean credibility and new opportunities - sure you get your Halle Berrys and, I'm sorry to say, Gwyneth Paltrows & Natalie Portmans, who follow their Oscar wins with their worst work ever, but you can't deny the difference an Oscar made to the calibre of parts offered to, for example, Nicole Kidman, Helen Mirren or Marion Cotillard. Watts has earned great respect as an actress and this year she has a meaty role as a Tsunami survivor facing her own mortality while trying to care for her son long enough to be reunited with the rest of her family. Given the fascinating journeys Watts has taken us on in past films, it's kind of a bummer that she'll likely be entering the Oscar race again doing the grief and agony thing she did so well in 21 Grams, but with Angelina Jolie trumpeting her film and Reese Witherspoon comparing her performance to the epic performances of Sophie's Choice (Meryl Streep) and Norma Rae (Sally Field) in an open fan letter to Entertainment Weekly, Watts is clearly doing something right. With Lawrence and Chastain likely dividing votes, Watts could emerge as a final stretch winner (a la Adrien Brody) on the strength of her great body of work. Or, more likely, they may wait til next year when she plays Princess Diana.

4. Marion Cotillard - De Rouille et d'Os (Rust and Bone)
Cotillard delivered arguably the female performance of the last decade as Edith Piaff in La Vie en Rose and rightly sidelined the lovely Julie Christie to claim the first Best Actress prize for a foreign language film since Sophia Loren won for Two Women in 1962. Since then, she's turned in classic supporting perfomances in Nine and Inception and played a pivotal role in a little movie this year called The Dark Knight Rises. All this to say that Cotillard has done well since joining the rank of Oscar winner.

This year, she makes a strong bid with an intense, complex performance as a sexy whale trainer trying to find herself again after being paralysed in a horrible accident in Rust and Bone. Rust is the latest from French master Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, The Beat that my Heart Skipped), so expect no sentimentality here, just complex humanity. It's a searing performance in a strong film, by all accounts, but there's no getting around the fact that it is a performance that requires non-french-speaking audiences to read subtitles, which apparently remains a detractor and means that, for the most part, her performance is the main reason most voters will be seeing the film in the first place - as opposed to Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty which are essential viewing in any case - which in turn puts high demand on word of mouth spreading from early adopters. She's landed nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, so there's every reason to think she's made her mark and, if enough people see her film or at least hear about it, it seems impossible she'll be overlooked. It doesn't hurt that she's hot as hell and takes her clothes off - it worked a charm for Kate Winslet.

5. Quvenzhané Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Eight-year-old Wallis is nothing short of astonishing as a miniature firecracker soaking up every last spark of life in her ramshackle, occasionally flooded community. She melts into the poetry of director Benh Zeitlin's breathtaking vision when she needs to, nails all the emotional bits, and owns it all when she rises up to claim her place in the Universe.

Keisha Castle-Hughes proved with Whale Rider that unknown little girls could become Best Actress contenders, but Wallis' particularly young age has prompted questions over whether her tour-de-force is really to her own or director Benh Zeitlin's credit. There's plenty to give Zeitlin credit for in this brilliant little film but, for my money, Wallis' performance is her her own and she's left an indelible mark on Cinema in 2012. In any case, you could argue that most great film characters are equal parts the creation of actor, director and writer. Beasts continues to be a Best Picture contender, even if it remains an outsider, so Wallis' performance should continue to bowl over voters.

6. Emmanuele Riva - Amour 
From the youngest to the oldest, eighty-five-year-old French cinema veteran Emmanuele Riva looks primed to have the year's most lauded, iconic and overlooked performance to her name as a woman facing the ravages of mortality and old age in Michael Haneke's masterful Amour. What a bummer that there are two brilliant french performances in the running in the same year. Critics groups, rightly guessing that there is space for only one subtitled performance in this year's line up, all but sidelined Cotillard in favour of promoting Emmanuele Riva's performance in Amour. After Lawrence and Chastain, Riva's was the most cited and awarded performance of the season. But when it came to the first precursors (SAG, Golden Globes), Riva was out and Cotillard was in. Critics fail. Two french performances is asking too much and, regrettably, history tells us that young, hot and exciting beats mature, dignified and masterful nearly every time. Amour continues to be the foreign film to beat in 2012, but unless Riva manages to out Cotillard or convince the Academy to make history by giving two of their five actress slots to the French, Riva's is the performance critics and bloggers will be wailing, lamenting and moaning about the morning after the Oscar nominations.

7. Helen Mirren - Hitchcock
Mirren has made a career being brilliant at many things, among them a particular knack for essaying historical women: a resilient Queen Charlotte in the shadow of Nigel Hawthorne's mad King George; a Elizabeth I of great stature for the BBC; a perfect, tricky Elizabeth II for Stephen Frears in The Queen & Tolstoy's melodramatic other half in The Last Station. This year she adds Alma Reville, Hitchcock's overlooked significant other, both in life and career, to her resum√©, and rises admirably to the occasion. Either Wallis or Riva feel like more exciting nominees, but you can never count out Dame Helen, and she's gotten the required love from the Screen Actor's Guild and Golden Globes so far (keep in mind, though, that Wallis was not eligible at the Screen Actor's Guild as she is, um, not a member of the Screen Actors Guild).

The fun of watching the Awards race is not really who makes it to the final five, but rather the worthy contenders who get left in the wings. For whatever reason, these ladies did standout work that just didn't build the momentum to take them all the way. Check them out, though, and remember them:

8. Rachel Weisz - The Deep Blue Sea
Like Naomi Watts, Weisz' second Oscar nomination is hugely overdue. She has been nothing but brilliant and vital in everything she's done since winning her Oscar for The Constant Gardner, but very rarely in films that came into the Oscar conversation. The Deep Blue Sea - an arty British indie - is not such a film, but with the New York Film Critics sidelining all the big contenders to award her their Best Actress prize, Watts became a dark horse contender, and the Golden Globes kept her in the conversation by naming her one of their five Best Actress in a Drama contenders. With most of the overdue actress buzz falling to Watts so far however, Weisz' little seen turn as a married woman driven mad by a passionate affair in 1950s England seems likely to remain another in her respectable collection of close calls.

9. Emayatzy Corinealdi - Middle of Nowhere
Best Actress winner with the Gotham Awards and African American Film Critics, and nominee at the Independent Spirit Awards and Image Awards (winners pending), newcomer Corinealdi's performance as a woman deciding whether her future will or will not include her incarcerated husband, is written to defy stereotype and is generally lauded as one of the most thrilling performances witnessed this year. Oscar often makes space for significant, under-seen independent performances, but Corinealdi is up against the far more talked about Wallis and Riva.     

10. Michelle Williams - Take This Waltz
As a happily married woman flirting with infidelity, Williams undoubtedly gives one of the performances of the year - male or female - in Sarah Polley's tricky, emotionally intricate relationship drama. This is honest, ordinary life, tough going, but Williams' performance is extraordinarily layered and in the moment. Another landmark for an exceptional actress. The San Diego Film Critics named her Best Actress of the year and the Detroit Film Critics nominated her, but her film is still very much under the radar.

11. Keira Knightley - Anna Karenina
For whatever reason, Knightly is a divisive talent, and her frequent collaborator director Joe Wright's bold creative choices on this adaptation of Tolstoy's classic novel have proved equally so. She got stellar early reviews as the complex, not entirely likeable Anna Karenina, also driven dotty by a passionate, controversial infidelity, but even Knightley's past snubs for Atonement and A Dangerous Method weren't enough to earn her anything more than a Golden Satellite nomination. And no one pays attention to the Golden Satellites. But at least some notice for her performance is on record as she continues to try and get the Academy to take her seriously. Incidentally, despite its literary stature, none of the six cinema performances of Anna Karenina have ever resulted in an Oscar nomination.  

12. Mary Elizabeth Winstead - Smashed
The Phoenix Film Critics and Independent Spirit Awards nominated Winstead's performance as a happily married alcoholic woman struggling with the effects her decision to come clean has on her family and social life. No melodramatic stuff, just understated nuance.