In The King's Speech Helena Bonham Carter does not just deliver a supporting performance, she delivers a supportive performance. There is little glory to be gained in playing the character who holds the protagonist's hand and then holds her breath, but Bonham Carter delivers a really solid, understated and effective performance.
Carey Mulligan's character in Never Let Me Go is the pillar of strength around which the story is built. Playing the character from teenager (lovelorn but not desperate, clever but not meanspirited) to adult, she infuses her with warmth, maturity and intelligence. The characters in the film are considered something other than human; the humanity of Mulligan's performance belies that theory.
Julianne Moore has to cover a lot of bases in The Kids Are All Right, her character alternatly flaky, lonely, guilt-ridden and anguished as the story progresses. Her character is, I suppose, "the bad guy" but Moore brings such vulnerability to the performance that it's difficult to see her as the villain. Her passionate, moving speech at film's end is one of the many highlights of the piece.
One of the most overlooked performances of 2010, Naomi Watts' portrayal of Valerie Plame is a performance that is going to be worth revisiting in the next couple of years. She portrays Plame as a strong, principled woman, so dedicated to her work that she's reluctant to fight back even in the face of betrayal by the government she has served so faithfully for so long. It's a less is more performance and its impact is great.
I don't know that any performance in 2010 had more pluck than that of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. Playing a character of determination, intelligence and authority beyond her years, Steinfeld more than holds her own opposite co-stars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. She's definitely an actress to watch out for in the future.
As The Ghost Writer's Lady MacBeth figure, Olivia Williams delivers a chilling and brilliant performance. Her character is one of the film's central mysteries and perhaps its most compelling, thanks in no small part to her incredibly skilled and very intriguing performance. If you haven't seen The Ghost Writer yet, you're really missing out.
Ree Dolly is a young woman who can do anything because, against all odds, at her core is a determination that cannot be beat. When she tells the Sheriff that she'll find her father, we feel confident that come hell or high water, she'll make good on that promise. The strength that Jennifer Lawrence brings to this character is what carries the film; it simply would not work without that quiet sense of authority that she brings to the role.
Tilda Swinton is pretty much always a good bet and her performance in I Am Love is fantastic. Playing the Russian-born wife of an Italian businessman who is reawakened to the possibilities of life by a younger man, Swinton infuses the role with vulnerability and an intense sensuality. It's a beautiful, at times heartbreaking, performance.
Arguably the most intense performance of the year, Natalie Portman's portrayal of a ballerina swiftly descending into madness is absolutely brilliant. Black Swan is a film that unsettles the audience, leaving us consistently uncertain as to what is reality and what is fantasy, and Portman's performance keeps us off balance, careening from one extreme to the other and back again. Her final words are "It was perfect." There's really no better sentence to describe Portman's performance.
Annette Bening's Nic is a character with high expectations of others and she can sometimes be very tough on the people that she loves. She's a hard character in many respects, unyielding, and yet there is also a core of vulnerability that gradually becomes more and more apparent. Bening's best moments are those when she simply reacts, betraying the emotions that Nic might prefer to keep hidden. For me, this was the most compelling performance of 2010.