The term "It Girl" was created for silent star Clara Bow but had The Artist been released in 1927, rather than simply being set in that year, the term could have just as easily been created for Berenice Bejo. As rising starlet Peppy Miller, she lights up the screen, showing an aptitude for physical comedy but also for quiet (no pun intended) drama. The scene in which playacts using George Valentin's jacket is one of the film's most charming moments and her chemistry with the equally fantastic Jean Dujardin is off the charts.
In her breakthrough performance as the survivor of a cult, Elizabeth Olsen pretty much ensures that she can never be thought of as "the other" Olsen sister. Her absolutely captivating performance never takes the easy way out, allowing Martha to be a victim but also allowing her to be kind of nasty on occasion, testing your patience with her. The performance is nuanced, making Martha a character who at once knows how destructive her experience in the cult was while also continuing to hold on to some of the values she adopted there. It's marvellous work from an actress I suspect will give many great performances in the future.
Jane Eyre is one of those ubiquitous characters who pops up every few years because the source material has no copywrite and, therefore, anyone can make a film version of it. This should of course lessen the impact of the story and the character - I mean, how much is really left to be said about either? - and yet Mia Wasikowska manages to find new dimensions to explore. She captures Jane's passion and fierce independence while also allowing her to be vulnerable and her scenes with co-star Michael Fassbender are electrifying.
Charlize Theron's Oscar winning performance in Monster was often referred to as "brave" for the physical transformation she underwent. To my mind, however, her performance in Young Adult is much braver because it gives her nothing to hide behind. Her character, YA author Mavis Gary, is pure acid, a magnificently unlikeable woman perhaps best described as mentally unstable, but Theron's performance never goes over the top. As a matter of fact, I think hers is one of the best portrayals of addiction ever played out on screen precisely because she allows it to underline many scenes rather than making it the point of every scene. As far as I'm concerned, this is her best work to date.
Minny Jackson is a character who might easily be reduced to the comic relief sidekick. The script provides all the elements for her to be that kind of character, but instead Octavia Spencer creates an actual human being out of her. She gets some of the film's best lines, and enjoys some of the film's greatest moments of triumph, but her struggles remain very real, particularly the conflict within herself between saying what's on her mind and the knowledge that to make ends meet, she may need to bite her tongue. The character is sometimes her own worst enemy, but the performance is pitch perfect.
Could there be a more daunting task than playing Marilyn Monroe? Whatever that indescribable "it" is that the greatest movie stars possess, she had more of it than just about anyone before or since. Michelle Williams doesn't opt for doing a mere imitation of Marilyn; she gets the mannerisms down, but she also digs deeper, bringing the icon down to earth just enough to make her compelling as a person. Does she have that certain magic that Marilyn possessed? Not entirely, but then again, who does? The performance is great nevertheless.
Okay, maybe this is cheating, but when it comes to the two lead performances of Melancholia, it's nearly impossible to think of one without the other. The story is structured so that its two parts - one named for (and defined by) Dunst's character, the other for Gainsbourgh's - are symmetrical and as a result, the performances themselves feel symmetrical as well. The two actresses build off of each other, slowing switching places in the dynamic that exists between their characters. None of this is to say that either performance couldn't stand alone - both women are fantastic in this movie - I just can't pick one over the other.
You expect nothing less than greatness from Meryl Streep and you get nothing less in The Iron Lady (despite the fact that the film tends to careen across the screen - review pending). It's difficult to make a figure as controversial as Margaret Thatcher seem even remotely sympathetic, but Streep does it and she does it without sacrificing some of Thatcher's harder edges. It's a performance that is sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny, and sometimes moving, and certainly well worth seeing.
Let's lay aside the unfortunate fact that the best role in 2011 for an actress of color was playing a maid. When an actor brings as much dignity and power to a role as Viola Davis brings to playing Aibileen Clark, it's slightly easier to overlook that rather troubling issue. In her performance, Davis never allows Aibileen to become a disenfranchised victim, instead making her the most extraordinary kind of hero: the one whose greatest weapons are their own integrity and strength of character.
Binoche. Binoche. Has she ever been less than great in anything? Here she plays a woman unfulfilled and taken for granted by the man in her life and, in a twist that makes it more intriguing than your typical domestic drama, Certified Copy leaves it open to interpretation whether the man that she spends the film with is the same man with whom she's in a relationship. Binoche must turn on a dime, selling us on the idea that they're strangers for the first part of the film and then making it believable that they've long been married by the end. But it's not just her ability to shift so suddenly that makes the performance great; it's her ability to make you invest so thoroughly in a character who, by the very nature of the story, you can't ever truly know.