A character known as "Mad Molly" sort of demands to be played in a scenery chewing way, and that's exactly what Judy Davis does in The Dressmaker, but in a skilled fashion that not a lot of actors can pull off. Few can go "big" while still being sincere and grounding the character in some emotional truth, but Davis does it with her portrayal of a woman who was basically driven crazy, robbed of everything that mattered, outcast and treated like the town joke, left to languish in filth. The turnaround she makes during the course of the film is subtle, built incrementally scene by scene by Davis as her character redeems herself and helps give her daughter the power to give their hometown exactly what it deserves.
They say that comedy is hard, and part of the reason for that is that people take it for granted. Great dramatic shows of pain or anger tend to get equated with "great acting" more than sunniness and optimism, which is what Emma Stone has to play with in the majority of La La Land. She's a dreamer, still pursuing her passion even though she can't manage to get her foot in the door, but beneath the smile is someone for whom uncertainty has started to creep in. Just because she loves it, does that mean she's good at it? Maybe she's not, and in the moment when she acknowledges that - a quiet moment, almost an aside - Stone reveals whole new depths to this character we thought we already knew. And then she brings it home with a song
The Handmaiden isn't exactly a comedy, but it is funny in a very savage way and Kim Tae-ri is the beating heart of that darkly comedic bent. As the pickpocket who thinks she's a much smoother operator than she actually is, accidentally falls for her mark, and ends up on the receiving end of a double cross, Kim is pitch perfect. Like her costar Kim Min-hee, she has to play the role in a couple of different ways to fit the shifting perspective of the storytelling while still anchoring the character in something consistent, and she does it marvelously, making for one of the most skilled and engaging performances of the year.
The Girl on the Train is a trashy bit of cinematic business, but you wouldn't know that from Emily Blunt's performance. Blunt never treats the material as anything less than worthy and her portrayal of a broken woman who has retreated so far into alcoholism that she may never get out, full of rage that she can't account for and despair that she can't escape, is breathtaking. The best scene in the film is perhaps its simplest: Blunt sits on the train drinking from her bottle of water and a woman sits next to her with her baby. As Blunt begins interacting with her, the woman realizes that she's drunk, that the bottle is full of vodka. As Blunt realizes that the woman knows, the flash of shame, pain, and apology that comes across her face tells you more about the character than any single line of dialogue in the film.
Moonlight is all about a young man named Chiron as he struggles with his identity. One of the things he struggles with is his mother, whom he doesn't particularly understand and whom he is effectively abandoned by as she descends into drug addiction. As his mother, Naomie Harris delivers a performance that leaves you wishing for a whole other movie just about her character, appearing first as a harried seeming nurse just trying to make things work while she raises her kid on her own, and then with every subsequent scene showing her coming apart a little bit more at the seams. When she shows up in the film's third chapter, having finally started to conquer her demons but forced to reckon with the fact that she can't undo the damage she's done in the past, it makes for one of the film's most powerful scenes and best exchanges.
Anti-heroes are everywhere you look in fiction, men who don't play by the rules, aren't there to make friends, and whose very flaunting of the moral codes by which things supposedly get done is exactly what gets them results. Women very rarely get the same opportunity to play characters who are unrepentant in their ruthlessness, unconcerned with whether or not they are liked, at least without being punished for or having it explained away as a result of trauma. Jessica Chastain's eponymous character in Miss Sloane is a bitch. She's short-tempered, willing to exploit those around her at the drop of a hat, and cold to the touch - it's just the way that she is and neither the character, nor the performance, tries to apologize for that. Even when the film itself starts to go off the rails, Chastain's performance is never less than absolutely compelling.
Arrival is at once a grand story where no less than the fate of the world is at stake when aliens mysteriously land several crafts in countries across the world, and an intimate story of grief in which a woman grapples with the loss of her daughter from a genetic disease. In a performance that navigates both stories as they unfold concurrently before finally dovetailing in the finale, Amy Adams holds the film together. Her performance captures the wonder and fear of a person encountering extraterrestrials, the anguish of loss but also the happiness of having what came before that loss, and the drive and determination to find a solution to the crisis spinning out of control around her. Adams is one of the most consistently great actors working today, and her performance in Arrival is captivating.
The best dual performance since Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. As the heiress in The Handmaiden, Kim plays the mark whose destruction will make a conman and his partner rich... or does she? Portrayed as so naive you have to feel sorry for her in the first part, so devious you can't help but smile as she amuses herself stringing along her own mark in the second part, at once victim of circumstance, master manipulator, and a woman so abused into obedience that she almost can't bring herself to make her big escape, Kim creates a character who is something of a puzzle and brings those pieces together masterfully.
Because of the deeply intimate way the film is told, Jackie basically is Natalie Portman's performance. If she can't capture just the right mix of delicacy and strength, if she can't tap into the both the raw grief and the powerful self-command necessary to this particular story, then the film itself is lost. Portman's portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in the wake of her husband's assassination is absolutely riveting as she struggles to comprehend what has happened, fights to keep control of the funeral and burial, and engineers a legacy for her husband - and for herself. It's a career defining performance.
As a wife and mother trying to mediate the tensions between her husband and son, Viola Davis' character is the glue that holds her family together, but there's more to the character and the performance than that. The driving force of the second half of the film is her realization that she's given everything to her marriage and been taken for granted, that she's seen her relationship as a partnership that has built something, while her husband has increasingly come to see it as failure, as having settled for less than what he's owed. The character's rage and pain come easily, it's the complex set of emotions that come later, as the characters navigate the scorched earth of this once seemingly sound marriage, that elevates it to something more powerful than any other cinematic performance this year.