Awards season reduces a lot of people to smiling objects, but actresses experience this dilemma worse than most. No other field places greater pressure on the potential winners with veiled misogyny disguised as expectations of politically correct behavior: If they don’t dress nice and talk pretty, they don’t get a prize. Not for nothing are all the major candidates for the best actress Oscar this year previous winners.
But there were a lot of movies released in 2013 with outstanding female leads whose work either exists outside of these conversations or defies them. I’ve assembled the following ranked list with an eye for the range of movies featuring great women performances — which are perhaps best described as just great performances, period.
Zach Clark’s sad, subversive Christmas tale about a woman whose husband is abruptly murdered before the holidays manages to transform into an alluring black comedy because Hollyman, in the lead role, makes the potentially bizarre equation seem real. As her character gets drawn into a black comedy of encounters, including an offbeat friendship with the stripper her husband secretly loved and a neighbor’s disturbing sex parties, Hollyman comes across as both innocent and defiant of the grief haunting her in ever corner. Clark develops an unexpectedly somber and curiously witty narrative about the process of emotional recovery that’s ironically in tune with the Christmas spirit it cynically picks apart. But while that’s a fun idea in theory, it’s Hollyman who truly brings it to life.
9. Sharni Vinson, “You’re Next”
Adam Winegard’s tense home invasion shocker was a midnight movie hit on the festival circuit in 2011, but finally made its way to theaters at the end of the summer — and the wait was worth it. Among the many survival movies released this fall (“All Is Lost,” “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips,” “12 Years a Slave”), Winegard’s story of a posh family suddenly assaulted by masked invaders offers the most unapologetic fun. And that’s largely due to Aussie actress Vinson, who plays the date of one of the young men whose parents inadvertently host the horrors unfolding in their mansion.
The murderers didn’t count on outback veteran Erin’s fast-paced survival skills. Setting traps and taking advantage of her environment (a kitchen blender has never been used this creatively), she keeps the masked killers on their toes and nimbly shifts the power dynamic, upending the mysterious scheme behind their attack. It’s a wildly entertaining performance of superhero proportions.
8. Mary Margaret O’Hara, “Museum Hours”
The real discovery of Jem Cohen’s first narrative feature (after years of experimental documentaries) is Bobby Sommer as middle-aged museum guard Johann, whose low key gig at Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum allows him to befriend the distant Anne. But Canadian singer O’Hara holds her own as a woman of the same generation who’s in town to deal with her cousin’s debilitating illness. Sensing Anne’s isolation in the big city, a physically overwhelming sensation that reflects her inner turmoil, Johann quickly forms a bond with the woman and keeps her company around town. O’Hara’s tender performance highlights the cathartic power of art, as she turns to the paintings as well as the city’s architectural wonders in search of uplift. Never remotely showy, her subtle delivery imbues Cohen’s cerebral approach with a haunting emotional foundation.
7. Rooney Mara, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
Vaguely set in the 1970s, David Lowery’s expressionistic crime saga falls in line with a tradition of filmmaking that favors mood over all else, but Casey Affleck and Mara — in a pair of focused, serious-minded turns on par with their best work — bring a credibility to their characters that elevates the high-stakes proceedings to an involving drama. As an escaped criminal eager to get home to his wife and child, Affleck is impressively tense, but Mara stands out for the balance she strikes between being a soft-spoken victim of her surroundings and a fiercely protective mother. The character forms a notable contrast to the energetic qualities Mara brought to her roles in “The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” In “Saints,” her presence has a nuanced, lyrical dimension on par with the otherworldly atmosphere, while at the same time bringing a clarity to the stakes at hand. Hardly a damsel in distress, she brings a semblance of hope to the otherwise gloomy scenario, transforming it into a moving story of survival.
New York filmmaker Dan Sallitt, whose has been making under-appreciated character studies for years, uses a dialogue-heavy approach necessitates strong performances. They carry particular weight in “The Unspeakable Act,” a remarkable showcase for newcomer Tallie Medel. The actress plays Jackie, the angst-riddled, virginal 17-year-old middle child of an upscale single parent Brooklyn family who harbors an unhealthy attraction to her older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). Rather than exploit this risqué scenario, Sallitt takes it at face value, assuming his protagonist’s perspective and using her fixation — more than a taboo, it’s just a bad idea — to tell a uniquely compelling coming of age story.
Referring to her desire to indulge in “the ‘I’ word,” she constantly voices her reservations over feeling attracted to anyone save for her brother — not only to the man himself, but also her oddly withdrawn mother, a savvy therapist, and us, in a muted voiceover commentary that shows just how restricted her worldview has become. The wild-eyed Medel suggests a young Christina Ricci, but Jackie exists in a class of her own: Her affluent background allows for a character both wise beyond her years and hopelessly trapped in them. “I’m prematurely old,” she whines — but unlike, say, Juno, she’s not snarky about it. There’s an intensity to Medel’s performance that makes it both creepy and totally authentic at once.
5. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Woody Allen famously — or some might say infamously — avoids giving his actors much advice. In “Blue Jasmine,” that plays into his favor, as Blanchett single-handedly takes control of the movie and directs herself. The story features the actress as the spoiled housewife of a wealthy Madoff-like schemer (Alec Baldwin) who commits suicide in prison. “You hire her and get out of the way,” Allen said in a widely circulated interview, although he’s actually done the opposite: Constantly framing her in extreme close-ups, he places her skill under the microscope, and Blanchett ably meets the challenge. Tasked with a throwaway line involving the ordering of a Stoli martini with a hint of lime, she conveys shocking depths of sadness with the slightest twitch in her eye. Later, conveying a panic attack during the scene that recounts the end of her marriage, she delivers an intensely physical expression of her rage. Blanchett appears in almost every scene and frees it from the limitations of Allen’s style, pushing it to far sharper results than any of the more traditional movies, good and bad, that he’s churned out in the past dozen or so years. She owns it.
4. Berenice Bejo, “The Past”
Ahman (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris from his native Iran four years after separating from wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) in order to finalize their divorce. He finds the family at an uneven crossroads: While Marie plans to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), Lucie (Pauline Burlet) — her teen daughter from an earlier marriage — maintains distance from her mother, frustrated by the older woman’s string of fleeting romances. Initially it seems as though Ahman exists at the center of this drama, until all the puzzle pieces become clear, and we understand that he’s merely an observer of it. Bejo, however, buries memories of her giddy turn in “The Artist” with a fiery, assertive performance secretly at the root of the story. Inhabiting a role originally intended for Marion Cotillard, Bejo tows a fine line between credible fragility and melodramatic overstatement, particularly during the handful of shouting matches between the two older men in her life that kick the emotion into high gear. If her destructive tendencies seem at times overstated, she’s also the evident victim of other agendas, including those of her angst-riddled daughter and husband-to-be. Like the window wipers superimposed over the title card, “The Past” involves a constant process of demystification for everyone involved. Bejo is the catalyst for making sure that process barrels forward.
This was a good year for Larson, who appeared in three well-received titles: “The Spectacular Now,” “Don Jon” and “Short Term 12.” But it’s only the latter title, a remarkably believable dose of sentimentalism from director Destin Daniel Cretton, where she really stands out as the key ingredient that holds the entire picture together.
To date best known for her role on the now-defunct “United States of Tara,” Larson delivers a tremendously involving turn as Grace, the young supervisor of the eponymous foster care home drawn into the distinctive needs of various patients while maintaining a warm relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr., subdued but equally believable). Behind closed doors, they engage in charmingly believable romantic chatter, but when among the patients they display a different sort of passion subtly realized over the course of a patiently constructed narrative. More than anyone else, however, Grace emerges as the most complex focal point, as a women driven not only to help others but to help herself overcome the demons of her past that led her to take on this work in the first place. At one point, she champions a commitment to “talk about what’s going on inside your head.” But Larson’s textured performance makes it possible to consider her character’s thoughts even when she’s completely silent.
2. Paulina Garcia, “Gloria”
There was no bigger discovery at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival than Paulina García, star of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s competition entry “Gloria.” If García isn’t your average young newcomer, that’s part of the point: Her electrifying performance in “Gloria,” for which she won the festival’s Best Actress prize, finds her playing a 58-year-old divorcee coping with the advent of a midlife crisis as she falls into a questionable romance with a man her own age. The role finds García in frequent closeup, displaying a physical intimacy rarely seen with actresses her age in contemporary movies.
Anchored by Garcia’s nuanced performance, the movie explores the heroine’s fragile state of being with extraordinary astuteness. It’s an open-ended question whether Gloria ever finds the happiness she seeks while dodging the current of middle-aged isolation, but her constant search is a valiant and deeply involving one.
1. Adele Exarchopoulos, “Blue is the Warmest Color”
The story of the sex in “Blue is the Warmest Color” often threatened to overwhelm the many accomplishments of this tender love story, chief among them the discovery of its young lead. Exarchopoulos delivers a bold, thoroughly credible breakthrough performance at the movie’s center, portraying her character as a woman trapped by the mixed messages around her. Sex is less the main ingredient in “Blue is the Warmest Color” than the overall ways that physicality impacts romantic attraction. While Lea Seydoux complements Exarchopoulos’ journey with a spunky alternative to the younger woman’s hesitations, it’s ultimately Adele’s show. Striking a tone between shyness and blind curiosity, she’s the main reason why anyone assailing “Blue” for turning its characters into targets of the director’s lust weren’t paying attention for most of the movie. This isn’t a coming out or a coming of age story in any traditional sense — it’s just Adele’s story, and we experience it with her because Exarchopoulos makes the role so genuine.