Received wisdom says that most years, including this one, the Best Actress field of contenders for the Oscars is “weaker” than their male counterparts, with a fairly limited group of possibilities who are plausible nominees. To which we can only say: horseshit. Every year, but this one in particular, we watch scores of fine female performances be overlooked because they’re in small indie movies or because they were overshadowed in reviews by male co-stars or because they’re not Meryl Streep.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve suggested some out-of-the-box possibilities for voters in the various acting categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor), but it was so much more difficult to pare down our list for Best Actress, which makes it so much more baffling that Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench have been the preordained five for months. Once you take a look at the list below, you should agree that there’s room for some surprises in the category, and you can make the case for your own favorites in the comments section.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – “Enough Said”
Though she’s a giant star on TV, (most recently killing it with Emmy-winning effect on “Veep“), Julia Louis-Dreyfus has never really broken through in the movies. She’s had some notable roles, most notably in a pair of Woody Allen films, “Hannah And Her Sisters” and “Deconstructing Harry,” but in general has stuck to the small-screen, with her last live-action appearance coming in the second Allen picture in 1997 (she lent her voice to “A Bug’s Life” the year after, and “Planes” earlier this year). But if Nicole Holofcener‘s “Enough Said” proves anything, it’s that Louis-Dreyfus deserves to be on the big screen far, far more often. As Eva, the divorced masseuse who strikes up a new friendship with poet Marianne (Catherine Keener) and a new romance with charmingly schlubby TV archivist Albert (James Gandolfini), only to discover that the new people in her life used to be married, Louis-Dreyfus certainly brings the skills that she’s honed over two decades of sitcoms: her dazzling comic timing is more in effect than ever. But there’s a weight and verisimilitude to the turn that reflects both her more textured turn on “Veep,” and the humanism of director Holofcener’s earlier work, which means that the character never becomes too broad. Louis-Dreyfus finds real pain in her somewhat awkward, but loving relationship with her college-bound daughter (Eve Hewson), and real joy in her coupling with Gandolfini, the two sharing more chemistry than screen couples half their age did. Awards talk for the film has focused on Gandolfini, but even if she’s not recognized beyond the Golden Globes, we hope it’s given Louis-Dreyfus more of a taste for the movies from here on out.
Greta Gerwig – “Frances Ha”
There have been many great performances in movies this year, but Greta Gerwig‘s in Noah Baumbach‘s “Frances Ha” is slightly different—more so than any of her potential rivals, she is the movie. As excellent as the work is of likely nominees like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or Emma Thompson in “Saving Mr Banks,” you could swap them out for Angelina Jolie or Meryl Streep (as was the original plan for the two films, respectively), and the movies still work. But a “Frances Ha” without Greta Gerwig is unthinkable, providing the defining showcase for one of the great lights of independent cinema of the last decade or so. Co-written with director Noah Baumbach, the film’s tailored neatly to Gerwig’s persona, to the extent that many will underrate what she’s doing. Because it isn’t simply a question of capturing herself, but creating one of the more compelling characters of the year, a young woman who’s deeply likable, but is clearly very much a work-in-progress, sometimes self-defeating or even self-destructive. For all of her upbeat energy, Gerwig can effortlessly show, in the third act, how life is getting Frances down, which makes her eventual low-key triumphs—her own apartment, fulfilling creative work, a steady desk job—all the more moving as a result. It’s simply a gorgeous piece of work, and it’s a crying shame that it’ll be overlooked by the Academy (even the Indie Spirit Awards ignored her turn).
Brie Larson – “Short Term 12”
I mean, Jesus. Honestly. What’s the point of even holding an awards ceremony in the year 2013 if you’re not going to recognize one of the standout performances of the last twelve months? It’s not to say that Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep et al aren’t deserving, but the slim likelihood of recognition for Brie Larson‘s thunderbolt of a performance in indie sleeper “Short Term 12” is the sort of thing that makes us want to tune out every ceremony between now and the end of February. Larson’s been an actress of clear promise for a little while now, with striking turns in the likes of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” “Rampart” and “21 Jump Street,” but they barely hinted at the kind of range and depth that the 24-year-old actress demonstrates in Destin Daniel Cretton‘s film, as Grace, the supervisor of a foster-care facility with her own troubled history in the system. Seemingly playing older than her years, there’s something deeply selfless and maternal about Grace, but with actual motherhood fast approaching, and a reminder of her own childhood popping up in the face of fiery abuse victim Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the solid, responsible sense of composure falls away to reveal the fiery, fragile person underneath. Larson has to turn on a dime to pull off the many different facets of the character, and does so without the strain even nearly starting to show. The film has its issues—a screenplay that sometimes feels like it’s been screenwriting-manualed to death—but among an impeccable cast, it’s Larson that truly lifts it up.
Adele Exarchopolous – “Blue Is The Warmest Color”
It would be so easy for “Blue Is The Warmest Color” to be overshadowed by the endless chatter around it—the Spielberg-endorsed Palme D’Or win, the explicit sex scenes, the feuding between its directors and stars. That it can stand away from those elements is a testament to the extraordinary performances from its two leads, and in particular from newcomer Adele Exarchopolous, as protagonist Adele. Exarchopolous was only 18 when the film shot, with only a handful of performances behind her, so it’s not surprising that she’s enormously convincing as the younger version of Adele: hungry for life and love, searching out her place in the world, so full of longing that she might burst. Her chemistry with Lea Seydoux‘s Emma is immediate and palpable, to the extent that you wouldn’t dream of questioning the loss she feels later when the relationship is done. It’s in that latter section of the film that Exarchopolous really shines, though: skipping ahead several years to find the pair happy, settled but a little bored, the teenage actress is never less than entirely convincing as a twenty-something schoolteacher, the fulfillment of the promise that she held. Who she’s grown up to be is very impressive, but you can see why she starts to stray. And when she does, and it all falls apart, she pulls off one of the most painfully recognizable pictures of heartbreak we’ve seen in a long time, just about holding it together at work before collapsing on her own. Is it any wonder that Steven Spielberg‘s jury elected to give her and Seydoux their very own Palme D’Ors to go alongside the film’s?
Julie Delpy – “Before Midnight”
It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite from Richard Linklater‘s ‘Before’ trilogy as the films are so tied in with each other, each one growing in stature because of what came before, and retroactively, what comes after. But it’s probably fair to say that the performances have only grown in power, with “Before Midnight” seeing both leads deliver iterations of Jesse and Celine that are richer and more complex than those that came before. We praised Ethan Hawke previously, but as ever, Julie Delpy is delivering work that’s as good, if not better than her on-screen partner. Now over 40, Celine isn’t quite living the fairy tale: she has her daughters with Jesse (Hawke), but he’s still torn over being separated from his son by a previous marriage, and may have cheated on her. Furthermore, she’s on the brink of betraying her ideals to take a job with the French government. Since “Before Sunset,” Delpy made two couple-centered travelogues of her own, “2 Days In Paris” and “2 Days In New York,” and though those films are quite different, comedies owing more to Woody Allen than to Linklater, you can feel their influence in Delpy’s performance—there’s a certain neuroticism to Celine that’s set in with middle age that we haven’t seen from her before, as well as a savage, sharp wit that’s capable of truly wounding Jesse when she turns on him. Every time we see these characters, they become more and more fascinating—do the Academy really want to wait another nine years to honor Delpy?
Berenice Bejo – “The Past”
Given that recent winners have come from films like “Antichrist,” “Melancholia” and “Beyond The Hills,” it’s not a huge surprise that the person who takes Best Actress at Cannes rarely figures into the Oscar race (Penelope Cruz for “Volver,” in 1996, was the last time there was any crossover; before that, it was Brenda Blethyn in “Secrets & Lies” a decade earlier). But given that “The Past” is certainly less abrasive than the kind of thing you get from Lars Von Trier or Cristian Mungiu, we’re a bit disappointed that Berenice Bejo hasn’t gotten more traction than she has. The French actress was a delight in “The Artist” two years ago, but that barely even hinted at what she’s capable of in Asghar Farhadi‘s enormously powerful and humane follow-up to “A Separation.” Bejo plays Marie, who’s seek a divorce from her Iranian ex (Ali Mosaffa), so she can marry her new love, dry-cleaning-business-owner Samir (Tahir Rahim), whose child she’s having. Bejo subtly puts across how the guilt that the new couple share—for reasons we won’t disclose here—has tested and eroded their relationship, which is put further to the test by the return of Mosaffa’s character. But perhaps more impressively, she can lay claim to one of the most authentic portrayals of pregnancy ever seen on screen; fearful, lovelorn, glowing, and capable of losing control to her hormones more than once. It’s a fairly remarkable achievement, and proof that Bejo is capable of far more than being the silent starlet that she made her name on.
Rosemarie DeWitt – “Touchy Feely”
Last year, there was some minor awards buzz for Rosemarie DeWitt‘s performance in Lynn Shelton‘s “Your Sister’s Sister,” with the actress earning a well-deserved Spirit Award nomination for the performance. “Touchy Feely” didn’t prove nearly as popular with critics for some reason (it is, we suppose, far more idiosyncratic than its predecessor), but we think that it’s one of the more undervalued movies of 2013, featuring a brace of very fine performances, including DeWitt in a much-deserved lead role. She plays Abby, a masseuse (the second on this list, curiously), who suddenly develops an aversion to human touch, which, as you might imagine is something of a problem, both for her practice, and for her relationship with bike-messenger boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). It’s far from an easy character to pull off, but DeWitt is near-perfect in the way that she gradually feels more and more uneasy in her own skin, and there’s something incredibly touching (excuse the pun) in the way that she sketches a hippyish free spirit who’s suddenly turned in on herself. It’s canny casting (the role was created with her in mind), because DeWitt’s always carried an earthy sensuality to her performances, and so we’re struck by the way that it suddenly vanishes from her. The actress has consistently been a boon to anything she appears in, but if her and Shelton continue along this way, surely the Academy will have to start to pay attention.
Waad Mohammed – “Wadjda”
It’s been a fine year for child performers (we’ll be writing more about some of those soon), but the one that’s haunted us for well over twelve months is that given by the then ten-year-old Saudi actress Waad Mohammed in “Wadjda.” One of the major crossover foreign films of the year, Haifaa Al Mansour‘s debut focuses on the title character, played by Mohammed, a preteen in suburban Riyadh who wants nothing more than a bicycle, and so enters her school’s Koran recitation competition to get the funds. Listening to indie rock and wearing Converse to school, she could be the kid of hip Portland parents, but she’s in a country that’s oppressive to women, which makes her stance all the braver. Not that she’s a figurehead or anything—Mohammed gives her an innocence that makes it clear that she only wants to be able to do the same things that she can see her male friends doing. That said, there are real smarts here too—Wadjda is a born operator, wily and manipulative, who has most of the adults around her wrapped around her little finger. It’s a beautifully multifaceted performance, and coming from someone with almost no acting experience, it’s borderline astonishing. When the situation starts to change in Saudi Arabia, it’ll be because of kids like Wadjda, and like Waad Mohammed who lead the way.
Danai Gurira – “Mother Of George”
An award-winning playwright who’s appeared in the likes of “The Visitor” and “Treme,” but who’s best known as dreadlocked fan-favorite badass Michonne on “The Walking Dead,” Danai Gurira couldn’t be further from the latter in her hugely impressive breakthrough turn “Mother Of George.” In Andrew Dosunmu‘s follow-up to the underseen “Reckless City,” she plays a Brooklyn-based Nigerian woman, Adenike, married to the older Ayodele (Isaach De Bankole). Over a year on, however, she still isn’t pregnant, which threatens the comfort of the marriage, as her mother-in-law (Bukky Ajayi) starts to put pressure on her son to look elsewhere for someone to carry her child. The film is a complex and rich melodrama, and along with Bradford Young‘s stunning photography, Gurira is the very heart of it; she makes Adenike as warm as Michonne is chilly, who struggles with, but is somewhat in thrall to, the traditionalism of her culture, even as a part of her wishes to escape it. The script contrives to have her make choices that some might find unrelatable, except that Gurira makes her entirely relatable throughout due to her performance. Let’s hope that she’ll be back on the big screen before too long.
Rooney Mara – “Side Effects”
It’s only two short years since Rooney Mara wowed in one of the most sought-after roles for years, as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher‘s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” In that time, she’s rightly become one of the most sought-after actresses of her generation, and impressed in several roles this year, thanks to David Lowery‘s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and, albeit briefly, Spike Jonze’s “Her.” But the real keeper is her role in Steven Soderbergh‘s penultimate film, “Side Effects.” The movie itself was divisive, and probably rightly so (it’s uneven and a little silly in places, especially when Catherine Zeta-Jones starts gnawing at the scenery), but Mara’s turn is a multi-layered wonder. Somewhat reminiscent in its conceit of Edward Norton‘s breakout in “Primal Fear,” Mara has a tough task on her hands—she has to show her doped-up femme fatale in a relatively normal state, in deep depression, under the effects of various medications, and, eventually, she has to reveal that she’s been faking all of the above. It’s tricky, technical stuff, but Mara reinforces why she has the top tier of directors doing backflips over her—subtly toying with the audience’s sympathies, and never falling into the trap of mannerisms or tics. It’s a shame that she and Soderbergh didn’t get to team up more often (unless he can be tempted out of retirement…), but we can’t wait to see what everyone else can do with her.
Honorable Mentions: As we said at the top, we had a list of possibilities multiple times longer here than we did in any of the other acting categories, and there’s still a wealth of performances we haven’t touched on (though some got some love in our Breakthrough Performances list yesterday). To name just some of our favorites, there was Olivia Wilde in “Drinking Buddies,” Lake Bell in “In A World,” Amy Seimetz in”Upstream Color,” Felicity Jones in “The Invisible Woman,” Mia Wasikowska in “Stoker,” Amy Acker in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Luminita Georghiu in “Child’s Pose,” Alice Lowe in “Sightseers,” Veerle Baetens in “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Robin Weigert in “Concussion” and Kathryn Hahn in “Afternoon Delight.” And were the films Oscar-eligible this time around (they don’t get releases until early 2014), we’d certainly have discussed Paulina Garcia in “Gloria,” Scarlett Johansson in “Under The Skin” and Lindsay Duncan in “Le Week-End,” among others. Anyone you believe deserves the nod? Let us know who in the comments section.