2015 has been an especially strong year for women on screen. Just consider how many actresses turned in performances that were deemed Oscar-worthy. We don’t think Hollywood’s leading ladies have suddenly, inexplicably become more talented. What’s different is that this year, there has been more roles worthy of them.
Our collection of the year’s finest female performances may seem odd at first glance. Keep in mind that we tried to draw attention to works that haven’t already been recognized in our other end of year movie coverage, like the best films about girls and women and the best female-directed films. We also wanted to focus on work that we considered underappreciated.
Here are the ten best underrated performances of the year, in no particular order.
Toni Collette delivered an Oscar-worthy but barely noticed performance in the terminal-illness melodrama “Miss You Already.” As Milly, a wonderfully flawed friend, mother and lover diagnosed with breast cancer, Collette and director Catherine Hardwicke turn this weepie into genuinely stirring and emotionally grounded drama. Milly’s boundless confidence and self-destructive habits are captured so beautifully by Collette, who makes what many would consider an “unlikable” character a magnetic presence on the screen.
As anticipation builds for Natalie Portman’s “Jane Got a Gun” (debuting early next year), let’s not forget that 2015 also offered us a feminist Western. Set in the final days of the Civil War, “The Keeping Room” focuses on Augusta (Brit Marling), her younger sister (Hailee Steinfeld) and Mad, the family slave (Muna Otaru). The trio fight with all they’ve got to protect their home — and their lives — from a group of dastardly soldiers. Marling, who has been delivering consistently solid performances since she came on to the scene in 2011’s “Another Earth,” gets the chance to show a different side of herself in the thriller. Pointing and shooting her gun like a pro, Marling is just as adept at showing her character’s fierce and intimidating side as she is playing the role of a protective and loving older sister.
Brie Larson – “Room”
In “Room,” Brie Larson plays Ma/Joy, who has the tragic misfortune of being raped and held in captivity for seven years after she’s kidnapped as a teen. Despite her circumstances, Ma hasn’t given up on life, largely because of the life she brought into the world while imprisoned: her five-year-old son Jack. “Room” spells the beginning of Brie Larson’s tenure as an A-list star. While Larson won great favor with critics for her heartbreaking portrayal of a group-home worker in 2013’s “Short Term 12,” it’s “Room” that introduced the powerhouse actress to a much larger audience, especially since Larson has been dominating the Best Actress Oscar conversation since the drama’s world premiere at Telluride. At this point she’s practically a shoe-in. And she’s got a number of buzzed-about projects lined up, including a blockbuster, “Kong: Skull Island,” and a drama with excellent awards potential: an adaptation of Jeannette Walls’s memoir “The Glass Castle.”
Mya Taylor – “Tangerine”
“Tangerine” is unlike anything we’ve seen before — and yes, that’s partly due to the fact that it was shot entirely on an iPhone. But its frenetic pacing and charismatic leading ladies are what make this dramedy truly memorable. The film follows two pals, both transgender sex workers — who are actually played by transgender women, thank goodness — searching for an unsavory ex-flame on Christmas Eve. In addition to showing a side of Los Angeles that rarely gets the big-screen treatment, “Tangerine” offers messy, complicated female protagonists in a messy, complicated friendship. The result is riveting. Mya Taylor offers the more understated performance in the film — for which she received an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress — and she keeps us and the film grounded with her world-weary wisdom and heartbreaking longing for adoring eyes to finally focus on her.
Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne – “Spy”
We probably laughed harder watching “Spy” than any other movie this year, and that was largely thanks to Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne’s amazing chemistry. McCarthy is excellent as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who is recruited from her desk job to go on her first field mission, an undercover op in the world of arms dealing. But she shines most brilliantly in her interactions with Byrne’s character, Rayna, the hilariously privileged and bratty daughter of a late arms dealer who delights in making people feel like garbage. The duo’s comic timing is perfection, and our fingers are crossed that they’ll reunite for another project.
Alicia Vikander – “A Testament of Youth,” “Ex Machina,” “The Danish Girl”
Alicia Vikander just made headlines for receiving two Golden Globe nominations, in the Best Supporting Actress category for “Ex Machina” and Lead Actress (Drama) with “The Danish Girl.” While we’re on board with recognizing the Swedish actress’s work in those projects, where she brings life to an AI and love to a gender-transitioning partner, we were most impressed by her portrayal of writer Vera Brittain in the underrated “A Testament of Youth.” (In fact, we called the war drama “a slam-dunk case for awards consideration.”) Vera fights tooth-and-nail for the opportunity to attend Oxford University, but once she gets there, she abandons her studies to become a nurse on the frontlines of World War I when all the young men she grew up with enlist to fight. “A Testament of Youth” marks the introduction of a new female movie star, even if her other roles this year led to more hype.
Lily Tomlin – “Grandma”
In her first starring role in nearly three decades, Lily Tomlin demonstrates what we’ve been missing in a grouchy, sexy, wounded and hilarious turn as a broke poet searching for the funds to pay for her teenage granddaughter’s abortion. Writer-director Paul Weitz wrote the part with Tomlin in mind, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Wearing her own clothes and driving her own car (to save the production a few bucks), Tomlin is a goddess of righteous (and self-righteous) fury as a lesbian widow still mourning the woman she spent her best years with, as well as a second-wave feminist who feels like her work and her political goals have been forgotten by newer generations.
Charlotte Rampling – “45 Years”
Charlotte Rampling is simply transcendental as a woman who, after 45 years of marriage, can’t help wondering if the last half-century of her life was a lie. Rampling’s Kate is undone by the realization that her husband has been in love with his dead first wife for decades , and your heart breaks for her as she tries to make both herself and her husband feel better about this ghost who has suddenly recast their marriage in a terrible new light. But Rampling’s best moment in the film comes in its final seconds, her face screwing into something simultaneously hair-raising and heart-wrenching.
Daisy Ridley – “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
The Force is strong with this one. [SLIGHT SPOILERS] The Star Wars galaxy reorients toward a female heroine by centering on orphaned scavenger and mechanical whiz Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley with defiant kickassness. Rey’s a woman who doesn’t ever want to be rescued, and she’s smart and strong enough to stand up to all the evil that threatens to take over the universe. Ridley plays the part to the hilt, holding her own against veterans like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher and making her internal debates about her fate as fascinating as the light-saber battles her character decides she needs to win.
Okay, so technically “Bessie” aired on HBO. But we have to single out Queen Latifah’s career-best performance as jazz legend Bessie Smith. Writer-director Dee Rees’ script offered its star a helluva lot: Bessie finding her voice and stage persona, balancing affairs with men and women, losing her patience with anyone who dared underestimate her and trying to take over the music world in the Roaring Twenties as a black woman. Given that meaty repast, Queen Latifah delivered a powerful performance as a woman and legend-in-the-making who’s constantly trying to figure out who she really is and how she wants to present herself to the world. It’s a struggle anyone can relate to — and in Queen Latifah’s capable hands, it’s nothing short of magic.