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.
10. Anna Margaret Hollyman, "White Reindeer"
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.