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by Eric Kohn
December 12, 2013 12:07 PM
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Critic's Picks: The Top 10 Best Female Lead Performances of 2013 According to Indiewire's Film Critic

Anna Margaret Hollyman in "White Reindeer." IFC

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.

READ MORE: Indiewire 2013 Awards Season Spotlight

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.

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  • josi | January 14, 2014 1:03 AMReply

    Cate Blanchett should be #1. I've never been as blown away by a performance, male or female, before.

  • Jonathan Tipton Meyers | December 31, 2013 2:30 AMReply

    Indiewire, your lists always show me stuff I'm missing so, thank you. Now, with
    That said, where's Robin Weigert from Concussion? :)

  • terry | December 30, 2013 5:47 PMReply

    agree with Adele, camera loves her. White Reindeer was hokey, cliche and kinda bad, anna margaret was great though in a short film called social butterfly??, and the amazing rooney mara couldnt help the terrible malik ripoff stick of aint them body saints. the best performance was the girl in crystal fairy!!

  • arshadfilms | December 30, 2013 1:53 PMReply

    Pleaseo watch some films with actors of colour. Tillotma Shome in QISSA absolutely kills it! As does Zhao Tao in A TOUCH OF SIN. Luminita Gheorghiu in CHILD'S POSE was also incredible.

  • bob hawk | December 25, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    GRETA GERWIG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Wilson | December 19, 2013 9:11 PMReply

    Paulina García is Amazing in Gloria and must be nominated at Oscar for Best Actress equal the film to Best Foreign Language Film.

  • billies.climer10@yahoo.com | December 13, 2013 11:04 AMReply

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  • Stephen | December 13, 2013 6:09 AMReply

    Not enough comic performances. I would add Ruth Bradley from Grabbers. Best drunk acting ever. I would also have Kathryn Hahn from Afternoon Delight. Good list though.

  • T | December 13, 2013 6:03 AMReply

    So glan Jenifer Lawarence was not on this list.

  • Joe H. | December 13, 2013 3:31 PM

    She was only a LEAD in Hunger Games this year. Of course she didn't make the list, which only cover female LEADS.

  • Jamie T D | December 12, 2013 9:24 PMReply

    Shailene Woodley was fantastic in The Spectacular Now. She was completely believeable as Aimee Finkey.

  • Disappointed Black Filmmaker | December 12, 2013 6:17 PMReply

    Why aren't there any black women on this list???! Lupita Nyongo (12 Years a Slave), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Jennifer Hudson (The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete or Winnie), Nicole Beharie (42), Naomie Harris (Mandela), Shanola Hampton (Things Never Said), Yolonda Ross (Go For Sisters), Danai Gurira (Mother of George). NOT ONE minority actress is worthy of this list?? Come on IndieWire, you need to do better!

  • avc | December 13, 2013 6:40 AM

    Lead Actress not Supporting actress

  • gloria | December 12, 2013 4:26 PMReply

    Great list. Eric. I think Kathryn Hann should be also in the list. But if 10 is the limit...

  • Li Ling | December 12, 2013 2:56 PMReply

    This is a fantastic list! I really appreciate the unspeakable act. Hopeless admiration to our closest people is actually some unspeakable sensation. The girl's performance is totally nature and fluent. Make me feel like look a documentary!

  • miranda bailey | December 12, 2013 1:58 PMReply

    Nice list. I would have added Kathryn Hahn in AFTERNOON DELIGHT....she was amazing and yeah...Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha.

  • rea | December 12, 2013 12:48 PMReply

    Rooey Mara Is a superb actor!

  • fredrique | December 12, 2013 12:39 PMReply

    Why always "dramatic" performances. Greta Gerwig's performance in Frances Ha carries and lights up the entire film.

  • Carlos | December 13, 2013 8:08 AM

    Gloria is anything but a drama.

  • Eric | December 12, 2013 12:40 PM

    Agreed. I think she'd take #11 on my list of top 20 female leads this year.