Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question:
Last Friday saw the release of Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come,” one of two new films starring Isabelle Huppert. In the lede of his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott asked “Isabelle Huppert: Great actress, or greatest actress?” Huppert is certainly near the very top of the list, but we thought we’d take this opportunity to open the question to our panel of critics: Who is the best working actress in the world today?
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
A vote for someone else isn’t a vote against Isabelle Huppert, who is among the very greatest actresses of the time — though if she seems to be more in control of her films than are many of the directors she works with, it’s mainly a reflection of their own lack of authoritative imagination. There just aren’t enough good French directors to go around at the moment, and when she works with one of them (such as Serge Bozon, in “Tip Top”), nobody would mistake her for the movie’s main creator — even though Huppert’s charisma does take the form of an air of command, a force-field of focussed intention that’s all the more potent for her not expressing it.
Above all, however, Huppert is emblematic of a generation — the one that came of age in post-’68 France; her performances have a distinctive self-consciousness and cultural consciousness which reflect that generation’s self-awareness as a generation, one that has the freedom of those who came after the battles, without clinging to the myths and war stories of those who fought them. In addition to being a great actress, Huppert is also strongly insightful about her art; her overtly intellectual temperament is essential to the power of her performances — and it’s also essential to their critical appeal, especially here. She has, through no fault of her own, come to be the ambassador of the fictitious Living Museum of France, the leading representative of its double-sided trademark of high-cultural veneration blended with the refinement — and the sexual forthrightness — of the art of living.
In any case, Huppert has significantly advanced the art of acting — but the best working actress, even if she’s not working all that much anymore, is one who has transformed it and, for that matter, the cinema itself: Gena Rowlands.
Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie), Vox
“Best” is an impossible category for me — and frankly I could name a few dozen to this category — but I know that the actress who consistently surprises me the most is Greta Gerwig. Some performers are so good at making roles their own, and yet not “playing themselves,” that no matter what film they’re in you know it will be interesting. (Viola Davis and Alicia Vikander easily fit into this category as well.) I was a long way into “Jackie” before I realized it was Greta. She infuses even minor characters with a warmth that is part charisma and part ease, and I am always glad I’ve seen her. She’s also an incredibly smart writer and a thoughtful interview, which can feel like it’s in rare supply sometimes. Greta forever.
(That said, if someone could start hiring Constance Wu to work all the time, I am on board.)
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The Verge
This is a tough question, largely because I do not quite know how to approach it. If the ruling comes down to sheer volume of excellent performances, it would probably have to be someone with plenty of experience like Huppert or Juliette Binoche or Charlotte Rampling or, if I’m not afraid of being obvious, Meryl “Feral” Streep. (Note: Feral Streep is my roller derby name, should I ever take up roller derby. Nobody take that. I have dibs, and it is mine.) But then, that gives the cold shoulder by default to young actresses currently enjoying the “seemingly capable of anything” phase of their careers, evolving talents like Mia Wasikowska or Rooney Mara or Kristen Stewart.
Is the best actress the one who delivered the single greatest performance? In that case, the title goes to Julianne Moore, for her housewife buckling under the banality of everyday life in “Safe.” Or perhaps the best actress is simply the actress who is also empirically the best in a more general sense, she who most fully embodies the essence of bestness. Which, of course, would make my answer Christina Hendricks.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Nerdist/Pajiba
It’s Olivia Colman. She broke hearts as a battered housewife in Paddy Considine’s unflinchingly brutal “Tyrannosaur.” She brought a “don’t fuck with me fellas” bravado to “Broadchurch” and “The Night Manager,” even performing the latter while very pregnant. I’m sure this round-up will be full of knockout performers who have crazy drama chops, but this English actress can do anything thrown her way. She slayed in “Peep Show” as the volatile Sophie. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s wicked comedy “The Lobster,” she grounded its earnest lunacy as the beaming but remorseless hotel manager. And on the sketch program “That Mitchell and Webb Look,” she was a wonder, bouncing from one crazy character to the next at a pace that’d make many an “SNL” performer blush.
Every time I see Colman’s name in the credits, I squee, because whatever I’m watching just promised to be better than I expected.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
This is, by design, an impossible question, and Isabelle Huppert is certainly as good an answer as any (just when you thought her performance in “Elle” couldn’t be topped, “Things to Come” sauntered into theaters and raised the bar even higher). It would be much easier to identify who has had the best career of any currently working actress, and the answer to that is hard to argue: Juliette Binoche. She’s worked with Godard, Kieslowski, Assayas, Akerman, Carax, Boorman, Haneke, Malle, Hou, Gitai, Leconte, Cronenberg, Coixet, and the guy who did “Dan in Real Life.” And that barely scratches the surface. It’s mind-boggling. It’s also — alas — not the question at hand.
Okay, let’s do it: The best actress in the world today is Tilda Swinton. You don’t even need to take her incredible body of work into account — anyone who can play two delightful Coen brothers characters in February, a vacationing David Bowie in May, and (controversially) give life to the most compelling female character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in November should be at the top of your list, whether that list be of actresses or just humans in general (if, indeed, Tilda Swinton qualifies as such).
Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Film School Rejects, Film Journal International
Having seen “Fences,” I am convinced the best actress working today might just be Viola Davis.
Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), The Guardian
A few years ago I was at a party. I was yapping about movies and whatnot and the name Scarlett Johansson came up. I said I liked her. A classically trained actress got furious with me. She explained that, on a technical level, Scarlett Johansson was an “absolutely terrible” actress. I was stunned to learn this. Who didn’t like “Ghost World”? Who didn’t like “Lost in Translation”? Who didn’t like “Scoop,” for God’s sake! (Okay, lots of people, but those people are wrong, because “Scoop” absolutely owns.) But this woman had a takedown ready to go. I wish I could recall her points. All I remember is that she had many of them. Wine had been flowing, so I eventually I had to put a stop to it. “What do you want from me? I like Scarlett Johansson! When did this become a crime???!” I cried. I was then told that I only liked her because of her looks, and the topic was changed.
I relay this story because, of the many things I feel confident about as a critic, I have the hardest time quantifying what in the hell “good” acting is. Is it being a chameleon, or is it being compelling? I used to think it was the former, because there was some sort of objectivity there. Meryl Streep isn’t from Australia but when she said “a dingo ate my baby” she sure as hell sold me on being Australian. Good acting! But then there’s being compelling. Or striking, or enthralling, or riveting. You can’t keep your eyes off this person, even when the script is so-so. Great acting!
And this, let’s call it what it is, is a form of a not-necessarily-prurient (but also sometimes very prurient) crush. Maybe that woman haranguing me at that party had a point? I mean, I always get significantly happier when I see Carol Kane. Does this mean she is a good actress? I guess so.
To answer your question, though — the greatest? I don’t know. Sandra Bullock is good. Did you see “The Heat”? I laughed so much. Viola Davis sure as hell was terrific in “Fences.” Golshifteh Farahani was great in “Paterson,” even if some people (wrongly) think she is playing a cartoon. And she was in a wonderful movie called “My Sweet Pepper Land,” which is like a typical American Western but in Iraqi Kurdistan. And it took me three of her scenes to realize Greta Gerwig was in “Jackie.” Tremendous.
Anyway, Isabelle Huppert is the greatest actress working today. What kind of crazy person would say otherwise?
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics, Film School Rejects
The right answer is Meryl Streep, right? Even though that seems too obvious. There’s still nothing she can’t do. She could have played the kid in the first half of “Lion” if that wouldn’t have been inappropriate. She could have played BB-8. We don’t have to like all of her movies or even all of her performances, but there’s a reason why she’s become fodder for awards season jokes. She deserves it. Now, if you made us choose someone other than Streep, I’d have to go with Tilda Swinton.