Sunday, February 20, 2011

Oscars 2010: Best Actress

This year's Best Actress is far and away the best crop of actresses in years: all of these performances are phenomenal and Oscar-worthy, and having to decide an order to rank them in proved to be a herculean task for me. There's really very little difference in admiration between my #1 and my #5 picks, and I hate that all of these wonderful ladies have to compete against each other in the strongest category of the year. But someone has to win, right? (Or better yet, Oscar, how about a five-way tie?)

 Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right

If you're wondering whether or not Bening gave one of the best performances of the year, look no further than a single scene in The Kids Are All Right. More specifically, the scene in which her Nic, Julianne Moore's Jules, and their family have dinner at sperm-donor dad Paul's house. Over the course of the scene, Bening goes from being conservatively guarded, hilariously unloosed by singing Joni Mitchell, and then heartbreakingly devastated. All of these comes completely natural to the character, who's a bit of a control freak with a slight drinking problem. Nic is a complicated woman, to say nothing of the fact that she's a lesbian (a point that the film, refreshingly, does not make important), and Bening is a one-woman acting master class in this role. My one qualm with her nomination is that the Academy didn't have enough spaces to nominate her co-star Moore, who's just as equally amazing. One of these days, Bening's going to win an Oscar. Luckily, she doesn't have Hilary Swank to swipe her victory away, as she did in 2004 and 1999. Instead, she'll have to contend with Natalie Portman, the clear favorite to win. But of all the incredible performances given this year, its Bening's that rises above them.

 Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Can you believe that its been eight years since Kidman's last Oscar nomination (she won Best Actress for The Hours)? Despite a few duds during that span (Bewitched, anyone?), she's been consistently good, and she couldn't have found a better role for her return to Hollywood's biggest night. In Rabbit Hole, she plays Becca, a grieving mother who's entire life is falling apart as she becomes more and more alienated from everyone around her. Kidman plays grief very well, and finds plenty of little things to show us just how difficult moving on is for her, from the way she forlornly stares at the washer as she prepares to donate her son's clothes to her questioning of God's plan in the middle of group counselling (a darkly funny scene). What really helps this performance soar is that she manages to show us how much Becca has changed without us ever seeing who she was before the accident, a work of terrific acting. She doesn't stand much of a chance at a win, but let's just be thankful that the Academy has remembered how good she is.

 Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone

In Winter's Bone, Lawrence's Ree Dolly has a lot of problems. At only 17, she's responsible for taking care of her much-younger siblings, as her mother is mentally incapable of doing so and her meth-cooking father has disappeared. The latter's disappearance means he hasn't shown up for court, and since he put up the house as collateral, Ree has only one week to find him and convince him to show up. This proves to be a harrowing journey, and Lawrence is a marvel to behold in the role. She imbues her with strength, determination, and stubbornness, qualities that, for better or worse, help her take care of her family. Its the little things, such as how she's constantly teaching her siblings how to survive without her or the rare moment in which she shows flashes of vulnerability when she visits an Army recruitment officer, that really prove how great of an actress Lawrence is. That's not even to mention that this is her first major film role. Its doubtful that she'll manage to pull off an upset, but I also doubt this will be her only trip to the Oscars; she's got a long, brilliant career ahead of her, if she wants it.

 Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Black Swan is not an easy film to watch, and Portman's performance is a major reason why. I don't mean that as a knock against either her or the film; in fact, I mean that as the highest praise I could give it. Portman's Nina Sayers is a little girl trapped in a woman's body, and as her mental state rapidly declines after receiving the prestigious lead role in a production of Swan Lake, she violently transforms from girl to woman in the most tragically thrilling way possible. And Portman dives into the role with zeal, making Nina sympathetic to viewers, a decision that only makes her transformation even more gut-wrenching. Its a career-defining performance, one that reminds us that, between the sometimes-questionable tastes in projects, Portman is a genuine talent capable of astonishing things. Black Swan wouldn't have had nearly as much as a disturbing impact on audiences without her in the lead, and if (when) she walks up to the podium next Sunday night to claim her first Oscar, she'll have more than deserved it.

 Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Williams is one of the most consistently incredible actresses working today. After leaving Dawson's Creek, she's carved out a career of amazing performances in art-house films, more interested in artistic satisfaction than a big paycheck in a blockbuster. In Blue Valentine, she's Cindy, a woman in a crumbling marriage that was never meant to be to begin with. Williams makes her character completely sympathetic without sacrificing the details that undo her; for example, she begins her relationship with Dean (the criminally overlooked Ryan Gosling) while still dating her college boyfriend. There's also the way that little details are revealed, such as when she admits in an abortion clinic, quietly, that she's had over 20 sexual partners. Its not just the detail itself that's revealing, but the way in which she delivers it, half-ashamed, half-apathetic. She's absolutely brilliant in this film, and even though it won't win her the Oscar this year, its deserving of a nomination. And one day, Williams will win the golden guy, if there's any justice in the world (actually, if there actually is such a thing is justice, she'll win several).

My Best Actress ballot looks like this:

1. Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
2. Natalie Portman, Black Swan
3. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
4. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
5. Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

What do you think?


Jose said...

2006 is still the best year in memory in my book.
I liked Williams but I really don't see what the fuss is all about with her performances...
Thought she was just OK in Wendy and Lucy and Brokeback Mountain. She makes interesting choices true but I don't see her becoming legendary like someone like Kidman would.

PS: Portman FTW!

Jason H. said...

I'm working on seeing the 2006 nominees now. So far, so very, very good.

I think Williams is a matter of personal choice. I know several people who agree with you, and I know others who are borderline-overzealous for everything she does. I think a lot that comes from her subdued performances in auteurist films.