Take a look at this lineup. You're eyes are not deceiving you; this really is one of the greatest, strongest categories in recent memory, if not one of the best ever. These five women are among the best actresses still working today, even in 2011, and their performances in these films rank among their best. I know I'm gushing over this, but man, this deserves to be gushed over, yes?
Winner marked with a (*).
Winner marked with a (*).
Penelope Cruz, Volver
It seems fitting that Cruz's first Oscar nomination came from a Pedro Almodovar film, as he was the one who turned her into a sensation to begin with (not to mention Almodovar creates some of the finest characters in cinema). She shines here just as brightly as she did in All About My Mother, only now she's front-and-center as Raimunda, a woman who is dealing with both the death of her mother and the murder of her loutish husband by her daughter. Cruz gives a deft performance, a woman struggling with getting her life in order while coming to terms with death. It's powerful work, and served as a terrific reminder for American audiences that Cruz is more than just a beautiful face; she's got incredible talent as well.
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Notes on a Scandal was pitched as a two-woman show, in which Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett face off in a friendship that takes a much more disturbing turn. However, this isn't necessarily true, as Dench steals the entire film with her brave, twisted performance as Barbara Covett, an uptight schoolteacher. Dench digs deep into the character, wisely keeping her performance tight and controlled, not unlike Barbara herself, whose need to be in control reflects in her denial of her true self verbally as it acts out physically. It very easily could have been an unlikable character, but Dench never lets you lose sympathy for her, and instead she becomes magnetically diabolical. It's bravura work, and in another year, she would have easily won the Oscar for this role.
Helen Mirren, The Queen*
Often, it's easy to disagree with Oscars' choices: "But so-and-so was much better!" If you're an avid reader of this blog, you'll see that that tends to happen often with me. But then there are cases where there just isn't any argument. The truly amazing thing about Mirren's performance is that most prognosticators agreed that she was the frontrunner, far and away expected to win what may be the most loaded category of the decade; she manages to stand out from a crowd of phenomenal performances as Queen Elizabeth II, the steely monarch who is forced to make a difficult decision on how to handle the death of Diana in 1997. Mirren is absolutely regal, acting circles around the rest of her formidable cast and owning the movie. It's more than just a physical resemblence, as she completely embodies the Queen, and she manages to make going against years of tradition seem like her plan all along. Surprisingly, there's no questioning that Mirren was the best actress of the year.
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
It's hard not to love Meryl (hard, but not impossible; see: Music of the Heart). The Devil Wears Prada could have easily been a standard romantic comedy, and Streep could have easily slummed it here, but instead she delivers a truly devilish performance as editor-bitch-in-chief Miranda Priestly. In Streep's hands, she's a hard-ass with little room for emotion, a woman who's built an empire and walled herself inside, never letting anyone know what's happening in her personal life. Of course, it helps that she had a terrific cast to interact with (Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, and MVP Stanley Tucci), and she plays off of them with bloodthirsty zest. It's another memorable performance from a veteran actress who rarely does wrong.
Kate Winslet, Little Children
If you're looking for evidence to counter the claim that Kate Winslet is only nominated for Oscars when she shows a little skin, Little Children will not help your case (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind instead). Winslet spends a good portion of the film au natural, writhing around with Patrick Wilson in a basement and attic, among other places, in adultrous bliss. But don't think that Winslet's performance as Sarah, a bored, alienated housewife, isn't worthy of nomination. She's a marvel here, an embodiment of suburban ennui and marital strife as she tries to navigate a life that's less than what she wanted. As she embarks on her adultrous relationship, she begins to discover the independence that she's always wanted. It's great work, and she's just one of the many factors that contribute to Little Children's success. And, of course, there's gratuitous footage of her stunning figure, which never hurts.
1. Helen Mirren, The Queen
2. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
3. Penelope Cruz, Volver
4. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
5. Kate Winslet, Little Children