Friday, June 6, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Actress 2000

Remember a time when it seemed like Julia Roberts was destined to star opposite Richard Gere in countless romantic comedies, never to come close to the Oscar attention she received in the late 1980s-early 1990s? Remember when Laura Linney was a relative newcomer making her mainstream breakthrough with a modest film about a strained sibling relationship? Remember when it seemed like Joan Allen was going to win an Oscar at any given moment? Remember when the Academy remembered Juliette Binoche? Welcome to Best Actress 2000, which included all of these women, as well as a genuinely remarkable performance from an acting veteran in a highly-disturbing addiction drama. 

Here are your nominees:

Juliette Binoche, Chocolat

This is not the first - nor will it be the last - time that I've harped on Chocolat for being a mess of a film, trying to be several things at once and not really succeeding at any of them. If there is one consistent element, though, it's Binoche's performance as Vianne, the mysterious chocolatier who sweeps into the sleepy French town with her young daughter. The film keeps trying to push her further into whimsy, but Binoche keeps her performance grounded in humanity, and as a result she shines in every scene she's in. But for as remarkable as an actress she is, she can't fully save this role or this film. It's decent work, but I wouldn't exactly call it nomination-worthy.

More after the break.

Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me

It's not that Linney was a complete unknown in 2000, when she starred as Sammy Prescott in Kenneth Lonergan's charming family drama You Can Count on Me. But playing a single mother whose life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of her ne'er-do-well brother (Mark Ruffalo) made people take notice that a genuine talent had arrived. Linney does superior work at conveying the history of her relationship with her brother without having to spell it out with needless exposition; every smile and grimace carries the weight of an unspoken, complicated bond. But what sets her performance apart is that she never lets Sammy be defined by that relationship. Instead, she plays her as a woman who's built a brand new life for herself, and refuses to let her brother's intrusion tear it down and change everything she's worked for. It's a singular performance that hailed the arrival of terrific actress, and in a less-crowded field, she would have easily been my choice for the win.

*Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Roberts won her first - and so far only - Oscar for playing brassy activist Erin Brockovich in the film of the same name. The film may have other characters, with great actors playing them, but this is ultimately The Julia Roberts Show. In her hands, Brockovich becomes a one-woman battering ram, crashing through whatever barriers stand in her way in her pursuit of doing the right thing. Though that certainly applies to her job at a law office, leading a class-action suit against Pacific Gas & Electric for poisoning a town's water supply, it also applies to her home life, and Roberts imbues Brockovich with an all-consuming passion that, even when the situation is bleak, never wavers. These aren't necessarily notes that Roberts had never played before. But this performance is the first time that she combined them into a single role, and then played them with undeniable conviction and dexterity. She utterly dominates the film with her performance, and if it weren't for one other nominee in this category, I would say that she far-and-away deserved the Oscar.

Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream

It would have handily been Roberts' Oscar to lose, in my opinion, if not for Burstyn. Her Sara Goldfarb, the widowed mother of heroin addict Harry (Jared Leto), suffers from her own addictions: to amphetamine weight-loss pills and the Tappy Tibbons game show. It begins innocently enough, with her just wanting to fit into the red dress her late husband loved so much. But it devolves into something much, much more horrifying. What's truly stunning about Burstyn's performance is how she focuses on Sara's refusal to believe that she's become an addict, constantly telling herself that she can quit whenever she needs to and that believing that she will be on the game show has given her a reason to live. While the other three main characters - Harry and his friends - have long grown accustomed to living with their addictions and are paying the price for them, Sara is the devastating heart of the film, and Burstyn plays every note to perfection. I dare you to try keeping your eyes dry during her famous monologue about being old. Her performance is a masterpiece in itself.

Joan Allen, The Contender

As Laine Hanson, the potential candidate for the vice-presidency in The Contender, Allen goes through the emotional wringer. The film revolves around her candidacy and the secret that threatens to derail her entire political: once, in college, she had sex with more than one person at once. The film itself is a scathing critique of gendered double standards in America dressed up as a political thriller, and Allen does terrific work as the woman at the center of the scandal. She plays Hanson has a woman who will not apologize for her past decisions, nor will she be crucified for, essentially, being a woman in a male-dominated sphere. Most importantly, though, Allen never lets Hanson be just a symbol of political misogyny, giving her depth and interiority that the film's other characters aren't always graced with. It's only natural that she's given the spotlight here, and her nomination is very deserved.

My ballot:

1. Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
2. Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
3. Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me
4. Joan Allen, The Contender
5. Juliette Binoche, Chocolat

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