Written by Blake Peterson

January 1, 2016

I've always, and still, maintained the opinion that actresses are much more fun to watch than actors are, as they are often given meatier roles as actors pass the time basically playing themselves.  I've always cherished them, finding that, often times, movies are made better by a strong female character rather than seeing an actor play the atypical hero.  Here are the best performances I saw this year.  (Priority is given to most recent ones, with performances in rediscoveries omitted.)

#25 

Pam Grier 

in Coffy, Foxy Brown, & Friday Foster 

In hindsight, it wasn’t the best idea to have Pam Grier be November’s Star of the Month (considering that I had already seen all of her best movies by then, and she doesn’t have a lot of starring roles to choose from), but I cannot deny the power she fills a room with in every film she’s in.  Her best roles, detonated above, don’t just make her a subgenre specialty — they make her a star.

#24 

Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 

Most only look at Stone’s body in Basic Instinct, in the process completely forgetting about just how difficult a role Catherine Tramell is to pull off.  To be that sexy, that manipulative, that shady, that confident, is no easy task, and yet Stone makes being the ultimate femme fatale seem like the most simplistic job in the world.  She’s a beautiful woman, true, but such a character can only hit so hard when a major talent is doing all the handiwork. 

#23 

Lily Tomlin in The Late Show 

Lily Tomlin is a national treasure, and, when given the right role, you absolutely adore her.  It’s a shame that The Late Show, released in 1977, has spent the last thirty-some years in obscurity; it provides her with her most “Lily Tomlin” role and gives us a chance to want to pal around with her once again.  As Art Carney’s foil, she’s everything you’d expect Kate Hepburn or Carole Lombard to be, just with more naturalism.  A find.  

#12 

Lindsay Crouse 

in House of Games 

Too bad Lindsay Crouse has never really broken into the mainstream.  It’s understandable, though — the intelligence she conveys onscreen is so great that it’s likely that she would forever be doomed to playing characters renowned for their intellectual chilliness.  House of Games will always be her calling card, portraying a heroine who is the rodent party to the cat-and-mouse game of the film.  She prevails, as it turns out, and Crouse never for a second lets us doubt her. 

#21 

Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club 

Twitchy and eccentrically funny, Carter practically steals the movie as Edward Norton’s unconventional love interest.  Fight Club sometimes borders on the extreme and therefore can be off-putting; but the actress is a bowl of honey, and we’re a group of hungry flies.

#20 

Jodie Foster 

in The Silence of the Lambs & Taxi Driver 

I wish Jodie Foster worked more often — I miss her unconformity, her unconventional femininity.  For now, though, I’ll have to appreciate what are arguably (but probably not arguably) her sturdiest performances, as Clairce Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and as child hooker Iris in Taxi Driver. Does she know how to not be a cult of personality? Don’t think so.

#19 

Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction

Uma Thurman is always in top form when directed by Quentin Tarantino.  In the hands of any other director, there’s a sense that they don’t really know what to do with her, knowing full well that she’s capable of being thunderous but still hesitant to give the movie to her.  I wish she were in more Tarantino based projects other than just Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill — they’re made for each other.  Pulp Fiction, though, will always be the film that provides her with her most iconic performance: sexy, mysterious, fucked up, funny, and downright cool.  

#18 

Naomi Watts 

in Ellie Parker & The Impossible 

It’s kind of embarrassing that Naomi Watts didn’t achieve her big break until 33 with Mulholland Dr.; the fact that studios weren’t able to see her awe-inspiring talent is a head scratcher, especially considering all the trash she had to endure before David Lynch discovered what a gem she is.  So I’m glad she got the chance to make Ellie Parker, an independent oddity capturing just what it’s like to be a struggling actress in Hollywood — she’s fearless.  In The Impossible, featuring her second best performance to date, she is a mother faced with the possibility of horrific tragedy.    

#17 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw 

in Beyond the Lights

If Beyond the Lights had received a wider release and more widespread attention from the public, I’m confident Gugu Mbatha-Raw, destined to become a major star, could have snagged a few accolades.  Playing a rising pop star that eventually has a breakdown during the course of the film, she is so moving, so defenseless, that you wonder just how happy music’s most popular women actually are.  Stunning. 

#16 

Patricia Arquette in Boyhood 

Every performance in Boyhood is immaculate, but it is Patricia Arquette who stands out the most, as a mother whose life has never been easy and perhaps will never be so.  Arquette is devastating, even her quietest moments shouting emotionally in our ears.  Just watch as the lump in your throat swells toward the end of the film when she asks her college-bound son if life is really all it’s made out to be.  A well-deserved Oscar luckily came her way.

#15 

Reese Witherspoon  

in Freeway Wild

I ain’t about the Legally Blonde life most of the public seems to succumb to, but I still love Reese Witherspoon, regardless — on the outside, she appears as a chipper, thoughtful personality, but, in actuality, is a stupendously versatile performer, one of the best of her generation.  Wild, which landed her an Oscar nomination earlier this year, and Freeway, featuring the most underrated performance of her career, are polar opposites in every way possible, tonally, technically — everything.  But they prove that Witherspoon is up for any challenge that is presented, whether she be asked to play a woman who discovered herself by walking a long-ass trail or if she’s called to play a white trash hoodlum who knows how to use a gun.  Both are movies the public desperately needs to be familiar with — her commercial work, while good, pales in comparison to her passion projects.  

#14 

Holly Hunter in Broadcast News 

More actresses deserve roles like the one Holly Hunter undergoes in Broadcast News — smart, sexy, independent, and most important of all, immensely susceptible to her emotions and inner monologue.  So often do we see women on the screen portrayed with only one of the aforementioned characteristics in mind.  But Hunter, before our very eyes, becomes a different person, and one we’d like to get to know.

#13 

Carey Mulligan 

in Far From the Madding Crowd

Mulligan is one of the biggest underdogs in the film industry today — because she’s bright enough not to much get involved with what mainstream movies have to offer, she delivers, time and time again, in small films seen by few.  It’s a triumph or a shame, depending on your stance.  Far From the Madding Crowd reinforces this idea; had it been more widely released, most would be discussing an eventual Oscar nomination.  But I doubt it’s going to happen, and it’s upsetting.  She’ll take home that little gold naked man someday, though.

#12 

Marion Cotillard 

in Two Days, One Night 

Cotillard breaks the heart more often than any actress working today (she likes to make weepies, no?), and Two Days, One Night is no exception.  She plays my favorite kind of character (to watch, anyway) — intensely distraught, raw, but also ready to overcome the harsh brutalities that become their life.  In a filmography of diamonds, this is as pearl, a project where she calls the shots. 

#11 

Melissa McCarthy in Spy

I’ve always known how good of a comedic actress Melissa McCarthy is, but to see her in a worthy film isn’t always such an easy thing to find.  Finally, after being wasted away in such dumbed down projects as Identity Thief and Tammy, she gives what will possibly be the most talked about performance of her career, unless you count Bridesmaids in, too.  

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