A pregnant comedian, a nightly news producer, the daughter of a washed up movie star, a 3,000 year old vampire. Women in supporting and leading roles captivated on-screen in 2014. To celebrate such a great year at the movies, we polled over a dozen of our contributing writers and editors to produce this aggregated alphabetized list that represents the sharp opinions of everyone here at The Focus Pull. At the end of the article, we’ll rank three of the very best female performances that stand above the rest.
in The Immigrant
Boosted by a scant script, and some exquisite cinematography, French actress Marion Cotillard proves, once again, that she is one of the best working actors anywhere. Offering two stellar performances this year (the other in the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night) Cotillard’s Polish immigrant Ewa is divided between the simple life she craves and the harsh reality that consumes her. A powerful presence in any film in which she is cast, Cotillard tends to leave an impression. In The Immigrant, Cotillard portrays Ewa as a solemn, yet feisty woman who works tirelessly to better her own life. Pulled towards a life of prostitution, she finds her actions morally reprehensible, yet her conveyance of anger turned numb determination offers an instant connection to the character. In The Immigrant, Cotillard is both harrowing to watch, and empowering to anyone who is inclined to improve their circumstances. —Jordan Brooks
in The Babadook
“It’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” After the brutal death of her husband, Amelie (Essie Davis) struggles to maintain control of her troubled six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) when a two-dimensional monster from a mysterious pop-up book comes to life to terrorize her family. This inventive spin on the home-invasion thriller is fronted by a strong leading performance from Essie Davis, who is the key to The Babadook’s multifaceted success. It’s an incredibly sympathetic performance, one that reaches out to the audience, weakening their resolve just before things begin going seriously wrong. Davis is a dramatic actor performing in a film that just happens to be scary. Her work, in addition to some wonderfully creative cinematography and sound design, make The Babadook the year’s must-see horror film. —Taylor Sinople
It’s a shame that most of the English-speaking world hasn’t been introduced to Chilean actress Paulina García sooner. In Sebastián Leilo’s Gloria, García portrays a fifty-something divorced mother engaged in a perpetual quest for love and happiness, dancing and dating and singing along to pop music in her car. This doesn’t sound like the stuff of great drama, but García’s portrayal of the character is a rich array of lust, fear, and anxiety (as well as both emotional and literal intoxication). It is an excitingly lived-in and authentic performance, written for and consumed by passion, and García is singularly perfect for it. —Adam Smith
Ida explores Poland in the aftermath of WWII through the lives of a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) and her wreckless aunt (Agata Kulesza). Director Pawel Pawlikowski holds his characters at an intimate yet elusive distance, and the audience comes to understand Kulesza’s character mainly through her performance. Covering immense grief over past tragedies with alcohol and sexual promiscuity, Kulesza portrays unfathomable damage in every sorrowful stare. An agonizing portrait of life for Jews after WWII, Kulesza’s anguish shows just how quickly a society can turn its back on atrocities of the past; and, through her interactions with others, just how desperately people want to forget their own barbarousness. Tremendous loneliness surround her character, as Kulesza’s portrayal makes abundantly clear; helping make Ida one of the most effective and noteworthy films of the year. —Jordan Brooks
in The One I Love
The banter surrounding The One I Love has been mired in arguments about spoilers – the type that are nearly impossible to avoid when talking about Moss’ excellent work here. Suffice it to say that her performance feels effortlessly charming, even playful. She and Mark Duplass both exercise their mastery of body language and vocal nuance to play flawlessly off of one another (or off of some unexpected visitors) in deep and subtle ways. —Zack Miller
As a ratings-junkie disguised as a journalist, Russo gives a convincing, remarkable performance. An unsettling desire to make headlines, no matter the cost, bring out the character’s true colors and Russo’s strongest moments on screen. —Chris Porazzo
in Obvious Child
Jenny Slate plays a likeable, flawed comedienne in Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre’s under-seen and under-appreciated romantic comedy about a young woman deciding to have an abortion. Obvious Child strives for comedic realism and Jenny Slate nails it, most notably in the sequences in which Donna performs stand-up comedy. Slate’s character is less funny than she is in real life, so our protagonist’s standup comedy routines range from pretty good to god-awful. An old piece of movie trivia comes to mind: when Christopher Isherwood saw Liza Minnelli playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret he remarked that Liza was too talented to be believable as Sally. Obvious Child suffers from no such fate. The standup scenes showcase Slate’s character-work well, but the film’s climax—the inevitable operation itself—is where Slate does the heavy lifting. In one look, Slate captures the pathos of a young woman not yet ready to have a baby but pained at the loss of an unborn child. If that’s not a star-making scene, I’m not sure what is. —Marcus Michelen
Walking into Birdman, I never thought for a second that I would leave remembering not Michael Keaton’s performance or the intricate cinematography, but the work by Emma Stone, who proves that she’s not only as good as her veteran counterparts, she’s just a little bit better. As action star Riggan Thomson’s recovering addict of a daughter, Emma Stone shatters all expectations and turns in a powerhouse performance that’s as honest and raw as it is genuinely moving. Every facial tic, hand gesture, and syllable is delivered with perfection, and there’s nobody in my mind – excluding Patricia Arquette in Boyhood – that deserves the supporting actress win more than her. —Josef Rodriguez
in Only Lovers Left Alive
With her piercing green eyes, sharp cheekbones and pale complexion, Tilda Swinton has always portrayed unorthodox characters. From the white witch in The Chronicles in Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to a tormented mother in We Need To Talk About Kevin – every single performance is original and striking. In Only Lovers Left Alive, Swinton is iconic in every way. The film, directed by Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers), is about eternal lovers and modern day vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). The film is funny, touching and brilliantly stylized. The burning center of the brilliance is the performances by both Hiddleston and Swinton. The latter is graceful and confident in her performance, and everything about Swinton’s Eve breathes infinity, breathes immortality. Her voice echoes with eternities of wisdom and grace. A remarkable performance by a truly remarkable actress. —Eden van der Moere
Comedy has always fulfilled a complex but essential role in the work of Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Melancholia). Maybe the amount of comedy in von Trier’s films is proportional to runtime, since his four-hour opus Nymphomaniac is his funniest film yet. At the comedic heart of Nymphomaniac lies Uma Thurman’s extended cameo as Mrs. H., the wife of a man who is sleeping with a younger woman. When she discovers the affair, she barges in on the cheating couple, bringing her children with her. Thurman performs the role with such gusto that she nearly steals the film. To break through the serious façade that von Trier has set up takes a serious amount of skill; Uma Thurman not only rises to the occasion, she fleshes out what could have been a throwaway character into one of the most interesting characters in this sprawling epic. —Marcus Michelen
Best of the Best
These last three picks were a cut above all the rest.
If we had awards to give, here’s who they’d go to.
I’m one of the known few who didn’t exactly gush over Boyhood when it came out. That said, the brilliance of Patricia Arquette’s performance cannot be denied, as it is undoubtedly the strongest in the film. Going toe-to-toe with Ethan Hawke for nearly three hours, Arquette often steals the spotlight from the film’s supposed protagonist, the young Ellar Coltrane. Her already famous “I just thought there would be more,” line is sure to be the inspiration for thousands of tattoos and t-shirts for years to come. More than that, Arquette embodies the anxiety of a woman approaching middle age, one with neither a husband nor much of a career, her only legacy being her two children. It’s this legacy that drives her to be the best mother she can, and sons and daughters around the world will be unable to resist comparisons to the matriarchal figures in their lives. In Boyhood, Patricia Arquette is the modern American mother, and it’ll be a long time before another performance will even be considered as joining the ranks with this one. —Josef Rodriguez
in Gone Girl
Black widows and femme fatales simply pale in comparison to Rosamund Pike’s transcendent performance as Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s cult hit novel from 2012. Her stunning appearance, heightened intelligence, and deceptive ways make every man remember the age-old quote: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” —Chris Porazzo
in Under the Skin
In a film with so little dialogue, it’s rare that a lead performance should stand out so much. But forget Species or anything similar, Scarlett Johansson is one of the most compelling and well-acted extraterrestrials in film history. Everything about her performance as a mysterious being sent to Earth to seduce and entrap adult men is absolutely alien and informs her character’s understanding (or lack of understanding) of the Scottish city and countryside. All elements of the film work together toward a singular vision of strangeness and beauty. In a career already filled with great performances – from Ghost World to Lost in Translation – Under the Skin marks a new high for Johansson as well as quiet, philosophical, science fiction overall. —Maximilien Luc Proctor