Spring is now in session, and before the summer blockbuster bulldozer arrives there are several ladies who should toast themselves for their big screen work early in 2011.
The fine work of actresses on film in 2010 continues in 2011. Already there are nine solid performances, a few of which merit serious consideration for awards season even at this early stage of the year.
Each performance comes in an independent film. The actresses in them cut powerful figures: historical, fictional, literary and contemporary. Here’s my rank of each actress’ performance in their respective films, starting with the best.
Nia Long may have the year’s finest big screen performance, in Qasim Basir’s “Mooz-lum” as Safiyah, a Muslim mother trying to balance her son’s strict upbringing by his father with her own values. Ms. Long, who has mainly been in comedy and romances (“The Best Man”, “Love Jones”) is striking and resonant, never compromising the protectiveness of Safiyah towards her son Tariq (Evan Ross). Startling and mesmerizing, the role is 180 degrees from anything Ms. Long has done, even though she had a relatively small role 20 years ago in John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood”. Ms. Long merits strong Oscar consideration in a supporting role.
Robin Wright has demonstrated her ability to breathe an inner strength into smaller character roles or larger ones. As a supporting Oscar nominee in “Forrest Gump” she gave life and passion to Jenny. So much suggestion and power drove her character in “State Of Play”, and she played the title role in “The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee”. Ms. Wright’s work in “The Conspirator” is absolutely beautiful. She plays real-life figure Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government, convicted for conspiracy to murder President Lincoln in 1865. Ms. Wright aches from the inside out, and her poise and dignity are the most impressive aspects of a highly disciplined performance. She should be remembered at Oscar time for her sterling support work.
Liverpool-born Kim Cattrall is best known in the U.S. for playing Samantha Jones in the TV and film editions of “Sex And The City”, but last year she sublimated a large measure of Samantha’s wantonness and licentiousness in “The Ghost Writer” as Alicia. A year later she’s on the big screen as fictional 1970s porn star Monica Velour in “Meet Monica Velour”, in a deglamorized, vanity-free show of faded glory. Ms. Cattrall gained about 10-20 pounds for the role, and she’s priceless in it. Tough, tender and both sympathetic and unsympathetic, it’s the best work of Ms. Cattrall’s career.
Juliette Binoche is remarkable as Elle in “Certified Copy” as a woman who chaperones a best-selling English author around the Tuscan countryside. Their interaction shifts in sublime and fascinating ways, and Ms. Binoche’s performance accommodates these moods with chameleon displays, razor-sharp intellect and evolving warmth. Ms. Binoche is varied, controlled as she tries to make a connection with a stranger. It’s assured and adventurous.
Salli Richardson-Whitfield is the contemplative presence and calming influence in Ava DuVernay’s drama “I Will Follow” as Maye, who spends a day moving out of her home and remembering the late aunt she lived with. Ms. Richardson-Whitfield gives an authentically cast real-time performance which fits the introspective rhythm of Ms. DuVernay’s film. Ms. Richardson-Whitfield is measured, adult and subtle, making Maye a multidimensional character — a rarity in many films featuring black characters.
Mia Wasikowska shimmers and shines as literary heroine Jane Eyre in one of the best big screen adaptations of Charlotte Brönte’s classic novel. Cary Joji Fukunaga directs Miss Wasikowska, who brings discipline and cerebral power to a delicate but resolute figure. One of the most complete performances so far in 2011, Miss Wasikowska shows she can not only create a rich, independent character who goes on an odyssey of the heart and mind but that she’s more than capable of holding her own against the likes of Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins and Michael Fassbender.
Beverly Todd brings warmth and sentimentality to “I Will Follow” as Amanda. Seen in flashbacks, Ms. Todd plays the aunt who has passed away. The actress gives a vivid, life-affirming portrait of a woman who allows her love for music, the arts and her niece Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) to fuel her existence and joie de vivre. Ms. Todd is appealing, charismatic and joyous, making Amanda a beautiful, resplendent and instantly identifiable person.
Saoirse Ronan’s balanced, humorous turn as the title character in “Hanna” keeps this lively fairy tale drama moving. Most of Miss Ronan’s performance is beneath the surface. She thinks three moves ahead of everyone else and her Hanna is even quicker. There’s a scene where Ms. Ronan slows down and everything is expressed in her eyes. It’s a terrific moment. There are several others. Miss Ronan, who has often played characters who affect the innocence of others or of themselves, is less obvious in her acting in “Hanna”, but no less effective.
Trine Dyrholm plays a divorced mother of two in “In A Better World (Hævnen)”. She is even keeled and procedural, and a moment where she is especially good requires her to project a strong sense of fear as well as outrage. Ms. Dyrholm crafts each part of her character Marianne with care. She’s as real a parent as can be in Susanne Bier’s powerful, expressive drama.
Will any of these actresses appear on the Oscar short list next January? It’s anyone’s guess. Regardless of awards, each of these nine ladies renders a performance for audiences to revisit and some of the work will remain memorable beyond 2011.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s hornface.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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