Coming up with a top five for this category was a surprisingly simple task, since there were exactly five performances that really, really stood out to me this year. Of course, there were several women who didn't quite make the top five but would have been totally deserving - it was such a strong year. Anyway, the top five!
5. Kim Hye-Ja - "Mother"
When I first saw this film, the only adjective I could use to describe Kim's performance was operatic. The range of emotions she goes through to portray her character are so expansive and thus so marvelous to watch unfold. Her final shot is simply haunting - the entire performance is a magnificent piece of work.
4. Nicole Kidman - "Rabbit Hole"
Almost the polar opposite of Kim Hye-Ja, Kidman plays Becca with such a quiet force of emotion. Her cold exterior is never alienating and Kidman's handling of the long grief period her character experienced before the start of the movie is masterful. Kidman gives a simply beauiful performance - those park scenes are perfection.
3. Emma Stone - "Easy A"
Compared to the other women on this list, and many of the other fantastic performances that didn't make the top five, Stone's performance may seem a bit lightweight. Take a second look though, and you'll see that in "Easy A" Emma Stone delivers an absolutely brilliant, radiant comedic performance. She elevates every single aspect of the movie, and every single line from her mouth, every single facial expression, and every little twitch or bodily reaction is perfectly timed to achieve the ultimate comedic affect. A star-making turn that leaves you wanting more.
2. Annette Bening - "Mother and Child"
It's Bening's performance in "The Kids are All Right" that's been getting the most praise (and it is a fantastic performance) but it's her work in "Mother and Child" that I remember, and will remember, the most. Bening is perfect at being cold, even mean, but she knows Karen so, so well that it's impossible for us not to connect. The way she paces her performance is also great, so that the big emotional moment in her performance is truly heart wrenching. Limited screentime does not hinder this magnificent work.
1. Natalie Portman - "Black Swan"
It's hard to really formulate thoughts around this epic performance. Portman gives the performance of a lifetime as the mentally deteriorating Nina, balancing her innocent persona in the first act marvelously with her unraveling character in the second act. Even disregarding the physical effort that this performance required, Natalie Portman's complete immersion in her character hasn't got a single gap and is horrifying, beautiful, and awesome all at once. And that scene in the bathroom stall? Best acting all year.
It was difficult to not mention Michelle Williams who does beautiful, multilayered and age-spanning work in "Blue Valentine"; Greta Gerwig's quiet, non-actressy performance is so marvelously simple in "Greenberg" as she becomes the film's unlikely hero; Jennifer Lawrence carries "Winter's Bone" so well with a raw naturalism that is rarely seen done so well; Hailee Steinfeld shows acting skills beyond her years as she gives her character remarkable candor and yet, perfect subtlety.
Just Missed It:
Catherine Keener in "Please Give", Julianne Moore in "The Kids Are All Right", Rachel McAdams in "Morning Glory", Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Scott Pilgrim Vs the World"