For the love of entertainment
Time to rank the Best Actress Oscar winners of the 2010s. It’s not a race as hotly contested as Best Actor, but with some twists and turns of its own. As with all the 2010 posts, I’ll keep them updated as new winners are announced each year. We’ll see who reigns supreme by 2019. Let me again remind you that I may discuss the other nominees in a given year, but they will be left out of the ultimate judgment.
Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress, but this was not an Academy Award-worthy performance. She’s great as a love interest with serious emotional scars, but I can think of at least five actresses who could have done just as well. Faulting someone for the degree of difficulty is a minefield, but come on. This is mostly a standard rom-com role. Throwing in some mental illness as a curveball does not eliminate that fact. She won because 2012 also launched The Hunger Games, sending us into a J-Law moment. Well, that and the person who should have won, Emmanuelle Riva, was in a little-seen French movie about old people dying. That’s kind of a downer, no? J Law herself has given many better performances. The Academy jumped the gun by giving her an Oscar for Silver Linings.
Should have won in 2012: Emmanuelle Riva for Amour.
Emma Stone’s Oscar is a case of convergence. She starred in the right movie in the right year at the right point in her career, then campaigned the shit out of it. She was suitably charming as the face of a movie everyone loved. She’s a fine singer, but not great. She dances fine, too, but she’s clearly not Ginger Rogers. When La La became a festival darling she made it clear she was going to ride the wave all the way to the finish line. Her performance was incidental–just one more reward for La La Land. Stone is a great actress, but she’s done better.
Should have won in 2016: Natalie Portman was robbed. A previous winner, Portman had an uphill battle competing against the ‘been there done that’ factor. It’s a shame. Portman’s performance was smart, layered, and devastating. She deserved a second Oscar.
Category fraud is very common at the Oscars, and Larson probably owes her win to Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander competing in the Supporting races even though they were the leads of their films (both had more screentime than a costar who was nominated as leading actor). Given the field we got, it’s easy to see why the previously unknown Larson gained momentum. Voters love a fresh young face in the actress pool, and Room is devastating. Larson has a showcase role as a mother who suffered years of abuse while hiding the truth from her son, but Larson is remarkably understated. Instead of melodrama, she focuses on a quiet humanity that makes the movie all the more powerful. The revelatory performance of her child costar, Jacob Tremblay–and the adorable chemistry they shared throughout award season–also helped her stand out.
Should have won in 2015: With Alicia Vikander moved over from Best Supporting Actress, it becomes a heartbreaking battle royale. Both performances are worthy, and while I think Vikander is very moving, I give the edge to Larson’s quiet humanity.
As Julianne Moore swept through award season, there was a sense that it was about time; that after almost twenty years of indelible performances she was due an Oscar. That type of thinking takes away from the great care and subtle work she did in Still Alice, where she plays a professor facing a heartbreaking diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s. Over the next few years she undergoes a rapid deterioration, struggling to come to terms with the implications on her family (one of her daughters also tests positive for the gene) as well as the perceived loss of respect and dignity. Moore handles the transition with eloquence, grace, and surprising humor. The connection she forges with one of her daughters is genuinely touching. It’s a beautifully calibrated performance.
Should have won in 2014: Any other year Reese Witherspoon’s fierce performance as a woman who walks the Pacific Crest Trail to find redemption and peace in Wild would have easily won. But not against Moore, who deserved the victory.
I called Three Billboards a garbage movie but McDormand shines as a grieving, angry mother lashing out for justice over her daughter’s brutal murder, even though the shoddy script lets her down in the end. Some of the twists it forces her character to make just don’t make sense and even an actor of McDormand’s caliber can’t resolve them. The reason she’s so great is that McDormand’s weary face portrays the grief and compassion within Mildred Hayes in every scene, but even so–it’s hard to reconcile a character who wildly veers between compassion, violence, and downright mean behavior.
Should have won in 2017: Saoirse Ronan’s understated performance in Lady Bird was great, but I’m okay with McDormand’s win.
I know most people have trouble getting passionate about both this movie and Meryl’s performance. As the first female British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, she does nothing less than transform. And unlike so many powerhouse performances, you never see her exert any effort. Not in Thatcher’s early years, where she claims power. Not when she becomes controversial and loses power. And not in Thatcher’s later years, when she succumbs to dementia. Meryl knocks it all effortlessly out of the park. But I can see why people don’t love this performance: it’s so calibrated that it feels like impersonation without interpretation. You don’t always see what’s going on underneath. I think this is more a failing of the movie, but it does hamper the performance a bit.
Should have won in 2011: There’s an assumption that Meryl Streep wins Oscars all the time, and it isn’t true. Until The Iron Lady she had been on a thirty-year losing streak. Many predicted Viola Davis would win for the quiet dignity she brought to The Help, but that was mostly because they thought Meryl would be hurt by the perception that she always wins. In the end, there was no denying Meryl.
I’ve come around on this performance in recent years. I think part of my initial resistance to it was that I disliked the movie. Blanchett was great as the booze-addled, depressed social climber who lost everything in Blue Jasmine. She was mesmerizing, giving a confident, commanding performance. Admittedly, she’s played a woman on the verge several times over (nominated for it in Notes On a Scandal, to name one). She’s played ladies with big personalities (and won for it in The Aviator, to name one). So Blue Jasmine feels familiar even though it’s a fantastic realization of roles she had toyed with before.
Should have won in 2013: It’s a tough year and I’m tempted to call a tie between Blanchett and Sandra Bullock for Gravity, but in the end Bullock carries an entire movie that would not have worked without her (and although most of her acting was against green screens, she makes it feel natural). Bullock.
I’ve been a Natalie Portman fan going back to Beautiful Girls, so it was nice to see her grow up and fulfill the promise she had as a young actress. Her Star Wars years were a little scary because you could tell she phoned it in the second she realized those movies were going to be terrible, but she ended up OK. In Black Swan she was nothing short of amazing as a ballerina who gets her big break, only to begin cracking under the pressure–spiraling further and further out of control. This ballerina is determined, ambitious, fragile, vulnerable, and desperately unstable–frequently all in the same scene. It’s a slam dunk performance.
Should have won in 2010: 2010’s Best Actress race was all about Portman.
Just for fun, let’s take a look at how the ranking would look if the actresses I think should have won in each year took Oscar home:
8. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour (2012)
7. Brie Larson, Room (2015)
6. Julianne Moore, Still Alice (2014)
5. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
4. Sandra Bullock, Gravity (2013)
3. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady (2011)
2. Natalie Portman, Black Swan (2010)
1. Natalie Portman, Jackie (2016)