For the love of entertainment
Time to rank the Best Actress 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 in ranking the best performances, I decided to only focus on the people who actually won an Academy Award. That means no one who was snubbed or didn’t get the prize. I may discuss the other nominees in a given year, but they will be left out of the ultimate judgment.
Let’s all be honest for a second: Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress, but this was not an Academy Award-worthy performance. The truth is harsh sometimes. Sure, she’s great as the love interest with serious emotional scars, but I can think of at least five actresses who could have done just as well off the top of my head. Faulting someone for degree of difficulty is a minefield, but come on. This is mostly a standard rom-com role–and Silver Linings Playbook is essentially a standard rom-com. Throwing in some mental illness as a curveball does not eliminate that essential fact. Standard is kind of the key word when it comes to J Law in Silver Linings Playbook. She won this Oscar because everyone loves her and she had a great year setting off The Hunger Games trilogy. 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. Hunger Games, American Hustle, Winter’s Bone, etc. And with her career continuing to soar, she’ll have many more great performances to come. The Academy jumped the gun by giving it to her for Silver Linings.
Should have won in 2012: Emmanuelle Riva for Amour.
Emma Stone’s Oscar is a case of convergence. The performance was incidental. She starred in the right movie in the right year at the right point in her career, then campaigned the shit out of it. It didn’t matter that she was the least deserving nominee: she had a narrative and was suitably charming as the face of a movie everyone loved–with two crying scenes and some singing and dancing thrown in. She’s a fine singer, but not great. She dances fine, too, but this isn’t Chicago, and she’s clearly not Ginger Rogers. She’s fine, but this was not Oscar-worthy. She just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. That’s how she got her first nomination for Birdman, and that’s how she won for La La Land. I hope she gave her team a raise, because her management is impeccable. She and her team have smartly managed her career to elevate her credibility. She’s popular with audiences. And Stone worked the award circuit hard. When La La became a festival darling she made it abundantly clear she was going to ride the wave to the finish line. Her campaigning wasn’t as obvious as Anne Hathaway’s or Melissa Leo’s (and thus immune to the criticism they faced), but make no mistake: she campaigned hard. Her win was not a slam dunk: she spent the first half of award season neck and neck with Natalie Portman. Stone became frontrunner when Natalie’s movie sank, but she still had to work to hold off latecomer Isabelle Huppert.
Should have won in 2016: Natalie Portman was robbed. Her Oscar story in 2016 is the opposite of convergence. A previous winner, Portman had an uphill battle competing against the ‘been there done that’ factor. Her movie, Jackie, was more arthouse than La La–which made it more inaccessible to audiences and more love-it-or-hate-it to critics. As such, it never got traction during award season and sank by the time Oscar noms came out. Portman was its best shot at recognition but by then nothing was going in her favor and everything was going in Stone’s. It’s a shame. Portman’s performance was smart, layered, and devastating. She deserved a second Oscar.
After winning the Golden Globe, the Best Actress category was all about Brie Larson. Part of that comes down to the studios behind Carol and The Danish Girl putting Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander in the Supporting races even though they were the leads of those films (both had more screentime than a costar who was nominated as leading actor). Vikander won Best Supporting Actress and I think she’d have won here if not for the category fraud. But that’s not the way things went. 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 plays a young woman who was kidnapped and hidden in a tiny room for seven years. She has a son who was born in the room and knows nothing else. She’s beaten down but not broken, doing her best to stay positive for her son and get them free. Once they do get out, she struggles to readjust to life outside–anger and depression finally consuming her. It’s a showcase role, but what’s remarkable about Larson is that she’s so understated. It would have been easy to be melodramatic; instead 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: Cate Blanchett’s sterling performance in Carol was essentially overlooked because she won two years earlier. Still, Alicia Vikander should have been competing in Best Actress instead of Supporting, and she would have gotten my vote.
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 Columbia professor who spent a lifetime vigorously pursuing academics and becoming the nation’s top mind in linguistics. Now, on her fiftieth birthday, she faces a heartbreaking (and incredibly rare) 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 her most unlikely child–the one who forsook medical school or law school in favor of acting–is genuinely touching. The intense mother-daughter relationship is deep and compelling, never cheesy or overly sentimental. In the beginning, Moore looks more like she’s filming a shampoo commercial rather than a movie about a professor, but in the end it makes the contrast between her former self and her later self all the more stark. It’s a beautiful 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 up against Moore, who deserved the victory.
I love me some Cate Blanchett. I do. Blanchett was great as the booze-addled, depressed social climber who just lost everything in Blue Jasmine–she really was. I didn’t feel much for the movie but Blanchett was mesmerizing. She gave a confident, commanding performance. I did feel that this was a performance Blanchett could knock out of the park in her sleep, though. She’s played a woman on the verge several times over (and was 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). I know I’m in the minority here but Blue Jasmine felt familiar to me. It’s a fantastic realization of roles she’s toyed with before, but the degree of difficulty is low. That isn’t necessarily a mark against her, but it does leave me just a little cold.
Should have won in 2013: Great as Blanchett is, I would have given it to Sandra Bullock for Gravity instead. Without Bullock’s performance that movie would have fallen apart–and the degree of difficulty Bullock faced was staggering. It’s kind of funny, because I don’t think Bullock deserved her Oscar for The Blind Side in 2009.
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.
There’s an assumption that Meryl Streep wins Oscars all the time, and it isn’t true. In fact, until The Iron Lady she had been on a thirty year losing streak. She does get nominated a lot, but let’s be honest: she’s Meryl fucking Streep. She deserves to be nominated a lot. No one can touch her.
Say what you will about The Iron Lady as a movie, I don’t think of it as a film so much as an event. An event in which Meryl lays down a towering performance as the first female British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. To call her great would be an insult to just how good she is. She does nothing less than transform before your very eyes. And unlike so many powerhouse performances, you never see her exert any effort at all. 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. There’s no sweat. She doesn’t sweat, she’s Meryl fucking Streep.
Should have won in 2011: 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 for one of her most towering performances in a career full of them.
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:
7. Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl (2015)
6. Sandra Bullock, Gravity (2013)
5. Julianne Moore, Still Alice (2014)
4. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour (2012)
3. Natalie Portman, Black Swan (2010)
2. Natalie Portman, Jackie (2016)
1. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady (2011)