1. Bjork- Dancer in the Dark– It was already a complicated role to step into; a lower class immigrant who must work in a factory to support her son and save up for his surgery to save him from the same blindness that was dooming her. She then runs into serious threats when capitalist America comes into the picture. Add in musical fantasies, tension from the sadist Lars Von Trier and impossible songs written by Bjork herself, and the role of Selma is just as doomed as the character. But Bjork takes this tragic story, gives it the proper life, glimmer for hope and our sympathy to prolong the inevitable as long as possible, making it even that much more difficult to take. It’s a pure work of devastation to watch Bjork melt right down into the role, with her far-off eyes, that reckoning, hopeless smile and perfectly broken down English that match every last theme in the movie. Key Scene- Selma is in a jail cell broken down and alone and once again turns to music to take her away. Moving to the ventilator, she begins singing Julie Andrews’ “Favorite Things” to calm herself from one of the lowest points in her life. It’s a sad setting but a bright song, and then it gets even more disturbing when Bjork throws in the deep lumps in the back of her throat and tears matched with her revealing smile and dancing around. It’s heartbreaking to watch.
2. Ellen Burstyn- Requiem for a Dream- Her role as an aging widow hooked on caffeine pills in an attempt to get on her favorite television show is also one of the most heart-wrenching performances you’re ever likely to see. Burstyn may have lost the Oscar, but her performance will live on longer than any of the nominees from that year. Key Scene– Her monologue to her son Harry. It’s here that her character’s drug use is humanized, tragically. Burstyn doesn’t go full-on with her grief, she restrains herself to devastating effect. The close-up shot catches every nuance of a performance with many dazzling ones.
3. Naomi Watts- Mulholland Drive– Watts’ performance(s) in David Lynch’s mind-boggling neo-noir catapulted her to the ranks of Hollywood’s finest young actresses. Without her perky smile and willingness to bear her body and soul, Lynch’s vision would’ve been less convincing. Key Scene– As Betty auditions for a part in a movie, Watts makes the audition seem like reality thanks to a close-up of the two actors and her smoldering intensity and eroticism. It’s unlike anything you’ll see in any other movie.
4. Mo’Nique- Precious– A comedian shouldn’t have dramatic acting chops like this, but Mo’Nique does. Her riveting portrait of an abusive mother is the definition of scene-stealing. Her sexual desperation and desire to be loved by a man turned into hatred at its creation, her daughter. Mo’Nique doesn’t play this as a one-note monster. She makes you understand Mary Jones, and it’s all the more haunting a performance because of it. Key Scene (Explicit)– Many would pick the scathing scene at the end in the counselor’s office, but I have to go with her very first scene. Her intense over-reaction to a principal ringing the door bell is stunning. She lambastes her daughter, spewing profanity and throwing objects across the room. The documentary realism of the film making only makes it seem that much more harrowing.
5. Kate Winslet- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind– Of all the great Winslet performances, and there are many, this one stands out like the blue and orange dyed hair she embraces with her character. The story and entire film is a peculiar, sentimental piece that would have failed without completely complex characters and the proper actors who could fill those roles. Winslet’s Clementine is funny, eccentric yet young, vulnerable and ultimately on a soul search, which would be too much to ask out of a character if it were in different hands. Key Scene- On a train ride back from Montauk, Clementine meets Joel for what they believe is their first time meeting. Clementine puts her whole character on the line, claiming she is addictive little bitch, revealing her bubbly and eccentric personality while showing putting the truth in why she hates Joel for being nice. Winslet finds fantastic balances to make her one of the most interesting characters.
6. Tilda Swinton- Michael Clayton– When Swinton swept the Oscar away from Amy Ryan and Cate Blanchett, it seemed we were all duped, and not just by the antics of corporate America, but by our very own Hollywood! A viewing of her chilling performance in Michael Clayton as a tightly-wound attorney for a slimy agriculture chemicals company called U/North proves that she is every bit worthy of her award. Key Scene- The moment that Swinton really steals her Oscar is in a final confrontation with Clooney where she begins to lose her tight grip on things and slips away into a diminishing, unraveling mess of a women who obviously takes too much pride in keeping all her hairs perfectly in place. In this moment she cannot buyout Clooney’s character and shows one of the greatest meltdowns on screen.
7. Helena Bonham Carter- Sweeney Todd– It is certainly the most delicious duo she has with Depp. Burton’s muses are pitch-perfectly cast in this film and work wonders, even if it is for evil. Next to the Oscar nominated Depp, Carter similarly uses her acting talent and untrained vocals to cut up and blend acting and singing so perfectly, you forget you are watching a musical and instead realizing you are watching storytelling at its finest. Carter’s character is corrupt and lonely, but is willing to perform dark deeds to satisfy her desires and needs, even if it means struggling to wake up Mr. Todd from his vengeance-filled trance. Carter hits every single note with the proper humor, charm, empathy and ruthlessness to make it all work. Key Scene– When Carter weeps in her failures to swoon Mr. Todd and start a new family with their newly acquired apprentice/son, she goes into a chilling and emotional “Not While I’m Around” to ease the boy’s fears, though by doing so she creates mores eeriness, which is the perfect recipe.
8. Cate Blanchett- I’m Not There– Blanchett was one of the finest actresses of the decade, but her role as one of the six Bob Dylans in Todd Hayne’s reinvention of the biopic takes the cake. People were skeptical at first, but when she strutted on the screen with the same swagger as Dylan, they were silenced. Then when she opened her mouth and sounded like him, their silence was broken as their jaws hit the floor. Key Scene– As Jude is interviewed by the press, the weariness of life on the road is clear in Blanchett’s eyes. He blows off reporters with cryptic answers, rubbing his eyes with exhaustion. It might as well be archive news footage, and it’s filmed in the same way.
9. Marion Cotillard- La vie en Rose– Cotillard’s surprise win at the Oscars for this role didn’t come as much of a surprise to those who saw it. Her performance as singer Edith Piaf haunts and captivates for over 2 hours. It launched her career in America, where she’s stolen almost every scene in every movie she’s been in here since. Her ability to hold the screen, however, is here. Key Scene– As Edith sings a song to a sold out crowd in America, she collapses out of exhaustion. Not only does Cotillard perform the song with gusto, she appears to be exhausted up until the moment she collapses. Extraordinary stuff.
10. Nicole Kidman- The Hours– When an actor or actress “gets ugly” to do a performance, they are often lambasted. In this case, nobody complained. Kidman seems the only one who could do justice to lauded poet Virginia Woolf, and her performance manages to capture the essence of the author and delve into her psyche as well. Key Scene- Woolf flees to a train station, attempting to escape her writer’s block. As her husband tries to stop her, she unleashes, and Kidman captures her inner torment effortlessly.
11. Carey Mulligan- An Education- The Oscar belonged to Mulligan but went to Bullock. However, it’s probably a blessing she hadn’t won because she would likely have been pegged as an accomplice to Jesse James for victimizing beloved Sandra. Mulligan’s coming of age performance as a dreamer teenage girl who wishes to study at Oxford, travel to Paris, dress in black and smoke cigarettes is done with such carefulness that it mirrors just how delicate her character is when being charmed by a 30-year old millionaire and leaving behind her dreams for him. Key Scene- When Mulligan’s character discovers that school can no longer offer her the riches and dreams that her newly found boyfriend can, she starts getting in trouble at school, and eventually kicked out by the superintendent. Though Mulligan doesn’t go without a word, stating that students need to be told why they are being taught the things they are being taught and picks away at the bullshit in the eduction system, showing off her newly found headstrong strength to match her sweet fragility, a quality she will later regret.
12. Meryl Streep- The Devil Wears Prada– Streep had maybe her best decade ever, aging like a fine wine. In her finest performance of the decade as fashion queen Miranda Priestly, she manages to draw bloody laughs and humanize a monster as if it were nothing. Key Scene– Her monologue about “this stuff” after her new assistant makes an innocent remark is priceless. The death glare, the delivery, and Streep’s commandment of the scene and the camera is unnerving, hilarious, and one of her finest screen moments.
13. Kristin Scott Thomas- I’ve Loved You So Long– Perhaps one of the biggest snubs of the decade was the Academy’s failure to nominate Scott Thomas for her brilliant performance in this French melodrama. As Juliette, a woman released after a 15 year prison sentence, she keeps you riveted even when the movie doesn’t. Key Scene- Her meltdown at the end after keeping it cool for the entire movie is all the more surprising because of the torment Scott Thomas unleashes. It’s a lesson in acting no aspiring actor or actress should miss.
14. Penelope Cruz- Vicky Cristina Barcelona- Who knew rich European artists had such hard lives? Though she doesn’t play either of the titled characters, Cruz gets an even tastier role as a crazy ex who barges into the relationship of her ex and his new American girlfriend. Maria Elena, as she is known, doesn’t want to split the two up however, instead she wants in on their action, and pulls every stunt and antic to get her way. In a Woody Allen classic about finding new and alternative forms of romance in Europe’s upper class art society and with a cast of brilliant sensual performances, Cruz adds the necessary Oscar winning spices to make this film sizzle. Key Scene- When Cruz first shows up in the film during the middle of the night at her ex’s home after a suicide attempt, she does not warm up to his girlfriend quite the way she will later. Her pouting and language crossing tangents that mimic a 14 year old, only more sexually deviant and less bratty, are a mix of comedic heat and incredible improvisation.
15. Charlize Theron- Monster– Theron’s Oscar-winning role as serial-killer/prostitute Aileen Wuornos could’ve simply been Oscar-bait. Instead, Theron actually becomes Wuornos, with some of the most haunting eyes in all of cinema. Key Scene (Explicit)- The client that drives Aileen to murder. He abducts her, ties her up, and pours rubbing alcohol on her. He doesn’t get the chance to finish her off, though. Theron is captivating in the horror of this moment, and her escape and killing of her would-be tormentor shows us nothing less than the creation of a monster.