Monday, February 18, 2013

Best Actress Showdown

With the Academy Awards a mere six days away, here is the first in a four-part analysis of the acting races. 

Unlike the other categories, Oscar's Best Actress had more than its fair share of credible nominees to choose from. My top performer of the year - Marion Cotillard (Rust & Bone) - failed to win a nomination after earning both SAG and Golden Globe nominations. Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea), a former Oscar winner, also failed to reap Oscar glory. These five women are worthy nominees, even if Naomi Watts' performance is not quite on the same level as her competitors.

I offer a review of these five performances in chronological order of my viewing:

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy
Beasts of the Southern Wild 
First Viewing: July
Quvenzhan√© Wallis is a nine year old girl from Louisiana. She auditioned for Beasts of the Southern Wild at five and director Benh Zeitlin changed his script to match her intensity. The film premiered at Sundance and won the Grand Jury Prize. It is now nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Hushpuppy is the heart and soul of the film. She has grown up without a mother and her father, now dealing with his own health issues, is inconsistent and volatile. Wallis' performance is mature beyond her young age. I was blown away with this young girl in m initial review of the film, and months later I am still in awe. 

Naomi Watts as Maria Bennett
The Impossible
First Viewing: September
I saw Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. I found the film to be emotionally profound (and I cried while watching it), but in the months leading up to its December release, I found myself aggravated by its overblown trailer. Watts' performance is decent, but it pales in comparison to her work Mulholland Drive (2001) and especially 21 Grams (2003), her finest performance to date. As Maria Bennett, Watts is gifted with an emotionally-rich role and she spends most of the film screaming and crying. Even in my TIFF review I remarked that Watts screamed a lot! 

Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany Maxwell
Silver Linings Playbook
First Viewing: November
My initial review of the film does not give Jennifer Lawrence enough credit for her performance. I was too distracted by Bradley Cooper's insanity to see the true beauty and craft in Lawrence's Tiffany. After wowing critics (but not me) in Winter's Bone (2010), Lawrence has been something of a hot commodity in Hollywood. She will embrace her tween fans in two more adaptations of The Hunger Games trilogy, but Silver Linings Playbook is her first true adult performance. She blurs the line between comedy and drama so well, making Tiffany's craziness compelling (and not irritating, like her costars). Silver Linings Playbook was not the type of film that I expected to win the Audience Award at TIFF, but it would be a great performance to laud for Best Actress

Emmanuelle Riva as Anne Laurent
First Viewing: December 
Emmanuelle Riva is a revelation in Michael Haneke's brilliant Amour. Browsing her filmography, I expected to find that I had never seen Riva in another film, but it turns out that she appeared as Juliette Binoche's mother in Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993) - coincidentally, her Amour costar Jean-Louis Trintignant had a pivotal role in Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994). Riva, at eighty-five years old, is the oldest woman to be nominated for Best Actress. Her performance as a woman whose life quickly deteriorates after suffering a debilitating stroke is so heartbreaking that I was shaken for days after seeing the film. Read my review here

Jessica Chastain as Maya
Zero Dark Thirty
First Viewing: January
Jessica Chastain's performance as Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's fantastic Zero Dark Thirty is probably my favourite performance of this list. The film begins in 2003 after the 9/11 attacks, and Maya is a young CIA officer focused on capturing Osama bin Laden. Through the course of the film, an eight-year span, the search for bin Laden intensifies and so does Chastain's performance. Her character comes out of her shell and it serves as a coming out party for Chastain's career. She was great in The Help (2011) and mesmerizing in the hard to understand The Tree of Life (2011), but Zero Dark Thirty is her finest performance to date. Check my review here.

Will Win: The Oscar is Jennifer Lawrence's to lose. She seems to have cemented her status as the frontrunner after winning both the Golden Globe and SAG awards. Jessica Chastain won a handful of critics awards, but so did Lawrence. Emmanuelle Riva's win at the BAFTAs could offer a potential surprise, but it seems unlikely. 

Should Win: Without Marion Cotillard I do not have a clear favourite, but Chastain, Lawrence and Riva are all worthy winners. I would not be disappointed if any of the three won. Is it too much to hope for a three-way tie?

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