Let’s ring in the New Year with a list of 2015’s finest performances.
A realisation hit me as I was submitting my ballots for The 2015 Failed Critics Awards – the results of which you can discover here – the other week. It came when I was having to fill in my Top 5 Male Performances ballot and I was only able to come up with 3 on the spot. 3 performances by male actors that actually stuck with me majorly throughout the whole of 2015, I had to really stretch to finish off that list. However, when it came time for me to fill my Female Performances ballot, I couldn’t stop adding names. My no. 5 pick kept getting cycled out for other entries that I also wanted to highlight, so many outstanding performances by super talented actresses this year that were all deserving of praise.
So, as a result, this here list consists purely some of the best performances put in by actresses in 2015, cos this was absolutely their year (the male performances that may have cracked this list had I not decided on this theme will be revealed tomorrow). In fact, it was so much their year, that I actually still had to cut people when coming up with this piece because 15 sprang immediately to mind when I started noting people down and at least another 7 jumped out at me when I looked back through my list of what I’d managed to see this year. Unfortunately, 10 was my limit even though, barring one, they’re in no particular order or ranking, so some had to get cut. Before we jump into the actual list, let’s take a brief moment to give a well-deserved round of applause for those women who killed it in the best possible way and only missed out on my list due to my lazy desire to only do half a job.
Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), Rinko Kikuchi (Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), Kristen Stewart (American Ultra), Selma Hayek (Everly), Miranda Hart (Spy), Nina Hoss (Phoenix), Amy Poehler (Inside Out), Phyllis Smith (Inside Out), Jessica Chastain (Crimson Peak)
Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer
As I noted back in the film’s entry in my Top 20 Films of 2015 list, Charlotte Rampling’s performance in 45 Years is the single best performance by anyone in all of 2015, an absolute masterclass in saying so much with so little. The pain of Kate, the quietly nagging and incessant pain over the metaphorical return of Katya to her and Geoff’s life (and the slow realisation that she may in fact have never left), is evident in every scene without ever coming off as forced or unnatural. Rampling infuses Kate with life, as if this woman has truly existed right up until the time that we joined her, clueing us in effortlessly as to how her life was before that letter starts pulling at its various threads despite the film starting almost immediately at its arrival. And her work during the final dance, where her facial and body language are able to conjure up nail-biting edge-of-seat tension all by themselves, should be the basis of a full 3 hour lecture to all budding Drama students. In much the same way as Scarlett Johansson’s work in Under the Skin was leagues ahead of anyone else’s in 2014, nobody else even came close to the same ballpark as where Rampling was operating on in 45 Years. Virtuoso work.
Jada Pinkett Smith as Rome
Magic Mike XXL
From unquestionably the best performance I saw this year to my favourite performance I saw this year, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rome is very, very nearly the best thing about Magic Mike XXL which is saying a hell of a lot. The sheer blunt force charisma that she projects from the very second she walks on screen is overwhelming in the best possible way, being effortlessly charming and powerful, her every line delivered in a carefully-considered manner that still feels boundlessly playful. By the time that she’s MC’ing the triumphant final sequence, she’s become just as much of a star attraction as the perfectly-chiselled physiques of the men we’ve paid to see, practically guiding the film from moment to moment all by herself like she told its director to take 10 cos she’s got this. It’s the kind of performance that immediately made me question why she’s not in more movies right the hell now; charisma this potent should not be actively ignored.
Emily Blunt as Kate Macer
On paper, all Emily Blunt has to do in Sicario is look scared and troubled by what’s going on. I mean, there’s obviously a lot more to Kate than that, as I’ll explain in a sec, but it’s the kind of role where lesser performers would see this as a cue to bust out all of their variations on fear and concern and then call it a day. Blunt, though, is having none of that, instead pulling off a subtle juggling act with aplomb. Yes, Kate does have to look scared by the horrors she has to face and troubled by the decidedly non-legal methods that the supposed ‘Good Guys’ are utilising, but she’s also slowly breaking down and crumbling under the weight of what she’s being put through, having been thrust into a new and unknown zone where those she’s working with are decidedly unwilling to help explain anything to her. However, she also can’t show that she’s breaking down, and since she’s a woman in a Man’s World, doing so would be all the opening it takes for everyone else to dogpile her mercilessly. She may be the best in her field, but that still doesn’t mean that these men are going to pay her any respect. So all Kate can do is try her best to keep up the facade, and Blunt lets us know all of this without ever having to betray the guarded nature of her character.
Alicia Vikander as Gabriella “Gabby” Teller
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Alicia Vikander has had quite the barnstormer of a year, what with having appeared in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and receiving a Golden Globe nomination for The Danish Girl in the same 12 month period. She’s had such a meteoric year that when she turned up for 2 scenes in an utterly thankless bit-part in the godawful Bradley Cooper ego-stroking machine Burnt it already felt completely beneath her. The film, though, where I realised that we have a bona-fide Movie Star on our hands was Guy Ritchie’s Man From U.N.C.L.E. where Vikander brings the old-fashioned charisma-filled old-school Spy movie performance with 100% commitment and a palpable sense of fun, the kind of performance where you know that she knows exactly what kind of movie she’s starring in and is not in the least bit ashamed of that fact. The reason I’m most annoyed by U.N.C.L.E.’s failure at the box office is that I won’t get to see her flaunt that kind of natural Movie Star charisma again, or at least not for a long-ass while.
Mya Taylor as Alexandra
Calling-card performances are wonders to behold, when somebody makes such an outstanding and lasting impression in their debut starring role that you know that you’re gonna be seeing more of them yet just have to see them again in something else immediately because all that talent should not be going to waste. They’re rare like unicorns but, much like if unicorns did exist and weren’t just mythical figures whose non-existence is like one continuous cruel joke about the misery of reality, they’re so magical when one finally makes themselves known. Mya Taylor’s brilliant supporting turn in Tangerine, that mixes hilarious straight-woman eye-rolling at the lead’s chaos with genuinely affecting sadness and sincerity along with a legitimately moving music number just after the film’s midpoint, is a calling-card performance if I ever did see one. I really hope that this is just the first time that we’ll be seeing her in movies.
Mae Whitman as Bianca Piper
More comedies would benefit from lead performers willing to go-for-broke like Mae Whitman does in The DUFF. Most movies would benefit from having from having Mae Whitman in them in general, though, which goes a long way to explaining that go-for-broke performance. Mae Whitman has been a consistently great actress for a long while now, killing it as a Voice Actress and in supporting roles in various TV shows and movies, yet, despite her natural charm and likeability, she’s often been overlooked for any leading roles because… your guess is as good as mine, to be frank. The DUFF presents her with her first proper leading role and, seemingly completely aware of just how unlikely such an opportunity is going to come by her again, she throws herself into it with gleeful abandon, committing to everything: to all the High School movie cliches, to dramatically unfollowing her former friends on social media, to sexually coming-onto a department store mannequin. In a better world, Mae would be fielding leading role offers from all directions thanks to her work here… just a shame that none of you watched the bloody thing.
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa
Mad Max: Fury Road
It’s the vulnerability. Furiosa could have just been yet another stoic hard-ass badass chick who walks and talks like a living parody of what a room full of 13 year-old boys think a Strong Female Character is like, but she isn’t and it’s due to that vulnerability. Obviously, Fury Road’s script is responsible for adding that vulnerability, but Charlize Theron is why that vulnerability is so apparent. She never lets go of this sadness that’s powering Furiosa, this regret for past actions un-shown and unspoken, and that’s what makes Furiosa so memorable. She’s not just an emotionless masculine robot who happens to be embodied by a female actress, she’s a full-developed, nuanced, and interesting character who has actual feelings beyond anger and rage that she’s willing to display. Theron brings the capability and the badass-ness when necessary, that much is a given, but she also keeps that emotional part of Furiosa in play the whole time. That’s why her character is so amazing.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Claire
For so much of Faults, Mary Elizabeth Winstead downplays almost any and all traces of her usual charisma, keeping Claire on this distant plane that barely seems connected to the one that we exist on. It’s a smart move for two reasons. The first is that Claire technically is on a distant plane to the rest of us, completely under the spell of cult control and under a sincere belief that this is a better and freer way to live her life. What’s great about Winstead’s performance is that she refuses to play Claire anywhere close to a stereotype or caricature, adding a natural dimension that sells Claire’s sincerity about the cult and its power and keeping her from seeming unnatural or ridiculous. The second is so that the film’s climax, as previously detailed in my Best Scenes piece, can simultaneously come out of nowhere (her slap caught me completely off-guard and made sure my eyes could not look anywhere other than the screen from then on) and feel perfectly built towards. It’s a brilliantly deceptively low-key reminder that Winstead is one of the best actresses working today.
Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper
By now, one probably has Melissa McCarthy typecast to a tee, playing brash, loudmouthed, vulgar masculine women who will fall down a lot and be very assholish yet have a secretly charming and sweet centre that makes them likeable anyway. Bridesmaids, The Heat, Identity Thief, and even the promotional material for Spy have ridden this one character as far as it can possibly go, but McCarthy has so much more to offer than that. Spy, for example, proves that she can play the complete opposite of that just as well if not better. Reversing the usual order in which we discover a Melissa McCarthy character, Susan is first and foremost a shy, nervous, unconfident woman who is incredibly earnest and sweet, and hopelessly easy to like. When she switches into the typecast McCarthy character, there’s this sense that it doesn’t fit with the Susan we’ve grown to know, which is absolutely intentional and makes her eventual blossoming into her own woman, as a sort of middle-ground between the two without ever once losing any of that inherent likeability, such a triumph. It’s a brilliant performance from McCarthy, one that should finally silence any doubters of her skills as an actress and hopefully break her into more varied roles in the future.
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet
This is one performance. Sure, the characters of Therese and Carol are two separate beings with their own individual faults, quirks, and thoughts, but the chemistry that the two have is tantamount to being a performance in its own right. The slow cautious dance around and towards their true feelings for one another is mesmerising to watch and achingly beautiful. One can, and really should, also credit the direction and screenplay and photography for the palpable sexual tension that exists between Therese and Carol, but I also strongly believe that most all of that hard work would have been for nothing if anybody other than Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett were in those roles and if the pair didn’t have such immediate and obvious chemistry. The tension, both sexual and romantic, that they cultivate between themselves is intoxicating, managing to create a genuine desire in me to see these two get their happy ending together right from the first time they lock eyes with each other. The first time, long before we even know much else about them, the spark is that instantaneous and obvious. So, yes, this is one performance, Owen, and it is an absolutely sublime one, at that.
Make sure to come back tomorrow for The 1st Official Callum Petch Awards!