5. Hilda Péter in Katalin Varga
Some of 2010's greatest female performances had actresses playing heroines of archetypal myths, fairy tales and urban legends (off the top of my head, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, Paprika Steen in Applaus and my number one choice come to mind...)
Few played them with the authority and command of Hilda Péter; playing the title role she's the embodiment of motherhood at its most primal.
In the film, Katalin is vanished from her village, after her husband discovers their child was fathered by another man. Instead of begging for forgiveness, Katalin decides to leave with a mission: to kill the man who raped her years before.
The directorial debut of Peter Strickland bursts with natural beauty (Terrence Malick must've influenced him) and an Eastern European, ominous dread worthy of Lars von Trier. Péter shines in all of her scenes, giving a performance so committed and steady that you never catch her trying. Katalin acts as if commanded by the gods but we know Péter is the driving force behind.
4. Noomi Rapace in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Modern legend has it, that when Stieg Larsson was writing The Millennium Trilogy, he had originally centered it on journalist Mikael Blomkvist. The character of goth hacker Lisbeth Salander was just a peripheral creation.
Then he realized that Lisbeth was getting out of his hands and overtaking his original intentions. When the books were adapted into films, Lisbeth continued her bewitching effect over popular culture as the beautiful Noomi Rapace took on the role.
Making Lisbeth's introverted nature and her violent demeanor, all her own, Rapace delivered an action heroine that had us rooting for her unconventional methods, even when we could detect a morbid sense of evil delight in her deceiving, crooked smile. Because we don't know whether to love or fear her, Lisbeth Salander gets under your skin.
Rapace's "best" performance might not be in the first movie but without her iconic work in the first installment we wouldn't be curious about the rest of the series.
Perhaps in the very same way that Larsson found himself typing her name compulsively page after page.
3. Tilda Swinton in I Am Love
Like some of the greatest screen icons, Tilda Swinton has the ability to take violent hold of the screen and command our eyes towards her, just as she can blend herself in the background with distressing effortlessness.
In Luca Guadagnino's operatic I Am Love, she does the latter, turning in a beautifully quiet performance as Emma Recchi.
We learn that she's a Russian immigrant who married an Italian heir, but other than that her character flowers in front of our eyes with each passing scene. As usual Swinton impresses; her Russian accent over her mastery of Italian is unique to say the least, but the beauty of Emma is how she allows us to watch her being seduced (by food, by the senses, by idealism, by a younger man...) without the self-consciousness that comes whenever "sinful" or forbidden behavior is portrayed onscreen.
If you thought you'd seen Tilda do it all, think again. She makes eating a meal seem like a master course in acting.
2. Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole
Becca is a truly damaged soul who lost all the will to live after the death of her only child. However she doesn't opt for an easy path of destruction, instead she lives her life as penance for not having been there, for not having seen...
Yet seen through the eyes of Nicole Kidman, her tragic character reaches an unexpected amount of humanity and soul.
Watching the actress take control of this controlling character, is watching something that resembles supernatural possession. Kidman breathes each of Becca's breath. She lives her pain and delivers a uniquely crushing portrayal of self pity and eventual enlightenment.
When Becca achieves catharsis, she does it in the most unexpected of places and under the strangest circumstances, with Kidman acting as her very own exorcist.
1. Natalie Portman in Black Swan
The first time I watched Black Swan I hated it. Its crescendo of ballet, histrionics and horror seemed like a parody in the making. One thing blew my mind off though, and that was Natalie Portman.
Her performance is unlike anything she's ever done before and not because she plays an insane person but because it's the first time where she completely surrenders to the power of her creation.
In the past, whenever she attempted to play "dark", you could see her acting, she's an actress who has trouble hiding discomfort and it usually gets the bes of her. But playing ballerina Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky's masterpiece, she tapped on a level of artistry that's both disturbing and inviting.
As Nina goes from mommy's girl to Kafkaesque tragedy, we see that Portman has vanished. How could she not you might say when she's playing a ballerina, who's playing two different characters. Yet the truth is that her performance is effective because it goes beyond technique and mannerisms (bonus points for acting so seamlessly along with the visual effects, something she never achieved in those little space fantasy movies...).
There's one particular scene that lingers long after the credits have rolled and it's the one where Nina realizes what she's done, minutes before her big performance.
Then and there she makes a choice and it's so powerful that even we feel it, for a second Nina stares right into the camera, right into our eyes and she's telling us "I will give you the show of a lifetime, even if it kills me".
As her harsh director in the movie asks her to try harder, the truth is that Natalie has done it all along. The moment the movie begins Rothbart has already put his spell on her, she's been the black swan all along.