5. Elle Fanning in Somewhere
Playing Cleo, the young daughter of a movie star (Stephen Dorff), Elle Fanning gives Somewhere its heart. Sure, you might say, children always give movies their heart.
Yet what Fanning does isn't about "aww"s. Her combination of here-too-soon ennui and keen observance (she's like a movie camera!) are what give the movie its center in a much more transcendental way. Cleo rarely says something without meaning it and the movie delights itself watching her go through seemingly trivial moments (the eggs Benedict moment is one of pure intimate joy, see the way she smiles throughout the entire sequence).
What results heartbreaking about her is how much she needs to be loved by the people she loves. Paired with Dorff she has a natural chemistry that never allows you to disbelieve they are related, what's more, you feel a connection.
Cleo's angelical face lights up when she sees her father and we understand that she has learned to compromise with what she desires and what life can actually give her.
4. Lesley Manville in Another Year
Few performances in 2010 were as painful to watch as Lesley Manville's in Another Year. Playing the needy Mary, friend to an older married couple (Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent) she creates a portrait of someone whose loneliness has become who they are.
Manville takes us through Mary's deconstruction; from insecure yet hopeful temptress to utter desolate woman in such a delicate way that you feel for her.
Her insecurity makes it impossible for us to stop looking at her. Notice how in one of the scenes Mary arrives at a barbecue and talks nonstop about why she's late. She makes her way saying hello to everyone around the table and eventually realizes one of her friends had been holding a baby all along. Because we were so fixed on Mary, we also had been unaware that the baby was there...
Mike Leigh often fixes the camera on Manville and we see how Mary is, in a way, trying to escape the confinement that shapes her universe.
When she's unable to do this, her eventual surrender is a thing of heartbreaking beauty.
How does one make Grand Guignol achieve emotional truth? Countless actresses have attempted to this to no avail (think Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford and to an extent Joan Crawford as Joan Crawford) and their performances are usually more admired for their theatricality than their humanity.
Erica in Black Swan would be an exception. Inarguably obsessive and freakishly psychotic to a point, she makes her daughter Nina's (Natalie Portman) life both paradise and a living hell.
Looking after her child in the only way she knows, Erica is nosy, cruel and overbearing. During the first part of the film we see how she behaves with her daughter, often praising her for getting
a starring role while simultaneously bringing her down and reassuring her that everything she lacks is more important than what she can do.
Yet as the film moves forward we realize that Erica in fact despises Nina. This isn't about "living vicariously" anymore, it's a straight forward competition between a bitter human being and her seemingly schizophrenic daughter.
Hershey gives in to Erica's pain with such ease that we never see her twitching or "acting". She doesn't try to make her character likable or understandable. She surrenders to Erica's lack of love for her daughter and explodes through the possessive actions she replaces it with. The last time we see her, she's crying as her daughter dances the Swan Queen.
2. Marion Cotillard in Inception
During Inception's opening scene, director Christopher Nolan indulges himself with the self aware gimmicks of his editing, his cameras and his "groundbreaking" screenplay.
He introduces us to his characters, sets the basic ideas that he will fail to expand for the rest of the film and wreaks havoc like a lunatic orchestra director who has decided nothing but tubas will do.
In the middle of this chaos we spot Mal (Cotillard) for the first time, as perhaps the only feminine presence in the film (don't even mention Ellen Page...) Nolan tries to confine her by the rules of what defines a femme fatale. She delivers her lines with dramatic aplomb, looks like a true movie star and eventually is revealed to be insane.
Of course Marion Cotillard takes this to another level. During that first sequence she possesses this unsettling calm that nobody else in the movie ever achieves. As you see Mal strut her way out of the scene as a, literal, dream begins to collapse, you can not take your eyes away from her.
In subsequent scenes, the more Nolan tries to make her worse (even her name is meant to diminish her) the better Cotillard gets. She finds the soul of this woman who ironically isn't an actual person. It's her performance alone that delivers the message Nolan tried to express using his technical prowess like an army. Cotillard understands that exercising extreme control would've made her mechanical and dull, it's through delicately violent restraint that she becomes the only thing about Inception that truly haunts your dreams.
1. Amy Adams in The Fighter
The thing about Amy Adams' Charlene in The Fighter is that you never see her coming. Like the best pugilists she seems to come out of nowhere to deliver unexpectedly powerful blows.
The first time we see her she's working at a bar. The actress, who has used us to her naivete and cute eagerness, here blends seamlessly into the seedy bar background.
She gives Charlene an entire history with subtle movements, facial expressions and a lot of attitude. As we learn more about her character she becomes more and more enigmatic. We understand why Micky (Mark Wahlberg) is fascinated by her.
On their first date they go to a movie. Micky chooses to impress her with Belle Epoque, Charlene's confused reaction and straightforward "I had to read the whole fuckin' movie" are priceless.
The best thing about Charlene is that she's so un-selfconscious that you chuckle when you think that she would probably hate a movie like The Fighter.
She's judged by Micky's family as a girl who thinks she's better than the rest (an MTV girl...whatever the fuck that is) and as such she's trapped in a limbo of sorts. In a way she's better than the rest of the characters (even from a human point of view) yet at the same time she's deeply frustrated because she hasn't done all she wanted to do in life.
Adams infuses Charlene with a deep melancholy only overshadowed by her relentless love for Micky. She supports Wahlberg's character in a non-scene-stealing way by merely being herself. She's sassy without becoming a cliché, sweet without becoming a victim, sexual without becoming vulgar and overall she's the one character in the film whose too real humanity punches you right in the gut.