Jennifer Lawrence has one of those faces made to encompass the concept of All-American Girl however she has the acting chops to subvert these very notions and turn them into enigmatic traits. Take her performance in Jodie Foster's vastly underrated work of art The Beaver, here Lawrence plays Norah, a high-school girl who also happens to be a cheerleader, valedictorian and an underground graffiti artist. While lesser actresses would've conformed with letting the character do all the work, Lawrence taps onto something great: she recognizes the deep humanity that lies beneath the seemingly perfect shell and turns Norah into the most haunting characters in an already enthralling film.
In an ensemble piece that feels more Nashville than Gosford Park it results kind of difficult for one actor to make a more lasting impact than others, particularly when their stories barely intersect and each of them end up commanding tiny movies of their own. In the case of Contagion it would seem almost impossible to choose between the impressively moving work of Kate Winslet, the vanity free performance of Gwyneth Paltrow or the worldly wisdom projected by the lovely Marion Cotillard and yet it's the subtle work of Jennifer Ehle that stays with you and lingers for weeks after you see the movie. Playing the part of a dedicated scientist most of her scenes are actually dialogue-free. However watching the way her Meryl Streep-ian features light up is nothing if not magical. Ehle has the kind of face that evokes Falconetti and Streep in equal measures, the camera becomes so transfixed by her ethereal beauty that she needs but to muster a smile to let us into the secrets of creation.
Year after year Keira Knightley seems to be delivering astonishing work that goes by without people making a fuss about it. Why? Her work in a movie like A Dangerous Method for example would get countless actresses hyperbolic comments about their craft and such. The way in which the young actress immerses herself into the character of Sabina Spielrein proves she possesses talents that go beyond her years. The way she allows the character to possess her is almost too disturbing to watch. The way in which Sabina's inner demons surface in shocking demonic moves makes Keira look completely awful, her notorious jaw and underbite deforming her lovely features and yet out of all of this - done without prosthetic work or special effects - Keira is always able to come back and find the latent humanity in this woman. She turns in absolutely moving work and steals the show from both Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen; watching her squirm with pleasure as Carl Jung (Fassbender) whips her might just send you into nervous shock.
2. Jessica Chastain in The Help
We all know Jessica Chastain had the most terrific year any actress could've ever wished for. Her presence in some of the most important pictures of 2011 turned into a recurrent joke, where everyone assumed in reality she'd literally been in every single movie. The beauty of the Chastain effect however wasn't her perseverance but the quality of her work. She was the MVP in each of those movies she was in! She created different characters whose only common denominator was the actress playing them, other than that you could never see any of her conflicted Samantha from Take Shelter in the haunting performance she turned in The Tree of Life. However even within her flawless list of performances it was her affecting turn as Celia Foote in The Help the one which might very well become the most iconic of her short career. Filling the colorful 60's costumes and donning an outrageous blond wig, Chastain plays the ultimate ditzy blond, who moves into a town where she is hated for representing everything others only dream they could be. In a movie that takes intolerance to the front of the equation, it's her beautifully nuanced performance that comments on the way in which hatred can go beyond the confines of race, sex or religion. With the comedic timing of Judy Holliday and the whoop-dee-doop sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe, Chastain is more remarkable in quiet scenes where Celia's true persona surfaces. She might be all sunshine and smiles on the outside but we learn that she crafted this persona in order to survive in a world that would crush her without giving it a second thought.
1.Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia
Lars von Trier has earned a reputation for torturing and destroying any actress who come near him. This results in quite the paradox when you see the performances he gets out of women in his films. It should mean something then - both for Lars and his ways and tough love in general - to see how Charlotte Gainsbourg has flourished under his direction. She was absolutely ravishing in Antichrist turning a performance that fearlessly dared to carry all the evil of the world upon its shoulders. Conversely her work in Melancholia seems almost saintlike. Playing Claire, the sister of depressed bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Gainsbourg effortlessly overcomes what could've been one of the film's biggest setbacks: the fact that no one in the family seems to be even remotely related. Instead of focusing on the differences between Claire and Justine, Gainsbourg devotes her performance to making them familiar because of the intense love they share. The way in which the actress seems to take pleasure in comforting the petite Dunst exudes warmth and a humanity unlike anything you've ever seen in a von Trier film. Even as she has to cope with her own fears and pain - after all a huge planet is about to destroy Earth - Gainsbourg gives a mature, unfathomably brave performance. She only allows Claire to break down during the very last moments of the film and unlike Dunst who is always one minute away from exploding with the joys of new discoveries, Gainsbourg always seems to have the knowledge of the world. Watching the way Claire's entire life flashes by in Gainsbourg's eyes in a matter of seconds isn't only testament to her prowess as an actress, it also reminds us of the beauty and fragility of life.