5. Keira Knightley in Last Night
It's a true shame that Keira Knightley keeps becoming one of the finest working actresses and people don't seem to be noticing it, taking her for granted as a "has been" among the new crop of British ingenues and that itself might be her problem, Keira has always known how to infuse her characters with ages old wisdom. See her turn as Joanna in Last Night, while the movie itself sometime lingers too dangerously on being some sort of Closer redux, her performance is a complex study of the human heart. Watching her protect her marriage ferociously while being tempted by the idea of restarting an old affair, she is the epitome of a "woman". Knightley's beauty never overshadows her character's deep longings, and she never allows Joanna to descend into soap opera territory, instead she just lets the character speak through her body. Her laugh becomes a bashful flirtatious move, her elegant walk becomes an awkward attempt at shielding herself from what seem like weak moments. It's a pleasure to realize Keira is able to keep surprising us.
No actress lights up the screen as effortlessly as Juliette Binoche. Whether it's the way in which she lets her characters take over her, the effervescence of her sensual smile, the added bonus that she always chooses interesting projects or just her otherworldly beauty, she always seems to possess a wisdom kept away from us mere mortals. She has that kind of quality in which she can play a "mother" and still be extremely sensual, or she can play a "sexy" woman and retain some innocence. This quality has never been reflected better than in Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, where Binoche plays a charming woman having trouble with the man who might be her husband or a writer she admires (don't ask if you haven't seen it). In order to play a nameless character that could've easily fallen into being nothing but an archetype, Binoche is able to imprint her ethereal qualities on a woman that might as well be nothing but an intellectual essay.
She makes art both tangible and unreachable, always making us wonder what lies between thee fascinating layer we are watching at an established moment.
3. Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
A wedding is supposed to bring out moments of unbridled joy but what happens when instead it becomes a culmination of a life of sorrows? Such is the case with Justine (Dunst) a woman who we gather has earned everything she wanted and is just waiting for marriage to fulfill her. During the first scenes Dunst shines with the vibrant energy she has displayed onscreen for almost two decades, her cheerleader smile lighting up everyone else, yet as the plot moves forward and Justine becomes more aware of just how unhappy she is about to become, we see a part of the actress that has rarely surfaced. She turns into a fearful, sad creature, overwhelmed by the lack of significance in her life. It should be ironic that she seems rejuvenated by the fact that the world is about to end. Dunst plays Justine like a human being ascending into the realms of sainthood. In a performance with facial expressions as beautiful and touching as Falconetti's in The Passion of Joan of Arc the actress gives one of the most touching portrayals of metaphysical ecstasy to be ever put onscreen.
2. Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Taking on a role made iconic by an actress the year before, Rooney Mara seemed to have been headed for career suicide as Lisbeth Salander. However what she did was even more impressive: she delivered a performance all her own, that takes nothing from the Swedish movies made before her and seems to dig deep into the essence of the literary source. To say that Stieg Larsson's novel wasn't particularly profound would be paying it a compliment, given that it prefers to stick to plot points rather than exploring the nature of its characters. The magic in Mara's performance is all the more astonishing when you realize that she's playing a heroine that we shouldn't really be rooting for. While the previous incarnation of Lisbeth aimed for the stars, Rooney's goes for something much more earthly, she plays Salander as someone breakable. Mara reveals Lisbeth's weaknesses! Watch that scene in which her disgusting guardian touches her face, the way in which the actress' body seems to shrink like a fearful animal, or later as she takes control of her sexuality, as we watch her literally blossom in front of our eyes. Mara combines Lisbeth's childlike features with an ancient soul that's been hurt too much and now walks the Earth looking for solace, for absolution.
You don't expect to have your heart broken by a character who asks for permission to murder a man and yet that's just what she does, the most ironic of all being that her character would kick her ass for doing so.
Sean Durkin's directorial debut will forever be remembered for the powerhouse performance turned in by Elizabeth Olsen. Although saying a "powerhouse performance" seems to be referring to something big, loud and imposing, yet what we get instead is a purely introspective character study. Playing one woman with three different personalities, of sorts, Olsen is just breathtaking. The movie begins with her running away from what we later learn is a cult that had kept her captive. To this cult she was known as Marcy May, once hse goes back to her "normal" life, she goes by Martha, and she imprints all of these personae with different qualities; her Martha being a wild child who was always in the lookout for a deeper existence, her Marcy May being an illusion-filled girl whose crush turned into a nightmare and her Marlene being a completely fictitious creation that defines this woman's darkest intentions. Olsen is so enigmatic that the movie ends and we still have no idea if there were Marys, Mercedes, Mildreds, Marges...within her. She evokes the complexities of a Bergman heroine with the rawness of Cassavettes' characters. She is both beautiful and terrifying to watch, a mystery and its answer.