This has been an incredibly difficult list for me to make for several reasons. First of all, as with the directors list, I have been looking for consistency in a filmography, but it’s much harder to come by with actors, who tend to work much more frequently than filmmakers because their commitment to a project is much shorter term. Another problem of this is that it often means that there are large proportions of a contender’s filmography that I haven’t seen (with one notable exception), and so choosing and ranking them is difficult. While I’ve seen a lot of films from across the lifetime of cinema, I have most experience and knowledge of cinema since the 1970′s. Because of this, and because when I was looking for ‘classic era’ actresses to include I had to reject most of them because I had seen only a handful of their extensive work, I have decided to cheat, and refocus this list to be about actresses who are currently working. I promise to go away, do some homework, and come back with a classic era list in the future.
All this has made ranking a real struggle, and so what I have decided to do is post, in alphabetical order by surname, seven ‘runners up’ in this first part of the list, and my Top 3, ranked, in the upcoming second part.
Laura Dern started early, appearing as an extra in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which starred her mother, Diane Ladd, but she got a proper start in the film business in 1980 in Foxes. As I’ve seen more and more of Laura Dern’s earlier work – when she was playing leading roles with greater frequency – I’ve always been impressed with her range. Her slightly gawky prettiness lent itself well to roles that required an innocence and openness, such as she has as the blind girl who falls for Eric Stoltz in Mask, but she also grew into roles with a fierce sexuality; sometimes knowing, as in Wild At Heart and sometimes more naive, as in Rambling Rose.
All the best actors are versatile, and Dern is no exception, but if there is a theme that runs through many of her characters it is perhaps a rather matter of fact, down to earth nature. The title character in Rambling Rose is a great example of this for me. She turns a family upside down with her sexuality, but does so not maliciously, but simply by being her simple, straightforward, self. In a totally different way this is also common to a lot of her more recent performances, in which she’s often employed in supporting roles. One that works really well is her performance as an inspirational teacher in October Sky, her role could be the height of saccharine, but Dern plays it with such sincerity and simplicity that it works.
Dern’s best work, and perhaps her most wide ranging, has been for David Lynch. She went from good girl in Blue Velvet to femme fatale in Wild At Heart, before turning in a career best performance in INLAND EMPIRE. Playing both a successful actress and (probably) a character that she is slowly becoming, Dern is absolutely extraordinary, and, in the second half of the film, completely inverts her usual approachable persona in the most venemous, spittle flecked performance she’s ever given, reaching both its nastiest and its saddest moment as ‘Susan’ relates the story of what she did to a rapist to her psychiatrist (“fucker been sowing some pretty heavy shit”). That performance should have brought her the Oscar that Lynch campaigned for her to get (by sitting outside with a cow, because he’s David Lynch).
For me, Laura Dern continues to fascinate because she’s never settled into any particular type of role and whether she’s working on a huge canvas like Jurassic Park, where could be playing second fiddle to the effects, putting in a short performance in a film she isn’t the focus of, as in The Master, or trying to bring a real person to life as in the TV movie Recount, she brings the same level of engagement and reality to bear.
I debated with myself for some time about whether it was too early to put Elle Fanning on this list (she is just 15 years old), but then I thought back over the performances I’ve seen her give. The younger sister of Dakota Fanning, Elle seems to possess none of the obvious precociousness that came through in many of her sibling’s performances, instead what I see in her is a relaxed and easy naturalism; a sense that she’s hardly acting at all.
That sense, however, is something you are disabused of both by the range she is able to show and by her giggly, bubbly, personality in interviews, which is a million miles from her largely much more reserved and serious characters. Her first really notable role was at 4, when she played the young daughter of Jeff Bridges’ character in The Door in the Floor, and she turned in good, natural, work in the likes of Babel and The Nines before winning a first lead in Phoebe in Wonderland.
I sat up and took notice of Fanning in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which she played the younger version of Cate Blanchett’s character, and then became a big fan – just as everybody else did – when she appeared in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. I found that film a tedious and testing experience as a whole, but Fanning brought energy to the otherwise somnambulant proceedings, with a mature and complex performance as a daughter warming, scene by scene, to a Father she doesn’t know all that well. Somewhere marked a real shift in Fanning’s career, and since she seems to have gone from strength to strength, picking a succession of intelligent and challenging roles.
For me, one of her finest moments comes in Super 8, in a scene when her character, Alice, is playing a zombie. She asks for some help in figuring out what a zombie should be like, takes the direction and then, before our eyes, transforms. The layers in that scene are many and she plays every one of them. What’s most impressive is that when she slips into zombie guise it feels like we’re still watching Alice, rather than Elle, act. There are many more impressive moments in Super 8, which makes it a bit disappointing when it becomes a monster movie.
The thing that really seems to mark Fanning out for me (and which was exploited to great effect by Sally Potter when she cast the then 13 year old as a 17 year old coming of age and protesting the cold war in the early 60′s in Ginger and Rosa) is an understanding beyond her years. It’s a trait that has served her incredibly well, and should continue too if, as her upcoming slate suggests, she continues to pick interesting and challenging roles. It may be early to put her on a list like this, but no other actress of her age – and few of any age – has recently put up as impressive a run of performances.
There are many reasons that I’m disappointed that we don’t see more world cinema getting a UK release, but one of the big ones recently has been the fact that when I say the name Nina Hoss to people their usual reply is “who?”
I first saw Hoss in Yella, one of her several collaborations with director Christian Petzold, and while I wasn’t overly fond of the film (largely because I spotted the ‘twist’ several hundred miles off), I was knocked out by Hoss’ performance, and by her unique, angular, beauty. Only a few of her films have achieved a UK release, and for a while she seemed to be that great actress who was always stuck in films that weren’t as good as she was. Atomised was notable. In this Hoss is seen in flashback as the flighty and irresponsible mother of the main character, and is the complete reverse of her cold, distant character from Yella. She was the only fun thing in a very dull film, and it was great to see that she could go 180 degrees away from the last film I had seen her in.
The other work I’ve seen has continued to show that versatility; she has an enormously good time camping it up as a lesbian vampire in Dennis Gansel’s dumb but fun We Are The Night, but she’s best when she’s more inheld, as in Petzold’s tense DDR thriller Barbara and the still undistributed in the UK The Heart is a Dark Forest, in which the discovery that her husband has another family a few miles away leads Hoss’ character on a surreal journey.
Her finest hour to date comes in Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin (which may have the least representative DVD art of any UK release). Hoss plays a woman who forges a relationship with a Russian officer in order to avoid the fate of many of her peers; random and repeated rape by the conquering army. It’s a deeply upsetting film with a fine ensemble cast, but Hoss’ dignified performance of improvised strength in the face of unimaginably horrendous circumstances is the stuff awards are made of (or would be, were it in English). I only wish more people knew how remarkable an actress she is.
I’m really hoping that Noomi Rapace goes back to Scandinavia soon. Let me be clear about this; I wish nothing but the best for her, and it’s nice that she’s getting jobs in the US where I’m certain she’s making better money, but in terms of her work, the performances she turned in back home and those she’s giving in Hollywood simply don’t compare.
Like everyone else, I discovered Rapace through her role as Lisbeth Salander in The Millennium trilogy, in which she gave a fierce, feral and typically insanely committed performance, essentially transforming herself physically and mentally into the character for the duration of the shoot. Rapace is electrifying as Salander; there’s a dangerous energy about her that comes through even when, in the third film, she spends most of her screentime sat silently behind a desk. Rooney Mara’s take on the character seemed to me like a stroppy emo teenager, while Rapace gave off the truly unpredictable energy that made Salander so compelling in the books.
Sadly her Scandinavian work outside of the Millennium films has not traveled so extensively, and so most haven’t seen her as a young mother trying to come to terms with her memories of her own alcoholic mother as the older woman is dying in Beyond, or as a mother totally obsessed with the safety of her young son in Babycall, or in her frankly astounding performance in Daisy Diamond.
Daisy Diamond is a film that doesn’t quite earn its lead performance; it’s a bit obvious as it batters tragedy upon tragedy into us and into Rapace’ character; an aspiring actress who keeps failing auditions because her six month old daughter won’t stop crying. The thing that keeps it from being mere misery porn is Rapace, who was hospitalised after the shooting, with bleeding ulcer apparently brought on by the stress of the role and the diet she went on for it. She takes us down Anna’s horrendous spiral with total conviction, especially during the nightmarish first half, in which the question isn’t what will happen but when. It’s a jaw dropping, utterly fearless, emotionally and physically naked piece of acting that is among the best performances I can remember seeing, and it alone would put her on this list. I really hope she’s got another performance like that in her.
Kristin Scott Thomas
Hugh Grant['s character] is a fucking idiot. I mean honestly what kind of moron, given the choice, would pick tedious more-hair-than-personality Carrie (Andie McDowell) over the dryly witty, ridiculously good looking, clearly head over heels for him Fiona (Scott-Thomas) in Four Weddings and a Funeral? When I first saw the film, aged about 14, that – even more than the literally and figuratively wet ending – was the big problem with it. Kristin Scott-Thomas was simply, clearly, more interesting, and I couldn’t imagine why the floppy haired walking stutter would pass her up.
Scott-Thomas has not always been well served by the British film industry, but has been much better used, especially in recent years, in France, where she has lived and raised her children for many years. The life cycle of a successful actress generally dictates that they rise in their twenties, plateau in their thirties, and find themselves slowly relegated to more or less interesting mother and grandmother roles as the decades roll on, but Scott-Thomas is one who has really bucked this trend, getting many of her best parts and doing much of her best work in her forties and now into her fifties.
There is often a sense with Scott-Thomas that her outward appearance; sharply beautiful, but often suggesting a reserve or a coldness, is hiding things that are dying to get out. Roman Polanski capitalised on this in Bitter Moon, in which she is the half of an upper-class, very reserved, couple that ends up sleeping with Emmanuelle Seigner, despite the fact that it’s her husband (Hugh Grant) who has been tempted throughout the film. The same sort of pattern is seen in her more notable performances in The English Patient and the more recent Leaving, in which she falls into passionate affairs with, respectively, Ralph Fiennes and Sergi Lopez.
This isn’t to say that Scott-Thomas is limited. In recent years she’s excelled as a kidnapped woman going through Stockholm syndrome in In Your Hands and as a journalist investigating an almost forgotten story from the holocaust in Sarah’s Key, and she’s apparently striking as Ryan Gosling’s mother/Oedipus complex in the forthcoming Only God Forgives.
However, for me Scott-Thomas’ best role, and the one that really shows what a sensitive and nuanced actress she is is in I’ve Loved You So Long, in which she plays a woman recently released from a long prison sentence and struggling to put her life back together. Both film and performance hold their cards close to their chest, and when we finally find out what she’s been in prison for it’s devastating, but Scott-Thomas plays everything with a barely held in emotion that makes her whole performance feel like she’s like a raw nerve, being exposed to the world for the first time in years, but trying not to show how hard it is for her. It’s a remarkably controlled and intricate performance from an actress who seems to specialise in them.
Juno Temple may be young (23), but she’s already established what is for me a very well deserved reputation as one of the most fearless and most interesting actresses around. You could easily suggest that, as the daughter of Julien Temple, her career has been the result of the usual nepotistic tendencies of Hollywood, but for the fact that she’s worked her way up from small parts – making a big impression in only her second film, Notes on a Scandal – to her current status as one of Hollywood’s busiest indie character actresses.
I think, though it’s far from being her best film, the role that really solidified Temple’s place on this list for me was Dirty Girl (which is, thus far, unreleased in the UK). She plays a rebellious high schooler who takes a social misfit under her wing and goes on a road trip with him to find her Father, who she always thought was dead. It’s a rather cliche ridden buddy road movie, – fun at times, but no great shakes in any respect – but Temple simply storms away with the film, giving a performance that is rich in character and blazes with charisma.
Another of the things that marks Temple out for me is the amount of layers that she manages to give her characters. In Dirty Girl, for example, she’s rebellious and promiscuous, but also just crying out to be loved, mostly by her unknown Father. She’s even more interesting in Cracks, as the former apple of teacher Eva Green’s eye, who turns scheming and nasty when she’s deposed by new arrival Maria Valverde. However, Temple’s finest hour to date came with her performance in William Friedkin’s brilliant Killer Joe, which, for me, she manages to steal from under the nose of a spectacular, career redefining, performance from Matthew McConaughey. As trailer trash teen Dottie, Temple initially seems like a vulnerable doll, being passed as a bargaining chip between the men in the movie, but Temple suggests that Dottie is not as naive as she seems, and that by the end she may well have contrived to have things work out best for herself.
Temple works constantly (indeed I have her next film, Magic Magic, to review soon) and she continues to carve a path that embraces tiny esoteric films (indies like Small Apartments, The Brass Teapot and others), offbeat higher budget work (the upcoming horror Horns), daring, exposing roles (the aforementioned Killer Joe and Greg Araki’s apocalypse comedy Kaboom) and the occasional blockbuster (The Dark Knight Rises, and next year's Maleficent). It’s a smart career plan, from a smart and endlessly interesting actress.
I wasn’t quite old enough to be the first at the party as far as Kate Winslet was concerned. I remember reading about her first film, Heavenly Creatures, when it was released when I was 13, and being desperate to see it, but it was an 18, and I looked about 9 at that time. I also remember a particular magazine photoshoot, and deciding, based on that, that it was probably worth looking out for Winslet in the future. Then I saw Titanic, and am not embarrassed to admit (no, that’s not right… I’m entirely embarrassed to admit) that I was completely taken in by the spectacle, and by Winslet.
I moved on from Titanic to some of Winslet’s better work, looking back to Michael Winterbottom’s heartbreaking Jude and forward to the idiosyncratic choices she made after starring in the highest grossing film ever made. Soon after that, Heavenly Creatures came on TV (I couldn’t buy or rent the video, because I still looked 9), and I taped it and watched it with my best friend. We were both knocked out by the film, and by both central performances. Winslet may have had little on camera experience, but she held the frame like an old fashioned movie star and delivered a knockout performance that was funny, unnerving and real. 19 years on from its initial release the film still plays brilliantly, and still resides in my top 20.
It would have been easy for Winslet to take the blockbuster route, but instead she has always stretched herself as an actress, largely at the expense of box office success. Okay, so she made the resolutely formulaic (and awful) The Holiday, but that’s more than offset by one of the most offbeat romantic comedy dramas ever made; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which, it’s important to remember, she’s playing not a real person, but Jim Carrey’s memory of that person, as he tries to take back his decision to have that memory erased. It’s a complex film, and Winslet gives Clementine a suitably complex and sometimes extreme (in the way that memory can exaggerate a person’s traits) personality.
It’s not easy to pin down an essential Winslet character, and that’s perhaps what’s so good about her. Many of the women she’s played share a certain forcefulness (which, if you’ve seen her interviewed, almost certainly comes straight from the source), but it’s always nuanced, always adjusted to the character, and muted when that’s appropriate. It’s perhaps most accented in Holy Smoke, in which she’s outright combative as a former cult member being de-programmed by Harvey Kietel.
After six nominations, Winslet finally won an Oscar for… The Reader. Yeah. I’m not going to dispute that she’s very good as a former Nazi party member on trial for her part in a holocaust atrocity, but the film just felt wrong to me; a German story that really needed to be in the German language, and that she and Ralph Fiennes both seemed somewhat adrift in. It was also a nonsense that she won for that film because she was far, far better that year in her then husband Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, which re-teamed her with Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio as a 1950′s couple whose marriage is falling to pieces. It’s a brutal film, despite it featuring no physical violence, and Winslet and DiCaprio are both near their best. I still don’t know what the Academy was thinking that year.
Since this, Winslet has worked less, but impressed me playing a truly awful woman in Roman Polanski’s black comedy Carnage, and she now has a few more films in the can. I’m looking forward to seeing her on screen on a more regular basis, and perhaps to her recapturing the risk and excitement of the first decade or so of her career.