Thursday, January 08, 2009

Vive la femme: My women of the year

It really sucks to be so sick you almost can't think straight, but it only happens to me once every three years or so, so I guess I really shouldn't complain.

And while I've managed to get it together enough to go to work, I haven't been able to muster the will for much else after that but sleeping and watching some mindless (but not stupid, big difference) TV, which has lately meant a big dose of "Seinfeld" (not that there's ever anything wrong with that!)

But now, with an hour and a half to kill before the so-called national title game, I really need some brain exercise, so without further ado - in simply alphabetical order - here are my favorite 10 (actually 12, with the combined entries) female movie performances of 2008. Please feel free to add your own, and enjoy:

Hiam Abbass
I've raved in full in this space about Richard Jenkins' performance in this film by "The Wire" veteran Thomas McCarthy, but it wouldn't have been complete without Hiam Abbass as Mouna Khalil to help draw him out. In a way, everyone in this flick is a "Visitor," as Abbass' Mouna, a Syrian immigrant searching for her son, certainly is in New York City. Her balance of anger, reserve and eventual gratefulness for the help of Jenkins' Walter hits just the right note, and they make a perfect combo.

Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard
You can say a lot of bad things about Tyler Perry (if you want to, which I don't), but you have to admit that - like Woody Allen sometimes does - he really has a knack for writing smart, funny parts for women. And, surprisingly, he found his best yet for his first white star, Kathy Bates. The "Dallas"-style story of family intrigue in "The Family that Preys" falls short of good, but the tale of Bates' and Woodard's friendship - and the road trip it takes them on - is so entertaining you won't even mind the sap. And Kathy Bates, in particular, is just a hoot.

Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall
2008 was a surprisingly strong year for comedies, so I guess it shouldn't be too much of a shock that the aforementioned Mr. Allen finally managed to return to top comedic form with the lighter-than-air treat "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Penelope Cruz got the best of it here, taking a manic turn in Spanish as the chronically crazed wife of Javier Bardem's Juan Antonio. Rebecca Hall, however, held up her end of the love quadrangle as the movie's real leading lady, and besides, I've always just really liked her ever since "Starter for 10."

Viola Davis
They really need to make another acting category besides supporting for the actor who makes the biggest impression in a movie in the shortest space of time. Call it the "impact" award if it must have a name. Last year I would have given it to Hal Holbrook for "Into the Wild," and this year it would certainly go to Viola Davis for her 10-minute-or-so turn in "Doubt." I can't really tell you anything about it because it makes both the movie and its plot, but I can guarantee you won't forget it for quite a while.

Sally Hawkins
I really hope Mike Leigh's "Happy Go Lucky" gets enough awards acclaim to play a little wider, because it's one of the oddest but also most endearing movies I've seen in quite a while (it didn't make my top 10 for the year, but would have been at No. 14 or so.) At its center, Sally Hawkins just plays a character so perpetually cheerful that you (or at least, me) want to throttle her, until you slowly get attached to her and realize just how good Hawkins is in this. It really is a litmus test for cynicism, and though I usually reject that kind of thing, this one just works perfectly.

Beyonce Knowles
I'm sure I don't have nearly enough influence to do Darnell Martin's woefully underappreciated "Cadillac Records" any good, but if any movie deserves a strong second life on DVD this is it. It's a consistently fun if offbeat musical biopic, and Beyonce is shockingly good as Etta James, just a combustible mix of pride, anger, vulnerability and yes, sexiness. And, yes, she really can belt out a mean rendition of "At Last" and, even better, "I'd Rather Go Blind."

Tea Leoni
Speaking of underappreciated, did anyone go see "Ghost Town" in the theater? There were probably at least four or five who did, and I'm sure that like me they found a treat for fans of Ricky Gervais and comedies that are aimed at adults (without forgetting to be at least a little silly.) I liked Tea Leoni in this one, however, at least as much as I did Mr. Gervais, and she manages to get the best of him in several scenes of this witty charmer.

Samantha Morton
I can't nearly go as far as New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, who if I'm not mistaken gave four of her five best actress votes to the women of Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, NY," but I can take a second to praise Samantha Morton's work in it. Her bubbly Hazel is just the perfect inspiration for Philip Seymour Hoffman's Caden Cotard, and though Kaufman lost me by the end of this wierd but sometimes wonderful creation, they both soldiered through to the finish.

Marisa Tomei
If it weren't for Viola Davis, I'd definitely vote for Marisa Tomei's turn in "The Wrestler" for best supporting actress, and for Mickey Rourke as leading man, because Darren Aronofsky's flick is simply the best character study of the year. Not, mind you, the most inspirational of characters, but two of the most memorable, and it won't surprise me at all if she takes home her second Oscar this year (shocking, perhaps, but well deserved this time.)

Catinca Untaru
And, for the finale, youth is served. Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" works best as a story being devoured by a wide-eyed child, and young Catinca Untaru is just thoroughly charming as Alexandria. I learned from reading an article by Roger Ebert that she spoke little to no English when this began filming (two years ago!), and had to be coached line-by-line throughout, just making her performance all the more remarkable.

And there you have it. Please feel free to mention any one I have clearly snubbed (and believe me, I know there are many!) Peace out.


kat said...

Yay! Finally a shout out for Ghost Town. I DID see it in the theaters on the strength of loving both Ricky Gervais and Tea Leoni. I do think she's one of the more unappreciated actresses out there. I think she just hasn't had quite the right role though. Hopefully her time will soon be due.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm with you there, Kat ... It is truly sad how women in Hollywood get "aged out" so much faster than men, especially since Tea Leoni isn't that old at all .. She and Lauren Graham are two actresses whose big time on the big screen should indeed come very soon

Nell Minow said...

Feel better!

But until you do, check out my list of flu-worthy movies.

An excellent list. The best 10 minutes I saw on screen this year was the big scene with Viola Davis in "Doubt." Tea Leoni is one of my very favorites -- ever since "Flirting with Disaster" -- and she was so warm and funny and utterly delicious in "Ghost Town" that she made the movie. And Abbass is magnificent in the wonderful "The Visitor." I was thrilled that I got a chance to interview the entire cast.

Reel Fanatic said...

Thanks for that, Nell ... I had seen most of the movies on your list, and can agree that they are all comfort food ... for me, two that just fit perfectly into that category are "Amelie" and "Hairspray" (the FIRST Jon Waters version, of course), two flicks that just make me smile without having to think too much

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