10. Nora-Jane Noone – THE DESCENTNoone stands apart from the other “chicks with picks” immediately. With her short, spiky hair and youthful aggression, she represents a more reckless version of Natalie Mendoza’s Juno. Many actors who portray athletic enthusiasm shoot past realism and come off like adrenaline junkies selling Mountain Dew. Noone keeps the character grounded.

9. Abigail Breslin – LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
“I don’t want to be a loser,” Breslin’s character confesses to her grandfather with absolute honesty. She is the essence of sincerity in the film, the one bright light still shining among her self-defeated family. She’s only 10, but Breslin is every bit as good as the seasoned pros in the cast.

8. Angela Bassett – AKEELAH AND THE BEE
There’s a scene where Akeelah is competing without her mother’s permission. Mom (Bassett) shows up and demands that her daughter leave immediately. We’ve seen this scene before, but the way Bassett plays it, you believe that Akeelah may really have to walk away. Most actors hold back so it’s more plausable when they ultimately give in. When the turn does come, you buy that too. Bassett gives the mom a nice balance of hope for her daughter with a grounding for the reality of their home life. Her scenes with Laurence Fishburne are the acting equivalent of a great waltz.

7. Phyllis Somerville – LITTLE CHILDREN
Somerville plays a mom who just wants her boy to be good. Her son, Ronnie, is a suspected child molester, but as the saying goes, he is still her boy. Somerville shows a mother’s love that truly knows no bounds, as she attempts to curb his deviant nature with subtle suggestions. I think the performance also more than suggests how her parenting may have contributed to Ronnie’s condition.

Anne Hathaway is the calm center of DEVIL WEARS PRADA, and when Meryl Streep isn’t on, it’s Emily Blunt who steers the ship. Her approach is the opposite of Streep’s calm. She appears frustrated and frazzled at every turn. This could have been a stereotypical evil stepsister type who gets her eventual comeuppance, but Blunt makes the character sympathetic, and somewhat lovable.

5. Cate Blanchett – BABAL / NOTES ON A SCANDAL

I couldn’t decide which Cate Blanchett performance I liked more. She has less screen time in BABEL, but conveys a full character in that short span. Her meal with Pitt before the bus incident sums up their entire relationship in a few lines of dialogue. In SCANDAL, Blanchett’s teacher is an emotional wreck, constantly letting others dictate her feelings. It’s the polar opposite of Helen Mirren’s precise Queen, and while it ultimately goes too far, she goes out with emotional guns blazing.

4. Emily Watson – THE PROPOSITION
While everyone else is mired in the blood, Watson’s Martha does her best to act civilized in the untamed Outback. When evil visits her neighbors, she hopes for a proper justice. During the film, she learns that justice often means having blood on your hands. As the horrors come closer to home, Watson becomes more closed off, yet prone to some great outbursts of emotion. The story keeps drawing her closer to the danger and she reacts with equal measures of anger and fragility.

3. Jacinda Barrett – THE LAST KISS
At the start of THE LAST KISS, Jacinda Barrett is the perfect girl next door. She’s pregnant, sees her life laid out in front of her, and very much likes what she sees. All of her dreams of a perfect future will be shattered when her boyfriend starts up with another woman. Furthering her burden, she must deal with the possible separation of her parents.

This is a heavy part with a lot of conflicting emotions to play. Barrett, a relative newcomer, is more than up to the task. Her work runs the acting gauntlet from likeably sexy to distraught and possibly dangerous. Her fights with Zach Braff are the non-musical equivalent of Jennifer Hudson’s breakdown in DREAMGIRLS.

2. Natalie Mendoza – THE DESCENT
Mendoza’s Juno is the group leader, but there’s much more going on underneath. Juno always has something to prove (notice her leg stretch in front of the other women after her morning jog.) She feels her leadership threatened at every turn, whether by youth or calmer heads. (Interesting how our first moment with her isa vulnerable one, when the group dunks her in the river.)

Mendoza plays Juno as almost separate from the group because Juno sees herself as the most capable member, and holds some deep secrets. On top of all this, Mendoza is the year’s biggest bad-ass. When danger strikes, she’s like Ripley, tearing through trouble with athleticism and gusto.

1. Jennifer Hudson - DREAMGIRLS
There’s going to be two opinions about Jennifer Hudson winning the Academy Award (and I have little doubt she will win.) Many will say she won because of her show-stopping big scene. Others will talk about how good she is throughout DREAMGIRLS. I believe if you remove "And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” she would still get a nomination, and it would be a much tighter race. I can’t say if she’ll win because two current front-runners are Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza from BABEL, and as you can tell from my list, I wasn’t as impressed by either of them. (Kikuchi I understand, but Barraza’s recognition has me completely baffled.)

Getting back to Hudson, I want to talk about my 2nd favorite moment from her performance. It from the final hour, which is where Hudson does her best work. After years of struggle, she finally gets a moment of equality with the man who broke her. There’s a look, a moment of relish and she sings him a quick, quiet goodbye. Beautiful.

As for the big scene itself, think about what it would have meant for the picture if she had failed? (I don’t want to get into a Hudson vs. Holliday debate. Some people have Jennifer Holliday’s Broadway performance welded to their brain, but Hudson still knocks it out of the atmosphere.) Even if Hudson was note perfect but emotionally dead, the entire film would have been crippled. It requires an actress to hold nothing back without looking like a show-off. It sounds like an anthem, but is really a woman tearing apart her own dignity. There’s a thousand ways to get this moment wrong. Hudson gets it perfect.


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