The best actress category this year was an absolute bloodbath. I must have had at least twenty plausible candidates to sort through, maybe more, and had to make a whole bunch of cuts to get to this final five. Not an easy task but I think I pulled it off.
- Annette Benning – 20th Century Women: 20th Century Women ends with a voice-over of the grown version of the teenage boy in the film saying something along the lines of “I always tried to tell my son what his grandmother was like, but I never could” implying that this character is a true one of a kind and that puts a lot of pressure on the actress to live up to that. This is not a one-note “extraordinary strong woman” either, she’s a complicated figure with certain contradictions and idiosyncrasies that Benning picks up on excellently.
- Sônia Braga – Aquarius: Sônia Braga has had some limited success in Hollywood but in her native Brazil she’s a legend and her role in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius gave her a great platform to remind everyone why she’s one of her country’s preeminent actresses. Playing a woman determined to keep her apartment despite many attempts by a contractor to get her to leave, Braga embeds a strong sense to history into this character and gives you a good understanding of why she’d be so stubborn on this point.
- Viola Davis – Fences: I decided to movie Viola Davis into the lead actress category, and I do think that’s the right choice but I also do think that the choice other award bodies made to have her compete in supporting is at least defensible. If there was an award for “best five minutes of screentime within a larger performance” she’d probably win easily but for a lot of the rest of the movie she’s on a lower key and kind of blends into the background, which is appropriate for the character but maybe not the easiest way to stand out in a competition.
- Natalie Portman – Jackie: Natalie Portman’s work in Jackie would be another one of those “degree of difficulty” triumphs. Not only does she need to take on Jackie Kenney’s looks and her peculiar manner of speaking but she also needs to play both the immense grief that the character is going through over the course of the film as well as the savvy calculation that she goes through in trying to preserve her husband’s legacy and keep herself together when she’s in public. Needless to say, Portman totally nails it.
- Isabelle Huppert – Things to Come: Isabelle Huppert actually had two big movies this year, and I do hope that this isn’t just some kind of contrarian instinct kicking in but I think I preferred her work in the lesser known of the two films. In Things to Come she’s playing a more down to earth character in a more mundane situation and is able to tap into more realistic emotions in a number of ways. I certainly found myself more interested in what becomes of this character than I did of her character in Elle.