Best Actress 2001
Winner: Halle Berry, Monster's Ball
Nominees: Judi Dench, Iris
Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!
Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom
Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones's Diary

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
One of those "flat" years where I'm about evenly split on several performances, and truly dazzled by none of them. Dench is the most consistent, handling in some ways the most difficult role, while Berry and Kidman have flashes of real brilliance, sandbagged by Berry's worst excesses, and Kidman's clichéd role. Spacek, the critics' darling, gives the least interesting performance; one wishes that some of the most conspicuous also-rans (Watts, Swinton, etc.) had gotten a bigger push. A good year for Best Picture, and the technical races sparkled, but the acting divisions left something to be desired.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Judi Dench, Iris ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "The miraculous precision with which Dench manages to telegraph a terrible awareness of her own decline, even in her character's most strained moments, allows a major enrichment of the film's characterization. Iris is too smart not to realize what is happening; she begs questions of her husband about how anyone would know if they were going mad, "especially those of us who live inside our minds anyway," and she seems fully aware that her own need to ask these questions is an oblique proof of their relevance. Later, as a woman who can no longer presume any confidence in her thoughts, Iris is perturbed when Bayley and others insist she is healthy. Only the unbuffered clinical pronouncement that she is deeply ill suits her desperate need for verification, and Dench plays the scene with civil, sincere gratitude. Iris seeks clarity, not comfort, from her doctors, and she retains a philosopher's need for truth. Correspondingly, the actress opts for candor and concision, not glorified suffering or sanctification, and she allows Iris' words to reflect the woman's brilliance, rather than puffing herself up into an emblem of The Great Mind."

From There:
Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge! ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Kidman, who by now deserves credit for being Hollywood's most gamely adventurous screen goddess, is confident enough of her beauty that she doesn't waste time calling attention to it; she is also a more than sufficient belter and hoofer, a willing dumbbell prop for Luhrmann's most farcical urges, and a succinct, poignant communicator of fragility and disappointment. She's been to most of these places before (though never all in the same film), and Luhrmann knows that: he even steals Jane Campion's blue color palette and refracted close-ups from The Portrait of a Lady as part of his ongoing riff on the theme of fruitful, fortuitous pastiche."

Halle Berry, Monster's Ball ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Halle Berry gives two performances in Monster's Ball. One of them is terrible, uncorked by her director's pretentious indulgence of improvisation, even at crucial junctures of plot and character development. Thus we get Berry swatting her son through a scene of drunken, misplaced, and extemporized anger on the night of her husband's execution, and later howling her way through her child's demise. She approaches Elizabeth-Berkley-in-Showgirls recesses of deranged overstatement in her notorious "Make me feel gooood" seduction of Billy Bob Thornton, and it's a miracle that the performance and the film ever recover. But recover they do, partly because of Thornton, but also because of Berry's second performance: the quiet, watchful, frequently stunned Laetitia who remembers her boyfriend's habitual order at the diner, and who tries to deliver a surprise gift but walks into a humiliating ambush, and who runs afoul of a different, more internalized ambush when she moves in with Thornton and learns how much he knows about her life. Berry is especially wonderful in her final scenes, complex without being remotely fussy, and she endows the movie with mystery. I'd love to know in what order Marc Forster shot her scenes, and whether she lost or found the character as time went on, but much to her advantage, and certainly to ours, Monster's Ball finishes right as she peaks.

Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones's Diary ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Do not get self wrong: Oscar nomination for Zellweger as Bridget does not seem absolutely necessary, albeit fitting recompense for refreshingly ornery but overlooked One True Thing performance and totally winning Jerry Maguire breakthrough. Also true that Bridget as written is such hilarious, well-nuanced, easily likable character that audience sympathy is not hard to elicit and variety of actresses could have scored with part. Still, Zellweger emerges with near-triumph in tricky genre—for Americans, anyway—of latter-day British situational comedy that is specialty of Working Title films. One has only to recall Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral (horrid, repulsive memory!) to realize how much can go wrong for inept Yank in U.K. crowd-pleaser.... Zellweger's victory in Bridget Jones's Diary, by contrast, has everything to do with actress's refreshing ability to take self unseriously."

Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Like much else in In the Bedroom, Spacek's casting as Ruth Fowler is an inspired idea that doesn't fulfill its own promise. On second viewing, I still think that the script's precipitous and frankly sexist decision to take the side of Tom Wilkinson's Matt in a reckless denunciation of Ruth's alleged authoritarianism would leave any actress gasping for breath, but Spacek doesn't put up any fight against this demeaning turn of events. She makes the intriguing and, I'd wager, the unusual choice to rein in her voice and underplay big scenes; listen to how she swallows the line "It was no accident" in her lawyer's office, bearing in mind that she's discussing the murder of her only son, and then think what Jessica Lange or Angela Bassett or Meryl Streep would have done at the same moment. Still, for all the scenes that Spacek deftly underplays, she paints herself into a wan and effaceable corner, and it's remarkably easy to go along with the film's abandonment of her character. Her greatest scene is a quiet, diplomatic reaction to a faux pas from Celia Weston, whose well-meaning character makes a careless allusion to dying families. Still, as good as Spacek is in this moment, one wishes that the brilliantly resourceful Weston had a shot at Spacek's part. (In the same year, Mary McDonnell in Donnie Darko gives a superior object lesson in how a watchful, intelligent, brutally injured mother can fascinate on screen, rather than just fading away behind her cigarette smoke.)

Who gets your vote in this field, and on my dream ballot below? VOTE HERE!

My Favorites from 2001:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)
(Favorites in Major Categories)
(Favorites in All Categories)

My Pick: Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love
Nominees: Judi Dench, Iris
Nominees: Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand
Nominees: Tilda Swinton, The Deep End
Nominees: Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive

Honorable Mentions: Kerry Armstrong, Lantana; Anaïs Reboux, Fat Girl (À ma soeur!); Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!; Emma Thompson, Wit

Gourmet Prospects: Juliette Binoche, The Widow of St. Pierre; Lena Endre, Faithless

Further Research: Zahra Bahrami, Baran; Jeanne Balibar, Va savoir; Elpidia Carrillo, Bread and Roses; Pilar Padilla, Bread and Roses; Molly Parker, The Center of the World; Marisa Tomei, Happy Accidents; Kerry Washington, Our Song; Tran Nu Yên-Khê, The Vertical Ray of the Sun

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