Best Actress 2008
Winner: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Nominees: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
One of those years where the overall starriness of the field, the scale and richness of the roles, and the savory drama of the nominations themselves—Hathaway finally in the club and Jolie back in the game, Leo besting some household-name for her nod, Streep and Winslet in two very Oscary roles, duking out a battle over who's more truly "overdue"—can mislead you into thinking this is a really great category. Granted, 2008 didn't give voters a whole lot to pick from. I admired Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky but didn't love her, and putative runners-up like Kristin Scott Thomas, Michelle Williams, Cate Blanchett, and Winslet Redux in Revolutionary Road had me scratching my head to varying degrees. Williams aside, whose inclusion would have been exciting if only as a hat-tip to real independent filmmaking, I don't think the Oscar roster would have improved all that measurably, short of subjecting Oscar to a complete personality overhaul in terms of the kinds of movies he likes, or even bothers to look at. The nicest things I can say are that Streep, Winslet, and even Jolie all have moments that handily surpass my overall regard for their performances, and that Hathaway's Kym would be a gem in any year, but 2008 was far from a banner year for this category—and when you look at these parts on paper, I can't help feeling that it really should have been one.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married ★ ★ ★ ★
Anne Hathaway's huge, expressive eyes and mouth almost certainly lubricated her path into the movies, but they also pose something of a problem. It's not that they are too dramatic for her roles, as the astonishing sensuality of Angelina Jolie's face often is; if anything, Hathaway is a gifted second-banana, proving in The Devil Wears Prada that she can hold down the fort of the ostensible lead while not one but three formidable scene-stealers make big grabs for the movie. She still comes off plucky, curious, funny, and mentally lively, without taking the bait and pushing back too hard at Streep, Tucci, and Blunt. She wears this extraordinary face as though it really is no big deal, and it's almost the very tension between her remarkable features and the disarming frankness of her gaze and her voice that make her so enticing in her best roles. What's new and wonderful about her work in Rachel is that Jonathan Demme and Jenny Lumet have given Hathaway a chance to be as keyed-up, as kooky, as diagonal, as dark, and as deep as are the pools and planes of her face. Her febrile, purposely relentless energy as Kym—slouching and gesticulating through that exquisitely awful wedding toast, hopping among the guests, crashing on her sister's bed, flinging her bike down after an irritating ride, or loudly taking up her station in the family hammock—proves just how easily Hathaway could have pulled all the focus in Prada if she'd wanted to. Hathaway pushes Kym's theatrics in almost every scene while stopping short of being as grandiose as her character. For instance, she could have hyper-exerted herself for laughs in the salon scene, as she's faced with awkward and finally inflammatory reminders of her own reckless past, or she could have shown us a Kym who simply loves to seize the spotlight from her sister, no matter the circumstances, while only pretending to be irritated at this unbidden confession. But Hathaway knows just when Kym "acts out" (which is usually) and when she dials it back (if only for reasons of embarrassment or self-protection). Her vocal hold on every beat of the character is even more potent than her facial and bodily expressivity: she can make her lines sound tart, careless, empty, thoughtful, ironic, or deeply naïve, often hopping those registers from word to word, but without losing the quick pace of Kym's thought process. I don't mean that Hathaway nails every line. She perhaps over-sells the sturm-and-drang of a few episodes and exchanges, as in her Oscar-clip passage about relinquishing her right to love, and as she recounts her last day with Ethan for an AA meeting. It's nonetheless exciting to see Hathaway wrangling for the first time with high drama (I don't count Brokeback, where I frankly found her a little wanting). And I love watching her grow in these ways even as she exudes that clear-voiced, off-the-cuff plausibility that she's always been so good at, which is the best thing anyone could have furnished to this mannered and overbearing character. The bonuses arrive toward the end of the film, which not only makes Kym less central than we might have expected for long stretches, but pushes her into the background (where Hathaway capably, even miraculously retreats) and confronts both character and actress with new challenges: for example, that soft, flummoxed, blank-faced shock Kym experiences in the face of her mother's passive-aggressive aloofness at the end of the wedding night, or the wordless glimpses of Kym dancing by herself, getting lost or pretending to get lost in the music. She's a proud addition to Demme's enviable portfolio of vivid, headstrong, but credible and vulnerable female leads, whether she's pitching a fit of righteous anger about not being maid of honor, or confronting her parents with their respective failures of role-modeling, or just lazing on that hammock, reminding everyone with unfussy comic brio how much Grandma still hates her for whatever the hell happened all those years ago at Rite Aid.

From There:
Melissa Leo, Frozen River ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From the opening, close-range tilt up Melissa Leo's pilly pink housecoat, past her thick chestnut hair and into her angry, worrying face, Frozen River evinces full confidence in an actress and a character whom the audience will appreciate getting to know. The creases of hard-won middle age, the sharp jaw, and the cold-blasted skin of Leo's face furnish a charismatic constrast with that luxurious hair, and as we know from 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, this actress has a gift for unleashing sharp, intuitive intelligence even when her characters are trying to repress the implications of their insights, or when their shrewdness of perception and their sensitivity to bullshit are not necessarily accompanied by a profundity of book-learning or a sagacious instict for self-preservation. River's Ray Eddy fits right in line with that Leo mold, though we've never had the privilege of such lengthy and intimate exposure to her style and smarts. The biggest payoff comes in the domestic scenes, where Ray's exasperation with her absentee husband and over her gathering debts squares off against a proud but pitiful resourcefulness at scrounging up money from the sofa cushions, and at making playful small-talk with her younger son about all the toys she'll be buying him from China. She has a remarkably frank and layered relationship with her older on-screen son, whom Charlie McDermott plays quite well, but it's mostly Leo who convinces us that we've never before seen a scene where a stuck single mom defends herself against a child's recriminations or puts some newfound cash toward a spontaneous jaunt to the local burger joint. And in Frozen River's main plot, which sometimes constrains the actress into some repetitive communications of tension and worry, Leo thinks onscreen and holds ongoing internal debates that don't feel ostentatious. She even uncorks some wry humor at welcome, unexpected moments: check her readings of the lines "I mean it, honey, come on out!" and "Merry Christmas - or - whatever". I love her bored, contemptuous refusal of the idea that the Mohawk nation is really a nation, and her stark, practical, gut-level refusal to hand a dead baby over to its mother while the body is still cold. I love the simple, raised-hackle firmness of "You can't have my car." That's an awful lot to love in a performance that doesn't finally transfix me or compel my full belief as much as it seems like it should. When Leo rings an off-note for me, it's usually in relation to expressions or line-readings that draw needlessly overt attention to Ray's poverty, which is also a recurring fault-line in the script: neither she nor writer-director Courtney Hunt comes off swimmingly in the face of clunky verbiage like "I've got a really good job at the Yankee Dollar," which is phrased and delivered more for the audience's expository benefit than for the bill-collector who is its audience in the story. And even if the finale of Frozen River feels like a patent miscalculation—pivoting on Ray's extraordinary choice to restructure, albeit temporarily, the shape and membership of her family—Leo hasn't planted the kinds of seeds that prepare us for this doozy of an about-face. Nor does she fully rise to the occasion of a directly preceding crisis where she riskily holds her ground against some terrifying adversaries. In general, she tends to be on surer footing the farther she is from big narrative pivots or direct statements of conflict and theme. A perfectly fair weakness for an actress who's rarely been invited into the narrative hearts and cruxes of her pictures, and a relative hill of beans compared to her tough, beveled, and memorable austerity.

Kate Winslet, The Reader ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Anyone who has seen Winslet's peerless work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and by now, isn't that everyone?) remembers how Clementine Kruczynski implores Joel Barish not to turn her into a symbol, and to afford her the right to be "just another fucked-up girl trying to get by." The line imparts as much truth about Winslet as it does about Clementine: her performances are always less stirring when she's standing in for some larger idea. Indeed her knacks for spontaneity, vitality, and forceful lucidity equip her best in the service of characters who defy, transcend, or complicate the tags that a script or a scene-partner might ascribe to them. Think how much less interesting Sense and Sensibility would have been if Winslet had played "Sensibility" instead of playing Marianne Dashwood—through that girl's unruly passions, yes, but also around and beneath and sometimes despite them. Unfortunately, compelling though they were in fits and starts, both of Winslet's trumpeted turns in 2008 confined her to typecasting and personification more than they pushed her to escape them. Sam Mendes' glossy directorial style almost always turns his actors and characters into concepts, and though Winslet escapes Revolutionary Road with a bit more to her credit than a vapid DiCaprio or a cartoonish Kathy Bates can claim, her flatly self-conscious April is not a shining moment. Meanwhile, the structure that Bernhard Schlink and then David Hare and then Stephen Daldry have assembled for The Reader make Hanna Schmitz a hermetic paragon of the Unknowable Love Object and of Unfathomable German Guilt. Either of those icebergs, to appropriate a Winslet metaphor, is enough to sink an otherwise-seaworthy film and performance, and though Winslet holds the screen too forcefully to be outright sinkable, The Reader locks her into shot after shot and scene after scene where her stony, bullish glares or her courtroom stoicism or her bursts of temper or her image of eroticized knowledge become emblems in and of themselves, disconnected from an evolving, oxygenated, fleshed-out sense of character. The second riskiest thing a filmmaker can do to Kate Winslet is to cast her in a part that turns heavily on dialogue, in which register she's much more likely to come across as mannered or forced than she ever does when she's listening, moving, gazing, or physically reacting. Here, too, The Reader comes close to undoing her: the Teutonic accent is less than convincing, and beyond some exciting moments where she sounds incongruously proud in court or strangely panicked amid the privacy and home-court advantage of her own apartment, her line readings tilt toward familiar, Winslety tones and rhythms. Nonetheless, just when the performance comes close to a full-on honorable misfire, she knocks out a complicated stare or a bodily inflection or an emotional truth that reminds you of what a slugger and a surgeon she can be, occasionally at the same time. I love when she slams that streetcar door so hotly and madly in refusal of David Kross' surprise appearance, much as I love seeing Meryl Streep come batting toward Philip Seymour Hoffman with rosary flying and habit astir. Still, the direction never challenges Winslet as much as the role on paper would seem to do. She holds us but doesn't often surprise us, and I kept wishing that the filmmakers had taken a chance on Connie Nielsen or Vera Farmiga, two actresses with a penchant for erotic danger and a smaller dividend of audience familiarity, either of whom might have endowed The Reader with more of the spark and ferocity that otherwise only arrive via the stark, darkly saturated cinematography and the bitter fifth-act wisdom of Lena Olin—who herself might have made for a superb Hanna Schmitz 15 or 20 years ago.

Meryl Streep, Doubt ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In a moment-to-moment way, Doubt is a compelling experience. In any production in any medium, the audience is all but guaranteed of wanting to know what has or hasn't happened, and why every character behaves and maneuvers as she or he does, and what this has to do with Religion, Sexuality, Education, Race, the 1960s, the Church, Monomania, Doubt. That said, the audience is equally likely to hear all the story beats in Shanley's dramatic outline: portent there, crisis here, pause for a moment of "character behavior." What the story needs to really work, aside from a screen director who doesn't confuse canted angles with dramatic intensity or sudden cloudbursts with effective atmosphere, is a repertory of actors who can not only play against the mechanistic swerves of the potboiler narrative but who don't seem to be performing. Or else, when they are performing, they need to look like they're performing tactical, even theatrical roles for each other, but not for us. I think the piece works best if, as Cherry Jones and Brían F. O'Byrne achieved on stage, the ambiguities of guile and sincerity, of purity and contamination of motive, of resolution and doubt become increasingly, inexplicably palpable even as their external affects barely change: it's the intensity of the situation and the trickle of crucial information that should infuse the piece with drama, not the attention-grabby virtuosity of the acting. Unfortunately, under Shanley's direction, Streep seems too obviously to shuttle among various dispositions for Sister Aloysius: slithery then disdainful then bemused, the dragon-lady followed by the disillusioned leader, the self-conscious victim of chauvinism and then, just a beat later, the arrogant bully of the students and novices. Of course this means that Sister Aloysius has that on-screen dynamism that Streep's performances usually have; it's a treat to watch her leap, float, and slide among so many sides of this woman, and I love watching her tussle with a transistor-radio cord or hold her ground against a shouting Hoffman until the specific moment she elects to shout back—and in scarily spastic fashion, at that. But it all feels dubiously theatrical. She has perhaps thought too much in terms of "sides," and her shadings of the character feel blunt: athletic and proficient, but self-consciously so. There's no reason for Father Flynn or Sister James not to feel that Sister Aloysius is on a gratuitous and busily staged power trip, and the audience experiences her as a colorful conniver, even when her instincts seem strong (which is all the more often, given that Hoffman and the filmmakers seem all but decided about Father Flynn's guilt). Rather than overriding the florid, self-congratulatory bobs and weaves of the material, Streep gives into them; we see exactly what she's "doing" with her rolling eyes, her severely bent visor, her Bronx vowels. We also see her ceding the entire Aloysius/Mrs. Miller scene to Viola Davis—an extremely generous act as a woman and an established star, but a disappointing deflation of the scene's power stakes and transformations of knowledge. It's clear that she's working with (or against) a terminally unsubtle filmmaker, and she still comes up with an enjoyable turn, but its very energy feels somehow uncontained, unmysterious, even a bit self-indulgent.

Angelina Jolie, Changeling ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "In this movie, Angelina Jolie appears as Jennifer Connelly, a smart woman who loves so moonishly you just know the film is going to hurt her for it; there's also a sidedish of Angelina Jolie as Jane Wyman (outrageous, seizure-inducing thought), conscripted by a culture and a work environment that honor her competence but will never offer her glory or release, much less sanction her autonomous happiness. Phase Two: Angelina Jolie as Joan Fontaine, tremulous and disabused once her world stops working and no one is interested in setting it right. The theatrically staged "reunion" scene between Jolie and the son who isn't her son is a nervy narrative moment; I'm not sure how it could be otherwise, but it's also the moment where Jolie's approach to the character and Eastwood's notorious, print-the-first-take shooting style reveal themselves, however handsome and vivid, to have too narrow a grip on this flawed, unruly screenplay. I understand personal timidity, velvet-glove thuggery, and social edicts against speaking truth to power, but Christine just doesn't seem upset enough about the boy's charade or about the brisk choreography by which the LAPD hijacks Christine into her own public silencing. Jolie decides that Christine knows right away that she's being lied to, and she plays key scenes that way, but then she plays others like a dormouse being smothered by her era."

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

My Favorites from 2008:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)

My Pick: Juliette Binoche, Flight of the Red Balloon
Nominees: Jeanne Balibar, The Duchess of Langeais
Nominees: Penélope Cruz, Elegy
Nominees: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Nominees: Tarra Riggs, Ballast

Honorable Mentions: Catinca Untaru, The Fall; Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky; Alfre Woodard, Tyler Perry's The Family that Preys; Emma Thompson, Last Chance Harvey; Vera Farmiga, Never Forever; Nina Hoss, Yella; Famke Janssen, Turn the River; Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Further Research: Lisa Kudrow, Kabluey; Charlize Theron, Sleepwalking

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