Film Feature: The Best Supporting Performances of 2010

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The Best Supporting Actress Performances of 2010

Would Natalie Portman’s performance in “Black Swan” be as powerful without the perfectly-tuned sinister work of Barbara Hershey? Would we talking about likely Oscar nominations for Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo (and possibly Julianne Moore) if Mia Wasikowska wasn’t completely believable in every one of her scenes in “The Kids Are All Right”? Would Leonardo DiCaprio have made the list for the best lead turns in “Shutter Island” without Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Michelle Williams? And is there any way to measure Robert Duvall’s work in “Get Low” without doing so against what Sissy Spacek brings to their scenes together?

The category of Supporting Actress is often a star-maker, the one that takes young ingenues and makes them household names. As for new talent, Ari Graynor (“Holy Rollers”), Ashley Bell (“The Last Exorcism”), Chloe Moretz (“Kick-Ass”), Imogen Poots (“Solitary Man”), and Sarah Steele (“Please Give”) delivered turns that will make their next career choices that much more intriguing.

As for the rest, there were a surprising number of what could be called comeback supporting actress performances this year. After a few bad career choices, it might have been tempting to write off Bryce Dallas Howard (“Hereafter”), Juliette Lewis (“Conviction”), Milla Jovovich (“Stone”), and Olivia Williams (“The Ghost Writer”), but they all delivered performances among the best of the career in 2010.

Finally, Anika Noni Rose (“For Colored Girls”), Keira Knightley (“Never Let Me Go”), Kimberly Elise (“For Colored Girls”), Rebecca Hall (“Please Give” & “Red Riding 1974”), Rosamund Pike (“Made in Dagenham”), and Vanessa Redgrave (“Letters to Juliet”) all deserve mention but couldn’t break into the top five.

Special Runner-Up: Having done features like this for years now, there’s almost always a clear-cut top five but this year produced a special #6 nominee, a runner-up better than the other runner-ups: Marion Cotillard in “Inception.” An actress who seems to give at least one stunning performance a year added another gem to her resume as the beating, terrifying heart of the most intellectual blockbuster of the year. Those who claimed that Nolan’s masterpiece was too cold weren’t paying attention to the heat coming off Cotillard.

Melissa Leo as Alice in “The Fighter”

Melissa Leo
Melissa Leo
Photo credit: Paramount

Melissa Leo’s 2010 may be the most notable overall for one actress simply due to the diversity of her performances. She popped up in “Don McKay,” “Welcome to the Rileys,” “Conviction,” and “The Fighter” and was almost unrecognizable from film to film. She’s one of those rare actresses who disappears into her roles. We no longer see Melissa Leo. We see a mother caught in a web of denial about her junkie son and doing whatever she can to keep her family unit intact while making sure BOTH her children find success. Alice’s behavior in “The Fighter” may be so frustrating that it could cause people to yell at the screen (a critic at my screening actually muttered a “STFU” — without the abbreviation — during one scene) but Leo never loses the realism. She refuses to give up on either son and realized long ago that they’re both fighting to stay on their feet. She may drive Mickey crazy by pushing the false story of Dicky’s fame around Lowell, but it’s something a lot of mothers do — she knows Dicky needs her in his corner just as much. The number of “right” decisions in Leo’s performance in “The Fighter” is somewhat breathtaking. She’s perfect.

Lesley Manville as Mary in “Another Year”

Lesley Manville
Lesley Manville
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

She’s already won awards in the lead actress category (although recent shut-outs by BFCA and the Golden Globes might indicate that we’re not the only one with category confusion) for her work in “Another Year,” but just because Lesley Manville gives the most memorable performance in the film doesn’t make her the lead. Mary may be unforgettable but Mike Leigh’s drama is not her story; it is the story of a couple (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and the stability they provide the unstable people in their lives. The most memorable of those people is Mary, a borderline tragic figure brought to three-dimensional life by Manville. If you’re over thirty, you probably know someone like Mary, a woman who externally exudes happiness but barely hides the melancholy within. As he has done before with Imelda Staunton, Sally Hawkins, and many more, Mike Leigh worked with Lesley Manville to the point that her dialogue instantly sounds genuine. She IS Mary. It never looks like a performance. Think about that for a minute. Even some of our best actors and actresses telegraph their performances with larger-than-life behavior but Manville knows that, for Mary, life is too big already.

Jacki Weaver as Janine Cody in “Animal Kingdom”

Jacki Weaver
Jacki Weaver
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Very few women have ever owned the final act of a film as completely as Jacki Weaver owns “Animal Kingdom.” Especially a crime film. For the majority of its running time, “Animal Kingdom” is a testosterone-heavy tale of bad men doing bad things and the other men trying to stop them but then Weaver gets her turn in the spotlight and we realize that the queen of the lion’s den is arguably the most dangerous creature on the plain. As the house of cards she’s helped create in her family of criminals starts to collapse, Weaver moves into the spotlight and the movie goes from good to near-great. She perfectly embodies a woman who doesn’t fit the typical description of a criminal mastermind and has probably never gotten her hands dirty herself but certainly knows how to make the tough decisions, beautifully delivering lines like “Just because we don’t wanna do something doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” Reminiscent of one of the best TV characters of all time, Livia Soprano, Janine Cody is a woman comfortable in domesticity or going head-to-head with the policeman trying to take her down. You don’t mess with a lioness.

Dianne Wiest as Nat in “Rabbit Hole”

Dianne Wiest
Dianne Wiest
Photo credit: Lionsgate

What is there to say about Dianne Wiest other than it would a better film world if she acted more often? She was spectacular on “In Treatment” but it’s been too long since she delivered a performance as resonant as Nat in “Rabbit Hole.” The mother of Nicole Kidman’s Becca, Nat is similarly without a road map in the world of tragedy and yet she could also be the only one who knows how her daughter feels. Nat lost a child too when Becca’s brother died of an overdose. The fact that losing a young child is different than losing an older child is unimportant to Nat — her son died. And it’s a situation that has clearly shaded her entire relationship with her daughter. She wants to relate but clearly does so too much for the sanity of her daughter and, consequently, doesn’t know how to help. Wiest delivers a brief-but-amazing performance, taking her few scenes and using them to ultimate effect. In fact, “Rabbit Hole” isn’t nearly as complete a film without her as Wiest adds a much-needed view into the tragedy of Becca & Howie in that she both knows their tragedy and yet doesn’t quite. She grounds the piece as she has done in so many other films and as we’d love to see her do in so many more.

The Best Supporting Actress of 2010: Amy Adams as Charlene in “The Fighter”

Amy Adams
Amy Adams
Photo credit: Paramount

There was reason to worry about Amy Adams. Her performance in “Julie & Julia” was overshadowed by her co-star, the less said about that awful “Night at the Museum” sequel the better, and most who paid to see it have repressed “Leap Year” out of their memories. It started to look like one of the most promising actresses of her generation would go the way of so many talented young ladies and disappear into crappy studio product. Then Adams proved why she’s already been nominated for Oscar twice and surely will be a third time — when she finds the right material, she’s truly remarkable. What she brings to “The Fighter” is an intangible chemistry that’s essential to the film’s success. From the minute she falls for Mark Wahlberg’s Mickey Ward, we believe it and her devotion to her love is key to the arc of the film. There’s a scene late in “The Fighter” between Bale and Adams on a porch that is a master class in character-driven drama. The brother and the lover of a man realize that they may hate each other but they must unite over a common goal. Adams is stunning in this scene, going through roughly seven emotions in just a few lines. Amy Adams is back and while it would be nice for her excellent co-star to win the Oscar in this category, it would be great for Adams to take what she deserves and never have to consider a “Leap Year” again.

Click here for The Best Lead Performances of 2010 and come back next week for The Ten Best Films of 2010. content director Brian Tallerico

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