2017 didn’t begin as a standout year for starring roles for women, but it certainly ended with a flurry of interesting female characters. Cutting my Best Actress list to 15 meant that five actresses were relegated to Honorable Mention positions, although their performances in any lessor year would have been worthy of a spot in the top 15. This 2017 ‘Best Of’ list features performances from nearly every genre of film and from both independent features and big-budget studio films.
1. Sally Hawkins delivered not one but two incredible performances in 2017. In Maudie, Hawkins contorted her body and seemed to crawl inside herself to become as physically insignificant as possible. The film’s based on the life of artist Maud Lewis, and Hawkins’ performance showed the pain and emotional heartache Maud overcame to become a beloved painter.
Hawkins was also brilliant as the mute cleaning woman who fell in love with an aquatic man in Guillermo del Toro’s mesmerizing The Shape of Water. As I said in my review, Hawkins delivered a “lovely, nuanced performance that takes Elisa from someone who loves her orderly life to a more free-spirited, determined woman willing to sacrifice herself for the creature she believes is her soulmate.”
2. Frances McDormand can always be counted on to completely capture every character she sinks her teeth into, and that’s definitely the case with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand plays Mildred, the mother of a murder victim who pays for a series of billboards to shame Chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson) into finding her daughter’s killer. Mildred’s flawed, angry, outspoken, and unwilling to bend to social norms in her quest for answers, and McDormand is terrific in displaying the range of emotions Mildred experiences in the aftermath of her child’s murder.
3. Saoirse Ronan is one of the best actors of her generation. Ronan already has two Oscar nominations under her belt for her impressive work in Atonement and Brooklyn, and 2017’s Lady Bird is likely to earn her a third nomination. Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is one of the best coming-of-age movies in years, and the film is a perfect match between actress and character.
4. There’s a stunning scene in Hostiles in which Rosamund Pike kneels in the dirt and begins clawing at the earth. The scene’s breathtaking in its rawness, and Pike’s performance is genuine and heartbreaking in its authenticity. There are a sprinkling of similar moments in the gritty Western that solidify Pike’s performance as one of this year’s best.
5. Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins proved a female superhero can excel at the box office, setting a new record for a live-action feature film directed by a woman with 2017’s Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot convinced any and all naysayers that she was the right actress for the role, and it turned out she was also the best part of Warner Bros. Pictures’ Justice League. Gadot played Wonder Woman as a strong, intelligent heroine and little girls the world over instantly fell in love (as did the rest of the audience).
6. Only one performance from a foreign film made our list this year: Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman. Vega is mesmerizing on screen, and the film offers her an incredible amount of layers to explore. Vega matches the film’s title, delivering a fantastic starring turn in writer/director Sebastián Lelio’s complex relationship drama.
7. Emma Watson was more than up to the challenge of bringing the beloved Belle to life in Disney’s spectacular musical, Beauty and the Beast. Quoting from my review, “Emma Watson is dazzling as Belle, commanding the screen and giving Belle strength, sass, and real spirit. She’s the perfect Belle, totally captivating as the iconic character.”
8. Margot Robbie is nearly unrecognizable as disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Robbie didn’t land any triple axels while playing the controversial figure skater, but nevertheless she did a terrific job of making Tonya into more than just a one-dimensional villain.
9. Beatriz at Dinner is one of the year’s hidden gems. A timely, engaging/enraging film, Beatriz at Dinner features an incredible, understated performance by Salma Hayek. The film’s ensemble includes John Lithgow, Connie Britton, and Chloe Sevigny, and Hayek’s character is the heart and soul who drives this conversation-provoking drama.
10. We’re so used to amazing performances from Meryl Streep that occasionally her brilliance is taken for granted. That seems to be the case with her performance as Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. The film marks the first on screen pairing of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and the two Oscar winners up each other’s game in the dramatic story based on true events.
11. Stephen King’s It confirmed the fact clowns are terrifying. It also confirmed that young Sophia Lillis is a force to be reckoned with. Lillis looks like a young Molly Ringwald and the camera loves her. It’s impossible not to be impressed by her performance as Beverly, the sole female member of the gang who take on Pennywise the Clown (played by Bill Skarsgard).
12. Wind River was released in August, before the start of awards season, and isn’t receiving the attention it deserves. Hell or High Water writer Taylor Sheridan wrote and directed the crime drama set on an Indian reservation and starring Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, The Avengers). Olsen’s FBI agent is a fish-out-of-water character, and Olsen does a terrific of playing that while at the same time making her strong, determined, and fully capable of handling her job.
13. Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, based on the true story of Olympic hopeful Molly Bloom who turned to setting up illicit poker games to make a living. Jessica Chastain stars as Molly, a world-class skier whose injury ends her career. Chastain plays Molly as intelligent, resourceful, capable of thinking on her feet, and able to excel in stressful situations. It’s a terrific performance and elevates an otherwise average film.
14. All the Money in the World had its December release delayed after Kevin Spacey’s scenes were reshot with Christopher Plummer taking over the role of John Paul Getty. The fact Michelle Williams is missing from most critics’ and awards associations’ lists has more to do with the fact the film was screened after much of the voting season had finished, than it does the quality of Williams’ work. Michelle Williams plays Gail Getty, mother to the kidnapped J. Paul Getty III, and delivers one of the most complex performances of her career. Williams portrays a kaleidoscope of emotions as the daughter-in-law of the world’s wealthiest man, J. Paul Getty, a miser unwilling to pay the ransom to release his grandson.
15. The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the twisted psychological thriller features three standout performances. Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Barry Keoghan deliver riveting performances in a film that’s bizarre, often cringe-worthy, and all-together unforgettable.
2017’s Best Actresses:
- Sally Hawkins – Maudie, The Shape of Water
- Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
- Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
- Rosamund Pike – Hostiles
- Gal Gadot – Wonder Woman
- Daniela Vega – A Fantastic Woman
- Emma Watson – Beauty and the Beast
- Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
- Salma Hayek – Beatriz at Dinner
- Meryl Streep – The Post
- Sophia Lillis – It
- Elizabeth Olsen – Wind River
- Jessica Chastain – Molly’s Game
- Michelle Williams – All the Money in the World
- Nicole Kidman for The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Honorable Mentions: Aubrey Plaza for Ingrid Goes West, Carey Mulligan in Mudbound, Diane Kruger for In the Fade, Rachel Weisz in My Cousin Rachel, and Stephanie Beatriz in The Light of the Moon.
Also of Interest:
- 2017’s Best Movies
- 15 Best Actors in 2017 Movies
- The Best and Worst in 2017 Feature Films
- The 10 Best Action Movies of 2017