By Adam Spunberg

Determining “the best” in any acting category is no easy task, but some of the Best Actress decisions over the past decade have been especially difficult and – at times – even controversial.  Personal taste plays such a pivotal role in a performance evaluation, and many of these actresses had the benefit of roles where their talents were more easily recognizable.  For instance, all except Berry, Swank, and Winslet played real characters, whose movements, mannerisms, and appearances could be matched up to already-existing personas.  Impersonate that person extraordinarily and the accolades are sure to come.

Also, the quality of the film and script often influence these results far more than they should.  Did Julia Roberts benefit from Erin Brockovich being such a likeable character, and should she be judged for staying within her range or applauded simply for the excellent portrayal?  There is no clear criteria for tabulating these rankings, but our writers at have done their best to rate the 10 victors in order, using whatever system each saw fit.  Here are the final numbers:

10. Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001): Average score of 8.11
9. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side (2009): Average score of 7.56
8. Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (2005): Average score of 6.89
7. Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich (2000): Average score of 6.33
6. Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby (2004): Average score of 5.78
5. Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006): Average score of 4.89
4. Nicole Kidman, The Hours (2002): Average score of 4.78
3. Kate Winslet, The Reader (2008): Average score of 4.56
2. Charlize Theron, Monster (2003): Average score of 3.11
1. Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose (2007): Average score of 3.00

(Voters included Paul Popiel, Steve Neumann, Bryce Van Kooten, Ayinde Waring, Kit Bowen, Savanna New, Michaela Zanello, Adam Spunberg, and Jeremy Martin)

As I did in the past with Best Picture, let me provide some statistical observations:

1. Marion Cotillard and Charlize Theron: Cotillard gets the ultimate nod, but just barely.  With such a small sample size, I think it’s safe to call this one a draw.  Cotillard had the benefit of five first-place votes to Theron’s two, but Theron finished in the top three on seven of nine ballots.  Each also had a red herring (Cotillard registered an eighth-place vote, Theron somehow a 10th).

2. Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, and Helen Mirren: These three represent the next block of closely contested candidates.  However you see the ordering, it seems obvious that the collective will has this trio firmly between third and fifth.

3.  Hilary Swank: While Swank, at first glance, appears on an island in sixth place, the variance in votes is worth noting.  Swank registered two second-place votes and two 10th-place votes.  In other words, some people loved her performance, some hated it, and some found it mediocre.  Is it better to be loved and hated by a few or simply admired a little by everyone?  I think Swank would be glad to have at least a few fervent admirers.

4. Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, and Sandra Bullock: I find it extremely interesting that these popular starlets sit adjacent to each other.  In all three cases, it was a well-known actress, attacking “the role of a lifetime” with spunk and gusto.  Could it be that the Academy had as much affinity for the compelling real-life characters they played as much as how they emulated them?

5. Halle Berry:  Ms. Berry has no shortage of adulators, so I doubt her ranking would mean much to her.  Still, one has to wonder if she was the beneficiary of possessing some smashing good looks in a weak year.

And now for a brief presentation of my rankings:

10. Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001)

Someone had to be last on my list, and I could not find it in me to place Berry above the others.  Critics complain of overacting, which may have resonated with enough Academy voters but falls short in retrospective hindsight.

9. Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (2005)

I’m not trying to take anything away from Witherspoon’s fine portrayal of June Carter, but was she even the best actor in her movie?  I remember watching the Oscars and thinking Joaquin Phoenix was far more impressive as Johnny Cash.  I used to feel the same way when Helen Hunt would win the Emmy every year for Mad About You as Paul Reiser would wither in the shadows.  A great job, certainly, but not one that cracks any all-time lists.

8. Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich (2000)

I recently watched this again and I really loved the character of Erin Brockovich.  That’s why it pained me to slip Roberts so low, but I just don’t think her acting was as amazing as the – for lack of a better word – “awesome” woman that she portrayed.  Was she really all that different from what she did in Pretty Woman, for example?  I think we like her more than what the merits indicate.

7. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side (2009)

Maybe I’m a little bit of a Sandra Bullock apologist, but come on … the woman has been through enough turmoil lately!  Jesse James is such a/an (insert vociferous derogatory term).  Note to women out there: Did Jesse James seem like a good guy, at all?  Trust your instincts.  And as far as acting is concerned, Bullock displayed some wonderful subtlety in certain moments, avoiding the tendency for histrionics when the music, script, and real-life story almost beckoned them.

6. Nicole Kidman, The Hours (2002)

Antagonists of Kidman will call her spin as Virginia Woolf nothing more than a fantastic prosthetic nose, but that smells of preconceived prejudice.  This was a career-defining role for Kidman, who effectively upgraded her status as a legitimate actress.  You may be afraid of Virginia Woolf, but there should be no apprehension about lauding Miss Kidman as a top-of-the-line thespian.

5. Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006)

Everyone loves Helen Mirren.  Somehow, she manages to stay sassy and polite at the same time, no matter how old she gets.  I wish I could have put her higher, but I couldn’t let my testosterone dictate over her lack of screen time and the greatness of those above her.

4. Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby (2004)

If you forgot how outstanding Swank was, go rent Million Dollar Baby and give her another look.  Her effectiveness stretches far beyond the southern accent she adopts.  In what was an extremely challenging role, Swank comes across as tough, vibrant, stubborn, vulnerable, and endearing all at the same time.  There is such complexity in her facial expressions, and it is no wonder that she won her second Academy Award here after Boys Don’t Cry.

3. Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)

Theron might have been considered in the same “sweetheart” category as Witherspoon, Bullock, and Roberts, had it not been for her beyond-exceptional rendition of a brutal, but compelling female serial killer.  If you want to see the stuff of Erin Brockovich, go watch Theron in North Country.  Monster is something far more accomplished.  She brings life to a despicable character, who exudes compassion while committing heinous criminal acts.

2. Kate Winslet, The Reader (2008)

In my opinion, Winslet is the greatest actress of her generation.  Think of the various roles she has accepted and conquered, from period-piece darlings in Sense and Sensibility and Titanic, to a blue-haired anomaly in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to the steaminess of Quills, to the suburban malcontent of Little Children and Revolutionary Road.  Has she ever been anything less than spectacular?  The Reader may not have been her best performance, but in a lifetime of transcendent work, she deserves every award imaginable.   Give her a hand and many more golden statuettes.

1. Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose (2007)

Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than Cotillard’s breathtaking impersonation of Edith Piaf is the fact that she was an underdog.  Thankfully, enough Academy members popped in the French import before casting their votes, because even five minutes of viewing should be enough to persuade anyone of her brilliance.  In a sense, Cotillard tackles several different characters at once, sizing up the remarkable Piaf at different stages of her life.  There are scenes of jaw-dropping excellence, such as when Cotillard sings drunkenly as a young girl on a street or captures the infirmities of old age with each rebellious exhalation.  This is a performance for the ages that ranks second to none.  She can look proudly upon her Oscar and articulate in her native French: “Je ne regrette rien.”

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