Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream (2000)
In Darren Arronfsky's tour-de-force of human misery, Burstyn's portrayal of the lonely, painkiller-addicted widow Sara Goldfarb is perhaps the heart of the movie. So remarkable.
Check out this monologue for an example of Burstyn's greatness.
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
Is there a more lovable and singular performance this decade? Hawkins constantly teeters on the edge of annoying in her performance as Poppy, but we can't help but fall in love with her. In the end, it's Hawkins' performance that gives this movie so much added depth.
Nicole Kidman, Dogville (2003)
I wavered between picking Kidman's charismatic performance in Moulin Rogue or this emotionally wrenching portrait of Grace, a woman on the run in a small town which quickly turns sinister. Kidman, who has a striking charisma when put in the right roles, runs the gamut of emotions in this emotionally raw film from provocateur Lars Von Trier. Here's an early scene between Kidman and Paul Bettany, also great in the movie.
-Besides the aforementioned Moulin Rogue (2002), the other Kidman performance I liked best this decade was probably in Birth (2004). She won her Oscar for The Hours (2002), where I think her performance is good rather than great.
Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me (2000)
I think Laura Linney is a true acting treasure. I've never seen her in a performance that felt false or forced. Linney is hilarious, touching, and a perfect partner for Mark Ruffalo in this great film. Nuanced and true-to-life sibling relationships seem so rare on film, and this is surely one of the best.
-I also loved Linney's lead performance in The Savages (2007) and her supporting roles in The House of Mirth (2000), Kinsey (2004), and The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006)
This performance was probably the most awarded of any actress performance this decade, and for good reason. Mirren goes far beyond mere imitation to create a truly deep and nuanced portrayal of a chilly character in Stephen Frears' highly engaging political drama.
Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes' 2002 movie is simply stunning, and it wouldn't work without a perfect lead performance, which he gets from Moore. Her performance has to both play for style (as the whole movie is filmed as a 1950s-era melodrama) and for real, so the audience connects fully with the emotions. She's perfect.
-While Moore is one of my favorite actresses, I'm surprised by how few of her best performances are in the 2000s. Besides this performance, I love her most in Boogie Nights (1997), Safe (1995), and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake (2004)
As a good-natured, but also naive, amateur abortionist, Imelda Staunton is perfection. Director and writer Mike Leigh (who also directed Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky) partners with Staunton to create a quietly powerful performance.
Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)
Oscar gets a bad wrap for too-often awarding actresses playing real people and beautiful actresses who make themselves ugly. Theron certainly fits both categories, but damn this is one hell of a performance. Theron is so emotionally raw in an already difficult movie, it would be hard for me ever to sit through the whole thing again.
Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive (2001)
Watts probably gets my vote for favorite actress performance of the decade. As Betty/Diane, Watts has to show two completely different personalities. She's so successful that some viewers didn't even realize it was the same actress. Watts also has to play with cliche and archetype in this mind-twister, and she succeeds on every possible level.
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Kate is my favorite actress, bar none. As Clementine, Winslet is quite simply the heart and soul of my favorite movie of the decade. Better known at the time for her British period dramas, it's surprising that Winslet was chosen for this role, but she is absolutely perfect.
-I loved so much of Winslet's work this decade. As good as she was in her Oscar-winning role in The Reader (2008), I actually think her work is stronger in Little Children (2006) and Revolutionary Road (2008). She also gave a great supporting performance in Iris (2001).
Looking at this list, my tastes diverged from Oscar a bit. Only two of these performances won (Mirren and Theron), while Watts, Kidman, and Hawkins were not even nominated for these great roles. As these actresses age, I hope the movie world continues to find great roles for their talents.