Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
We meet again, Miss Moore.
Congratulations are in order for Julianne Moore. On Sunday night, she won a well-deserved, and long-hoped-for Oscar for Still Alice. She brought infinite grace, humanity, and incredibly affable qualities to a person stuck in a dire situation, and Moore walked away from the movie with Best Actress at the Oscars, for what might be remembered as her seminal role — not to mention one of the surest bets in recent Oscar history.
But is it Moore’s best?
Moore’s had an exhaustively diverse career, with one uniting quality: She’s really, really good in everything she’s in, and everybody likes her. So, do we dare attempt to rank her works and offer up a top 10? Totally. Keep in mind, she’s so talented and casual, you can’t blame her when she’s taking pratfalls in stuff like Evolution. Or forced to feign interest in Nic Cage in Next. Or in Carrie 2013. She’s still terrific in her flops, so imagine our stress ranking her classics when there are so many. So, keeping that in mind, while some great films didn’t quite make the cut (The Kids Are All Right, Game Change, Short Cuts, Children of Men), we chose the movies that feature what we think is her truly best and most iconic work. We only have so much room for Moore.
10. Laura Brown
The Hours (2002)
Julianne Moore’s performance in The Hours might not be her most fulfilling work, but as one of her double nominations in 2002, it offers more than a peek at her ability to carry the weight of a layered and complex character. The film portrays the stories of three women spanning three generations, connected by a struggle and desire to understand the aspects of life that make it worth living, linked furthermore by the reflections read in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Moore plays Laura Brown, a pregnant 1950’s housewife with a young son who seems to know too much. Laura acts in her day-to-day life. She feigns happiness. Pretends this is the life that she wants. She has a doting husband whom she can’t truly love, due in no small part to the questions of her own sexual identity. Moore plays her with a slight coldness, measured by a growing distance that seems to build with her faltering ability to stay within this life, a life she equates to death. It’s an inner turmoil that she wears in her eyes when she thinks no one is watching. –Rebecca Bulnes
Moore’s Moment: This scene in particular feels like the crux of it all. It takes place after a crucial decision is made, and as she hides away in the bathroom, we experience her disparate worlds — the life of lies reinforced in the words to her husband and her own dismal truth held back through tears.
09. Clara Duvall
Cookie’s Fortune (1999)
Robert Altman’s 1999 offering, Cookie’s Fortune, is a strange gem of a film in which dark comedy, farce, and family drama overlap like the director’s trademark dialogue, and Julianne Moore is near-perfect as its confused moral left of center. Playing Clara, a spacey woman who is goaded into both covering up her Aunt Cookie’s (Patricia Neal) suicide and starring in the world’s worst community theater production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome by her conniving older sister Camille (Glenn Close), Moore is amusingly dimwitted without the film being cruel to her.
Imbued with the sense of humanity that Moore always manages to find in her characters, Clara and her simple-mindedness make for consistently funny yet never cruel caricature. Viewers don’t laugh at Clara because she’s stupid; they laugh because she’s just as absurd and odd as everything else about the film. They also laugh because she is a fantastically bad actress. When Clara finally takes the stage as Salome, Moore slips into what might well be the Platonic Ideal of an extremely talented actor playing an abysmal one. Her flat line-reading and uncoordinated dance of the seven veils are truly underrated moments in the history of film comedy. –Sarah Kurchak
Moore’s Moment: Clara and Camille descend into screaming madness upon discovery of their aunt’s body. Watching Moore and Close, two of the finest dramatic actresses of our time, descend into such silliness is a surprisingly satisfying treat.
08. Amber Waves
Boogie Nights (1997)
Julianne Moore makes her mark early in Boogie Nights, during the diner scene when director Jack Horner recruits young Eddie Adams into the adult film industry. As Horner coos and pontificates, the camera lingers on Moore’s Amber Waves, who watches Eddie with an eerie intensity that toes the line between motherly and sensual. In the next scene, a tender goodnight kiss makes manifest everything her eyes have been hinting at. It’s an almost impossible balance, that Freudian shit, but Moore tightropes it across every minute of the film’s two and a half hours.
One of Boogie Nights’ greatest strengths is the fearlessness of its ensemble, but, aside from maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s Moore who seems to be taking the biggest risks. Other characters (I’m looking at you, Reilly) mug their way through the adult films-within-the-film, but Moore plays it almost unbearably straight, as she takes Eddie’s (sorry, Dirk Diggler’s) onscreen virginity. Her moans, her grunts, the tender way she tells him where to blow his load — it’s positively raw. And a little bit squirmy. And all kinds of tragic, once you consider the film’s familial undertones. It’s the first time the Academy took notice, and we all knew it wouldn’t be the last. –Randall Colburn
Moore’s Moment: “Too many things. Too many things. Too many things. Too many things.”
07. Maude Lebowski
The Big Lebowski (1998)
In The Big Lebowski, The Dude is surrounded by loud, mean people: Walter, Jesus, and the Nihilists, not to mention The Big Lebowski himself. It’s no wonder then, that The Dude finds his match in the only other character to share his sense of cool. Sure, Maude is anything but laid-back. Her clipped, off-kilter intensity slices and dices Bridges’ drowsy whine, but her kaleidoscopic spirit lives and dies in the same blissful free fall as our hero.
Moore had her work cut out for her in Maude, a character that’s all too easy to pigeonhole in “pretentious artist” territory. She finds real pathos in Maude, eventually revealing, in a lovely round of toking, the kind of vulnerability that almost never emerges from our nation’s overachievers. And it’s here that we find the common ground between the two characters, the kind of people that no one would ever see together, even if just for a night.
What’s especially delightful, though, is how Moore doesn’t reject Maude’s pretensions, but exploits them for texture. The way she seems to float inside those unnecessarily over-sized garments is a masterwork of embodiment, and the conviction with which she describes her art is enough to make you believe that maybe Jackson Pollack was onto something. –Randall Colburn
Moore’s Moment: Her extended cackle with the snooty Knox Harrington (David Thewlis) is pure bliss, an echo of every moment you’ve ever felt alienated at a party. Especially an art kid party.
06. Sarah Miles
The End of the Affair (1999)
British novelist Graham Greene was excellent at exploring his leading men’s various crises of faith, but his secondary characters often became little more than moderately well-drawn catalysts for those men’s moments of agonizing realization. Greene’s 1951 novel, The End of the Affair, is definitely the story of Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes in the film), a man whose abruptly stalled and serendipitously rekindled affair with a married woman named Sarah (Moore) has a disastrous impact on his faith.
Unlike Greene’s novel, Neil Jordan’s 1999 adaptation is almost as much about Sarah’s own struggles with her God, though, and that’s largely due to Julianne Moore’s portrayal of her. Played with passion, intelligence, and barely concealed internal conflict, Moore’s Sarah is never at risk of becoming a cypher. She even manages to sell the hell out of some of the movie’s more questionable dialogue (“I had tempted fate, and fate had accepted”). The film itself polarized critics when it was released. Its detractors dismissed it as overblown melodrama. Its proponents hailed it as engrossing, thoughtful, and witty. Both camps called it old-fashioned.
But Moore’s performance received almost universal praise. The role was equally popular when award season rolled around, earning Moore acting nods at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs and her second Academy Award nomination (her first for Best Actress). –Sarah Kurchak
Moore’s Moment: “You think love ends just because we don’t see each other?” is a borderline sappy sentiment that you might find in a mid-level greeting card (and is framed as such in the film’s trailer), but when Moore’s Sarah says it, it actually sounds deeply emotional and profound.