Waad Mohammed - "Wadjda"
It's been a fine year for child performers (we'll be writing more about some of those soon), but the one that's haunted us for well over twelve months is that given by the then ten-year-old Saudi actress Waad Mohammed in "Wadjda." One of the major crossover foreign films of the year, Haifaa Al Mansour's debut focuses on the title character, played by Mohammed, a preteen in suburban Riyadh who wants nothing more than a bicycle, and so enters her school's Koran recitation competition to get the funds. Listening to indie rock and wearing Converse to school, she could be the kid of hip Portland parents, but she's in a country that's oppressive to women, which makes her stance all the braver. Not that she's a figurehead or anything—Mohammed gives her an innocence that makes it clear that she only wants to be able to do the same things that she can see her male friends doing. That said, there are real smarts here too—Wadjda is a born operator, wily and manipulative, who has most of the adults around her wrapped around her little finger. It's a beautifully multifaceted performance, and coming from someone with almost no acting experience, it's borderline astonishing. When the situation starts to change in Saudi Arabia, it'll be because of kids like Wadjda, and like Waad Mohammed who lead the way.
Danai Gurira - "Mother Of George"
An award-winning playwright who's appeared in the likes of "The Visitor" and "Treme," but who's best known as dreadlocked fan-favorite badass Michonne on "The Walking Dead," Danai Gurira couldn't be further from the latter in her hugely impressive breakthrough turn "Mother Of George." In Andrew Dosunmu's follow-up to the underseen "Reckless City," she plays a Brooklyn-based Nigerian woman, Adenike, married to the older Ayodele (Isaach De Bankole). Over a year on, however, she still isn't pregnant, which threatens the comfort of the marriage, as her mother-in-law (Bukky Ajayi) starts to put pressure on her son to look elsewhere for someone to carry her child. The film is a complex and rich melodrama, and along with Bradford Young's stunning photography, Gurira is the very heart of it; she makes Adenike as warm as Michonne is chilly, who struggles with, but is somewhat in thrall to, the traditionalism of her culture, even as a part of her wishes to escape it. The script contrives to have her make choices that some might find unrelatable, except that Gurira makes her entirely relatable throughout due to her performance. Let's hope that she'll be back on the big screen before too long.
Rooney Mara - "Side Effects"
It's only two short years since Rooney Mara wowed in one of the most sought-after roles for years, as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." In that time, she's rightly become one of the most sought-after actresses of her generation, and impressed in several roles this year, thanks to David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" and, albeit briefly, Spike Jonze's "Her." But the real keeper is her role in Steven Soderbergh's penultimate film, "Side Effects." The movie itself was divisive, and probably rightly so (it's uneven and a little silly in places, especially when Catherine Zeta-Jones starts gnawing at the scenery), but Mara's turn is a multi-layered wonder. Somewhat reminiscent in its conceit of Edward Norton's breakout in "Primal Fear," Mara has a tough task on her hands—she has to show her doped-up femme fatale in a relatively normal state, in deep depression, under the effects of various medications, and, eventually, she has to reveal that she's been faking all of the above. It's tricky, technical stuff, but Mara reinforces why she has the top tier of directors doing backflips over her—subtly toying with the audience's sympathies, and never falling into the trap of mannerisms or tics. It's a shame that she and Soderbergh didn't get to team up more often (unless he can be tempted out of retirement...), but we can't wait to see what everyone else can do with her.
Honorable Mentions: As we said at the top, we had a list of possibilities multiple times longer here than we did in any of the other acting categories, and there's still a wealth of performances we haven't touched on (though some got some love in our Breakthrough Performances list yesterday). To name just some of our favorites, there was Olivia Wilde in "Drinking Buddies," Lake Bell in "In A World," Amy Seimetz in"Upstream Color," Felicity Jones in "The Invisible Woman," Mia Wasikowska in "Stoker," Amy Acker in "Much Ado About Nothing," Luminita Georghiu in "Child's Pose," Alice Lowe in "Sightseers," Veerle Baetens in "The Broken Circle Breakdown," Robin Weigert in "Concussion" and Kathryn Hahn in "Afternoon Delight." And were the films Oscar-eligible this time around (they don't get releases until early 2014), we'd certainly have discussed Paulina Garcia in "Gloria," Scarlett Johansson in "Under The Skin" and Lindsay Duncan in "Le Week-End," among others. Anyone you believe deserves the nod? Let us know who in the comments section.