Speaking of some of cinema's greatest achievements: hey, "Mullholland Drive." Australian actress Naomi Watts might have been vaguely familiar to some thanks to roles in "Flirting" and comic-book disaster "Tank Girl," but her career wasn't exactly on fire. As the '90s closed out, she was appearing in things with titles like "Children of the Corn: The Gathering" and "The Hunt For The Unicorn Killer," and toplining a short-lived NBC series called "Sleepwalkers." But everything changed when she was cast in a new pilot by David Lynch, one that, when it failed to get picked up, morphed into a new film that stands as a highlight of the filmmaker's career, and features, from Watts, one of the greatest goddamn performances we've ever seen. The Australian actress (who Lynch cast from a photo alone, having never seen her previous work) plays (at least at first) Betty, an aspiring actress, who arrives in L.A. for the first time, only to encounter an amnesiac woman (Laura Elena Harring), who she promises to help, falling for her in the process. There's more to it than that, as you might imagine, but Watts is phenomenal, going from wide-eyed ingenue to manipulative, murderous, guilt-ridden killer. One doesn't have to read too much into the film to believe that Watts' own frustrations with her career informed her performance, not least in the instantly-legendary audition scene you can see below. It's a spectacularly textured and complex turn, and one that still remains one of the peaks of Watts' filmography. Somehow, Watts failed to get an Oscar nomination for the film (clearly, it was more important for the Academy to honor Renee Zellwegger in "Bridget Jones' Diary"), but she did pick up her first two years later for "21 Grams," with another following this year for "The Impossible."
We were somewhat lacking when it came to options for young Quvenzhane Wallis. She is, after all, nine years old, and was only five when she was cast as Hushpuppy in Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild." There are other parts on the way (Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years A Slave," possibly the lead in the remake of "Annie"), but her IMDB page was bare before 'Beasts.' Fortunately, her Oscar-nominated debut performance is a match for anything else on this list; despite another great performance from Dwight Henry as her screen papa, you can't take your eyes off Wallis as the resourcesful, ferociously brave young Hushpuppy, who can stand down a charge of Aurochs, yet become the tiny girl she is when lost in the brothel looking for the woman who may, or may not be, her mother. There were questions in some quarters about whether a performance from one so young could ever really be called "a performance." But as un-self-conscious and unguarded as Wallis is, it seems from the film that there's no question she's an enormously gifted actress, one who's created a very detailed and three-dimensional performance, able to pull off everything from the acts of heroism to powerful emotional points. It's a truly miraculous turn, one that finds her channeling both wordly wisdom and naive innocence with ease.