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The Essentials: The 5 Best Nicole Kidman Performances

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 20, 2012 2:42 PM
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Few actresses seem to make as diverse an array of choices as Nicole Kidman. The actress has spent the last decade or two as one of the few actresses who can truly call themselves A-list, but swings between incredibly bold, interesting choices with world-class filmmakers, and nearly irredeemable crap ("Bewtiched," "The Stepford Wives," "The Invasion," "Trespass"). She rarely gives a turn that's anything less than totally committed, but one always feels a little nervous settling in for a new Kidman flick.

That being said, one only has to skim her resume to remember that she is, after all, one of our most gifted and interesting movie stars, and has given more great performances than most of her contemporaries. Today is Kidman's 45th birthday, and as such, we thought we'd mark the occasion by picking out five of our favorite performances from the actress. Did we miss out on yours? You can advocate for your own favorite in the comments section below.

"To Die For" (1995)
In the mid '90s, Kidman was really best known for playing relatively thankless wife/girlfriend parts. But it took Gus Van Sant to spot the devil inside, when the director cast her as the murderously ambitious weather girl Suzanne Stone in his delicious satire "To Die For." Working from a script by "The Graduate" writer Buck Henry, it was a prescient look at celebrity culture and the hunt for fame that's only gotten more and more relevant as we settle into the era of TMZ, the Kardashians and Casey Anthony. And Van Sant delivered one of his best, least indulgent films, neatly using a mock-doc framing conceit to ground the sometimes absurd comedy. Kidman excels as Stone, a small town would-be reporter who seduces a group of teens (including Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck in early roles) into killing her husband (Matt Dillon), who wants to start a family. Malevolent, manipulative, teasing and dead sexy, it was a real departure for Kidman, and she steers just this side of caricature, never making Suzanne redeemable, but also showing that she's much more than a murderous pretty face.

"Dogville" (2003)
Never let it be said that Nicole Kidman avoids a challenge. Kidman had finally cemented her place on the A-list and escaped from the shadow of her ex-husband Tom Cruise, thanks to "Moulin Rouge" and "The Others" becoming big hits in 2001, and to winning an Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in "The Hours" in 2002. Her next project? A gruelling, nearly three-hour metaphorical drama shot entirely on a stage from Lars von Trier, the button-pushing Danish auteur behind "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark." The Brechtian drama sees Kidman as Grace, who arrives in the small Rocky Mountain town of the title, seemingly fleeing from gangsters, and is given shelter by their inhabitants (who include Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson), only for them to gradually enslave her physically and sexually. The theatrical artificiality allows a stronger light to shine on the performances, which are superb (how did this Paul Bettany become the star of "Priest"?), and Kidman stands first among them. It's arguably the purest of von Trier's suffering women, Kidman thanklessly accepting every last indignity thrust upon her by the people of Dogville, until... well, she doesn't, at which point the quality of her turn is truly revealed. It's a shame she didn't return for "Manderlay" (or the yet-to-be-made "Wasington"), because we'd have loved to have seen more of her Grace.

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  • Diana Duran | June 26, 2012 9:58 PMReply

    Spot on,well written ... Of course there are more but I would have to add Birthday Girl ...

  • Andrew | June 21, 2012 11:38 PMReply

    Fantastic list! As far as the other films commenters are listing, I'm really surprised that nobody is mentioning "Fur," a truly under-appreciated film with a stellar performance by Kidman.

  • Slavi | June 21, 2012 12:14 PMReply

    My top 5 is a bit different.
    1. Moulin Rouge!
    2. The Hours
    3. Rabbit Hole
    4. To Die For
    5. Birth

    I guess not THAT different (I do have 3/5), but I think Moulin Rouge! and The Hours are amazing performances, and should definitely get a mention. Margot at the Wedding was a good performance, but she's definitely done better work than that...

  • Dan | July 15, 2012 8:56 PM

    I seriously Love that movie "Birth". It's so strange and unnerving. Nicole Kidman is amazing in it. I also really loved Danny Huston and Anne Heche in the movie as well. Such an excellent movie thats so very strange/misunderstood. Netflix it!

  • Ahmad | June 21, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    Nicole Kidman is my Favorite actress. what i admire her the most is that she has a style in her performance and it's a very unique style . and also her choices always seem like she picks what she only feels ...
    My Favorite performances are : To Die for, The Others, Moulin Rouge!, The Hours, Rabbit Hole ...these are the top 5 and also she did a great job in eyes wide shut and Dogville.

  • jesse | June 21, 2012 10:31 AMReply

    Top 10
    1. To die for
    2. Birth
    3. Margot at the wedding
    4. Eyes Wide Shut
    5. The Others
    6. Moulin Rouge
    7. Rabbit Hole
    8. Bangkok Hilton
    9. The Portrait of a Lady
    10. The Hours
    (RU : Dead Calm)

  • Agent69 | June 21, 2012 8:51 AMReply

    I agree with your #1 and #2, but The Others IMO is her third best performance, and deserves to be on the list.

  • dudeabides | June 21, 2012 7:05 AMReply

    come on. Eyes Wide Shut all the way

  • jonah | June 21, 2012 1:45 AMReply

    Great list and write-ups to go along with them. And I'm glad that you included Margot at the Wedding! Love her so much in that. Kidman has indeed proven, if nothing else, that she's one of the bravest actresses of her generation. Even if it doesn't always pan out, she's not afraid of a challenge and will go wherever is needed for her director. Which is ironic because you can see how shy she can be in her interviews sometimes. Her bravery in her choices will ultimately be her legacy, I think. And I think it's just a testament to her that there are still great performances from her that aren't included here. It is only a Top 5 after all.

  • StephenM | June 20, 2012 11:59 PMReply

    No bad choices, but Eyes Wide Shut deserves at least a mention. She was absolutely brilliant in it, outshining Tom Cruise despite his much bigger role, and since the film as a whole is arguably better than any of the others on the list, well...

  • Ivan | June 20, 2012 5:05 PMReply

    And not even a mention of "Eyes Wide Shut"? She truly understood Kubrick's vision, unlike Mr. Kidman!

  • Ivan | June 20, 2012 5:08 PM

    Also her Isabel Archer in "The Portrait of a Lady"... Mesmerising!

  • Sven | June 20, 2012 4:53 PMReply

    I can totally agree with this list.

  • Steven | June 20, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    First of all, I'm so glad you people are also celebrating Kidman's 45th birthday.
    I kind of agree with your top 5. Mine would be something like this:
    01. Birth
    02. To Die for
    03. Rabbit Hole
    04. The Others
    05. Margot

  • James | June 20, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    My favorite Kidman performance is still one of her first, in "Bangkok Hilton". It's a powerful miniseries she did in Australia just after DEAD CALM and before leaving for American and stardom. She plays a shy Australian girl wrongly arrested for heroin smuggling in Thailand, who has to survive and escape with the help of her long-lost father, Denholm Elliott, who spent time in that very same prison years before as a POW under the Japanese. It's one of my favorite films ever, though sadly underseen. It was remade as the apparently terrible BROKEDOWN PALACE a few years later.

  • James | June 20, 2012 4:39 PM

    5 might just be too few for the great Ms. Kidman!

  • James | June 20, 2012 4:39 PM

    I'll also agree that I miss MOULIN ROUGE and THE OTHERS on this list, though I can't argue with the inclusion of any that are here:)

  • Travis | June 20, 2012 3:26 PMReply

    I have to agree. It has hard to do a best-of list without including Moulin Rouge, The Others or The Hours

  • The Playlist | June 20, 2012 3:28 PM

    That's cause we picked 5 and those, while great, just fell on the outside of the list. But almost all of us agree they are pretty great performances too, particularly The Others for me.

  • oogle monster | June 20, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    To Die For reminds me a lot of Jason Reitman's Young Adult and Kidman's choices remind me a little of Charlize Theron's bold and interesting choices. I would have included Moulin Rougue which proved the woman can do it all- act, sing, dance, etc. Do you guys hate the Baz THAT much? Jeeeez. Also The Others is one of Kidman's best performances... I prefer it to Birth. Margot at the Wedding is a gem of a film... a lot like Young Adult once again.

  • swell | June 20, 2012 3:03 PMReply

    No list is complete without BMX Bandits. Not just this list, but ANY list. Top 100 films of all time: BMX Bandits. Best movie soundtrack: BMX Bandits. Greatest novels of the 19th century: BMX Bandits. Favorite sexual position: BMX Bandits.

  • MACMUFFIN | June 20, 2012 3:03 PMReply

    No EWS? shame on you

  • Chase | June 20, 2012 2:56 PMReply

    Great list. But I would swap out 'Dogville' for 'The Others,' in my opinion.

  • Ryan Sartor | June 20, 2012 2:56 PMReply

    I'm glad you included "Birth." The whole list feels spot-on.

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