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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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"Birth" (2004)
Badly received and much misunderstood at the time, "Birth" has grown in reputation as the years have gone on, and it now reveals itself as, if not Kidman's very best performance, than certainly in the top rank. In Jonathan Glazer's firmly original film, she plays Anna, a privileged New Yorker about to remarry, ten years after the death of her husband. At a party for her mother, she's confronted with a young boy, Sean, who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead spouse. A bold, brave, extraordinary and unique picture that never goes where you expect it to go, it's one of the great unsung pictures of the last decade. And Kidman is wondrous in it, as Anna navigates old wounds reopened by this unsettling young upstart; she's angry, vulnerable and increasingly won over, and even turned on (an incredibly brave choice to take) by the possibility that her true love has returned. It's a beaut of a part, and Kidman plays every note like it's the last role she'd ever play, right down to the genuinely surprising (if perhaps a little too neat) third act twist. If you've never seen it, rush and find it as soon as you can, if only for Kidman's face in the breathtaking, wordless opera sequence.

"Margot At The Wedding" (2007)
One of Kidman's great virtues (and perhaps something that's kept her from really excelling in more straight-up romantic fare like "Australia") is her lack of need to be loved by the audience, and that's never been clearer than in Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding." Another film somewhat undervalued at the time (and it is admittedly a step down from the sheer brilliance of the director's previous film, "The Squid and the Whale"), it sees Kidman play the titular Margot, a self-absorbed, petulant author who blows into a seaside town like a hurricane for the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Malcolm (Jack Black), with designs on an old flame (Ciarán Hinds) who's hosting a Q&A in a local bookshop. More than any other film on this list, you feel that Kidman's simply having a blast in the part, revelling not just in the chance to play such a terrible fucking human being, but also in the relatively rare occasion that she doesn't have to carry an entire film on her shoulders, with Leigh and Black each giving impressive turns too. We understand entirely why people find it a difficult film to love, but you're missing out on one of Kidman's most acerbically funny turns (and her sense of humor is one of her more underrated tools) if you avoid it.

"Rabbit Hole" (2010)
Unlike "Birth" or 'Margot,' Nicole Kidman was given serious recognition, including an Oscar nomination, for "Rabbit Hole," and yet the film still managed to elude audiences. Which once again is a great shame. It's got a degree in common with "Birth," in that Kidman plays a woman haunted by grief who finds solace in a friendship with a much younger boy. In this case, however, she's part of a married couple, alongside Aaron Eckhart, whose 4-year-old son chased his dog into the road and was killed by a teenager (Miles Telller). Becca, Kidman's character, is so overwhelmed by grief that she simply wants to wipe the slate clean, getting rid of her child's possessions and moving away, and her quiet fury is impressive, matched by lovely moments of serenity. And it's one of the more moving portrayals of life going on after grief -- the couple are trying to struggle on, and almost find themselves forgetting their troubles for a second, which is how it actually happens. The film doesn't quite overcome some of the issues of David Lindsay Abaire's source play, or the essential staginess of that material, but Kidman (and Eckhart, who didn't get the same plaudits, but should have) is a wonder.     

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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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