8. Still Alice (2014)
Julianne Moore’s portrayal of a linguistics professor dealing with Alzheimer’s disease is a perfect example of a great performance in a so-so film. Still Alice is fairly lacking in any kind of visual flair or distinct look, instead relying primarily on the strength of its cast to deliver the goods – and nobody is up to the task more so than Moore, who takes what could have merely been an Oscar-bait role and thankfully manages to turn it into much, much more.
The beauty in Moore’s performance comes from the fact that, rather than coasting off the technical aspects of depicting Alzheimer’s (slow talking, dazed look), she infuses every troubling experience she struggles through – be it getting lost on a jog or wetting herself – with an unmistakable glimmer of self-awareness. And the effect is absolutely devastating.
In one wrenching scene where Alice is eating frozen yogurt with her husband John (Alec Baldwin in a strong performance), he reminisces about the time the two of them first met. Alice adds her recollection of the story: “I used to be smart,” to which John responds, “You were the smartest woman I ever met.” That sentiment is unfortunately lost on Alice, but Moore makes it clear that no disease will ever take away who she once was.
7. The Hours (2002)
Stephen Daldry’s female-centric drama had a lot going for it in terms of its cast.
Revolving around the lives of three women in three different time periods, The Hours details the lives of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman in an Oscar-winning role) as she writes her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) as she reads Mrs. Dalloway, and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), who seems to be a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway.
While all three women find themselves suffocating throughout their lives in one way or another, Moore’s Laura Brown has the seemingly perfect existence as a housewife with an oblivious husband and a needy son. It isn’t long, however, before the imperfections become more and more apparent.
Moore excels in this film through her ability to say so much by saying so little. Her facial expressions are so subtle and yet so clearly evocative of the trap in which Laura finds herself. No one understands her plight, perhaps least of all herself. And when she go through with a decision that very few would dare to, it is almost impossible to fault her or judge her.
6. Savage Grace (2007)
Based on the controversial murder case of Barbara Baekeland, a woman who married the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), the film Savage Grace is certainly not lacking in controversy itself. An insider look into the lavish lives of Barbara and her family, the story’s main focus lies on her disturbing relationship with her son Antony (Eddie Redmayne).
While the film may seem like the type to shock merely for the sake of shocking, there is perhaps no better way to depict Barbara Baekeland, who liked to do the exact same thing. A bored socialite, Barbara enjoyed discussing and partaking in inappropriate subject matters, fuelling her affair with her son that includes, among other things, a threesome with another man.
Nobody could have pulled off this role the way Moore does, infusing so much sexiness even in the most grotesque of scenarios. There is something utterly charismatic about her here, and the success of her performance in Savage Grace comes from the fact that she pulls the viewer into her world whether they want to be a part of it or not.
5. Boogie Nights (1997)
Boogie Nights is Moore’s first collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, who captures the spirit of the 1970s porn era like no other contemporary director could have. As young Dirk Diggler (a splendidly cast Mark Wahlberg) ventures into the porn industry after meeting prominent filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), he begins to climb to the top before quickly falling back down.
As he always does, Anderson manages to depict the highlights of the world he’s presenting – the amazing parties, the beautiful women – right before sweeping the viewer away into the lowlights – the notoriety, the drug addictions – and ultimately making it uncertain whether such a world is one worth taking part in or one that is best viewed from a distance.
Part of this questionable world is exemplified by Moore’s Amber Waves, an older yet glamorous porn star who takes a liking to Dirk. As sexy as she may be, however, Amber has a much more troubled side to her life. Getting hooked on cocaine and losing custody of her son, Moore’s performance brings to Amber a concealed sense of weariness and shame as she slowly comes to acknowledge that she has lost far more than she expected to.
4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
It’s always refreshing to see an actress known for her dramatic roles to make the occasional leap into comedy. And there are very few films worthy of such an actress as The Big Lebowski. The Coen brothers’ cult classic follows the life of a very laid-back bowling enthusiast who is led on a truly bizarre journey after his rug gets urinated on.
What separates this work from others from the Coens is that, even though it features their delightful brand of off-beat characters, The Big Lebowski has a premise that is so hilariously trivial that it actually manages to evoke some unexpected enlightenment onto its viewer.
As Jeff Bridges (in a career-best role) strolls his way through one mishap after another, he meets the Big Lebowski’s daughter Maude, played by Moore. Evoking utter confidence and odd sex appeal, Moore depicts her character as completely silly. But the reason it works so well is because she is in fact playing it completely serious, fitting her in perfectly with this absurd Coen brothers tale of a cool dude and his anything-but-simple quest for a new rug.
3. Far From Heaven (2002)
2002 was an interesting year for Julianne Moore. She starred in two different movies from two different directors playing virtually the same character: the quintessential desperate housewife. Far from Heaven, an updated remake of the Rock Hudson-Jane Wyman melodrama All That Heaven Allows, portrays both the beauty and tragedy of 1950s suburbia, and Todd Haynes certainly raised the melodrama genre to the level of a poignant social issues movie.
But Haynes’ best decision was in fact his casting of Moore, whose classic look and distinct talent made her the perfect choice to play Cathy Whitaker, a wife and mother who learns her husband is gay and then soon begins a friendship with her black gardener. Living in a small conservative town in the 50s, however, rumors abound that threaten to shatter the idyllic surface behind which Cathy is forced to hide.
The main difference between her performance in “The Hours” and her performance here is that while the former features Moore having to repress all her emotions, the latter places her in a troublesome position in which her seemingly perfect life begins to crumble. As a result, the viewer gets to revel in watching Moore unleash an insurmountable feeling of grief over the path through which her “perfect” life has taken her.
Her best moments in the film come not only from her desperate attempt to hold everything together before it all slips away, but also from her slowly growing self-realization acquired from her new circumstances that cause her to see her life for what it really is: a sham. It’s unfortunate that it took her so long to see it, but Moore ultimately holds it together as only Cathy Whitaker could.
2. Maps to the Stars (2014)
Maps to the Stars may be the most definitive Hollywood satire of the 21st century. Cronenberg ditched the glossiness depicted in Mulholland Dr. and the slickness seen in The Player, and opted for a much more horrific tone full of unsettling images and disturbing characters that nevertheless suck you into this complex universe known as the movie business.
Moore plays aging starlet Havana Segrand who takes in a mentally unstable young woman (Mia Wasikowska) as her assistant. A role that is both hilarious and frightening, Moore’s character is tormented by hallucinations of her mother (who Havana publicly claimed had molested her as a child) while she inches closer to landing the very same role her mother played decades before.
Moore’s reactions to these hallucinations is undoubtedly some of her most harrowing work, haunting the viewer as much as her mother’s ghost haunts her. But just as Moore earns the audience’s sympathy, she reveals – much like Hollywood itself – that she’s got a much less likable side to her. Havana may be a tortured soul dealing with an understandable insecurity, but she’s also a vile, selfish, narcissistic princess whom one can’t help but loathe.
Her whiny, self-entitled behavior is in fact quite comical – not only because it is remarkably spot-on, but because Moore makes sure that Havana is never apologetic for said behavior. The film creates such a fascinating paradox where characters become aware of the damage they’ve done (to themselves more than to anyone else), yet somehow think that staying the course will rescue them from their ghosts, resulting in some of the most extreme forms of tragedy seen in contemporary film.
That is in essence the spirit of Maps to the Stars and Moore’s performance. Everything seems fittingly exaggerated, but only because Hollywood is a world full of such absurdity that one would naturally assume that it’s a figment of the imagination.
1. Magnolia (1999)
Her second collaboration with the innovative Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia is a multi-story drama featuring other Anderson alums such as John C. Reilly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy. One could spend weeks giving meaning to this layered and ambiguous film, but to do so would be somewhat of a disservice to Anderson’s work.
Between the ominous opening narration and the beautifully surreal frog climax, there is so much going on in this three-hour epic of the human condition that the real joy in watching “Magnolia” far transcends the virtue of meaning. The joy is in fact the experience of witnessing its captivating assortment of troubled characters as each one inevitably comes to terms with their past, present and future.
Though Tom Cruise may have stolen the show as the misogynistic self-help guru, it was Julianne Moore who gave the film’s most heartbreaking performance. Playing the soon-to-be widow of a rich older man, Moore’s Linda Partridge is overwhelming to watch. Racked with an impossible amount of guilt and shame, she finds herself inching closer and closer to a breakdown.
With that, Moore is able to capture the chaos and unease for which Anderson’s work has now become famous, while managing to stand out among a very stellar cast.
Author Bio: Ziyad Saadi is a writer, director and producer based in NYC. After having received his Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from Concordia University in Montreal, he moved to New York where he produced the independent feature film Bag Boy Lover Boy. In addition to his work in filmmaking, he has also written for a number of publications including Indiewire, The Independent and The Gay & Lesbian Review.