The Reel Breakdown

Adams on Reel Women: Leading Ladies Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mira Sorvino bring it on in must-see movies that are MIA

The Reel Breakdown

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Photo: Music Box Pictures

As we enter the awards season — look there's "Argo" and "Lincoln" and, oops, there goes "The Paperboy" — the tendency is to start predicting winners. But wait! What a dull activity that would be if we didn't first look under rocks for the movies that have been overlooked and that must be seen, and recognize performances in underperforming films that have astonished us so far in 2012, like those of Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mira Sorvino.

Rachel Weisz in 'The Deep Blue Sea'

The British post-WWII drama opens and closes with Weisz standing at a window — this is her movie, back to front. She owns every frame as Hester, the stunning bride of a kindly judge who falls in love — or is it lust? — with a dashing and a bit dim Royal Air Force pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). By turns suicidal, sensual, prudish, playful, particular, and proud, Weisz's Hester displays so many colors over the course of the film (directed and adapted by Terence Davies from a Terence Rattigan play), that she is a human kaleidoscope. As beautiful as Hester is, it's not until she beds the former flyboy that she actually inhabits her own body — a moment where she licks his naked back like a child tasting her first ice cream cone resonates more than the artful shots of alabaster limbs and rumpled sheets. After last year's "The Whistleblower," which had Oscar buzz but little heat, Weisz bravely thrusts herself into a period piece with echoes of "A Painted Veil," and "The End of the Affair," as a woman in full who can't return to "proper" society once she has visited the heights possible between a man and a woman, however imperfect the match. The movie opened last March, grossed in the neighborhood of $1 million, and disappeared. A pity.

[Related: 'The Deep Blue Sea' director Terence Davies talks about working with Rachel Weisz]

Michelle Williams in 'Take This Waltz'

With Sarah Pauley at the helm, Williams asks the question: What does the manic pixie dream-girl see when she looks in the mirror, and when is the completing-the-male part of the equation not enough? The petite Williams can do tough and tender (am I still in mourning that she didn't win for "Blue Valentine?"), break hearts with a wounded kitten look, and then snap back with a slicing comment that strips all pretense bare. Here she plays Margot, the cute-as-a-button wife of a kindly cookbook author (Seth Rogen) who falls in lust with a hipster neighbor (Luke Kirby). Whether the grass is greener across the street isn't quite the theme: It's Margot's gradual realization that it's not the lies you tell your partners that are the problem, but those you tell yourself. Here, again, is a major actress doing a turn as a woman in crisis without histrionics, and sadly getting lost in the box-office undertow. "Waltz" premiered on VOD and in theaters last summer, grossed a million plus, and didn't connect with wider audiences, but for me, I can't shake Williams's performance.

[Related: Risk-taker Michelle Williams chats about doing the restless housewife dance in 'Take This Waltz']

Mira Sorvino in 'Union Square'

Sorvino couldn't resist the juicy role of a bipolar Bronx-based sister who hits Manhattan for an assignment and, when that falls through, shakes up the structured life of her estranged sister (Tammy Blanchard). Directed by Nancy Savoca with an eye toward Italian neorealism, this is a big performance, with Sorvino starting out large and brassy (OK, obnoxious). She appears out of the subway in Union Square, like a woman you might pass on the streets of New York, shouting into her cell phone midargument. Totally TMI! Yet gradually, the pain, rejection, and reality of this fragile woman get unpacked, and the audience discovers that she's much more in touch with her feelings — and those of her sister — than she immediately lets on. She's heartbreaking and inspiring and urgently real. The truth is, an Oscar campaign for Sorvino would probably cost more than the movie's microbudget, or the grosses that stalled at under $45,000. But her performance is definitely worth a second look.

[Related: 'Union Square' star Mira Sorvino talks about Manhattan moviemaking, Marlon Brando, and motherhood]

What about Melissa Leo in 'Francine' or Emayatzy Corinealdi in 'Middle of Nowhere'?

There are more actresses deserving notice in films that got positive critical response or festival shoutouts, but sputtered at the box office or didn't reach smaller markets. Leo and Corinealdi are just two more names to add to the list. Do you know of any other actresses whose lead roles knocked you out in 2012? Pleases share, because we have the power of Yahoo! Movies to get out the word and change the Oscar odds for long-shot performances.

Check out the trailer for 'The Deep Blue Sea':

'The Deep Blue Sea' Theatrical Trailer

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