Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
I don’t think enough people give Cate Blanchett enough credit for being really cool. At least from my perception, that’s been the case for as long as I’ve been aware of her work. It comes down to a couple of things. It’s the fact that she’s one of those people who isn’t fucking around. Her patience for bullshit ends sooner than the time it takes you to read this sentence. You can combine that with one of the most consistently interesting filmographies of anyone working today. The result is an actress who doesn’t seem to have to deal with a lot of limitations, in terms of who she can play.
Even in roles that aren’t going to make it near this list (Monuments Men is a good example), she commands attention. It’s not just the way she has a surprisingly unpredictable pattern of roles for someone who has won two Oscars so far. There is a precision to her acting, and to the way she seamlessly transitions from one emotion or role to the next, and it almost always remains intensely human. We aren’t just dealing with someone who is capable of searing eye contact, and the ability to say anything, and still sound compelling. Blanchett often brings such profound personal resources to her performances, and she’s been doing that for three decades, it’s impossible not to respond to that.
She doesn’t seem like someone who is going to get bored anytime soon. When you’re so reliable at your craft, people sometimes take that for granted, that’s a really good thing for anyone who appreciates her unique resume. Some of her best films involve choosing projects that on paper, sound like they just won’t work for one reason or another. Way more often than not, her acting gives us a glimpse into those personal resources that I mentioned before. Barring that, she’s also perfectly at ease with just being entertaining. I have a feeling that’s going to be the case with the upcoming Ocean’s 11 spinoff Ocean’s Eight.
1. Elizabeth (1998)
Once Blanchett began appearing in films full-time with 1996’s Parklands, it didn’t take her long to make an impression. Elizabeth is elaborate period drama. It’s also quite brisk, action-packed, and surprisingly intense. Blanchett contributes a huge element of that energy as the title character. Her performance creates a definitive impression. This is the kind of impression where it almost doesn’t matter if the take is accurate or not. By all accounts, it is.
To be successful in the role, Blanchett had to bring a staggering amount of confidence to the woman Elizabeth I eventually became. She had to do that while also sharing the screen with some of the finest British actors and actresses of the period. It’s a great overall film, but Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I is definitely the centerpiece of that greatness.
2. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Jumping all the way to 2003 means skipping over good work in a number of movies. The list includes Pushing Tin, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Gift, Bandits, The Lord of the Rings, and several others. Coffee and Cigarettes is a relatively small role, in terms of screen time, but it’s one of the highlights of a movie with many of those. Playing two extremely differing sisters trying to get through an awkward, unwanted lunch has a novelty value to it. You get to watch two sets of the same alert, uncomfortable, crescent-shaped eyes interact with one another. It’s also fun to watch Blanchett give two very good, distinctive performances on the same screen. As great as Coffee and Cigarettes is, you can’t really imagine most of these characters sustaining a whole movie.
Cate Blanchett is one of the exceptions. In just the few short minutes that make up this vignette, she creates compelling characters. In two completely different ways, she makes the humorous, sad familial tension of the scene palpable.
3. The Aviator (2004)
As much as I love Cate Blanchett in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which came out in the same year, I have to ultimately include The Aviator. Bringing reserve while avoiding caricature, Blanchett emphasizes her talent for impersonation, if not restoration. She also creates a character who can engage anyone who doesn’t know who Katherine Hepburn is. Her relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes is one of the best part of the movie. In a film that is sometimes overblown and underwhelming, that relationship is by far the most consistently fascinating facet.
To be honest, I didn’t actually like this movie, or Blanchett’s performance, the first time around. For a long time, I thought it was easily Scorsese’s worst (it was eventually toppled by New York, New York). A recent reappraisal has softened my view on both Blanchett’s work, and the movie as a whole. It’s still not a great movie, but I better appreciate the way she unquestionably captures what people imagine Katherine Hepburn was like. This is similar to what she did in Elizabeth, and later, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and elsewhere. With a limited amount of time, she creates strong characterizations of not only Hepburn’s behavior in private, or around her family, but of her public persona, as well.
4. I’m Not There (2007)
This list is strongly suggesting that Blanchett’s best work lies in playing rile-life figures. There is only some truth to that. When you look to wholly original, complicated characters, look at Knight of Cups, Notes on a Scandal, Carol, and others. I’m Not There was a weird, potentially disastrous choice. As great as Blanchett already was in film roles by this point, playing Bob Dylan in his brooding young folk genius phase of the 1960s proves convention wisdom wrong with a genuinely great, multifaceted portrayal. In moments, Blanchett shakes off any notion that this was stunt casting.
I’m Not There is interesting, even excellent at times, but most of it is forgettable. Blanchett’s performance as young, pre-Nobel Prize shunning Dylan is the one thing that will definitely stay with you.
5. Blue Jasmine (2013)
Nine years later, Blue Jasmine won Blanchett another Oscar. This time, it was for Best Actress in what is essentially Woody Allen’s high society variation on A Streetcar Named Desire. That’s fine, since the film is both well-written and well-directed. But it would only be those things, if Blanchett didn’t absolutely brutalize the spirit as Jasmine French. She is terrifying and beyond the point of merely being fragile in almost equal amounts.
She has a great script to work with, and every costar is pitch perfect in their respective roles. What perhaps matters most is that Blanchett relentlessly pursues a woman who is more than just high-strung theatrics. Blanchett adds layers upon layers of complexities to Jasmine through sheer, amazing will.