Top Female Performances @ New York Film Festival 2016 — Liz Whittemore reports

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nyff-54-previewWoman were out in  full force at this year’s festival. From directors like Ava DuVernay, Kelly Reichardt, Alison Maclean, Maren Ade, and Mia Hansen-Løve in the Main Slate section alone, to the star studded Hollywood performers we’ve come to love and respect throughout the years. Tackling subjects such as grief, injustice, rape culture, loneliness, fear and self actualization, this year’s selections were a strong representation of the complexities of  the female gender.  Read on…

sandra-huller-toni-erdmannSandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann. In a beautifully progressing role, we see a woman whose ambitions prevent her from having fulfilling intimate relationships. Playing in a male dominated industry, like so many, she must work twice as hard to get noticed and respected. A loving and hilarious father hounds her relentlessly with inside jokes and disguises to break though the wall she’s built over too many years. Topped off by one hell of a belt session onscreen and some perfectly placed nudity for comedy’s sake, Hüller pulls off a role that audience members might be quick to loathe.

An audacious twist on the screwball comedy—here, the twosome is an aging-hippie prankster father and his corporate-ladder-climbing daughter—Toni Erdmann delivers art and entertainment in equal measure and charmed just about everyone who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Maren Ade’s dazzling script has just enough of a classical comedic structure to support 162 minutes of surprises big and small. Meanwhile, her direction is designed to liberate the actors as much as possible while the camera rolls, resulting in sublime performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, who leave the audience suspended between laughter and tears.  A Sony Pictures Classics release.

the-unknown_girlAdèle Haenel in The Unknown Girl. Playing a young doctor whose guilt over comes common sense actions is a feat for any actress. Haenel is captivating in an emotionally and physically challenging role. Perhaps a cultural acceptance, her character is faced with innumerable instances of physical abuse. Although small, they are difficult to bear witness to. The script is riddled with hardships from all sides and Haenel handles them with grace. She appears on screen in almost every shot and carries the film like a star.

It’s a few minutes after closing time in a medical clinic in Seraing, Belgium. The buzzer rings. Doctor Jenny (Adèle Haenel) tells her assistant (Olivier Bonnaud) to ignore it. She is later informed that the girl she turned away was found dead on the riverside. From that moment, Jenny becomes a different kind of doctor, diagnosing not just her dispossessed patients’ illnesses but also the greater malady afflicting her community. And this is a different kind of movie for Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, in which the urgency pulses beneath the seemingly placid surface, and it is all keyed to Haenel’s extraordinary performance. A Sundance Selects release.

certain_women-movie-poster-320x475Laura Dern in Certain Women. It’s so refreshing to see a fully fleshed out, flawed character. Laura Dern, from the first time I saw her in Jurassic Park (in which she inspired me to want to pursue paleobotany for some time after the release) to her erratic performance in Citizen Ruth, she is up for any role thrown her way. She plays a lawyer whose is both tough and caring. Dealing, once again, with misogynistic clients with class and a bit of sass, she’s a true joy to watch.

Lily Gladstone  in Certain Women. Lily plays a lonely ranch hand Jaime. Wandering into an educational law night class by accident, she is intrigued by the instructor, played by Kristen Stewart. Without any interest in the class’s subject and wanting to get to know Stewart, she returns week after week, taking her “teacher” to dinner. It becomes clear that her feelings are not reciprocated in an awkward confrontation and Jaime is once again forced to return to a life a early morning and mucking stables. Gladstone leaves her heart on the screen and makes you fall in love with Jaime. She spent a few weeks working on the actual ranch to prepare for the role. if you didn’t know any better, you might think she was a local cast from the area in all her beautiful honesty.

The seventh feature by Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, NYFF 2010), a lean triptych of subtly intersecting lives in Montana, is a work of no-nonsense eloquence. Adapting short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) navigating an increasingly volatile relationship with a disgruntled client; a couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros), in a marriage laden with micro-aggression and doubt, trying to persuade an old man (Rene Auberjonois) to sell his unused sandstone; and a young ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) fixated on a new-in-town night school teacher (Kristen Stewart). Shooting on 16mm, Reichardt creates understated, uncannily intimate dramas nestled within a clear-eyed depiction of the modern American West. An IFC Films release.

cuynthis-nixon-and-jennifer-ehle-in-a-quiet-passionCynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion. Playing the reclusive American poet, Nixon brings to a life a legend of the page. Possessing a bit of a Lizzie Bennett quality, rebelling against her staunch religious upbringing and questioning the world around her, we are privileged to see the true nature of a rather enigmatic figure. Plagued by contradiction in her own mind over flattery and  the assumption that she would be far too plain in physical appearance to love, Dickinson was a huge talent  whose work was widely underappreciated thanks to  the inherent sexism of her time.

Jennifer Ehle in A Quiet Passion. Ehle plays Emily Dickinson’s sister Vinnie as a level headed and loving sibling. The perfect balance of opinionated and good natured, obedient daughter, Ehle’s subdued performance is a gorgeous foil to the defiant Nixon. Acting as a motherly influence and gentle guiding hand when Emily might be self sabotaging, I hope Ehle is recognized during awards seasons.

Swiftly following his glorious Sunset Song, the great British director Terence Davies turns his attention to 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson and ends up with perhaps an even greater triumph. A revelatory Cynthia Nixon embodies Dickinson with a titanic intelligence always threatening to burst forth from behind a polite facade, while Davies creates a formally audacious rendering of her life, from teenage skepticism to lonely death, using her poems (and a touch of Charles Ives) as soundtrack accompaniment. Both sides of Davies’s enormous talent—his witty, Wildean sense of humor and his frightening vision of life’s grim realities—are on full display in this consuming depiction of a creative inner world. A Music Box Films release.

michelle-williams-manchester-by-the-seaMichelle Williams in Manchester By the Sea. While Michelle also appears in Certain Women, she shines in the role of Randi Chandler. She plays the ex wife of Casey Affleck, a woman dealing with the ghastly and tragic  loss of her three children and the breakup of  their marriage immediately following. With a Bostonian accent, all of which are completely sold by the entire cast, she plays a woman filled with regret and heartache. On the surface, it may appear to be a role on the smaller side in respect to screen time, but the ultimate impact has at least 75% to do with the outcome of the film. One of the most touching scenes in the entire brilliant film has Lee (Affleck) and Randi, finally hash out their feelings. It will leave you in tears and put Williams on the map for years to come.

Casey Affleck is formidable as the volatile, deeply troubled Lee Chandler, a Boston-based handyman called back to his hometown on the Massachusetts North Shore after the sudden death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who has left behind a teenage son (Lucas Hedges). This loss and the return to his old stomping grounds summon Lee’s memories of an earlier, even more devastating tragedy. In his third film as a director, following You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret(2011), Kenneth Lonergan, with the help of a remarkable cast, unflinchingly explores grief, hope, and love, giving us a film that is funny, sharply observed, intimately detailed yet grand in emotional scale. An Amazon Studios release.

julietaEmma Suárez & Adriana Ugarte in Julieta. Two women play the same gloriously rich character in spectacular fashion. Suárez plays the younger version with passion and adoration for the man she fell in love with and ultimately lost to tragedy. She also has the opportunity to show the brutal side of of mothering the daughter she longs to stay connected to. Betrayal and sadness engulf her as she attempts to navigate motherhood. She is both a fighter and a complete mess. Ugarte gives us the older Julieta, whose narration guides us along in diary entry form. She is finally  coming into her own when her daughter abandons her for years. First succumbing to manic grief, then sliding into bitterness, and finally propelled by the idea of reconciliation. Her resilience and emotional openness id equal to Suárez at every turn. One might imagine this were the same actress filmed years apart.  These two women make Julieta a strong contender for Best Foreign Language Film.

Pedro Almodóvar explores his favorite themes of love, sexuality, guilt, and destiny through the poignant story of Julieta, played to perfection by Emma Suárez (younger) and Adriana Ugarte (middle-aged), over the course of a 30-year timespan. Just as she is about to leave Madrid forever, the seemingly content Julieta has a chance encounter that stirs up sorrowful memories of the daughter who brutally abandoned her when she turned eighteen. Drawing on numerous film historical references, from Hitchcock to the director’s own earlier Movida era work, Almodóvar’s twentieth feature, adapted from three short stories by Alice Munro (“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”), is a haunting drama that oscillates between disenchanted darkness and visual opulence. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

kristen-stewart-personal-shopperKristen Stewart in Personal  Shopper. Playing Maureen must have been a lonely venture but one Stewart absolutely took to task. After her incredible performance in Clouds of Sils Maria (which once again paired her with Director Olivier Assayas and earned her the coveted Cesar award), Kristen gives an emotionally raw performance of a grieving and lost soul. Stewart bares all as she questions her sanity and surroundings with self loathing and depression. She continues to impress with her choice of indie roles, each more different than the next.

Kristen Stewart is the medium, in more ways than one, for this sophisticated genre exploration from director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, NYFF 2014). As a fashion assistant whose twin brother has died, leaving her bereft and longing for messages from the other side, Stewart is fragile and enigmatic—and nearly always on-screen. From an opening sequence in a haunted house with an intricately constructed soundtrack to a high-tension, cat-and-mouse game on a trip from Paris to London and back set entirely to text messaging,Personal Shopper brings the psychological and supernatural thriller into the digital age.  An IFC Films release.

20th-century-women-elle-fanning-annette-benning-great-gerwigAnnette Benning, Elle Fanning, & Greta Gerwig in 20th Century Women.  A Bohemian mother, a rebellious teen, and a punk artist all guide a young boy into manhood with stunning perfection. This film might be my favorite from the entire festival this year. Mills can write female characters with precision and nuance. Bening is always the star and does not fail us in this performance. Wanting her son to understand how to treat women while finding his way through the world, she enlists the help of his teenage best friend played by Fanning who is overconfident and promiscuous to a fault. Her trials and tribulations can only remind us of those awkward years in high school. Aldo recruited is Bening’s tenant portrayed by Greta Gerwig. With an artist’s mentality, she explores the artistic side of healing after surviving cervical cancer. Her vulnerability is palpable as she fights societal norms to share her musical passions and the newly found knowledge that she has been labeled infertile. And then there’s Annette Bening, ladies and gentlemen. Yearning to stay connected without a man in her life, she imparts her feminist views on her son all while allowing him to make his own mistakes. She is ageless in her presence and absolutely owns the screen every time she appears.

Mike Mills’s texturally and behaviorally rich new comedy seems to keep redefining itself as it goes along, creating a moving group portrait of particular people in a particular place (Santa Barbara) at a particular moment in the 20th century (1979), one lovingly attended detail at a time. The great Annette Bening, in one of her very best performances, is Dorothea, a single mother raising her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in a sprawling bohemian house, which is shared by an itinerant carpenter (Billy Crudup) and a punk artist with a Bowie haircut (Greta Gerwig) and frequented by Jamie’s rebellious friend Julie (Elle Fanning). 20th Century Women is warm, funny, and a work of passionate artistry. An A24 release.


* It must be mentioned that I was unable to see a few key films that may have influenced the completion of this list: Jackie starring Natalie Portman and Elle starring Isabelle Hubert. It will most likely be amended once  viewing is possible.*

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Liz Whittemore

Liz Whittemore is the author of AWFJ's I SCREAM YOU SCREAM blog. She is Co-Managing Editor and writes for, hosts the podcast Girls On Film and is a contributing writer for and The ArtsWireWeekly. Now New York-based, she was born and raised in northern Connecticut. She's a graduate of The American Musical & Dramatic Academy, and has performed at Disneyland and famed Hartford Children's Theater, and been a member of NYC's Boomerang Theater, Connecticut's Simsbury Summer Theater, Virginia's Offstage Theatre, where she also directed. Her film credits include Suburban Skies and Surrender. In 2008, she shot Jabberwocky, a documentary now in post-production. Liz is still a children's theatre director and choreographer. She's working on an updated adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and a series of children's books.