Ten Noteworthy Female Performances at TIFF 2015 – Pam Grady comments

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tiff logoWith the Toronto International Film Festival, the Oscar season officially opens in North American. Oh, there are other fall festivals that provide a window into awards season, Telluride, New York Film Festival, and Mill Valley Film Festival among them, but Toronto with its hundreds of features is one of the true harbingers of nominations to come. And while there was much emphasis this year on women behind the camera—20% of features and 45% of shorts at TIFF were made by women, according to figures cited by Indiewire—the festival also provided a peek at performances that should warrant attention from Academy voters (or ought to!), if not this season, then next.

No list can be exhaustive, of course. There are simply too many films to see at TIFF to be able see more than a fraction. So, no Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl here, Cate Blanchett for Truth, or Kate Winslet for The Dressmaker and there are sure to be other omissions (not to mention performances that couldn’t be assessed, because the films weren’t at TIFF at all, such as Carol and Suffragette). This is a personal list of favorite performances, performances that may not get it, but deserve some love at awards time:

charlotte rampling 45 years croppedCharlotte Rampling, 45 Years – Rampling has already garnered one major award, sharing the Silver Bear with her costar Tom Courtenay at the 2015 Berlinale for her role in Andrew Haigh’s portrait of a long marriage under unexpected stress. At 69, the actress is enjoying some of the best notices of her long career for her exquisite turn as Kate, a retired teacher looking forward to the party celebrating her 45th wedding anniversary until the discovery of the body of husband Geoff’s (Courtenay) first love, trapped beneath a glacier and therefore forever young, sends a shockwave through what has been a happy relationship. The Berlinale honor should be the first of many for both actors, who give a master class on their art.

saoirse ronan brooklyn croppedSaoirse Ronan, Brooklyn – The 21-year-old captured her first Oscar nomination at 14. She seems poised for another with her subtle, spectacular work as Eilis Lacey in John Crowley’s Nick Hornsby-penned adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel. Culture shock and loneliness plague Eilis when she leaves Ireland for America in the 1950s, but when her new homeland really does present new opportunities, represented not just by her new Italian-American boyfriend Tony (Emory Cohen) but also by the accounting classes she takes at night (where she is the only woman), she begins to embrace her little corner of Brooklyn. When tragedy strikes, Ireland once more beckons. Ronan is excellent as a young woman faced with a wrenching choice.

emily blunt el sicario croppedEmily Blunt, Sicario – Blunt anchors this riveting, intelligent action movie that has more on its mind than simple thrills with her committed performance as an FBI agent who finds herself the sheep among wolves that include CIA agent Josh Brolin and mysterious contractor Benicio Del Too when she joins them in the US/Mexico border war against drugs. Blunt’s character, Kate, is recruited for the skill and intelligence she’s demonstrated in the more limited skirmishes on her home turf, but her new allies have underestimated her. Blunt is breathtaking as a woman who refuses to push morality aside and who is willing to risk all by following her conscience.

julianne moore freeheld croppedJulianne Moore, Freeheld – Frankly, Peter Sollett’s drama, written by Philadelphia scribe Ron Nyswaner, is way too afterschool specia-ish in its true tale of a terminally ill lesbian New Jersey police detective (Moore) fighting the system to ensure that her pension benefits go to her partner (Ellen Page), but Moore transcends the limitations of the material to deliver a forceful performance as a woman determined not to be let down by the community she served with distinction.

sarandon the meddler croppedSusan Sarandon, The Meddler – Comedies rarely get much love from the Academy, but this one deserves some, particularly for its star. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s valentine to her own mother, on whom Sarandon’s character Marnie is based, is not just full of laughs and not a little poignancy, but it positively radiates with the heat and light thrown up by its star. It is a funny and galvanizing performance that will surely be noticed come time for awards nominations — or should be.

brie larson room croppedBrie Larson, Room – Lenny Abrahamson’s tense adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestseller won TIFF’s People’s Choice audience award in no small part due to Larson’s precisely calibrated performance. As a woman raising her young son in captivity, Larson is revelation as she colors her portrayal of Ma with a range of emotions reflecting a fierce maternal instinct, a mother’s unconditional love, anger, fear, trauma, and more. Acting largely opposite tiny Jacob Tremblay playing her five-year-old son, she sells the relationship with her warmth and the strength of her emotions.

margherita buy my mother croppedMargherita Buy, My Mother – Given how difficult it is to market foreign films in the US these days, it’s unlikely Buy will get any Oscar love, but she has already won David di Donatello and Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Best Actress awards for her performance in Nanni Moretti’s autobiographical drama . The Italian auteur switches things up by casting Buy to play a character based on himself, a film director coping with a dying mother and a chaotic production made worse by its lead, a vain, wildly untalented American movie star (John Turturro). She’s wonderful in the film’s quieter, more emotional moments, but she’s also a scream going head-to-head with Turturro at his most manic, more than holding her own against an actor determined to run away with the picture.

naiomi watts demolition croppedNaomi Watts, Demolition – Director Jean-Marc Valée is developing a habit of directing actors to awards nominations. Will he be able to repeat the trick with Watts? Playing single mom and vending machine customer service rep Karen, it is Watts who throws this dark comedy drama into gear when Karen not only answers the outlandish letters sent to her by the disgruntled customer (and recent widower) played by Jake Gyllenhaal but she begins stalking him, too. From that demented start, an offbeat relationship blooms that is a kick to watch, in no small part thanks to the two central performances by actors at the top of their game.

carmen ejogo born to be blue croppedCarmen Ejogo, Born to be Blue – A year after playing Coretta Scott King in Selma, Ejogo returns to the screen in this eccentric Chet Baker biopic. This could have been a thankless role. Ejogo’s character is a composite of several woman and she is tasked with playing “the girlfriend,” but the actress fills in the blanks of the character and transforms what could have been a mere caricature into a fully fledged human being. More than that, she makes us understand why an intelligent woman who clearly knows better would stand by a wreck of a man like troubled, heroin-addicted 1960s era Baker.

elizabeth olsen i saw the light croppedElizabeth Olsen, I Saw the Light – Star Tom Hiddleston garnered most of the early press for his transformation into country ‘n’ western legend Hank Williams, a performance he nails, but coming out of TIFF, much of the praise also went to Olsen in the role of Williams’ first wife Audrey. Olsen has her work cut out for her playing an enormously ambitious (and not very talented) woman living in the shadow of a prickly man whose talent just happens to be otherworldly. What she delivers is an outstanding, empathetic performance that isn’t shy about revealing Audrey’s difficult nature, but also exposes her heart and vulnerability.

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