Top Female Performances @ New York Film Festival 2015 – Liz Whittemore

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nyff 53 logo realWith the abundance of beautiful films that screened at this year’s festival, I wanted to call to attention to a few key women who stood out from the crowd. Some were obvious to spot and already buzz-worthy. Others flew under the radar but deserve just as much applause. Altogether they add up to a significant showing for strong and complex women characters on the big screen. Welcome to the top performances by women of the New York Film Festival 2015. Read on…

blanchettCAROLKate Blanchett in CAROL.  Blanchett never disappoints. She is elegant and raw, sometimes in the very same scene. The film itself is a gorgeous visual portrait. Blanchett is draped in stunning period garb and the theme of reds and corals only added to the luscious performance. While I don’t necessarily believe that Carol is her most challenging role to date, she still pulled it off with impeccable ease.

RooneyMaraCAROLRooney Mara in CAROL. Mara has played the gambit of roles both “pretty” and “hard edged” with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. In Carol, she allows her innocence and sexual awakening to be exposed with the help of Cate Blanchett. This intriguing pair was a director and audience’s dream. From the flick of the wrist to the aloof stare, this role let Mara shine just as bright as Blanchett.

Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s early novel stars Cate Blanchett as the titular Carol, a wealthy suburban wife and mother, and Rooney Mara as an aspiring photographer. They meet by chance, fall in love almost at first sight, and defy the closet of the early 1950s to be together. Working with his longtime cinematographer Ed Lachman and shooting on the Super-16 film he favors for its echoes of the movie history of 20th-century America, Haynes charts subtle shifts of power and desire in images that are alternately luminous and oppressive. Blanchett and Mara are both splendid; the erotic connection between their characters is palpable from beginning to end, as much in its repression as in eagerly claimed moments of expressive freedom. Originally published under a pseudonym, Carol is Highsmith’s most affirmative work. Haynes has more than done justice to the multilayered emotions evoked by the original. A Weinstein Company release.

Brooklyn1-1600x900-c-defaultSaoirse Ronan in BROOKLYN. We’ve watch Saoirse grow up in films like Atonement and The Lovely Bones. Now a young and blossomed woman, Saoirse tells the story that is closer to  her own experience in real life as an Irish immigrant. From timid virgin leaving home for the first time, in the role of Eilis, Ronan grows before our very eyes. The film’s perfect pacing allows us to accept the leaps and bounds in emotion and physical appearance, and attend to our own hearts within the coming of age moments at hand.

In the middle of the last century, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) takes the boat from Ireland to America in search of a better life. She endures the loneliness of the exile, boarding with an insular and catty collection of Irish girls in Brooklyn. Gradually, her American dream materializes: she studies bookkeeping and meets a handsome, sweet Italian boy (Emory Cohen). But then bad news brings her back home, where she finds a good job and another handsome boy (Domhnall Gleeson), this time from a prosperous family. On which side of the Atlantic does Eilis’s future live, and with whom? Director John Crowley (Boy A) and writer Nick Hornby haven’t just fashioned a great adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, but a beautiful movie, a sensitively textured re-creation of the look and emotional climate of mid-century America and Ireland, with Ronan, as quietly and vibrantly alive as a silent-screen heroine, at its heart. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release.

theassassin2-1600x900-c-defaultShu Qi in The Assassin.  The film was far from my favorite, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the gazelle-like presence of Qi. With a cultural quietness combined with the strength of an agile tiger, we are witness to contemplation, mindful journeying, and decisions of faith in this film. I wish there were an entire series simply based around the history of her character. I highly encourage director Hou Hsiao-hsien to  use her in every subsequent project.

wuxia like no other, The Assassin is set in the waning years of the Tang Dynasty when provincial rulers are challenging the power of the royal court. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who was exiled as a child so that her betrothed could make a more politically advantageous match, has been trained as an assassin for hire. Her mission is to destroy her former fiancé (Chang Chen). But worry not about the plot, which is as old as the jagged mountains and deep forests that bear witness to the cycles of power and as elusive as the mists that surround them. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s art is in the telling. The film is immersive and ephemeral, sensuous and spare, and as gloriously beautiful in its candle-lit sumptuous red and gold decor as Hou’s 1998 masterpiece, Flowers of Shanghai. As for the fight scenes, they’re over almost before you realize they’ve happened, but they will stay in your mind’s eye forever. A Well Go USA release.

katewinsletKate Winslet in STEVE JOBS.  From our sweet Rose in Titanic to quirky Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Winslet is able to grab you from first look. In the role of Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ marketing and PR maven, Kate is unstoppable. Donning a seamless Polish accent and the sass of a woman who speaks her mind, Winslet gets some truly powerful monologues that pack a real punch. Based on  the truth or not, she nails each beat with the magic of an Oscar winner.

Anyone going to this provocative and wildly entertaining film expecting a straight biopic of Steve Jobs is in for a shock. Working from Walter Isaacson’s biography, writer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War) and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire127 Hoursjoined forces to create this dynamically character-driven portrait of the brilliant man at the epicenter of the digital revolution, weaving the multiple threads of their protagonist’s life into three daringly extended backstage scenes, as he prepares to launch the first Macintosh, the NeXT work station and the iMac. We get a dazzlingly executed cross-hatched portrait of a complex and contradictory man, set against the changing fortunes and circumstances of the home-computer industry and the ascendancy of branding, of products, and of oneself. The stellar cast includes Michael Fassbender in the title role, Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan and Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld. A Universal Pictures release.

MIAMADRE1-1600x900-c-defaultMargherita Buy in Mia Madre. This film about the slow acceptance of  a loved one’s death features ans award winning performance by Margherita Buy. As she relinquishes control over her ever-waning control of sadness and sanity, she is able to show the pain of loss. Never does Buy have a forced or untrue moment. With the added challenge (and luck) of working alongside John Turturro as a over inflated ego maniac, American actor, she bounces from one emotion to the next like a pro. 

Margherita (Margherita Buy) is a middle-aged filmmaker who has to contend with an international co-production starring a mercurial American actor (John Turturro) and with the realization that her beloved mother (Giulia Lazzarini) is mortally ill. Underrated as an actor, director Nanni Moretti offers a fascinating portrayal as Margherita’s brother, a quietly abrasive, intelligent man with a wonderfully tamped-down generosity and warmth. The construction of the film is as simple as it is beautiful: the chaos of the movie within the movie merges with the fear of disorder and feelings of pain and loss brought about by impending death. Mia Madre is a sharp and continually surprising work about the fragility of existence that is by turns moving, hilarious, and subtly disquieting. An Alchemy release.

In the shadow of womenClotilde Courau in In The Shadow Of Women. Frustrating to watch and I’m sure, much more so to play, Courau brings to life a woman scorned and struggling to grasp a sense of affection from her cheating husband. Holding on to the knowledge of betrayal, balancing obdience, and dipping her own toe in the pool of infidelity, Courau gives her all to make the audience feel sorry for her and proud of her. One of the most honest films in the festival, In The Shadow of Women, with Courau as one half of the helm, you cannot go wrong.

The new film by the great Philippe Garrel (previously seen at the NYFF with Regular Lovers in 2005 and Jealousy in 2013) is a close look at infidelity—not merely the fact of it, but the particular, divergent ways in which it’s experienced and understood by men and women. Stanislas Merhar and Clotilde Courau are Pierre and Manon, a married couple working in fragile harmony on Pierre’s documentary film projects, the latest of which is a portrait of a resistance fighter (Jean Pommier). When Pierre takes a lover (Lena Paugam), he feels entitled to do so, and he treats both wife and mistress with disengagement bordering on disdain; when Manon catches Pierre in the act, her immediate response is to find common ground with her husband. Garrel is an artist of intimacies and emotional ecologies, and with In the Shadow of Women he has added narrative intricacy and intrigue to his toolbox. The result is an exquisite jewel of a film. A Distrib Films release.

rachelweiszLOBSTERRachel Weisz in The Lobster. Weisz attempts to keep her wits in this absurdist comedy. Delivering lines as deadpan as you can imagine, she is fully committed to bringing this world to life. Rebel and survivor learning to  hide her true feelings, Weisz is tantalizing in the role of Short Sighted Woman. Hopes, fears, and excentricities abound, we are treated to a unique performance of, what on the page, must have seemed an impossible feat given the plot. With the richness we have come to expect from her, Weisz delivers in every moment, oftentimes with nothing but crude “sign language’ and voice overs. 

In the very near future, society demands that we live as couples. Single people are rounded up and sent to a seaside compound—part resort and part minimum-security prison—where they are given a finite number of days to find a match. If they don’t succeed, they will be “altered” and turned into animals. The recently divorced David (Colin Farrell) arrives at The Hotel with his brother, now a dog; in the event of failure, David has chosen to become a lobster… because they live so long. When David falls in love, he’s up against a new set of rules established by another, rebellious order: for romantics, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Welcome to the latest dark, dark comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), creator of absurdist societies not so very different from our own. With Léa Seydoux as the leader of the Loners, Rachel Weisz as David’s true love, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw. An Alchemy release.


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