Wednesday, February 1, 2017

2016 Year End Report: Best Actress

For the second year in a row, I think it’s clear that Best Actress is the best of the four acting categories – and the deepest. Among the performances I would have liked to include but didn’t have room for: Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals is not a normal role for Adams, but she nails it anyway – right up until the memorable final moment. Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship reminds everyone what a wonderful comic actress she is in the right role. Annette Bening in 20th Century Women is excellent as a mother in the 1970s trying her very best to do what’s best for her son, even if she has no clue what that means. Sonia Braga in Aquarius anchors a movie that can sometimes drag, but is always interesting if for no other reason than her performance. Lauren Ashley Carter in Darling wonderful, as a woman slowly going insane in this gory horror film. Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon is a wonderful, blank slate for everyone to project unto. Royalty Hightower in The Fits is that rare child actor who is able to completely hold the camera without seemingly doing anything. Isabelle Huppert in Things to Come wonderfully, subtly plays the type of character we’ve seen a thousand times before, but never quite in this way. Min-hee Kim in The Handmaiden has almost three different characters to play in the films distinctive three acts – but they all feed off of what came before. Jane Levy in Don’t Breathe added some needed humanity and complexity to the typical horror movie heroine trying to survive. Morgan Saylor in White Girl goes full bore into her privileged, naïve, ultimately horrible character really bravely. Kate Lynn Shiel in Kate Plays Christine is not a typical performance by any means – but whatever it is, it’s brilliant. Kalieaswari Srinivasan in Dheepan plays a woman who just wanted to get out Sri Lanka, who ends up a “wife” and “mother”, and doesn’t know how to handle that. Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen joins the ranks of the great teen movie heroines – neurotic, funny, relatable and wonderful. Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash spends most of the movie not speaking, and that doesn’t diminish her performance in the slightest. Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch doesn’t quite know what to do when her whole family turns against her – another great horror movie performance. Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane slowly finds her inner strength, as she has to fight against one monster – then another – to survive.

10. Ruth Negga in Loving
As Mildred Loving, Ruth Negga exudes a quiet strength. At first, it looks like she may weaker than her white husband – when they are first arrested for being married – because he’s white, and she’s black – she seems nearly scared to death in the jail cell. As the film moves along though, you start to see her steel will as she decides to stand up to the bullies, stands by her man, raises her kids, and refuses to back down. It’s a quietly powerful performance – and the perfect embodiment of this film, which never uses bombast or grandstanding, when quieter moments of strength will do.
9. Krisha Fairchild in Krisha
Krisha Fairchild has been acting for a long time – basically in tiny roles, voiceover work, etc. – but with Krisha, she is given the role of a lifetime, and will not relinquish it. In the film, written and directed by her nephew, she plays a drug addict and alcoholic – now purportedly clean – and returning home for Thanksgiving for the first time in years, looking forward to reconnecting with her family, and forge a new relationship with them – and of course, screwing it all up. She’s at the heart of nearly every scene in the film, and she carries it. It’s a heartbreaking performance – you cannot say she doesn’t bring everything on herself, because she does, but it breaks you done watching as she – and the film – become slowly unhinged. Brilliant work by an actress who has clearly waiting a long time for this moment.
8. Tao Zhao in Mountains May Depart
Director Jia Zhangke’s wife/muse is in top form in his latest film Mountains May Depart – anchoring the first two thirds of globalization movie, before mainly being absent for the third (before the brilliant final shot anyway). In act one, she plays a woman torn between two men – one rich, one poor – who both want to marry her, and she knows whatever decision she makes, it’s going to hurt someone. Flash forward a few years for act 2, and her decision certainly did hurt – and now she’s alone, her husband has left her, and her son has all left her life completely – as the reunite for one final, sad visit. I know there are some who feel that Zhangke’s concentration on the larger picture often hurts the humanity of his films – but whenever I see Tao Zhao in one of his films, I always object to that. She is one of the best actresses in the world, and she brings the humanity with her – Zhangke certainly has a wide view on the world, but her performances always bring it back down to earth.
7. Emma Stone in La Land
Emma Stone’s work in La Land is the best work of her already fine career. In many ways, her Mia is a Hollywood cliché – the young ingénue from Middle America, who heads to Hollywood with dreams of stardom. But Stone embraces Mia whole heartedly, clichés and all, and makes the audience kind of instantly fall in love with her, and then gradually deepens her character. She’s wonderful throughout, but by the time she sings Audition – the movie’s best moment, she is fully, completely comfortable with herself for the first time. As the film moves towards its climax, she breaks your heart with little more than a look. Stone is a full-fledged movie star to be sure, and in La Land, she embraces that persona and comes up with something wonderful.
6. Amy Adams in Arrival
Amy Adams was the perfect, perhaps only, choice to play the lead role in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi film Arrival. In the film, Adams plays a woman who is called upon to try and translate the language of a newly arrived species of alien – who have large crafts landed all over the world. Through the months long process of trying to speak to them, she remembers her life with her daughter – who died as a teenager – and how she related to her daughter, helps her relate to the aliens. It’s a remarkably subtle performance for being at the center of such a large scale movie – one in which her empathy is foregrounded. This is a movie about an alien invasion, and yet it’s a remarkably personal story – one that looks inward towards her character – and yet also has wider implications for the world at large. It’s a subtle piece of work by Adams – some of the best of her career – and coupled with her work in Nocturnal Animals, shows just how wide her range is.
5. Natalie Portman in Jackie
As Jackie Kennedy, Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances of her career – she has a strong accent in the film, which is appropriate, but takes a scene or two to get used to. From there though, Portman gives what will now be the standard bearer for performances of Jackie Kennedy. The film focuses almost exclusively on the week after her husband’s death – when she marshals the forces to get him the kind of sendoff that she feels he deserves, all while coping with her own loss, trying to be a mother, and suffering from what we would know clearly know as PTSD. The film is from her point of view, as she describes everything to an interviewer – more candid with him, and the audience, than she will eventually allow him to be (she constantly tells him what he cannot write). It is a powerful portrait of grief – and anger (she knows her marriage was far from perfect, and she’s angry at her husband for that) – but also a portrait of celebrity culture. In Portman’s hands, Jackie Kennedy becomes somewhat prophetic – knowing that the way things appear is more important than the ways things are- at least in terms of how we remember them, from the outside looking in. Portman captures this complex woman, who in the worst time of her life, knew exactly what she needed to do.
4. Rebecca Hall in Christine
Rebecca Hall gives easily her best performance to date as Christine Chubbock – the report who killed herself live, on-air in the 1970s. To some, the film felt exploitive of a real woman and her obvious mental illness – but I didn’t think so. The film does an excellent job at presenting Chubbock’s story, paying respect to her specific problems, as well as casting a wider lens on the misogyny of the era. Hall gives an exacting performance, that charts her downward spiral into that illness – something, I think the film makes clear, was always there – but she did a better job at hiding, until outside factors exasperate her. Hall does a strange accent, had an exacting way she moves, and really does get under the skin of Chubbock, and gives a performance you will not soon forget. A brilliant performance by an actress who has shown promise for a while, but is finally given a chance to truly fulfill it.
3. Sasha Lane in American Honey
Newcomer Sasha Lane gives a remarkable debut performance in American Honey – open and emotionally honest, Lane plays Star – a teenager girl in Middle America, deep in poverty, either ignored or abused by her parents, who hooks up with a group of travelling magazine sales people, and goes on a cross country journey with them. In many ways, Star wears her heart on her sleeve, as her relationship with Shia LaBeouf’s character goes back and forth between love, lust and frustration. She is also incredibly impulsive – putting herself into danger time and again, without ever really getting seriously hurt. It a brilliant performance about a specific kind of youth – one that offers little hope, little in the way of job opportunities or money, or a way out of her situation – but that she tries to get out anyway. As far as debut performances go, this one is a stunner – one of the best in cinema history really, and I cannot wait to see what this talented young actress does next.
2. Sandra Huller in Toni Erdmann
Huller is great in the opening two acts of Toni Erdmann – she puts on an air of professionalism and competence when he is around her colleagues, and even her family – playing the role of the confident, successful businesswoman – even while her insecurities are undeniably raging under the surface. She brings those out in later scenes – like when she is stuck bringing her father, posing as a businessman, along with her to a meeting – and finding that she is taken more seriously with a man with her, even one who is clearly clueless, than when she is by herself. But it really is the final act of the film in which Huller’s performance goes from great into an all-timer – her rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” and then the naked party is one of the greatest (and painful), comedic one-two punches in cinema history. In any other year, she’d be the easy number 1 choice for this category.
1. Isabelle Huppert in Elle
Isabelle Huppert essentially does the impossible in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. The film opens with her being raped, and from there goes to some very dark places – yet essentially remains a pitch black comedy about a woman who is used to being in control over every aspect of her life essentially letting go in one area. I know many were offended my Elle – it wouldn’t be a Verhoeven film if people were not offended, and even if I disagree with them, I certainly see where they are coming from. Yet, I think its Huppert’s performance that allows the movie to get away with everything it does – both Verhoeven and Huppert have talked about how much control she was given over her character, and it shows in every scene. The performance is a collection of smaller moments, where every lip curl says something different. Huppert is essentially playing a woman surrounded by idiot men – who need her to be in control, or else their world falls apart. Huppert navigates a nearly impossible role brilliantly – and delivers not only the best performance of the year by a lead actress, but perhaps the best performance of her long, brilliant career.

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