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Female Performances Dominate This Year’s New York Film Festival

The 49th annual New York Film Festival drew to a close last night with screenings of The Descendants, the new (and rather wonderful) comedy/drama from director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, About Schmidt). Its centerpiece performance is a magnificent, nuanced turn by George Clooney, but there’s another one well worth mentioning: that of Shailene Woodley, the heretofore-unknown-to-your-author actor (she apparently co-stars on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, whatever the hell that is) who plays his 17-year-old daughter Alexandra. Woodley appears in nearly as much of the picture as Clooney, in a role just a complicated and difficult as his, and in scene after scene, she just nails it. Woodley’s complex (and relatively unsung, thus far anyway) performance puts a final spotlight on perhaps the most encouraging trend at this year’s NYFF: a rich assortment of extraordinary female performances.

We know, we know — it seems like every time you turn around, some Hollywood yahoo is announcing that this is “the year of the woman” or slapping that onto an awards ceremony or magazine cover as a big theme, seemingly ignoring the fact that these are often projections, wishful thinking to divert our attention from the fact that good roles for women are incredibly scarce. But there was an embarrassment of riches in the NYFF slate this year, and this is a fact not only worth noting, but celebrating.

A few examples:

Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for Melancholia, and deserved it; clinically depressed, she vacillates effortlessly from dimple-cheeked smiling bride to debilitated, nearly paralyzed mess (and hits all points in between). At a key point midway through, she asks her new husband a simple question (“What did you expect?”) and miraculously, her face transforms; she suddenly looks as old as she feels, weathered and beaten, all but destroyed. It’s an exhausting and masterful piece of work.

Elizabeth Olsen has been racking up accolades all year for her leading turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene (the film played Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto before New York), and and every word of buzz she has received is earned. She is the younger sister of the Olsen twins, but bears less a resemblance to them than to a young Vera Farmiga; she also has that actor’s same quiet intensity. It’s very much a reactive performance, but she’s never just listening in a scene — the camera regards the complexity of her silent emotions and picks up on every tiny, messy thing she does. It’s not a big, showy performance, but it is a remarkable one.

Keira Knightley is an actor I’ve never felt much pull towards, but her casually passionate work in the Tribeca film Last Night caused some reconsideration. Now here is this performance in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method that is astonishing in its depth and power. Even the acting of talking is a trial for her character, and Knightley’s work in these early scenes, as she wrenches the words out of her character’s mouth in jutted stutters and tortured bursts, is remarkable. It’s not what you would call a subtle performance (nor should it be, all things considered), but there are subtleties to it: the sparseness of her movements when she’s seated in her therapy sessions, the way her dark eyes flash with fury.

Kate Winslet isn’t exactly underplaying either in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and it’s not like she couldn’t have; a stern and straight-faced playing of this material (it’s based on the acclaimed Broadway play) certainly could have worked. But Polanski and his cast turn it up just a couple of notches, and it becomes something less expected and more interesting. Winslet’s work as the buttoned-up career woman who is at the end of her rope with her smug husband (Christoph Waltz) starts out coiled, ready to explode — and it does (somewhat literally, in fact). It’s not the kind of naturalistic performance we’ve come to expect from her, but it is never less than believable.

Michelle Williams is the best thing in My Week with Marilyn, which is not a great film, but is worth seeing for how great she is in it. She dominates the picture from its first scene, performing “Heat Wave” (Williams does her own singing, and well) in a manner that indicates that she’s not going to be intimidated by the iconography — she’s just going to become the character and get on with it. She does, and masterfully; she gets both Monroe’s delicateness (her eyes are perpetually wet) and her sprung comic timing. You can’t take your eyes off her.

Leila Hatami is not in as much of A Separation as some of the actors above, but her fierce spirit haunts even the scenes she’s absent from. As an Iranian mother reluctantly divorcing her husband, she is uniquely gifted at dealing with the task at hand, yet subtly tipping us off as to what’s happening behind her eyes. In the difficult closing scenes, she becomes the picture’s conflicted conscience; there is an urgency to her acting, but a naturalism that is never forced or phony.

That’s six great performances from this festival alone, one more than are allowed by the Oscar nominating committee for Best Actress. It should be an interesting year.

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