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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Top 10 Week: Performances by Women in 2017

#10: Aubrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West

In Ingrid Goes West Aubrey Plaza goes all in as she plays a desperately unhappy woman who is obsessed with the lives of people she finds on Instagram. Though the film itself is darkly comedic, and finds some humor in the lengths that Plaza's character goes to in order to insinuate herself into the life of an Instagram influencer, Plaza's performance is a disturbing portrait of a person deeply in the throes of a mental health crisis, her behavior becoming increasingly unmanageable as the story carries on. It's a frightening performance because it never feels like a "performance;" it feels like a window into an incredibly damaged soul with an incredibly cracked perspective on the world. In taking on the role, Plaza eschews vanity and goes the distance.

#9: Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Should we feel sorry for Tonya Harding? Maybe, maybe not. Will you feel sorry for her after seeing I, Tonya? In all likelihood and that's down to Margot Robbie's empathetic performance. The villain is the hero of his own story, but Robbie's work here goes far beyond that, and though the film itself takes a satirical bent, Robbie's performance is nothing but serious. As depicted by the film, Harding is a woman who has been a punching bag (both literally and figuratively) her whole life, told that she's not good enough and that she'll never make it. She's internalized a lot of that and expresses it by accepting the abuse she endures as something she's brought on herself, but it's also made her determined to prove people wrong. What Robbie ultimately conveys in her performance is a woman who has been torn down all her life and just wants to be accepted and recognized for what she can do. That she manages to pull this off with a character as infamous as Harding is nothing short of a miracle.

#8: Mary J. Blige, Mudbound

If Jason Mitchell is the heart of Mudbound, then Mary J. Blige is its soul. As the matriarch of a family of tenant farmers, she has to find a way to maintain a sense of grace as she tries to balance the needs of her own family against the constant demands of the white family who own the farm and behave as if they own her family, too. With one son having gone off to war and returned unable to accept the limits placed on his future by a racially stratified society, she is never without a reason to worry and with good reason - she's his mother; she holds his heartbeat in her hand. Mudbound's story is one told through a chorus of voices, each bringing a different shading to the narrative, and Blige's voice comes through as one of the strongest. The lone member of the acting ensemble to net an Oscar nomination, Blige delivers a performance that is sublime.

#7: Meryl Streep, The Post

I know, I know. Another year, another great Meryl Streep performance. Ho hum. But regardless of the fact that we just expect greatness from Streep, it has to be said that her performance in The Post really is worthy of the word. Playing Katharine Graham as a woman so accustomed to being dismissed by the men around her that she has retreated into herself and is barely able to speak for herself in their presence, Streep is able to shrug off that magnetic, commanding aura of her public persona and many of her characters. She's a woman who has been intimidated into believing not that her opinion doesn't matter, but that she's not even capable of forming one and through the course of the film, as she's placed in the position of making decisions that just about no one around her trusts her to make, she discovers an ability for self-possession and a willingness to follow her gut and make her own choices. A great Meryl Streep performance might be de rigueur, but it's still a thing capable of captivating.

#6: Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Saoirse Ronan has been playing teenagers for about 10 years now and in Lady Bird she perfects the role. As the title character - self-named - she plays a girl who just wants to be grown up and sophisticated and interesting and to be that person anywhere but Sacramento. She can be self-centered, such as when she turns away from the friend she's had all along when the opportunity to bond with a girl from the cool crowd comes along, but when push comes to shove she has a good heart, such as when she comforts the ex-boyfriend who is terrified that she'll reveal the reason why they broke up and turn him into a pariah. Her big dreams for herself sometimes lead to great disappointments but, as they say, such things are character building and Lady Bird has character in spades. Ronan is wonderful, delivering a warm, funny, and very nuanced performance in one of the best films ever made about the trials and tribulations of being a teenager.

#5: Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

In The Shape of Water Sally Hawkins doesn't say a word, but she manages to express everything that could be said about her lonely, isolated character. Playing a mute woman who, though she has good friends, doesn't really have anyone in her life who understands her, her longing for connection is palpable. Yet, the performance is not all wistfulness and sorrow; it is also deeply compassionate, sometimes slyly funny, and it is calculating once she finds out about the Amphibian Man, decides to break him out, and begins searching for advantages that will allow her to pull that off. Without saying a word she manages to go toe-to-toe with Michael Shannon's villain and in the film's more fantastical moments she brings a playfulness to them that makes them feel lighter than air. Hawkins is an actress who rarely gets the praise she deserves, but The Shape of Water offers a showcase for her that can't be denied - and she doesn't let it down.

#4: Naomi Ackie, Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is a story of the struggle between the marginalized and the powerful, but not in the way that you think it's going to be. On the one hand, it is about a woman dismantling patriarchal power and becoming empowered herself; on the other hand, it's about how that empowered woman sacrifices another in order to attain her ultimate goals. As Anna, the house maid who is helpless to do anything to stop what's happening because she has absolutely no social power, Naomi Ackie plays the only character in the film who is truly sympathetic. It's gut-wrenching to watch her be made to suffer the consequences of the main character's actions, unable to fight back or speak up in her own defense. Eventually she's rendered literally mute, but the anguish of her position comes through in every moment that Ackie is on screen. It's a fantastic performance that never falters and makes the film's inevitable conclusion all the more tragic.

#3: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

There's no passive aggression like a mother's passive aggression. In Lady Bird, it's hard to take sides - the title character is right that her mother is sometimes being hard on her, but you can't really blame her mother for it given the family's precarious financial situation and when you think about it, she's in an impossible situation. She needs to impress upon her daughter that things aren't going to be handed to her and that she needs to not take things for granted, but it also pains her for her daughter to know that they have less than some of her peers' families have. Is it actually that big a deal that her daughter makes a joke about them living on the wrong side of the tracks? Not really, but then again, to the person trying so hard to keep the family in what they do have, you can understand why it stings. Metcalf captures her character in all her complexity and there's not a single false note in her performance so that every scene she appears in feels like a great one.

#2: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Frances McDormand plays a woman who is like a hurricane of rage. Her daughter is gone, her murder still unsolved while the police and rest of the town seem to be content to simply move on and forget all about it, and she is seething over it. She decides to do something about it, but takes things way too far. She's the "angry woman" who storms through town, but it's grief and guilt that are really driving her and those things are merely expressing themselves as rage. As angry as she seems to be at the world, that can never match how angry she is at herself. It's a devastating and utterly captivating performance that functions like the blade of a knife being driven through everything around it and I'm not sure many other actors would have been able to balance the acidity and humanity necessary to pull it off the way that McDormand does.

#1: Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth

Katherine, the character played by Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth, is a woman that you root for at first, in part because circumstance dictates that you should, who you slowly come to despise as the narrative unfolds, but who remains fascinating throughout. She's selfish and ruthless and Pugh does absolutely nothing to soften the edges, embracing the villainous nature of a character who will stop at nothing, and who is willing to sacrifice anyone, to get what she wants. It's an absolutely magnificent performance, sometimes funny but mostly sinister, that like the film itself works to challenge the common "empowerment" narrative and its lack of complexity and intersectionality. Of all the performances I saw on film this year, from men and women, this is the one that stuck with me the most and left the greatest impression.

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