The Toronto International Film Festival just closed a diverse and dazzling edition, which introduced enough Oscar contenders for Best Actress to fill the category twice over. Remember when it was a stretch to find just five worthy contenders? Time is truly up for the Hollywood attitude that women have to play mother, whore or adoring trophy to male crybabies. So long to a society that has used fear and intimation to silence women from speaking up against male predators. Women have found their voice, and movies are beginning to reflect the power of #MeToo.
At TIFF 2018, screens were ablaze with women working both sides of the camera and determined to show sisters doing it for themselves. Here are 10 actresses whose performances represent a new age of female representation.
Natalie Portman, Vox Lux
Playing Celeste, a rock diva who rose from the ashes of a childhood that left her nearly dead in a school shooting and pregnant after an adult male took advantage, Portman delivers an all-stops-out-you’ve-never seen-her-like-this tour de force. Often on the verge of a nuclear meltdown, exacerbated by alcohol and drugs, Celeste never leans on a man to save her. Two women in her life, a sister (Stacy Martin) and a daughter (Raffey Cassidy), provide support. But it’s finally her own bedrock talent and confidence that get Celeste on stage at rock stadiums — the rousing songs are by Sia — to redefine resilience on her terms. Writer-director Brady Corbet’s film is a dynamite provocation, but the sparks you see flying come from the woman at the center of it.
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
The Oscar buzz is already deafening for Bradley’s Cooper’s intimate and indelibly moving take on a tale that’s been told many times before. And then there’s Lady Gaga, portraying the rising pop supernova to Cooper’s fading country rocker. The role is usually played as an innocent looking for guidance in a man’s world — but lucky for us and the movie, Gaga doesn’t do ingenue. The singer who once crooned about “Bad Romance” loves her man without being a slave to his weakness. When booze and pills start making his decisions, she calls bullshit. You expect Gaga to sing the hell out the part (she does!), but it’s her acting — fresh, funny and fiercely original — that proves revelatory.
Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
Looking boozed out and bleary-eyed, Kidman cuts soul-deep as Erin Bell, an LAPD detective on her own personal skids. The performance could have slid by on physical transformation alone — the Eyes Wide Shut star has never looked this ravaged — but instead, the Oscar winner takes us into the dark night of a woman’s soul. In tandem with director Karyn Kusama, whose Girlfight was equally allergic to sympathy-begging, Kidman lets us see what’s going inside Erin’s bruised psyche. Violence and moral rot have taken their toll on this woman. And the actress is gives it to us straight.
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
An actress cannot live by laughs alone — and McCarthy shows her dramatic chops in this true story of Lee Israel, an author of non-bestselling showbiz biographies who turns to literary-correspondence forgeries to pay the bills. This film, directed with quiet power by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), is not interested in painting the writer as a poor, pitiful cat lady. McCarthy plays her as tough enough to take on a whole generation of mean girls. Lee thinks she’s good enough to improve on the letters she forges from such notables as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. McCarthy brilliantly walks the tightrope of playing the person behind these hoaxes as a hardcore misanthrope without leaving her humanity in doubt.
Viola Davis, Widows
On the surface, casting the volcanic Davis in a heist movie seems like the equivalent of shoving a comet in a shoebox. But this is no throwaway. Directed by Steve McQueen, whose art-film props run through Hunger, Shame and the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, Widows is a genre film made by a master who knows how a great actress can raise even his formidable game. She plays Veronica, the wife of a thief (Liam Neeson) who died plying his trade. Now she’s the one who leads the widows of her husband’s dead cohorts in one last big score. There are men who want to stop these women. There always are. But the fire blazing in Davis’ eyes is something to see.
Carey Mulligan, Wildlife
From An Education to Mudbound, Mulligan nails every nuance as an actress. In Wildlife, she hits a new peak as Jeanne Brinson, a Montana housewife whose husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes off to fight wild fires and leaves her to raise their young son (Ed Oxenbould). It’s 1960, when women were expected to know their place. Jeanne doesn’t like boxes, however, and she causes emotional damage fighting her way out. In adapting Richard Ford’s novel, actor-turned-director Paul Dano, who wrote the script with Zoe Kazan, relies on his lead to ride hard with Jeanne on the bumpy road to female independence and even empowerment. Mulligan delivers the goods every step of the way.
Julianne Moore, Gloria Bell
It’s a slippery slope, doing a remake of your own triumphant foriegn-language movie in English. Thank god for the fearless Moore, who takes on the title role in Sebastian Lelio’s 2013 Chilean drama about a middle-aged divorcee looking for love while simultaneously being afraid of finding it. The Still Alice actress finds her own way into the role memorably created by Paulina Garcia; her Gloria, with two adult children (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius), has adjusted to divorce. Loneliness unites her with Arnold (John Turturro), a former Navy officer, at least for a time. Without resorting to sentiment or over-reaching, Moore charts an ordinary life with extraordinary precision and feeling.
KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk
Layne has never acted before — but you’d never tell from the grit and grace she brings to this Barry Jenkins adaptation of the 1974 novel by James Baldwin. As Tish, a pregnant black woman trying to get the man she loves out of jail on a falsified rape charge, Layne locates the beating heart of a 19-year-old girl being forced to grow up too fast. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” says Layne, narrating the film in Tish’s voice. It’s a voice that resonates with the hurt and the healing resilience of being black in America, then and now.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher
You expect the usual cliched uplift when teacher Lisa Spinelli, an overworked wife and mother, finds that Jimmy (Parker Sevak), the five-year-old prodigy in her class, is a gifted poet. But the woman who plays her — Maggie Gyllenhaal — is too fine and fierce an actress to offer business as usual. With the support of director Sara Colangelo (remaking the 2014 Israeli film of the same name), The Deuce star rocks the boat by creating a character who might be using the boy to push her personal frustrated ambitions by passing off his work as her own in an adult writing class. It’s a complex character, and Gyllenhaal doesn’t run from any of her challenging contradictions.
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
She’s a preschool teacher in Mexico and had never had any intention of being part of a movie. And yet this non-English-speaking newcomer from Oaxaca is the searching soul of Alfonso’s Cuarón’s dazzling and quietly devastating impressionistic memoir about growing up in the Roma district of Mexico City in the early 1970s. In a bustling household of four children, argumentative parents and political turbulence clanging outside, stands Cleo — a maid who barely says a word. No need. Aparicio plays this servant as the calm eye of a storm, holding the family together even when her own life threatens to fall to pieces. There was no film in Toronto this year that hit me harder than Cuarón’s masterpiece, and Aparicio — magnificent and moving in her stillness — is unforgettable. It’s the performance of the year.