Who says there aren’t enough great parts for women? There is certainly an abundance of strong, warm women’s roles rocking great performances at this year’s NYFF.
Firstly, one has to start off with the incomparable Annette Bening’s Oscar nomination-worthy turn in Mike Mills’ delightful ode to his mother “20th Century Women.” Bening excels as Dorothea, Mill’s stand in for Mom. It’s one of her greatest roles. But it’s not just Mills’ autobiographical tribute(although it is), it is much, much more than that.
Bening gives a complicated wry, career-crowning performance as a helicopter Mom long before it was called that. Set in 1979, Dorothea is desperately trying not to be stuck in the past, but she unfortunately is hearing “Casablanca”s dialogue and sound-track playing in the back-ground of her mind constantly. Her her teen-aged son notes that “She is all about the Depression.” And she is sure she’ll meet up with Humphrey Bogart in the afterlife.
She cigarette smokes herself to death (and tells us so in the posthumous voice-over) because she thinks it looks “stylish.” She tries to understand her fatherless son Jamie by providing him with not one but two girlfriends, Elle Fanning and an unrecognizable Greta Gerwig.
Mills’ gives the great Millennial comedian Greta Gerwig an idiosyncratically original role to sink her teeth into, too. I mean, how can you disguise the very familiar Queen of Mumblecore? By dying her hair purple and punk-rocking her out to the max. She gives a great heartfelt performance as a cancer survivor, who is trying to educate Bening’s confused 15-year-old son in the ways of feminism. “Read ‘Our Bodies Our Selves’,” she says, which quickly becomes Jason’s favorite book.
Have you ever seen such complicated 20th century women depicted onscreen with such depth and intoxicating humor? No. Only in a Mike Mills movie. You have look to foreign cinema, which the NYFF does really, really well.
“Aquarius,” is a Brazilian film (in Portuguese) that finds us in another cancer survivor’s life. This time breast cancer, and another great actress giving a great, warm performance, which you’ll not soon forget. Brazilian legend Sonia Braga plays the 65-year-old retired music critic Dona Clara, who still has a great passion for life, and loves her lovely seaside apartment in the housing complex of the title.
Corrupt landlords and developers try everything in the book to drive her out of her mind and out of the modestly beautiful flat. (New Yorkers can relate) Staging orgies in the vacated upstairs apartment, feces left on the steps — it’s war, and the tempestuous Dona Clara is more than up to the challenge. The great Braga attacks this juicy part con brio. She is in nearly every scene and the viewer just can’t get enough of her majesty and brilliance in this bravura role.
I have to also mention the leading Mexican actress Adriana Barraza, Oscar-nominated for “Babel”, and like Braga, not seen enough on American screens. And like Braga in “Aquarius” and Kristen Stewart in “Personal Shopper”, she is almost totally alone in the very effecting, “Toda lo demas” Or “Everything Else.” Barraza takes on the daunting challenge of playing an elderly government clerk. All alone, no family, no husband, no children, her life consists of interacting with welfare seekers as they have to negotiate the mountains of paperwork they have to fill out to get benefits. And they’re all lying to her, in one way or another, and she has to judge them instantaneously on their responses.
She has tremendous power over these peoples’ lives in the few, but very repetitive moments she has of interacting with them. And that’s her life. And filing. And filling out forms. And tending to her cat. It’s Eleanor Rigby, with a job. In Mexico City, where she barely talks to any one, as she goes through this exhausting. Kafka-esque ritual day after day.
I’ve never seen loneliness depicted so brutally. Barraza gives an almost completely silent performance, except when she’s asking the aspiring welfare recipients the same questions. Over and over and over again. It’s shattering in its precision and clarity, and Barraza is unforgettable.
I should also mention, just mention, two women in a documentary that are anything BUT quiet, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher in “Bright Lights.” Hilarious and also moving, famous mother and daughter do a pas de deux that will never leave you. As they will never leave each other. No “Mommie Dearest” here. The two unvarnishedly love each other. And live in Hollywood houses right next door to each other. Which is a lovely thing to see.
As are almost all the great women in great movies at the NYFF.