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TIFF 2018 - sharing the journey of amazing female performances

When I started this website back in 2016, I had always planned on writing about my experiences as a TIFF attendee. And although I've written about some of TIFF's year round events, almost 2 years after creating this website, I have yet to write about the actual festival itself. There's a couple of reasons for this, but the primary one is quite simple: attending the festival is exhausting in the best way possible, and I've always made a conscious decision to not pressure myself into writing (or doing anything else, really) during its 10-11 day period. The primary focus is to just watch as many movies as I can, without going overboard.

That being said, I've mustered enough energy this year to write something about TIFF 2018, which I think many will agree has been an amazing year for the festival. Ignoring the fact that TIFF was able to snag so many high-profile world premieres this year, which built a good amount of hype for anyone planning to attend, the quality and level of filmmaking has just been so damn excellent. I had initially planned on writing about a few of my favourite screening experiences this past week (ish), but as the festival progressed, I decided to write about something else. By about day 3, it became increasingly clear to me that female performances are dominating TIFF 2018. Performances for films screened at the festival are always pretty damn good by default, but this year, a higher degree of quality and achievement was clearly in the air. How fitting, given that this was the year TIFF launched its Share Her Journey rally, and as usual, had a good showing from female filmmakers.

So here's a list of my favourite female performances at the festival this year, in the order of when I saw each film. Keep in mind, my final count of films each year falls in the neighbourhood of the low to mid 20s, and this year was no exception. That means that there will be a lot of glaring exclusions here, and word of mouth so far has already confirmed that. So this is by no means complete, but it's what I've seen so far. In any case, here's my list of what I think are the best female performances at TIFF 2018 this year:

Raffey Cassidy (Vox Lux)

**wasn't able to find a good quality production still of Raffey Cassidy alone**

Most people are talking about Natalie Portman's over-the-top performance in this hypnotic mess of a film, but Raffey Cassidy definitely steals the show for me. Like many others I've talked to (or eavesdropped in line), I consider the first half of the film to be markedly better than the latter half. And a big part of this is because of Cassidy's arresting performance as the younger version of Portman's character. At the beginning of the film, she demonstrates a captivating portrayal of pain and fear, while later overcoming those emotions without falling too deeply into the teenage angst tropes that the script easily calls for. In short, she absolutely kills it. Switching gears for the second half of the film, where she doubles her duties by also playing Portman's daughter, Cassidy embodies a level of restraint which is a welcome contrast to everything else going on in the film. As much as I like Natalie Portman (and I really do like her a lot), I would've been much happier seeing Cassidy anchor the entire film. I am definitely hoping to see more of her in the future.

Huang Yao (The Crossing)

This fantastic directorial debut by Bai Xue is also the birthing ground to an amazing debut performance by Huang Yao. Having a standout debut performance in a feature film is no easy feat, but somehow, it happens from time to time and this is a fine example of that. Playing a 16 year old student who somehow finds herself smuggling cell phones between the Hong Kong/China border, Huang never falls into the usual descent of a confused teenager. She portrays her character with a level of maturity and internalized strength, creating a rather believable depiction of resiliency. My apologies for writing such a pretentious sentence, but if you've seen the movie, you'd be hard pressed not to agree.

Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)

As this film approaches its October release date and inevitably enters the awards season race, the whole world will be hearing this a lot: Lady Gaga can act. Like, really act. I never had the patience to keep up with American Horror Story after its first season, so never got to see Gaga's acting chops until this past week. But regardless of how good she was on the show, I doubt it came anything close to what she does in A Star is Born. The emotional range that Gaga has is simply uncanny. When she's not singing on screen, she acts at a level that shouldn't be expected from someone who seemingly already has all her eggs in one talent basket (ie. the singing basket). But she surpasses expectations, and is equally as talented as an actress. The most amazing thing is that even for the singing scenes, you forget that she's Lady Gaga. How is that even possible? This is the Lady Gaga we're talking about here. Her amazing singing aside, she delivers such an emotionally charge performance every time she's in front of a microphone. You can say that she probably got practice in real life, but I'm confident that 99.9% of singers would not be able to do what she does here. Just from watching the trailer, I had a feeling she would be great. But what I saw was unbelievably amazing and will certainly go down in history as one of the best acting performances from any singer who has ever attempted to act. I'm sure Lady Gaga will continue to focus primarily on her singing, but hopefully she'll make some time to act in a few films from time to time.

Martina Gusman and Bérénice Bejo (The Quietude)

It's not uncommon for viewers to be completely mesmerized by an actor or actress in a film. In fact, it's happened a few times during this festival alone. But to be completely and utterly mesmerized by two performers in a single film? That isn't something you see very often, but The Quietude is able to achieve just that. Both Martina Gusman and Bérénice Bejo are absolutely mesmerizing, and taking my eyes off the screen when either of them were present was essentially an undoable task. They are both perfect in their seductive and intensely mysterious performances as two sisters functioning within some pretty twisted family dynamics. It's a testament to their talents as actresses that the film is as good as it is. Without spoiling anything, The Quietude is essentially a story about a very dysfunctional family that seems to operate on heavy levels of deceit, anger and hate. What's surprising is that these elements are all tied together with a large bow characterized by a strong sense of passionate love. This almost oxymoron-like element to the film is all thanks to Gusman and Bejo. I've been a fan of Bejo ever since The Artist, but embarrassingly, this was my first exposure to Gusman. Both are extremely talented, and help turn what could've been a melodramatic film, into a work of pure art and perfection.

Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)

All I can say is this: WOW. I figure Yalitza Aparicio was cast to play Cleo because of her lack of experience as an actress. But as Alfonso Cuarón surely knew when he chose Aparicio to play the part, this wasn't just a simple task of being 'natural' on screen. There are clear indications for some pretty hefty acting chops in Roma's screenplay, and first time actress Aparicio delivers a standout debut performance. Cuarón's masterful filmmaking takes a lot of credit for what makes Roma such a powerful piece of cinema, but Aparicio is at the heart of almost every scene of the film and steals the spotlight at every turn. I imagine that all those long takes would've been difficult for even most veteran actors, let alone someone who has never acted before in their lives. She doesn't have the appearance or demeanour of a typical 'movie star', but this obviously works in the film's favour, and more importantly, says nothing about the performance itself. In short, Aparicio delivers a movie star level performance that can feel both deeply personal and extremely isolated. It's wonderful stuff, and no matter how good Cuarón is (and he is really, really good), I don't think the film would've been as good as it was without such a talented lead actress.

Liron Ben-Shlush (Working Woman)

Like many others on this part of the equator, I became a fan of Israeli cinema after being introduced to A Separation. There isn't just a single reason why Israeli films appeal to me, but one big reason is the caliber of acting that these films tend to employ. Working Woman was no exception, and I found Liron Ben-Shlush's performance completely breathtaking. The film is extremely topical with its depiction of workplace sexual abuse, and Ben-Shlush finds such a reserved way of playing a character that has every right to be angry and resentful. Through her performance, you get this rare glimpse into a character that feels like a real life person, yet also embodies a million complex emotional responses during the film's runtime. It's really remarkable to see her character develop throughout the film, and maintain this palpable level of realism despite the dramatic story arcs. There's no doubt that I will be looking up her previous work after the festival is done.

Zhao Tao (Ash is Purest White)

As much as I admire Tao Zhao's devotion to her husband, she really needs to act more often for other directors as well because she is that damn good. It's rare to see female heroes in the jiang hu/triad genre, and even when it happens, you tend to land more on the Young and Dangerous side of things, rather than on the Election side. Ash is Purest White isn't interested in glamorizing heroic bloodshed (Jia Zhangke even inserts a homage to this near the beginning of the film), and instead, asks viewers to go on a moving journey through realistic heroism in a changing modern society. Seeing Zhao portray the same character over a 17 year period (2001 to 2018 - although IMDb erroneously states 2017) with an evolving sense of maturity was truly a gift. With the exception of one pretty badass scene where Zhao establishes her strength in the conventional 'triad way', the rest of the film maintains a level of respect for the character without any of the dramatics. You respect her character as a heroic and functioning model within the triad community, because she exudes that kind of confidence. Again, not in a dramatic way, but in a very realistic and confident manner that I have never seen before in any other triad film. And believe me, I've watched a lot of these over the years. For the greater good of the cinematic community, Zhao Tao really needs to act more often.

Yang Mi (Baby)

Full disclosure, I didn't really know who Yang Mi was prior to watching this film. I was aware that she's pretty big in China as a television actress, but the weight and hype of her stardom had very little effect on me as I walked into my screening for Baby. I bring this up because there seems to be lots of chatter and excitement surrounding Yang Mi's first entry into serious cinema territory, but regardless of these contextual details, she is simply fantastic in this film. I'll admit that her character momentarily slips into the 'annoying' category a number of times, but that was certainly intentional. As a whole, Yang Mi delivers a truly heartfelt performance that covers a range of complicated feelings. On paper, you're supposed to root for Yang's character, but she constantly makes you question that decision by not fully wearing all her emotions on her sleeves. Having knowledge about her career trajectory might help mould your perception of her performance, but it's definitely not essential. This is one powerful performance, regardless of whether or not you know who Yang Mi is.


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