Indie darlings on shoestring budgets, foreign art house staples, and sometimes straight to DVD (but always straight from the heart), this list includes women who might be considered prolific stars, by some standards, whose work unfortunately fell by the wayside. It also includes women who you’ve probably never even heard of, but each film and performance included is an underdog begging to be rooted for in its own way.
This is the most depressing movie you will likely ever see. It starts out, brutally, in Estonia, where 16-year-old Lilya’s harpy of a mother is leaving for America… without her. In a chilling, unconscionable story about how the downward spiral of poverty, neglect and desperation can ruin anyone’s lives, this young performer faces and accomplishes acting challenges that most other young women her age are simply incapable of playing without artificiality. Her Lilya is lived in, you never think for one second that she is an actress playing a part—at times there is a voyeuristic documentary feel to the film, which makes it even sadder and more frightening. Circumstances dire, Lilya turns to prostitution and soon, through director Lukaas Modysson’s intense, dark vision of this part of the world (a kind of unsparing, edgy point of view that rarely gets seen onscreen), we get an intimate, unflinching view of how young women are trafficked around the world and sold as sex slaves. The charismatic performance of Akinshina in the lead role makes the film’s dreadful subject matter even more heart-breaking. Throughout the film, she must go from naïve girl to hardened woman to the walking dead, without the benefit of actually aging. She pulls off this transformation naturally and devastatingly. MM
Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is the best film of the 21st century: an elegant, restrained and ultimately heartbreaking non-romance that seduces the viewer with its evocatively textured visual tapestry. The statuesque allure of Maggie Cheung is gracefully embedded within the director’s style—that is to say, she resolutely functions as another component of the mise-en-scène. That doesn’t prevent her from excelling as a thespian, however. Indeed, this is consummate film acting at its most exquisite, with Cheung wholly immersing herself in the subdued melancholia that defines the thematic palette, whilst concurrently carving out a distinct individualism that quietly underscores her character’s sense of personal injustice. So remarkable is the actress’s control over her features that even the slightest intonation in her voice and the most discrete alteration in her body language manages to convey a plethora of feelings. Cheung lays bare her soul, but does so with rapturous mystique. In this most quiet and enigmatic of performances, there lies the secret of a thousand broken hearts. SB
The freedom of expression in this 1978 film, whether it was sexual, sartorial, financial or otherwise, must have been refreshing at the time and perhaps even inspired future feminist-in-the-city adventures like Sex and the City where cute heels, hot looks, hot men and heartbreak all often came at a girl all at once. The tragically under-seen Clayburgh plays Erica (“part Mary Hartman, part Ingmar Bergman”), who is about to be told her wealthy stockbroker husband is leaving her for a younger woman. Needless to say, this surprise, life-altering news hits the Manhattan housewife like a Mack truck. Not all feminists were happy with its ending but Clayburgh is a fantastic representation of a woman who seems to have the perfect (albeit sheltered) existence, who is suddenly thrust into the single life, in a brave new world where women are finally coming into their own. Vulnerable, at times ridiculous, and others utterly shattered, Clayburgh gives her best, most substantial performance, and certainly one of the most enjoyable of the entire decade. KL
Dern was typecast for a while through the ‘90s as dim-witted white trash, and her role as Ruth Stoops in Payne’s nasty little black comedy about abortion only cements her status as the go-to girl for playing women who live in the crusty underbellies of society. Here, as the clueless, glue-sniffing mother of four who finds out she is unexpectedly pregnant, Dern must begin as a complete degenerate who by the end of the film remains a degenerate, just one that is more informed than most. A performance of physical comedy and bravery, Dern twists her features and mugs exaggeratedly for the camera; everything is big. Her gestures, her voice and gruff language, and in a few scenes, her hair, all take on a larger than life quality and rather than becoming a cartoonishly-drawn version of poor white trash, Dern expertly gives Ruth a palpable sense of hopelessness and scared confusion. When all is said and done, she is able to humanize a pure wretch of a character, and even make her funny, but the most impeccable thing about this performance is the way she does it in such an expressively unsympathetic way. We shouldn’t love Ruth Stoops, but we do. That is all thanks to the skill of Dern. MM
Millie is one those characters that we’ve all met at some point in our lives—the kind of person who craves attention and acceptance in spite of the fact you’ve made it abundantly clear to them that you don’t wish to listen to their inane yammering any longer. She keeps her apartment, her wardrobe, and even her car color-coordinated. “Yellow and purple are my favorite colors,” she confides to her new roomie Pinky (Sissy Spacek). “She looks like a banana,” observes one of Millie’s downstairs neighbors. She pulls out recipes from McCall’s and views her mastery of such cooking secrets (such as Cheese Wiz on a whole cracker with an olive on top) as one of her most alluring qualities. And she has an irrational fear of tomatoes. In short, she lives in a private world of her own making and is completely aloof to her relevancy outside of this bubble. It is only after Pinky transforms into the popular, foul-mouthed chanteuse that Millie wishes she could be, that she comes to realize just how lonely she really is in her tacky materialist hideaway. Duvall’s soft-spoken natural oddball-ness is a perfect fit for Millie. Her transition from chatty elephant in the room to quiet, humiliated woman on the sidelines is nothing short of amazing. At the film’s opening, Duvall’s Millie moves with grace, confidence, and dignity. By the end, she’s reduced to a slow, wounded lamb who will carry out the rest of her days cooking home meals in a less colorful isolation. PY
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