It was the year of the actress at the New York Film Festival. The names on the posters belonged to women, and—let’s get excited—a lot of them were new names or names that have spent a long time further down the credits. That’s good news for filmmakers, good news for film watchers, and good news for, well, men. Women dominated the festival. And a bit of domination is never a bad thing.
At the front of that pack is Rosamund Pike, the nominal “girl” in David Fincher’s viciously funny Gone Girl. A dark, delirious satire about marriage and identity, Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel concerns the disappearance of Pike’s Amy Dunne, whose husband Nick (Ben Affleck) comes under suspicion for his spouse’s vanishing. As such, it’s a story in which Pike’s protagonist is often MIA, though in both flashbacks to Amy and Nick’s initial courtship—memories filtered through Amy’s diary entries—and in a second half filled with stunning twists, Pike is nothing short of commanding, exuding a fierce sense of self and a frightening pragmatism. Whether she’s cooing sweet nothings into Nick’s ear or navigating a plot of stunning intricacy, Pike has a regal chilliness that veers from inviting to intimidating in the blink of the eye—in the process, upstaging her illustrious co-stars and making the wild, wicked film her own.
Pike is the belle of the NYFF ball, yet hers is not the only great performance from a (relative) unknown. Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated Inherent Vice features not one but two breakthrough turns from actresses. Anderson’s sprawling Southern California-stoner-neo-noir, based on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel, revolves around the investigation by private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) into the whereabouts of a real estate mogul dating Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth, who’s played by newcomer Katherine Waterston with a wounded-yet-cunning magnetism that, in just a few short scenes, sets the film’s entire tone. In two sequences, one early and one late, Waterston more than holds her ground opposite Phoenix, exhibiting a range of mature, conflicted emotions with an understated grace that conveys the entire stew of anxieties, hopes, and sex-drugs-and-madness craziness that defines the action. And what she doesn’t quite capture, Joanna Newsom does, as Doc’s friend Sortilège, who provides dreamy romanticism and wry humor as the proceedings’ de facto narrator.
While Pike, Waterston, and Newsom aren’t familiar to most mainstream American audiences, more-well-known stars also reveal new aspects of themselves in a series of great NYFF films. Elisabeth Moss, best known as Mad Men’s Peggy, continues a recent string of strong indie performances in Listen Up Philip, the tale of a demanding, driven author (Jason Schwartzman) who comes under the mentorship of one of his idols (Jonathan Pryce). As Philip’s girlfriend, Ashley, Moss expertly straddles the line between empathetic warmth and determined individuality, providing a compelling counterpoint to Schwartzman’s more abrasive brand of ambition. Hers is a turn that surprises in its subtle nuance, which is also true of Kristen Stewart, who leaves behind her trademark Twilight-honed moping for far more evocative work in Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest effort from acclaimed French auteur Olivier Assayas. Starring opposite Juliette Binoche as the assistant to a famed actress preparing to reprise her star-making role, Stewart occasionally flashes her signature chilly detachment but balances it with mysterious, crafty layers, all the way up to a surprise finale that definitively proves that she’s a far more engaging actress than her recent young-adult-style fare let on.
To be fair, the festival features its share of standout performances from established cinema luminaries, from the aforementioned Binoche to Julianne Moore in David Cronenberg’s Hollywood send-up Maps to the Stars. In a role that already nabbed her a Best Actress award at this past May’s Cannes Film Festival, Moore is all pathetic, ugly, tragic messiness as a former movie star still trying to distance herself from the legacy of her even-more-famous actress mother. It’s a big, bold turn, and one matched by that of Mia Wasikowska, who as Moore’s assistant—boasting scars of both an external and internal variety—searches for self-definition while operating in the long, corrosive shadow cast by the movie industry. Even in a film as uneven and obvious as Maps to the Stars, their gripping performances mark Cronenberg’s latest as a unique, fascinating satiric effort.
Yet more than those recognizable stars, this year’s New York Film Festival is one ruled by women making their first—or largest—marks on the movies. To that end, it’s one epitomized by the Safdie Brothers’ small-scale indie Heaven Knows What, which traces the ups and downs of a young junkie looking to survive relationships and addiction on New York City’s streets. Given great urgency by the directors’ refusal to coddle audiences with pop-psychologizing or gentle storytelling, it’s also a riveting showcase for Arielle Holmes, whose life (and forthcoming memoir) form the basis of the story, and who brings to the screen a raw vulnerability and charismatic defiance that’s almost overpowering in its immediacy. A debut performance that marks her as an actress on the rise, it is—like those by Pike, Waterston, Newsom, and the rest of her festival brethren—merely further confirmation that a women’s movement is afoot, at least in New York cinemas this fall.
Photos by Merrick Morton / 20th Century Fox / Everett Collection