My friend and colleague Matt Mueller is one of the best film critics I’ve ever read – clear and with a constant vision that doesn’t fluctuate with the times or popularity.
Having said that, I have always appreciated acting on stage in live theater more than acting in films. They are two vastly different skills, as far as the technical side of being an actor goes.
But over the last week, I've seen four films in which the performances by the female actor absolutely knocked my socks off. All four of the films were stories about men, but the impact of the women in them was immense.
The four films I saw, in order, were "La La Land," "Lion," "Manchester by the Sea" and "20th Century Women."
"La La Land" was the least impressive of the four, even though it swept the Golden Globes and is a favorite to dominate the Oscars. The movie is more remarkable for being a musical – a rarity in film today – than it is for any outstanding performances, although both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were just fine.
"Lion" is the story of a young Indian boy who is lost, adopted by a white couple in Australia and, years later as a young man (Dev Patel), returns to search for his birth mother. Two women, one young and one not so young, deliver absolutely startling performances.
Rooney Mara plays Patel's girlfriend, first with some reluctance, then with some joy and then with frustration and something approaching resignation. She is an actor who can be both sensitive and powerful in the same moment.
But the real marvel is Kidman, whom I never would have put into the category of wonderful actors. As Patel’s adoptive mother, she gives a performance that is immense in its range and the precision that she brings to such a complex character. She’s nominated for an Oscar and will probably lose to Viola Davis from "Fences," but for my money, it’s really no contest. Kidman ought to win this time.
The next film on my schedule was "Manchester by the Sea," another story about men – an uncle and nephew, left paired by the death of the boy’s father.
Michelle Williams has a smaller role as the ex-wife of the uncle, but her impact on the story is both subtle and overwhelming. Her character is a survivor of a marriage made troubled by an unimaginable tragedy.
I loved Williams in "Brokeback Mountain" and "Blue Valentine," but what she delivers in this film is beyond anything I’ve ever seen from her. The focus she brings to this role is almost startling as we see her happy, frustrated, broken by explosive disaster and then on a redemptive path that's fraught with hope and doubt.
Finally, I saw "20th Century Women," which is a story about a 15-year-old boy, his mother and two other women, all of whom work to turn the boy into a man. Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig play two younger women, both of whom bring different answers to the questions coming from the teenage boy.
But it was Annette Bening who absolutely took my breath away, even though I haven’t thought much of her for almost 16 years, since she starred in the wonderful "American Beauty."
Bening plays the boy’s mother with a mixture of sadness, worry and joyful love that is the epitome of what I think every mother has for a male child. She is funny and determined and perplexed by parts of her life that have grown important now that she is 55.
It’s a shame she hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar because, of all the performances I’ve seen this year, hers is as good, or better, than any of them. Bening creates a character who grabs your heart and for whom you want to stand up and shout answers at the screen.
Stage actors don’t get takes to redo a scene that doesn’t work. They perform on a nightly basis in front of a live audience. It’s a unique and highly detailed set of skills, and I marvel each time I see a play.
But the women I’ve seen in movies over the last week are equally amazing and show that, while the medium may be vastly different, there is a common gift among women who know how to bring characters to life.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.