25 Great Moments From 2016's Best Performances by Women Artists
In praise of the year's best performances from women artists, across mediums.
Originally published on The Film Experience in December 2016.
Here are 25 scenes, songs, shots, reactions, line-readings, gestures, and whatnot that have stuck with me the longest from some — but not all — of my favorite performances by women artists from across film, television, music, and theater this year.
1. Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny’s bravura comic badinage is the main engine driving Love & Friendship, which only ever threatens to turn softhearted when these two catty soulmates are finally forced to part. Beckinsale and Sevigny carefully modulate their straight-faced hauteur during this fond farewell, but refuse to let even an ounce of sentimentality disrupt their regal self-possession. It’s one final, triumphant occasion for game to recognize game.
2. “Value,” the sixth episode of Donald Glover’s extraordinary first season of Atlanta, opens with an extended showcase scene of friendly rivalry between the luminous Zazie Beetz (as long-suffering public school teacher Van) and one-episode wonder Aubin Wise (as her childhood pal, now an “Instagram escort”). Both actresses tear into the scene with a comical trenchancy that scores its necessary laughs but also establishes a layered and fleetingly poignant background of affectionately-waged one-upmanship.
3. Laura Benanti’s seamless, silvery rendition of “Vanilla Ice Cream” in She Loves Me proved that even amid a revolutionary new era for American theater, some of the stage’s best pleasures are still classically sweet.
4. If Sam Mendes or Ryan Murphy had helmed 20th Century Women, they would have almost surely directed Annette Bening to bark the early rejoinder, “You don’t know what I’m feeling.” But because it’s Mike Mills behind the camera, Bening is able to recite this simple line with all the inner identity that Mills, the writer, has baked into it. With a shake of the head and a flick of her cigarette, Bening casually fuses prickliness and warmth, opening up a history book wholly devoted to this magical and magnetic woman.
5. My apologies to Damien Chazelle, but this year’s real masterpiece of musical daring was blazed into existence by who else but Beyoncé. And I’m not even talking about Lemonade, a work of such sumptuous cinematic beauty that Parkwood should have skipped right over HBO and went straight to IMAX. Still, Melina Matsouaks’ video for “Formation” galvanizes me very nearly as much, never more so than when it cuts to The Single Most Important Artist of the 21st Century sitting and standing atop that New Orleans cop car: posing, reclining, and raising her first in a confident spectacle of righteous defiance. On a level not unlike watching Isabelle Huppert singlehandedly provide Elle with a reason for being, watching Beyoncé in “Formation” is to fully understand what it means to be in complete control of one’s image, to know one’s strengths and possess the otherworldly ability to transmit all of them as artist and auteur. And activist.
6. I’m pretty sure that I flat-out gasped the first time I saw Sonia Braga slink out of the ocean, stride toward the camera, and slick her hands through her hair, staring us down with the stony fortitude of a queen ready to defend her castle in Aquarius, in which Braga gives what I sincerely believe to be the film performance of the year.
7. The power of Danielle Brooks as she collapses into sobs during that episode of Orange is the New Black doesn’t need to be explained, other than to say that the full weight of this scene falls onto her shoulders and she delivers formidably.
8. The Color Purple may have opened on Broadway in late 2015, but I, like many audience members, discovered Cynthia Erivo’s star turn as Alice Walker’s Celie for the first time this year. Erivo’s fluid transformation from timid young girl into implacable older woman comes to a crescendo with her strong-voiced, soul-nourishing rendition of the second-act ballad “I’m Here,” which led to the only time I’ve witnessed an entire audience jump to its feet and offer a mid-show standing ovation that lasted for minutes, a phenomenon that apparently occurs at every show. Erivo is that remarkable, threatening to sing the roof right off of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and setting a new bar for musical theater performance.
9. Is it even possible to forget the exact moment in Certain Women when it sinks into Lily Gladstone, once and for all, that this spontaneous drive was a fruitless mistake, a scene made all the more indelible by Kristen Stewart’s silent, itchy discomfort? The sizable extent to which Gladstone’s extraordinary performance quietly unfolds on the face is a triumph that I think Janet Gaynor might applaud.
10. Broad City’s season three pinnacle, “Burning Bridges,” stacks a veritable Jenga tower of farcical deceptions and dinner-party shenanigans that comes toppling down in the episode’s final moments, an ingenious homage to Mrs. Doubtfire. It’s all bracingly comedic until, finally, it’s not. In a street scene near the episode’s end, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson drop the jokes and play out their characters’ personal pains with a startling sincerity that unearths a new side of these actress’ talents and drives their show into previously-uncharted emotional terrain.
11. As Transparent’s emotionally conservative Rabbi Raquel finally lost her bearings in “Life Sucks and Then You Die,” Kathryn Hahn confirmed, yet again, that few performers bridge the divide between anxious comedy and everyday drama as deftly as this supreme character actress. Can someone make sure that Nicole Holofcener has her number?
12. Megan Hilty was nominated for a Tony but more rightfully deserved a Mark Twain Prize for the sharply-etched, dim-bulb blonde she contributed to this year’s revival of Noises Off, in which the actress turned a hurly-burly of running gags (missing cues, counting steps, mouthing her co-stars’ lines) into the most inspired comedy of the whole production.
13. The way Isabelle Huppert’s face flickers with sudden insecurity and then flailing self-defensiveness as her star pupil lets forth with a distancing critique of her “bourgeois lifestyle” in Things to Come cuts just as deep as the bus ride, the car ride, or anything else in this redoubtable master’s finest performance of the year.
14. I didn’t anticipate 2016 to reveal Riley Keough as a bona fide acting genius. But then I watched her brilliantly turn a law office into a warped stage for one desperate, ass-saving performance in “Blindsided,” The Girlfriend Experience's most unnerving chapter, and I was an unquestionable convert.
15. In the closing shot of the Girls episode “Good Man,” Jemima Kirke gazes, post-coitus, at a sleeping Adam Driver and betrays her self-doubt with a look of such bare emotional translucency that it deserves to be captured, framed, and exhibited in the Met.
16. With the filter of a screen removed, Jessica Lange summoned up a perfect storm of shock, rage, and devastation upon confirmation of her son’s fatal diagnosis in the Roundabout revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, turning this single reaction into a one-woman portrait of naked grief that I'm pretty sure made tears actually spring from my eyes.
17. The most terrifying sight to be found on screens this year might very well be Abbey Lee’s predatory, flesh-eating model lunging for Elle Fanning’s arm and slurping up the blood of a virgin in one of The Neon Demon’s more authentically nervy sections.
18. The chorus of Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” comes in like an earthquake and levels the listener entirely, riding a shaky line between emotional abandon and masterful control.
19. I could list practically any moment in Sarah Paulson’s career-redefining turn on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, but here’s a great and semi-unexpected one: Marcia Clark, her voice shaking but underlined with urgency, as she begs Judge Ito to not release Mark Fuhrman’s tapes in “Manna from Heaven,” making an appeal of great intensity that lays bare Marcia's desperation and sets the stage for the crushing verdict to come.
20. Lemonade may be the album by which 2016 is forever remembered by, but it’s Rihanna’s long-delayed ANTI- that I cannot stop revisiting. Like Lemonade, ANTI- boldly expands and experiments with an icon’s sound in ways impossible to imagine, deepening Rihanna’s artistic scope and pushing her voice to higher and higher planes. Her mid-album cover of Tame Impala’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes” doesn’t give us the most impressive performance on ANTI-; that would be “Higher,” a sonorous short story built on the raw power of Rihanna’s rasp. But for what could have easily amounted to little more than glorified karaoke, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” remains eerily and exhilaratingly transcendent, thanks entirely to the most crystalline vocal of Rihanna’s career. “Stop thinking you’re the only option,” Rihanna repeats near the end, her words shivering with cool though emboldened by emotion. Tame Impala made these lyrics resonate. It took Rihanna to make them levitate.
21. When Sandra Hüller impulsively strips down and begins darting around her apartment in the most electric scene of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, you can almost directly envision this ingenious actress stepping out onto a tightrope, her intrepid director following not far behind.
22. The build-up of “away”s near the end of Solange’s majestic “Cranes in the Sky” somehow manages to convey a cavernous well of loneliness, hopelessness, and wavering faith, even amid such lyrical sparsity. The repetitions stay breathlessly soft until the song culminates in a fluttering high note that aims directly for the heavens and transports us all.
23. Octavia Spencer staring up at the sky with a palpable mix of wonder and worry as she watches the result of her life’s work during the climax of Hidden Figures is an ineffably moving sight to behold, both for its immediate dramatic context and the knowledge that this once perpetually-backgrounded player continues, post-Help, to get the front-and-center opportunities she deserves.
24. I, Daniel Blake will never make sense as this year’s Palme d’Or victor, but Ken Loach can keep scrubbing at that kitchen-sink all he wants if he continues to introduce us to performers who shatter with their simplicity. In Daniel Blake, that would be the astounding Haylee Squires, whose quivering, hunger-induced breakdown in a food bank haunts the entire movie and clings to the mind long past the final frame.
25. There’s a moment in Dheepan when Yalini, radiantly inhabited by first-time actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan, chats with the newly-interested but dangerously charismatic son of an elderly man for whom she works as a caretaker. Emotions rush to Yalini’s blushing face and just as quickly subside as the actress grasps, with relaxed plausibility, those peculiar instances when flirtations and common niceties are totally indistinguishable. It’s yet another impossibly gorgeous moment from Srinivasan’s revelatory performance, which is also the year’s most slept-on tour de force.