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The Best Female Movie Performances of 2017

It's been a terrific year for risky performances by women at the movies. Here are our favorites.

9. Meryl Streep, “The Post”

Meryl Streep in “The Post”

Paralyzed and uncertain where most of her recent characters have been as confident as cartoons, Katharine Graham is an overdue change of pace for the great Meryl Streep, who’s more compellingly conflicted in “The Post” than she has been in anything since “Adaptation,” or maybe even “Death Becomes Her.” Playing the Washington Post scion as a very rich woman who’s slowly discovering her real worth, Streep roots the character in a historic negotiation between what’s easy and what’s noble — between preserving her lofty status and speaking truth to power. At the start of the film, Graham is a silent observer in her own boardroom, a fiercely intelligent woman in a world of swaggering men who leer at her like she’s an unattended purse. By the time it ends, she’s become a profound testament to the idea that America only works when all people are granted the voice they deserve. Streep guides her from one side of that river to the other with a master’s control, her performance crucially making it clear how difficult it can be to do the right thing, even when the world is on the line. — DE

8. Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Fox Searchlight

Frances McDormand initially refused the offer from Martin McDonagh to play an angry mother intent on avenging her murdered daughter in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” because she thought she was too old to play the part. In retrospect, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else embodying Mildred, a woman who transcends her grief by transforming it into unstoppable rage. At the same time, McDormand’s performance is subtle enough to hint at the gentle, empathetic human being she suppresses with all her might, particularly as she develops her erratic relationship to the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson). While she treats him as her nemesis, their dynamic evolves into something more bittersweet as she comes to understand his own fragility, and she later channels that same undercurrent of emotion into an unlikely bond with another bumbling local cop (Sam Rockwell). For the most part, however, Mildred hurls vulgarities and putdowns with a degree of intimidation that guarantees she’s always the most dominant person in the scene, turning the movie’s oscillating tones into a vehicle for McDormand’s insuppressible talent. —EK

7. Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”

“The Shape of Water”

Without a single word spoken, Hawkins (who, by now, most cinephiles should be used to seeing shine brighter than anyone else around her) manages to capture the full spectrum of emotions of her indelible Elisa. Mute since she was a kid, Elisa still has plenty of stories to tell, and as she embarks on a dangerous and unique romance with a mysterious creature, years and years of oppression and desire are pushed to the surface. And, still, not a word. It hardly matters, because Hawkins uses a literally full-bodied performance to dive deep into Elisa, breathing life into one of the year’s dreamiest roles. —KE

6. Cynthia Nixon, “A Quiet Passion”

“A Quiet Passion”

It might seem hard to believe that Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion” is the first movie ever made about Emily Dickinson, but then you remember that most of her human interactions were in writing, and that she was a reclusive virgin whose later years were spent holed up in her family’s Amherst home (where she suffered from agonizing bouts of Bright’s disease and refused to greet anyone who came calling for her). In other words, Dickinson made sure to biopic-proof her life as best she could. And yet, in what might be the year’s single most difficult feat of acting, Cynthia Nixon practically brings her back from the dead. Playing the poet as a neurotic force of nature who hides in her head but leaves her nerves exposed, Nixon mines rich veins of feeling from Dickinson’s hermetically sealed existence. In her hands, Dickinson no longer seems like someone who retreated from the world, but rather someone who found her own way to exert control over it. “I’m Nobody!” the poet wrote, but Nixon’s brilliant and beguiling performance offers quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. — DE

5. Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”

“Lady Bird”

A24

Early in Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age charmer “Lady Bird,” eponymous leading lady Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Ronan) is asked by a teacher if her preferred nickname is actually her given name (it is, of course, not). Chin set, shoulders back, she declares, “I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.” That’s Lady Bird’s entire ethos in a nutshell. Gerwig’s film – her solo directorial debut, which she also wrote – follows Lady Bird through her senior year at the insular Immaculate Heart High School, a private Catholic institution in the suburbs of Sacramento that doesn’t really suit her sensibilities. As Lady Bird, Ronan is all energy and spirit and angst, an eye-rolling teen on the cusp of something new, something more, just something else. She doesn’t have it all figured out, and she doesn’t have to. Tasked with a character as refreshingly winsome – a walking, talking embodiment of millennial ennui – the Oscar-nominated actress never verges into cheap tricks or bad tropes. Her Lady Bird is very real, deeply relatable, and always engaging. She’s every surly teen, but she’s also every person who’s ever been a surly teen (you know, most of us). —KE

4. Vicky Krieps, “Phantom Thread”

"Phantom Thread"

“Phantom Thread”

Watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps inspires the same reaction from viewers as her humble character does from the ferocious dressmaker who happens into her café: “Who is this person, where did she come from, and why can’t I take my eyes off of her?” A spellbinding newcomer who’s almost supernaturally unfazed by Daniel Day-Lewis, Krieps is a living embodiment of the reason why directors like to cast unknowns against marquee names. Playing Alma, an immigrant waitress who refuses to be steamrolled by her chauvinistic new beau, Krieps never allows herself to be merely just a muse. On the contrary, she makes a meal of the supposed power imbalance between herself and her co-star, her terse and enigmatic performance always stubbornly insisting on its own unknowable strength. In the role of a mistress who becomes a model who becomes the master of the house, Krieps’ quiet dignity affords Alma a controlling stake in the year’s most perversely affecting love story. — DE

3. Kristen Stewart, “Personal Shopper”

"Personal Shopper"

“Personal Shopper”

"Personal Shopper" trailer

The driving force behind recent cinema’s most radically direct portrait of the grieving process, Kristen Stewart’s performance in “Personal Shopper” epitomizes the actress’ penchant for portraying beautiful people who do invisible jobs. It’s a contrast that has increasingly allowed Stewart to explore the expressive power of her own vulnerability, and this film finds her more exposed than she’s ever been before, naked in every sense of the word. Playing a fashionista’s assistant who moonlights as a medium in a bid to communicate with her dead twin brother, Stewart does what few stars have ever been willing to do on screen: She submits herself to the humbling dislocation of loss, allowing her character to exist as half a person. She embodies the role as someone who’s finding their way through it in real time, less sad than confused. Stewart knows exactly what she’s doing, but she also has absolutely no idea; when it comes to dealing with death, that might just be the only honest approach. — DE

2. Daniela Vega, “A Fantastic Woman”

lgbt trans chilean film a fantastic woman

“A Fantastic Woman”

There are few breakthrough performances for trans women in the history of cinema, which makes Daniela Vega’s heartbreaking performance in “A Fantastic Woman” an essential piece of film history: As with “Gloria,” Chilean director Sebastian Lelio delivers a mesmerizing portrait of defiant femininity, this time with Vega as a woman reeling from the death of her older male partner. While his family mostly rejects her, she maintains her independent spirit through a series of hardships while figuring out a way forward, single-handedly carrying the movie on her fierce gaze. The title does not lie: In “A Fantastic Woman,” Vega gives us just that in every scene. —EK

1. Brooklynn Prince, “The Florida Project”

“The Florida Project”

Courtesy of A24

Seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince is so charming and adorable in Sean Baker’s crowdpleasing tale of an Orlando budget motel that it’s easy to overlook the sophistication of her performance. Dashing around the grimy motel and the surrounding streets, she provides the movie with its primary point of view, and the resulting “Little Rascals” by way of “Little Fugitive” vibe owes much to the way she eagerly careens from one scene to the next even as her mother (Bria Vinaite, a terrific discovery in her own right) struggles through a daily survival routine. As Moonee, Prince is at once oblivious to her family problems and somehow magically above them, capable of turning the limitations of her surroundings into an opportunity for adventure. However, as her future becomes more uncertain and the story careens toward a dark conclusion, Moonee begins to wake up to a life that may not always accommodate her whims. Her final, tearful closeup is a masterclass of emotional expressivity, one that actors who have lived much longer than Prince struggle to convey with authenticity. It’s hard to imagine the last time a star was born so quickly. —EK

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