Photo: Focus FeaturesThis year's Toronto International Film Festival was rife with strong and varied women's roles. Here are just a few that will pop and will be buzzed about in the Oscar race and beyond.
Marion Cotillard, "Rust and Bone": This is a movie about transformation. A woman who works at Marineland in France has a horrible accident with an orca. As a result, she loses her legs below the knees and hits the bottom she was heading for when she was physically whole but emotionally lost. The remainder of the movie shows her slow progress on a journey that doesn't require legs: the journey to spiritual wellness. A scene in which she finally returns to Marineland, perched on steel prosthetics, and, well, dances with the whale is magical without being sentimental. The camera loves Cotillard, but her physical beauty does not make her lazy. She acts quietly, subtly, a musician who knows her range. In this role, she defies the audience to like her as she casts off the armature of her looks and dives deep. It doesn't hurt that this is the type of role -- the "My Left Foot" affect -- that ensures Oscar nominations if not outright wins. Cotillard will be among the five final nominees for best actress.
Laura Linney, "Hyde Park on Hudson": This is the performance I feel I have to rally behind because of its subtle beauty and deeply felt realization. As Margaret Suckley, a fifth cousin turned secret lover to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray), Linney plays a faded daisy. She shows every wrinkle in a face that would have been plainly pretty but has passed its marital sell-by date. She wears dresses that have seen wear in a limited wardrobe, hats that are unflattering, home-styled hair. Linney knows what she's doing, and she doesn't give this woman any more power than she would have had. She is like an Edith Wharton character, a Lily Bart; and as she enters the world of FDR, the president of the United States, she feels the weight of being a poor relation in the court of the Sun King. She is outmaneuvered at every point, and yet her love, her sensitivity, her sense of a spinster's rebirth at an unexpected opportunity that takes her out of the musty cedar closet of her life and puts her in the center of the president's household -- all are real. While there is general acclaim for Bill Murray's wily, wise FDR, there has been an underlying critique of Linney's character and characterization. Hers is the more difficult role, and modern women may not have the patience for this passive spinster. However, her pain and relative powerlessness are real verging on tragic, and Linney draws her finely and with honor.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, "Smashed": I have written about Winstead's performance as a young married kindergarten teacher who reaches that post-college tipping point when she realizes that she's not just hard-partying but an alcoholic. That she reaches this awareness ahead of her equally "fun loving" husband (well played by Aaron Paul) makes her climbing the first wrung of her 12 steps all the more difficult. The tall, brunette all-American beauty, the star of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," imbues her teacher with an extraordinary ordinariness, quick to smile and slow to judge. She is our best friend, our next-door neighbor, the woman we laugh with at the supermarket checkout stand about the latest cover of the National Enquirer -- and yet her pain is as deep as that of the denizens of "Leaving Las Vegas."
Keira Knightley, "Anna Karenina": Knightley dons the hats, veils, and upholstery silks of one of literature's major heroines, a character played in the past by Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. Working with her "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice" director, Joe Wright, and a Tom Stoppard adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel, Knightley is part of a production that breathes fresh air into the tragedy of a virtuous wife and mother who falls into a spiral of passion with dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Knightley wears the costumes and jewels -- they do not wear her. The actress brings humanity, a warmth and intimacy, that make this historical character relatable to lonely wives who play with the fire of passion outside their marriages and burn with the consequences in any era. She gives Anna a contemporary urgency, and following on her overlooked turn in "A Dangerous Method," she has become a top contender for the 2013 best-actress Oscar.
Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook": in the year's strongest one-two punch, Oscar-nominee Lawrence proves that her "Hunger Games" box office muscle as Katniss Everdeen is not her only trick. In the latest movie from "The Fighter" director David O. Russell, Lawrence plays Tiffany, the mystery woman whom Bradley Cooper's bipolar Pat Solitano befriends when he returns home after a stint at a mental institution. They meet cute and ultimately enter a dancing competition together. Sexy, crazy, and dancing? And uplift? How can Lawrence not compete? I would still love to see an Oscar nom for Lawrence's "Hunger Games" performance, but this appealing role will surely land Lawrence a second best-actress nomination following "Winter's Bone" and possibly a win.
More to love: Nina Hoss, "Barbara"; Greta Gerwig, "Frances Ha"; Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"; Ana Moreira, "Tabu"; Macarena Garcia, "Blancanieves"; and Emayatzy Corinealdi, "Middle of Nowhere."