10. Take this Waltz
One of Canadian starlet Sarah Polley’s latest efforts, Take This Waltz is a candid look at fizzling feelings for one (and the exploding sensations caused by another). Margot (Williams) feels a spark in another man that she meets on a business trip, and whom serendipitously lives across the street from her and her husband.
This is a game of cat-and-mouse through one’s heart, and the desire to know if these butterflies are true. It is a cathartic experience that rests on the shoulders of the talented leads, including Williams, Luke Kirby, and strong turns from comedians Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogan.
9. I’m Not There
It’s always hard discussing this multi-natured love letter to Bob Dylan, because there are so many different things to gush about. Fortunately, I will use this actor-specific opportunity to focus on just one: The Jude Quinn tale. Quinn (played by Cate Blanchett, and being the strongest representation of Bob Dylan as an actual person) features Williams’ role as “Coco Rivington” (most likely based on socialite Edie Sedgewick).
We only see her briefly (hell, every single aspect of I’m Not There feels like it comes and goes, because there is so much to try and cling on to), but her brief foil to Blanchett’s Quinn is strong enough to resonate in your mind (like it likely would for Quinn).
8. My Week with Marilyn
Through the eyes of a young, hungry filmmaker named Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne, with this perhaps being a career sparking role), we initially see Marilyn Monroe the same way the world sees her. She’s sweet, silly, flirty, and unpredictable.
Williams brings this side we all know and love to life in a near-pitch-perfect impersonation. We also see the behind-the-doors moments, where Monroe reverts back to Norma Jeane Mortenson, and her more vulnerable moments are harrowing to witness. Williams interprets how this could have taken place, and her efforts will rip your heart out of your chest. My Week with Marilyn is brief but impactful.
7. Meek’s Cutoff
There’s nothing like a good Western, and Meek’s Cutoff brilliantly implements the kinds of conflicts you would find back in the golden age of cinema. Stephen Meek aims to help a group of settlers through a short cut to their destination across the Oregon High Dessert (this true event has been labeled Meek’s Cutoff, yet it remains full of artistic decisions here, so be wary). He gets them lost, and the fate of these many people is now up in the hot, swirling air.
Williams plays Emily Tetherow, a vital part of the climactic moments of this social commentary on how bigotry can plague the minds of those even in times of peril. Emily is almost like Henry Fonda’s juror in 12 Angry Men; a representation of the masses that sticks out for the good of humanity.
6. Certain Women
It’s no surprise that Michelle Williams gets along well with director Kelly Reichardt by this point of the list. After Williams wowed in Reichardt’s previous works Wendy and Lucy, and Week’s Cutoff, she has returned yet again to take part in the acting whirlwind Certain Women.
Williams is joined by Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone, Jared Harris and more. Here are multiple stories based on the works of author Maile Meloy. In Williams’ portion, she plays Gina: a wife whose tale showcases the dismissal by men she experiences in an ordinary exchange (trying to get sandstone). She shows a persistence to be heard, and a relief when she finally gets her way. Williams is briefly in Certain Women, but her portion speaks volumes.
5. The Station Agent
In Williams’ pre-Brokeback Mountain career, there is no better piece of work than Tom McCarthy’s dramedy The Station agent. Her role is a significant supporting role that played vital to both the film and her career.
As Emily the struggling librarian, Williams is in a mental merry-go-round when she meets Fin (Peter Dinklage): an introvert trying to slowly find acceptance in the world. She means well but can be confrontational, and thus she plays a great foil to Fin’s character. Starring alongside Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, and John Slattery, Dinklage and Williams are bright on their own but also essential members in this strong ensemble.
4. Brokeback Mountain
This beloved romantic drama by Ang Lee just keeps aging better with time. One of its strongest aspects is that it proved to be a career-defining moment for all four of its young stars. Heath Ledger was no longer just a teen heartthrob, Jake Gyllenhaal showed he could do more than his blockbuster and cult films suggested, and Anne Hathaway was finally shed of her Disney iron maiden.
For Michelle Williams, her Oscar-nominated turn solidified her as a dramatic performer that had the uncanny ability to shake you to your core. As Alma, the wife of Ennis, you might root against her in order for his and Jack’s love to work (as much as it can, as literally every odd is against them), but this is a wife that Ennis shares children with. You can understand her pain and misery, and Williams makes damn sure of that.
3. Manchester by the Sea
This acting tour-de-force is led by Casey Affleck in a definitive performance, as well as Lucas Hedges in a supporting role that has catapulted him into the stratosphere. For Michelle Williams’ take on ex-wife Randi, there’s one thing to really think about. Do you realize she really isn’t in the film for very long? It’s hard to realize that, because she seemingly steals every scene she is in.
Whether she is being a wife that is (lovingly) sick of her husband’s crap, a mother that has had her worst nightmare come true, or a lost lover down the road hoping to return, Williams delivers one of the most emotional performances in recent memories. Try getting through the tragedy without her responses drilling into your spine; it’s likely impossible.
2. Blue Valentine
This one-two punch carried by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling is a very difficult watch in any circumstance. It is graphic sexually, sure. It is minimalist in nature, okay. But these aren’t the moments you leave with. It’s the short bursts of joy that Cindy and Dean feel the seldom times they were ever happy (either together or at all).
The rest of the film? Pure misery, devastation, and depression. Dean tries his best to right his wrongs (even if they are “fixed” by more wrongs), but this is a point of no return for Cindy, and you feel every single instance of that refusal to forgive. This is a failing marriage unfurling in front of our very eyes, and it’s nauseating to witness.
1. Synecdoche, New York
The greatest film Michelle Williams has ever starred in is the metaphysical, hyper-ambitious melodrama Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman. Let’s be honest: this is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s two hours, but, if there is any lesson his character Caden tried to bring to life, it’s an important vehicle for literally all of its characters (no matter what size).
Williams is essential as the young Claire. She was one of the only believers in Caden’s dreams initially. She was the sign of hope that Caden clung to, leaving his loved ones in the dust. She begins to move on from him once their life is established; this shouldn’t be this way, Caden didn’t write it like this. It’s necessary to remember she is an actress, because she is a performer not conforming to Caden’s grand script of life.
Michelle Williams, as we’ve seen in this list, has been a part of many star studded casts, but none are as big as this (we also have Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Dianne Wiest, and the list goes on). Williams has taken part in emotionally heavy works, but none are as effective as this existential crisis.
This is literally the best film Williams has ever been a part of, but it’s also the greatest example of all of the kinds of works Williams has always tried to attach herself to: interesting works that find a place in both your mind and heart. It works, and Synecdoche, New York is a modern masterpiece.