18 February 2013
There’s nothing like the La Jefitas, is there? No, really, there’s nothing like it. This list of the best 2012 films by and about women — designed to celebrate those female bosses of modern film and subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry — is exactly what we need during years like this one, when not a single female director was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival or at the Oscars. I mean come on.
Plus, the La Jefitas feature much better statuettes.
Just to bring you up to date from yesterday’s winners:
- Best Actress: Anna Paquin in Margaret
- Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen: the abortion scene in Prometheus
- Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass: Gina Carano taking down Michael Fassbender in Haywire
- Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year: Where did all the roles for Black women go?
- Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012: 2012 was the Year of Fierce Girls Onscreen
- Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
- Most Feminist Film: Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?
Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.
Before we finish the awards ceremony, I feel it incumbent on me to discuss the sad fate of my favorite category: Sexiest Scene in Which a Woman Eats Food. This year’s films did not have a single contender for this prize — a sad state of affairs and a sure measure of the state of our world. To be sure, I had a couple of films in which a woman ate food in an incredibly unsexy way (winner: Shirley MacLaine in Bernie) but that’s not the kind of prize I want to offer at all. Filmmakers: fix this, please.
And now on to the exciting 2012 winners!
Best Female-Directed Film:
This was absolutely the hardest category to determine — I even toyed with breaking my films-only rule and awarding it to Lena Dunham for her series Girls. But in the end there was one film I couldn’t get out of my head: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles, which (inexplicably) I never got the chance to write about last year. (Also was inexplicably ignored by the Academy Awards. Do you see why the La Jefitas are so vital?)
Now this is brilliant filmmaking with a healthy dose of sheer karma. When Greenfield began, she simply wanted to create a documentary about a couple in the process of building the largest house in America, which they had already named Versailles. “In a way, it just seemed like this incredible microcosm of society that showed our values. Both Jackie and David [Siegel] had rags-to-riches stories,” she told Vanity Fair.
But after the financial crisis hit and month after month passed by with increasing stress for the family, the director realized she had to change the story of the documentary. If it started out as a story about self-made Americans and their desire to symbolize their success in a house, by the time “they had to put [the half-finished house] on the market, I realized that this was not a story about one family or even rich people,” Greenfield continues. “It was an allegory about the overreaching of America and really symbolic for what so many of us went through at different levels.”
If you haven’t seen The Queen of Versailles, run — don’t walk — to your television and load it up right away. It’ll make you laugh and cringe, but most of all it’s a fascinating cinema insight into our culture’s obsession with wealth and display. Also, just for those scenes of the chaos in the Siegel household after they are forced to let go of so many maids.
Best Uncelebrated Supporting-Supporting Actor:
Jeannie Berlin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. As the best friend of a woman killed in a bus accident, Berlin attracts the attention of the young Lisa (Anna Paquin) for all the wrong reasons. But you can see why she would appeal so deeply. Prickly and no-nonsense, independent but capable of deep love for her friends, and — most important for Lisa — lacking a need for male attention, she seems perhaps to be the perfect replacement for Lisa’s actual mother. Best of all, she wears her Jewishness on her sleeve rather than push it to the side. Her self-possession is most of all marked by the way Berlin chooses to enunciate her words slowly and methodically, which has a surprising power over the emotional mess of a fast-talking teenager, like a balm to her soul. No wonder Lisa feels so suddenly invested in connecting to this woman.
But she also sees Lisa’s selfishness clearly, and refuses to play a role in Lisa’s mini-drama of denial. It’s a beautiful performance that seems all the more meaningful because the film was so utterly shut out of Oscar competition this year, in part due to its complicated production. Here’s hoping a La Jefita ensures that Berlin gets a lot more work and recognition from here on out (is there a La Jefita bump? let’s find out!).
Best Role for a Veteran Actor Who Is Not Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren:
Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in Michael Haneke’s Amour. I only wish I’d seen this film with friends so I could debrief about it and Riva’s performance at length. It’s hard to believe that this magnificent, beautiful performer has only made 14 films since her début in 1959’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I tried many times to write about it here but found myself inadequate to the task; suffice it to say that even with a grim story like this one, the amour triumphs in a way that the inevitability of mortality does not.
Amour is such a perfect portrayal of a good marriage in its final stage that it’s difficult for me to speak of Riva’s performance separate from that of Jean-Louis Trintignant as Anne’s husband Georges. Indeed, I don’t know how the Academy overlooked Trintignant for a Best Actor nomination; the scenes between them are so tender and honest that we’re left with powerfully mixed feelings. On the one hand, it made me desire with all my heart that I will have such a companion when I’m in my 80s (and oh, I’m almost terrified to hope it is my perfect, wonderful partner of today); on the other hand, I hope we will get mercifully hit by a train together on the same day. When it came to playing the role of a woman wrestling with rapidly-advancing debilities of age, Riva gave the role such realistic tenderness and brutality that I swear it must have taken part of her soul. As I watched so many of those scenes, I marveled — how did the 85-yr-old Riva make it through the filming, considering that she must have these same fears of aging on her mind?
Riva’s achievement is all the more impressive because of the stiff competition by veteran actresses this year. Just think of Sally Field in Lincoln and you’ll know whereof I speak; I also include Shirley MacLaine’s comic turn in Bernie and Nadezhda Markina in Elena. Truly: it was a great year for veteran actors.
Best Breakthrough Performance By an Unknown Actor:
No questions here: Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know this film didn’t work for everyone; indeed, the naysayers include big names in cultural criticism. But I believe this film constitutes a visionary outsider’s statement from a child’s point of view — a lovely statement about belonging and existence that ties together deep poverty and wild imagination.
Wallis is so good that it makes me fret about her future — is she really a major acting talent, or a disarmingly wonderful child whose acting will vacillate as she grows older? Nor am I the only one to ask those questions. It makes me nervous about her Best Actress nomination from the Academy.
But in the end all this second-guessing is unfair to the performance as it appeared in this film, a performance that was just perfect. No child, much less any other 6-yr-old, could have gotten it so right this one time. And with that, I’m looking forward to the next role as eagerly as any of her other fans.
Performance So Good It Saves a Terrible Film … well, no, but almost:
Eva Green in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. I don’t have anything good to say about this film except that every time the evil witch Green showed up, I started having a good time again.
That blonde wig! The facial twitches! The sex scene in Green’s office! Her gift for physical comedy!
What can we say about the film overall, except that it was confused and that it had a very few funny lines (all of which are helpfully compiled in the film’s trailer)? Yet Green was fantastic. Give this woman more work.
Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films:
They stop what they’re doing and start dancing. I can’t even remember how many times various films this year just stopped what they were doing and featured a great dance number — and I’m not even speaking here about explicit dance films like Pina, Magic Mike, or Step Up 4: Revolution. Remember the weird finale to Damsels in Distress, in which Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody sing the deliciously goofy “Things are Looking Up” and dance awkwardly through a pastoral scene? Or the final act of Silver Linings Playbook, all of it hinging on the goofy routine worked up by two (ahem) non-professionals? In Take This Waltz?
Or the scene at the homecoming dance when the three leads let their freak flags fly in The Perks of Being a Wallflower?
Once you start to put them together, you find a lot of mini-moments onscreen when films adhered to the old theater maxim, you sing when you can no longer speak, you dance when you can no longer walk. Dancing has the capacity to take us out of the fictional magic of the narrative one step further and launch us into true fantasy. Is it a narrative shortcut? oh, who cares. I love it.
Film of the Year:
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Really: there’s just no question. This would receive my Film of the Year prize even if it had been directed by a man and/or featured a male protagonist.
Nor was it easy for me to let go of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; I even toyed with the possibility of declaring a tie. But I believe Zero Dark Thirty achieves something even beyond the former in working its viewers through the emotional aftershocks of that methodical search for our proclaimed enemy — it wants us as a culture to move away from retribution and toward some kind of catharsis.
My appreciation for the film certainly doesn’t rest on Jessica Chastain’s performance, which didn’t work for me all the time. Rather, it’s the architecture of the overall film and the accelerating action-film aspects that lead toward an exhilarating (but ultimately distracting). Whereas poor Margaret shows in its fabric the scars of so many cooks in the kitchen, Zero Dark Thirty is just a masterful piece of work that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and Kathryn Bigelow was robbed when the Academy failed to nominate her for a Best Director Oscar.
So there you have it, friends — the year’s La Jefitas! Please don’t hesitate to argue, debate, send compliments (oh, how I love compliments), and offer up new ideas for categories. (You gotta admit, my Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films category should receive a Pulitzer on its own!)
17 February 2013
Only one more week before Oscar night, but who cares about that charade when there are the La Jefitas to think about? For the second year now I’ve compiled my list of the best 2012 films by and about women to celebrate those female bosses. It’s just one way I seek to subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry. Because who cares about that Hollywood red carpet when you can enjoy an anonymous, verbose film blogger’s Best Of list?
Oh yeah, baby!
Unlike the flagrantly biased Oscars, the La Jefitas are selected with scientific precision; and although each year we have a select number of categories (Most Feminist Film; Best Female-Directed Film; Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass) we also add or tweak other categories to suit that year’s selections.
Shall we? Let’s start with a big one:
Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. No matter how ambivalent you may feel about Paquin’s earning paychecks with fodder like True Blood (the later seasons, anyway) and the X-Men franchise, you can’t deny the force-of-nature bravura she displays in this extraordinary film. Replacing the saccharine Southern accent she put on in those other productions, she appears here with a kind of nervous mania that suits the particular cocktail of high school, trauma, selfishness, and guilt cooked up by this girl. When I wrote about it last spring, I called Paquin’s character an “asshole” — it’s hard, even now, for me to back away from that harsh term, for she has truly channeled the kind of chatterbox/ smartypants self-absorption and avoidance so crystalline in privileged teenaged girls. She captures it perfectly, and her particular vein of assholery is crucial to a film that wants us to think about the wake we leave behind us as we stride through the world.
Paquin won Best Actress, yet I have so many honorary mentions. I’ll narrow it down to two: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea and Nadezhda Markina in Elena — two eloquent drawing room dramas that rely on perfectly-drawn portrayals by their female leads.
Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen (extra points for its political riskiness):
The abortion scene in Prometheus. Seriously? The film displayed such a strangely negative view of parenthood overall — indeed, I wondered in my long conversation with film blogger JustMeMike whether the film’s major theme was patricide — that in retrospect one was left shaking one’s head at all of Ridley Scott’s madness. And still, I return to the abortion scene. Wow — in this day and age, with abortion politics as insane as they are — did we actually witness an abortion in a major Hollywood release?
Yes, I know she was trying to abort an evil monster/human parasite/amalgam; but I’ll bet there are 34 senators in the U.S. Senate who would argue it was God’s plan that she bring that evil monster baby to term.
Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:
Gina Carano has no competition this year after her performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. I know, I can’t remember the plot either; nor can I remember how it ended. And no, I’m not going to talk about the dialogue, or Carano’s acting ability.
Rather, the entire film was a paean to Carano’s superiority in ass-whupping. It was a thing of beauty — starting with her takedown of Channing Tatum in the diner and reaching its crowning glory with teaching Michael Fassbender a lesson in the hotel room. Be still my heart. Who needs plot or dialogue when you’ve got a human tornado?
Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year:
Where did all the parts for Black women go? The tiny dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of Black women on her tiny little shoulders.
Sure, we all complained last year about The Help — really, Hollywood? you’re still giving Black women roles as maids? — but let’s not forget some of the other films last year, most notably (to me) Dee Rees’ Pariah. And although I’m not surprised to find an actress of Viola Davis’ age struggling to get good work onscreen, I want to register how utterly depressing it is to find a Black woman of her talent and stature not getting leading roles in great films.
One can argue that high-quality TV is making up for the dearth of great parts for Black women onscreen. Just think about Kerry Washington in Scandal, for example. But for the sake of the La Jefitas I’ve limited myself to film — and I want more non-white actors, dammit.
Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012:
Now, I will also say that with all these good parts going to awesome girls (some of them animated, however), I didn’t see as many terrific parts going to mature/ middle-aged women; but still, considering how deeply male-dominated children’s filmmaking is, this is a very positive trend indeed.
Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles:
Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have a big ol’ crush on Lawrence from her serious roles, but I’ll be the first to admit that she found herself getting the same part over & over — that fiercely independent teen girl who struggles against the Great Forces that make life so difficult (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games). Comedy wouldn’t have struck me as Lawrence’s forte.
So count me impressed. Surrounded by excellent actors inclined toward broad humor, she does something crucial to make this film work: she balances her humor with a true gravitas that keeps this dizzy screwball comedy grounded. She’s funny, but it’s her seriousness and laser focus that stay with you and remind you what a good film this is. And part of the way she does it is through her sheer physical presence — she is so sexy while also being formidable. This is no tiny slip of a girl who’ll fade away from Bradley Cooper’s character, the way his wife left him emotionally. You get the feeling their relationship will remain a rocky road, but their attraction and shared neuroses will keep things interesting for a long, long time to come.
Best of all, this change-up will hopefully give Lawrence lots of scripts for the near future, giving her the chance to develop more chops.
Most Feminist Film:
Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.
Like Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? addresses the serious problem of war via a deep unseriousness; the Muslim and Christian women in this village seek out increasingly goofy means of distracting their men from hating one another. Add to this the fact that beautiful widow Amale (Labaki) and the handsome handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) can barely stay away from one another, despite the fact that they hold separate faiths.
That tonal unseriousness leaves you unprepared for the terrific quality of the women’s final solution — which reminds us that the topic ultimately addressed by the film (violence in the Middle East more broadly) is so important, and so rarely examined from women’s perspectives. A terrific film that makes you wonder why no one else has mined the genius of Aristophanes until now.
Honorary mentions: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Brave.
That’s all for today — but stay tuned for tomorrow’s La Jefitas Part II post, in which I announce this year’s Film of the Year, Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, Sexiest Scene in Which A Woman Eats Food, and Best Female-Directed Film. Yes, these are all separate categories. Because reading Feminéma is like everything you’re missing at the Oscars, friends! it’s like Christmas in February!
And in the meantime, please let me know what I’ve forgotten and what you want to argue about — I do love the give and take. Winners: contact me directly at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to receive your prizes!
The waltz is a vexingly difficult yet beautiful, even sexy dance.
If you imagine to yourself its thumping rhythm — that ONE two three, ONE two three pace — you can imagine the strict rules that undergird this dance, even as it permits for flourishes. You can also picture in your mind the beauty of a waltz well-danced: the sexy, closed position of the dancers, who face each other in an intimate pose of coupling, the man’s hand on her waist as he leads and she follows. You can imagine the mistakes, the possibility for breaking the mood, for stepping on a toe.
To call this film Take This Waltz — after the Leonard Cohen song, which is a loose translation of the beautiful Federico García Lorca poem Pequeño vals Vienès (“Little Viennese Waltz”), which itself replicates the pace of a waltz — is to connote the haunting, sexy unforgivingness of a dance so formal as the waltz. This conceit is both relentless and fragile, and the film is so beautifully acted and shot, that you need to see it (and you can! Rent it on iTunes or Amazon right now for $9.99; it’s also available On Demand, and it’ll come out in theatrical release in the US at the end of June 2012).
To call this an infidelity story is to reduce it to something very un-waltz-like, but at its bare bones that’s what the story treats: Margot (the always-wonderful Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a plane and finds herself drawn to his slim, dark knowingness. Who wouldn’t be? He glows below his tan; like a chess player, he always seems a step ahead of her in conversation, in knowing how to unnerve her, how to gaze at her with sexy purpose. At heart perhaps all of us want to have an affair — and let me assure you, we all want to have an affair with Daniel, whose good looks are not done justice by these images below. Where might he lead, if she allowed herself to dance with him?
The problem is, of course, that she and Lou (Seth Rogen) have been married for five years, and they have their own habits of movement, of dancing and quirky joking. There’s nothing wrong with their relationship: he’s a great guy, she’s fully folded into his family. And yet. When she learns that Daniel lives across the street, she can’t help but start to find loose threads in her marriage to toy with, to pull, to see faults in their fabric. She wants to abide by the rules, like her sister-in-law Geraldine who’s struggling to stay sober. But like Geraldine, she feels as if it’s only a matter of time before she fails.
To be sure, in the course of their marriage together they’ve developed some strange tics. They started as jokes, perhaps, but now they feel more like stutter-steps. Margot’s tic is an odd propensity to want to distract him while he does other things, perhaps even to rest a bit too much of their relationship on whether he can be turned away from the task of cooking or talking on the phone to kiss her. Is it still a joke after all this time? or is it a way to poke at him, to see if he’ll resist, pull away?
And then there’s Daniel. Their conversations become freighted with meaning, they grow physically closer in their flirtation with one another, yet they dance this waltz without touching, as if worried about breaking a spell, during this hot Toronto summer.
Cohen’s song is not the only one that propels this film, but its lyrics are so insistent, so sexy — they thump more than García Lorca’s, but with such driving sexual images and luscious sounds, like hot summer sex:
…Oh I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lily
In some hallway where love’s never been
On our bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand…
Writer-director Sarah Polley (Away From Her; Polley has also acted in numerous films and TV series including Go, The Sweet Hereafter, Slings & Arrows, and John Adams) has an extraordinary gift for shooting scenes with no dialogue — scenes in which the actors simply move, like dancers, through moods that rely on one another, that push back against one another. Between Daniel and Margot these scenes are some of the sexiest, most dynamic I’ve seen recently — when they ride The Scrambler together at the amusement park to the pulsing tune of The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” we can see in their faces that they have allowed themselves to pretend, to imagine other scenarios.
“I want to know what you’d do to me,” she later confesses — unexpectedly — over a martini. She squints up her face girlishly, as if to mitigate the effect of those words. He doesn’t let her take any of it back. It is such a sexy scene. And he’s right: that conversation makes the martinis redundant.
We all know how flirtation works, don’t we? We love to dance that dance. Flirting has its own rules, an innate nostalgia for past flirtations, its pleasures in unexpected twirls and secret improvisations. Flirting is as much about language as looks, smells, furtive touches. Cohen tells how it is:
And I’ll dance with you in Vienna
I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder,
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I’ll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It’s yours now. It’s all that there is.
Does Margot feel a connection to Daniel that’s so powerful because she’s drawn to a grass-is-greener fantasy? Or could it be true love? If it’s the former — she wants something new — will that something new merely get old over time, the way things have gotten old with Lou?
The film touches lightly on those perennial questions asked by would-be adulterers everywhere, but ultimately the real question is Margot’s alone: “I’m afraid of wondering if I’ll miss it. I don’t like being in between things. I’m afraid of … being afraid.” What it is, what those things are, remain to be seen. Whether she can get over those fears also remains an open question.
This film has an unusual pace — it’s not perfect; it leaps over a couple of matters, moving the plot along. The dialogue sometimes feels … awkward? stage-y? But it’s still worth every penny of that $9.99 rental fee to see Michelle Williams play this role, to watch her flirt with Daniel in The Scrambler, to let her strange face register emotions. (I really need to dedicate a whole post to her face, especially her mouth, which I find poetic.) So what if it’s not a perfect film? It’s somehow relentless and yet delicate all at the same time, just like a Leonard Cohen song, just like a waltz, with its rules and the threat of making mistakes. ONE two three, ONE two three. Take this waltz, take this waltz.
Love and marriage are hard. Like the waltz.
There are a lot of things about us women
That sadden me, considering how men
See us as rascals.
As indeed we are!
Those of you familiar with Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata may have forgotten how funny it is, and how wicked. In it, the wise Lysistrata convinces the rest of the women of Greece that they can bring an end to war by refusing to have sex with their husbands until the men, driven crazy by lust, agree to peace — leading to all manner of surprisingly goofy scenes in which desperately erect men desert their ranks in droves and agree to the women’s demands.
Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant, on va où?) is an ingenious reinterpretation of this ancient Greek play for our modern era. Set in a tiny Lebanese village evenly split between Christians and Muslims, in which the village women make regular pilgrimages to the cemetery to mourn their dead husbands and sons, Labaki captures all the lightness, sex, and humor of the original, but bolsters it with moments of dead seriousness about women’s grief and modern-day religious conflicts. If you saw Labaki’s earlier romantic comedy Caramel (2007) you know she has a gift for sexy humor. Believe me, you want to see this one.
Between the village’s small size and its isolation from other villages, its villagers have created a precarious peace between villagers — at least for the moment. Christian and Muslim women visit the cemetery together, sharing their grief for men lost in religious warfare. They may visit different churches for religious services, but the priest and the imam sit together in the café owned by the widow Amale (Labaki, whose heavily kohled eyes make her all the more distinctive), as do men of both faiths. But this peace is fragile.
When news seeps about renewed religious violence in a neighboring town, the men start to bicker amongst themselves, and the strict lines between Muslim and Christian are reestablished with mounting aggression. What will be the inevitable result? The women will have to bury more dead loved ones.
The village women share a mission that bridges the religious divide: to distract the men from fighting. Their efforts never quite correspond to those used by Aristophanes’ Greek women, but they reveal the same comic sensibility. When the village gathers in the evening to watch the sole TV that gets reception (a signal achievement of jerry-rigging it to a satellite dish by two village boys), their enjoyment is interrupted by a news broadcast about deaths in religious skirmishes nearby — so the town’s women leap up and invent myriad squabbles with one another and with the townsmen in a gambit to drown out the news and keep their minds off the subject of religious retaliation.
Meanwhile, Mme. Amale’s budding cross-religious romance with Rabih (Julian Farhat), the village’s painter and handyman — a romance that each of them lives out with sultry glances and hypnotic daydreams of singing and dancing together (yes, this film has beautiful and fanciful musical numbers!) — gets interrupted when Rabih, like all the other men, gets drawn into fighting alongside his Muslim fellows. Breaking the film’s generally light tone, Amale screams at him and all the other men to leave her café, reminding them that this behavior will just give her and the other women more bodies to bury and mourn.
(The images I’ve included with this post would seem to indicate that Mme. Amale is the Lysistrata figure, but that’s misleading; she’s really only one of many distinctive women who share responsibility for rascally peace-making. What can I say? When I raided the internet for images, Labaki got top billing.)
Maybe Lysistrata remains so vivid 2500 years after its original performance (it was first performed in 411 BCE) because there’s something about the battle of the sexes that hasn’t changed: when men make stupid, trigger-happy decisions about war, they ignore the burden they place on women. Yet the clever woman can use men’s testosterone to her advantage if she thinks like a chess player. In imagining new moves for her village women, writer-director Labaki encompasses both silliness and grave seriousness — right down to the spectacular end.
When we saw this film in a crowded theater last night, everyone got the jokes Labaki dished out at us: the whole audience laughed at all the right times, and one Arabic speaker even sang along, quietly, to the memorable song about the wonders of hashish. (A song about the wonders of hashish! Now that’s a pacifistic philosophy we can all embrace!) I enjoyed it all the more because of that environment, and found the dead serious moments all the more affecting because they served as such stark reminders of the real costs of war.
I can’t tell you what a great and silly pleasure this film is — perhaps all the more so because unlike so many grim Middle Eastern films about the horrors of war, this one sneaks in its gravity and pacifism via broad humor, vivid characters, and a couple of great tunes. No wonder it has won audience awards as well as last year’s Cannes Film Festivals’ Prize of the Ecumenical Jury: this film is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. This film is sure to appear somewhere on next year’s La Jefita awards for the Best Female-Oriented and/or Directed Films of 2012.
Well, aside from those hot and dreamy sequences with Amale and Rabih, of course. Mmmm.
I can’t stop thinking about the men in Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s films — specifically the delicate acting of Anders Danielsen Lie. For over a month now I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is about the actor’s that seems so refreshing and surprising, and makes me so determined to write about it.
Here’s what I’ve decided: Lie performs emotional fragility better and more unpredictably than any male actor I’ve ever seen, such that I’m considering altering my list of annual La Jefita awards to include one for The Year’s Best Honorary Female Actor.
Lie had a prominent role in Trier’s first feature, Reprise (2006, which is streaming on Netflix) as a successful young novelist who suffers a severe emotional breakdown following the publication of his book. Trier followed up that critical success with the remarkable Oslo, August 31 (2011, making its way through theaters as I write), which stars Lie as a recovering addict given leave from his rehabilitation clinic for 24 hours.
I find it hard to untangle these two roles — not because Lie’s acting is so similar, nor because the films are similar (they’re not), but because certain narrative details dovetail in my memory and tease at my consciousness. In each the young man seems on the precipice, uncertain whether he will embrace adulthood, life, change, or accept defeat. In both he’s utterly entranced by a woman, and his impending choices hinge, in part, on how he will resolve that love and longing for her. The way he wrestles with the push-pull of love and life choices seems more definitive of a certain phase of masculinity than anything I’ve seen onscreen in ages.
But most of all these parts meld together because of the way emotion passes through Lie’s face, and the way he can turn on a dime from one emotion to another. His skinniness, close-cropped hair, prominent nose, and pouty lips give him a youthful look that belies his real age (he is now 34), and he has a way of looking up at his fellow actors with a wide-eyed trust and uncertainty that makes him appear almost like one who has not yet learned to control his own facial expressions. When a big smile or laugh transforms his face, he can look either heartbreakingly eager to please, or insane.
You will not forget what happens next, as the smile leaves his face. It is witnessing this alteration that cuts you inside. Suddenly — too quickly — something happens within his character such that the look on his face changes, like a light going out in the room. You find yourself alarmed on his behalf. You feel the character is capable of anything — violence, self-harm, or (worse) nothing at all but folding up inside — and you feel that you cannot blink lest you miss the minute permutations of emotion that pass transparently across that face.
I’ve never seen an actor get so much mileage out of letting a smile fade. Suddenly the whole room has a chill, and with that one change the scene’s dramatic tension rises precipitously, and you find yourself more on edge than ever.
If I were being fair, I would have begun this post by telling you how much I’ve fallen under the spell of these two films, especially Oslo — so much so that I’m not sure I can wait another five years for Trier’s next. If I were being fair, I would also sing the praises of Espen Klouman-Høiner, who appears as Lie’s best friend in Reprise and does his own bit of delicate, feminine acting as he wrangles with demons and adulthood — or is it the demons of adulthood?
I never write about films that feature young white men emotionally adrift, because such films are almost always over-determined and banal. I can’t emphasize enough that Trier’s characters remove everything stereotypical about such a position. Even when these films reveal the men’s cluelessness about women, they don’t turn those women into harridans, manic pixie dream girls, objects of fantasy, or hangers-on. Best of all, the actors showcase these men’s almost-feminine fragility, a gentleness and propensity to crumple and behave unexpectedly that I find riveting onscreen. U.S. directors, take note. This is what we’re capable of seeing when men aren’t just stereotypes. This magnificent piece of acting takes place when men don’t try to be hard and self-controlled, when men don’t have to stand alongside women who are mere tropes. This is remarkable.
See these films, and tell me if I’m wrong in characterizing Lie’s spectacular range of emotion as feminine — and be assured that this description doesn’t mean he’s effeminate. Rather, this is my highest compliment for a stereotype-breaking breadth in acting.
What do you think: does a category called The Year’s Best Honorary Female Actor send the wrong message? [I smile as I write this.]
Before the Academy Awards I heard a lot of doomsaying from critics about the tedium of Best Picture nominees. “The form is dying!” someone is always bound to say at moments like this, because declaring the premature death of a genre is a way to get a lot of hits on a webpage. This post is all about fresh, innovative films I can’t stop thinking about.
Now, I love a good story — the kind of story told in, say, in such enjoyable but unchallenging films as the Coen Brothers’ True Grit or Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech — but just lately I’ve seen three more experimental films that mess with the genre altogether. They take on different modes of storytelling and camerawork, cross over into stage and formal painting, and sometimes eschew words altogether. The risks they take, and the things they achieve, give me new hope for the genre and make me wonder what film might do next: these films feel exciting, fresh, and wildly successful if not popular. The Arbor, The Mill and the Cross, and Le Quattro Volte are films for pushing out from the form’s limits.
1. The Arbor (dir. Cleo Barnard, 94 mins.): film, theater, biography, legacy
I’ve already raved about The Arbor, pronouncing it to be one of two winners of my own La Jefita awards for the best female-directed film of 2011. So you’ll excuse me for puffing this one again — it’s just so good. It’s ostensibly a biography of Andrea Dunbar, a precociously gifted young playwright who emerged from a miserable housing estate in Yorkshire rife with the diseases that often accompany poverty — racism, alcoholism, mutual misery. Her plays re-created those voices and conflicts, and was called “a genius straight from the slums.” Meanwhile, Dunbar never escaped that world: she died at age 29 in a pub after a hard life of drinking, bad relationships, with three children born to three different men.
What I love so much about this film is the way it folds many layers of theater — specifically Dunbar’s own theatrical style — into the film. In some scenes actors sit in the middle of Dunbar’s own housing estate and re-create snarling, spitting scenes from her first play The Arbor, as current residents stand around the edges watching awkwardly. In others, we see those scenes re-created more intimately, as if they’ve been done for a film version of the play. Best of all, still other actors lip-synch the recorded interviews done with Dunbar’s family and especially her two daughters, girls left with the legacy of their mother’s gifts and weaknesses.
I’ve always preferred film to theater, mainly because I’ve had only stunningly limited access to good theater, and I’m one of those people who complains when a film feels overly stage-y or when an actor performs too theatrically. I can honestly say that only once before, in watching Vanya on 42nd Street, did it occur to me there might be so much to be gained by an overlap between the two media. Thanks to The Arbor, I’m converted.
2. The Mill and the Cross (dir. Lech Majewski, 96 minutes): film, art, vast historical sweep and everyday life
Isn’t this how it goes? I make a bowl of popcorn (popped in a pot on the stove with olive oil and butter so you can taste a few burned bits); I adjust all the shades in the living room so the light is just right; and I pop my head into the room where my partner is working.
“Wanna watch a film based on the 16th-century Bruegel painting, The Procession to Calvary?”
I watch 15 minutes and cannot take my eyes off the screen. After 30 minutes I press pause and send a frantic email to my Dear Friend, the scholar who knows a very great deal about early modern Europe, insisting that she stop whatever she’s doing and watch this film. (She doesn’t obey, but that’s because she has a job and a life, and because when considering the triage of that job my email falls way down on the list.)
When I took Intro to Art History as an 18 year old undergrad, it was Bruegel above all whose work I found riveting. He loved to lavish attention to the mundane bits of everyday life: the country dances and bread baking and field workers that passed his eye every day — and he rendered those figures with a kind of affection that seemed rare for that era (to an 18-yr-old undergrad, anyway). He loved to see children at play and portrayed the hunch of a workman’s back, bent over his plough, with love.
But Bruegel’s attention to the quotidian could also carry deep political statements. So when I say that The Mill and the Cross simultaneously re-creates Bruegel’s painting and pries it open, you’ll forgive me if I skip all the spoiler details so you’ll experience the same sense of wonder. Just wait till you see the inside of that crazy mill at the top of the painting or the scene of a pile of children tumbling out of bed in the morning — and just wait till it ends.
Just like Bruegel, Majewski occasionally indulges in fantasy — and just like Bruegel, he shocks you with sudden bursts of violence, laced with hints of political significance. This painting was created during a period of Dutch lay opposition to the Inquisition as it had been implemented in part by the state. Spanish soldiers circle around this film, but the film demands that you do the work of figuring out what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.
But the most amazing thing about this film is that at the same time it teaches you something about art history, it ultimately shows you that we are always blind. At the same time that your eye keeps lapping up detail (JB over at The Fantom Country described it nicely as “the canvas moves”), you start to realize you’ve missed something important. The film has the same deeply humane and reformist vision as The Procession to Calvary, and this is a remarkable thing. There have been a lot of films that purport to show you artists at work. After seeing The Mill and the Cross you’ll be hard pressed to remember any of them.
3. Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, 88 minutes): mineral, vegetable, animal, human
Where do I even begin?
Let’s begin with Pythagoras, who lived in Calabria in the 6th century BC and spoke of each of us having four lives within us – the mineral, the vegetable, the animal and the human. “Thus we must know ourselves four times,” he explained. What kind of a crazy person decides this is the fodder for a film? Yet that’s what Michelangelo Frammartino does: he returns us to a tiny Calabrian village to tell of those four times (quattro volte) in an film utterly free of dialogue.
Frammartino uses abrupt cuts and surprising vantage points — one minute a bird’s eye view of the village, the next a goat kid being born — and prevents you from feeling comfortable all the while. You’re never quite sure what’s going on, and the lack of dialogue forces you to scrutinize the scenes all the more closely. A long, long shot of a mountaintop or a tree makes you wonder — what am I supposed to see here?
You’ll also be surprised that Frammartino can tell stories of vegetable and mineral just as effectively as those of human and animal. In fact, you’ll be surprised to see how he segues from one to the next, and how you can find yourself so weirdly involved in each of the film’s four movements.
Way back when I started this blog and wanted to create lists of my favorite films, I created a category called “films about existence” — a category that seems eminently problematic, yet still encompasses what these three films are doing. Each of them stopped me in my tracks as much for their innovative narrative styles and intersection with other art forms as for the extraordinary places they took me in considering the metaphysical. I’m going to keep my eyes on the field for similarly innovative, risky films. Let me know what you think I should see.
11 February 2012
It’s about time, eh? Alert readers know that after posting Part 1 of these awards — awards dedicated to those women bosses of 2011 films — I got mired in a snit about the fact that I couldn’t get access to a couple of major films that were contenders for awards. Problem solved: if I couldn’t see your film, it’s been pushed into 2012 contention.
Too bad for those filmmakers, because look at the gorgeousness of these statuettes!
Just to bring you up to date, the first round of La Jefita statuettes went to a number of terrific films everyone can see:
- Film of the year (and female-oriented!): Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry
- Best actress: Joyce McKinney in Tabloid
- Most feminist period drama that avoids anachronism: Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre
- Sexiest scene in which a woman eats food: Sara Forestier in The Names of Love (Le nom des gens)
- Most realistic portrayal of teen girls: Amanda Bauer and Claire Sloma in The Myth of the American Sleepover
- Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress: Nina Arianda in Midnight in Paris
- Most depressingly anti-feminist theme in female-oriented film: Fairy Tales
Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.
Check it out, that is, when you’re DONE reading the following. Because these awards are specially designed for the discerning, frustrated viewer who just wants to see more lady action onscreen — lady action, that is, in all its beautiful and interesting and nubbly diversity.
And now on to the last round of 2011 winners!
Most Feminist Film:
Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground. I was so impressed and touched by this film about a woman’s life as a Christian that I’m still vexed I didn’t take the time to write about it extensively. Farmiga isn’t a showy director, letting instead the story take center stage. She stars as Corinne, a young woman whose faith grows stronger as she and her husband build their family and become part of a hippie-ish community of strong Christians during the 1970s and 80s, including the earthy Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk, below) with whom Corinne has a rich and happy friendship. For many of these years, her faith gives her a deep sense of self and identity.
What makes this the most feminist film of the year is not just its portrayal of how Corinne’s faith infuses everything about her life and enriches her friendships, but how hard it is when she begins to lose that faith and her previous closeness to God. Instead, she begins to notice all the inequities in her life — the minister’s wife who wants to correct her behavior or dress; her husband’s insistence on wifely submission; her lack of other things that might fill the gap left by God and give her life meaning; the emptiness of her community’s anodyne promises of glory in exchange for obedience. At last: a film about Christianity that can be feminist, too.
Honorable mentions: of course David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, despite some misgivings about teensy plot points (see here for my extended conversation about the film with blogger JustMeMike) and Maryam Kashavarz’s Circumstance.
Best Female-Directed Film: A tie!
Our winners are Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Claire Denis’ White Material, two films that have haunted my dreams ever since seeing them.
The Arbor by Clio Barnard, is the extraordinary story of British playwright Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar grew up in a miserable housing estate/project in West Yorkshire, and somehow developed an uncanny gift for taking her family’s and neighbors’ conversations and transforming them into a comment on family dysfunction, racism, and poverty. At the age of 15 she won a playwriting contest for her play The Arbor (written by hand, in green ink, as the director remembers), a play so impressive it was performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre and later in New York. After writing two more plays and producing a film, and bearing three children by three different men, she died at age 29 after a young adulthood she dedicated to alcohol in the same way her father had before her.
This film uses Dunbar’s own method: Barnard has actors re-enact parts of The Arbor and, even more effectively and intimately, lip-sync recorded interviews with Dunbar’s family, especially her damaged, mixed-race daughter Lorraine. In the end The Arbor is exactly the right film about Dunbar’s life, using her gifts and her legacy, both the good and the very, very bad. No manual on mothering, this; it’s grim but clear-eyed in its portraits of the long shadow of addiction and bad choices to the poor. It’s remarkable — no matter how little you feel like watching a grueling tale like I’ve described, you’ll be amazed and impressed with Barnard’s terrific film. It’s not often you see theater transferred to film so gorgeously.
I wasn’t sure at first what to make of Claire Denis’ White Material (another film JustMeMike and I discussed at length) but after that long conversation and in the intervening months the memory of it has gotten into my central nervous system in the same way The Arbor did — to the point that I put all the rest of Denis’ films on my to-see list. I won’t go into detail again about the film, since you can read our two-part analysis; but just keep in mind how much it grows on you over time.
Honorable Mention: In a Better World by Suzanne Bier. I also want to give a shout-out to two first-time directors, by Dee Rees (for Pariah) and Maryam Keshavarz (for Circumstance), both of whom we’ll be seeing more from — I hope — in the years to come.
Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep: A tie!
Catherine Deneuve in Potiche and Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs.
Potiche means “trophy wife” and that’s what Deneuve is in this campy comedy set in a provincial factory town during the 1970s. Her husband is a boor of a factory owner whose philandering and health problems combine to get him into the hospital for a stretch, at which point Deneuve takes over the umbrella factory, charms an old one-night stand (Gérard Depardieu), and fixes everything. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but Deneuve is a delight.
It’s harder to watch Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs, a cross-dressing woman in the late 19th century who has risen to the position of head butler in an Irish hotel. Nobbs’ prevailing motivation is to be emotionally closed off enough to keep his secret and amass enough money to establish a little shop of his own. But when he meets another trans man, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, whom I’d marry this minute), Nobbs begins to imagine that he needn’t be so lonely.
Albert Nobbs received mixed reviews — unfairly, I think, for I found this film moving and believable and quite radical, despite Nobbs’ limited emotional range. Close is terrific and McTeer should win oodles of prizes for her portrayal of Page. (Tell you what, Janet: you win a La Jefita! Just get in touch, come join me in western Massachusetts, and I’ll present your statuette in person — and in the meantime I’ll figure out what category it is!)
Let me repeat that after reading about Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus (thanks again, Tam) I’m quite certain that this particular prize was Redgrave’s to lose. Too bad the film never made it within 120 miles of me. Vanessa, you’ll have to wait till next year.
Honorable mentions: Isabelle Huppert in White Material and Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry. (Let’s also pause to remember last year’s winner: Another Korean actress, Kim Hye-ja from the amazing film Mother [Madeo]. What a terrific acting job that was.)
Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:
If you’re looking for the sheer gorgeousness of male ass-kicking, go for Gina Carano in Haywire. It was a tricky choice. But the scene I remember as being so memorable was in Hanna, when our weirdly angelic fairy tale princess (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself on a date with a boy, thanks to her new teenage friend Sophie (Jessica Barden, who’s fantastic). Listening to some flamenco guitar music and sitting in front of a flickering fire, Hanna sits next to this boy while Sophie makes out with one of her own until eventually the boy decides the time is right to make a move. We’ve seen this a million times in film — and considering that Hanna has enjoyed all manner of other awakenings with Sophie, we fully expect some kind of never-been-kissed magical scenario here.
Except Hanna has no never-been-kissed set of tropes to work from, like the rest of us did in that situation. So she takes him down. It was one of those movie moments when I was completely surprised and totally delighted by the unexpected shift in a story — thus, even though Hanna was far more impressive in other fights during the film, and even though Gina Carano is an MME goddess, this scene won my heart. Congratulations, Ronan!
Best Breakthrough Performance by an Unknown Actress:
Adepero Oduye in Pariah. You’d never guess that Oduye is actually 33 years old, because in every way she inhabits the awkward, embarrassed, itchy skin of a 17-year-old in this beautiful film. My only complaint about this film was its title, as it’s a weirdly hysterical and misleading concept for this subtle film. Alike, or Lee as she prefers (Oduye) isn’t a pariah at all — she actually has a surprising degree of interior strength as well as outside support. She’s an A student with an unholy gift for poetry and has a growing group of gay friends who, like she, identify as masculine. So even though she has to hide her butch clothes from her mother (Kim Wayans), she has already gone far toward exploring and appearing as mannish and openly lesbian.
That’s not to say it’s easy. Her mother is quietly furious about it (and about other stuff, too), and still insists on buying Lee those awful pink/purple sweaters that mothers buy even when they should know better. (Ah, flashbacks to my teenage years, when my mom bought my tomboy sister shirts with Peter Pan collars to the point that it became a family joke.) But by the time Lee knows she needs to leave this world — and that she needs to choose, not run — we just feel overwhelmed by the self-possession, the determination, of this new human. I can hardly wait to see more of Oduye.
Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Other Stuff:
Kim Wayans in Pariah. I watched every single episode of In Living Color (1990-94) back in the days when the Wayans family ruled comedy, but I had no idea Kim could push herself to such an explosive, angry performance. In Pariah she’s Audrey, the mother of a 17-year-old struggling to come out (and to be herself); but Audrey is also a miserable wife, made even more unhappy by her class pretensions and a scary penchant for isolating herself from others. She’s almost as upset by the class status of her daughter’s “undesirable,” dish-washing friend Laura as she worries that Laura’s obvious dyke identity is leading Alike (Adepero Oduye) to a lesbian life. But there’s a scene at the hospital, where Audrey works, during which her fellow nurses give her dirty looks and avoid speaking to her — and we know that she has dug herself a very deep well of unhappiness she’ll never get out of.
Wayans is more impressive than both Jessica Chastain in The Help and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist, and should have received a Supporting Actress nomination. Oh, I forgot: The Help was Hollywood’s token Black movie this year; how presumptuous of me to think they might have a second! Much less a black and gay film!
Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say and Which Passes the Bechdel Test:
Martha Marcy May Marlene. I feel a teensy bit wicked in pronouncing this my winner, because the film insists on Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, left below) being a cypher, especially to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, right). Martha has escaped from a cult in upstate New York, and her experience there was so life-altering, so all-encompassing, that she cannot say very much at all that doesn’t sound as if it comes straight from the charismatic mouth of cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Lucy is mystified by her strange behavior and her strange utterances. “I wish you’d feel more comfortable talking to me,” Lucy says. “I do!” Martha responds. Except, when you get down to it, for Lucy “there’s nothing to talk about.” Their exchanges are almost as creepy as those with Patrick.
I have a lot of complaints about this year’s Oscar ballot (who doesn’t?) but I truly think it’s a crime that Martha was overlooked for two major categories — film editing and original screenplay — that highlight how tightly the dialogue strings together Martha’s past and present. When she angrily tells Lucy “I am a teacher, and a leader!” and the film cuts back to a past day when Patrick pronounced that very identity for her, and we see how much she absorbed into her soul every word from his mouth, just as she accepted being renamed Marcy May. It’s an amazing piece of writing and editing.
Most Surprisingly Radical Trend in Independent Filmmaking: Trans/Queer Cinema featuring female stars.
This has been an amazing year for films featuring female-oriented stories about trans or queer individuals. There was a point about 30 minutes into Albert Nobbs when I realized the director had created possibly the queerest movie I’d ever seen. It’s not just that Glenn Close and Janet McTeer were women disguised as men; every single relationship appeared queer in some way, from the feminine beauty of Joe (Aaron Johnson) to the 60-something hotel owner’s lascivious flirtations with men to the perverse Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a feminine man if I ever saw one) and his queer troupe of hangers-on. Given that culture, McTeer’s portrayal of Hubert Page (below) seems pretty straightforwardly masculine. (Oh, also: Janet gives us a gander at her magnificent 50-yr-old breasts with the same straightforwardness. I’m prepared to become a stalker now.)
The best thing about the film is its relative subtlety. When Albert fantasizes about finding a love of his own, he doesn’t want to cease dressing as a man or take a man as a lover. He identifies so absolutely as a man that he indulges in dreams of the little hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) sitting by his fire and darning his socks — oddly retrograde fantasies, considering that Helen’s not going to be anyone’s little wifey, but queer ones nevertheless. But the film takes its audience so seriously that it doesn’t feel the need to explain. Neither does Pariah need to explain why Lee is both gay and masculine-appearing, or why she wants to wear a strap-on dildo to the lesbian bar. These films let us do that work on our own.
And then there’s Tomboy, Céline Sciamma’s film about a girl passing as a boy during her summer vacation in a place far from home, where she can claim to be Mikael, not Laure. What all these films amount to is a sneaking new attention to — and filmic acceptance of — the experiences of queer and trans individuals, which feels especially radical to me because otherwise our culture is willing to acknowledge the LG but not the BTQ.
So there you have it, friends — my La Jefitas for 2011! Be sure to send along thoughts, criticisms, and of course your ideas about where the La Jefitas should go for 2012. I don’t know about you, but I’m watching the theaters carefully.