Living outside of New York, LA or Chicago means I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of this year’s critics’ picks for best film, like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Even given those gaps, however, I want to make an argument for Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone as the year’s best film and as the right film for the award during a hard year of financial crisis and jobless recovery.

I could have chosen a film that exemplified the movies’ capacity to tell great stories that take us outside ourselves to that place of pleasure and wonder. Winter’s Bone might not have been so feel-good, but it was just as great a tale as Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, or The King’s Speech.  It made a better and more unpredictable thriller than Black Swan or A Prophet, and much, much better than The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, and Inception.

In my mind, its real battle is with David Fincher’s The Social Network, a battle it will surely lose. The Social Network benefits from a timely story, massive ticket sales, an all-star directing/writing/production team, and — let’s face it — the focus on dudes and those epic battles involving testosterone and enormous sums of money that make voters for the Academy cream their pants. In contrast, Winter’s Bone has a little-known female director and co-writer, an unknown female lead who doesn’t prettify herself, and an all-poverty setting in the Missouri Ozarks where meth dealing and squirrel-eating are ways of life. The film appeared in theaters all the way back in July rather than late this fall. In short: no matter how much it might be the better film, or at least just as good as The Social Network, Winter’s Bone doesn’t have a chance.

But here’s why we should vote for it: because it tells one of the real stories of 2010: of poor people clinging on by their fingernails. It doesn’t have lines like “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” (And here I’m thinking about how much I objected last March to the fact that Sandra Bullock beat out Gabourey Sidibe for best actress — a choice that reveals our determination to feel good at the movies.) The story it tells — of a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together with a roof over their heads — doesn’t distract us from our own problems, sure, but that’s why the film’s terrific storytelling and perfect cast are so crucial. The fact that she succeeds in the end makes it even more appealing for our troubled times than the deeply ambivalent conclusion of The Social Network.

I have other reasons for pushing the film. In the wake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker, 2010 turned out to be a comparatively great year for female directors — with Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Coppola, and Granik releasing top-notch films. But unlike last year, there’s little grassroots movement to push female-directed films into the top level of competition for an Oscar, no matter how superior their films might be. For me, the battle isn’t won until women are nominated more often, and when women directors get nominated for films that have women in them. (Just like it was great in 1981 to get the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice with Sandra Day O’Connor, but even better when Ruth Bader Ginsberg brought a feminist consciousness to the Court in 1993, a choice that truly benefited other women.)

  • Best film:  Winter’s Bone
  • Best director:  Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone
  • Best female actor:  Kim Hye-ja for Mother (Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
  • Best male actor:  Colin Firth for The King’s Speech
  • Best female supporting actor:  Dale Dickey for Winter’s Bone
  • Best male supporting actor:  Matt Damon for True Grit

I have more to say about what a great year it was for interesting female parts and terrific female acting — my choices for best actress and supporting actress were really hard to narrow down, whereas Firth simply has no competition for best actor. But that’ll wait till another time. In the meantime I’m going to keep arguing for Winter’s Bone, and I hope you do too.

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So I got into an argument with colleague about the books he’d assigned to his graduate students.  I took the position that having them read only 2 books by women out of a list of 13 was a pretty low number (and that zero books by people of color was likewise a problem) — and argued that as our grad students are fairly evenly divided by sex and increasingly diverse by race we should show them more of the varieties of academic writing.  He got defensive.  He fired back that he’d chosen books, not authors; that he’d chosen them for high quality and subject matter; and that there weren’t enough good books by women on the subjects he wanted to change the syllabus.  His defensiveness got us nowhere:  he left the conversation utterly convinced that he’d done no wrong and that I’d accused him of sexist bias, and he is no sexist.  It seems to me that in discussing male domination of the arts — filmmaking, authorship, prizes, criticism — we need to set a few ground rules.

This attitude is all over the place, isn’t it?  There’s no problem, it’s just that women aren’t good enough.  We hear that “The Daily Show” has only one or two woman writers out of 15, and we’re assured that this isn’t so bad — and inevitably someone suggests that it’s because male writers are funnierWhen the Cannes Film Festival featured zero films by women directors this year, the author Bret Easton Ellis explained that women can’t direct — while others sidestepped and reminded us that Sofia Coppola’s new film won at Venice.  When Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner complained about the hyperbolic praise being heaped on Jonathan Franzen this summer to the exclusion of women writers, they were accused of being jealous and bad writers.  Suddenly Larry Summers’ famously offensive claim that women academics just aren’t as good as men in math and science — a claim that lost him the presidency of Harvard but didn’t hurt him in White House circles — seems utterly mainstream.  To respond to such charges by 1) denying male domination of the arts, or 2) insisting that it’s warranted via some kind of ahistorical, if not biological, superiority sends us back to the vicious circle.

I was delighted to see the (male) hosts of the Chicago podcast Filmspotting call out the male domination of the film industry recently.  They noted it’s not just that men dominate in directing, producing, and getting great roles; men also dominate the worlds of film criticism, film podcasting, film blogging, and film theory, thereby contributing to what we might call The Franzen Effect of limiting attention to a very few films.  (For example, who’s heard anything much recently other than hype for new movies by David Fincher and Ben Affleck?  When was the last time Richard Brody of the New Yorker said anything about a woman on his film blog, The Front Row?)  Yet in the weeks since, the Filmspotting podcast has lapsed back into its unselfconscious focus on men — celebrations of the films of Robert Duvall, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, American hit-man movies, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” and so on.  Consciousness-raising is great, but it amounts only to lip service if you don’t walk the walk.  As film drawing queen Lisa Gornik puts it:

So here are my thoughts for getting out of those vicious circles and starting conversation in the right direction:

  1. The stats are clear:  stop denying that the male/female ratio in film directing, producing, and screenwriting is radically out of whack. 
  2. The fact that men dominate the criticism racket matters to the question of how more women might succeed in filmmaking.
  3. The exceptions to the rules — major attention to films by established directors like Sofia Coppola, or to a popular screenwriter like Diablo Cody — don’t necessarily signify any measurable change the statistics or in general for most women trying to get films made.
  4. Find ways to celebrate both big successes by women filmmakers (like Lisa Cholodenko’s big summer success, “The Kids are All Right”) but don’t make commercial success the sole goal. 
  5. In the end, what we all want is for women to make whatever kinds of movies they want — whether it’s films about men like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” (2009) or stereotypical rom-coms like Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” (1998). 
  6. That said, with the big critical success of films this summer like Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give”  we can glimpse how having women at the helm can lead to great parts for and compelling stories about women that don’t get cordoned off as “women’s films.”

In the end, that pretty much summarizes why I have a dog in this fight.  I’m not involved in filmmaking in any way aside from being a fan.  But the problem of the radical underrepresentation of women in filmmaking is a highly visible and influential microcosm of a larger problem for women making it in creative and professional worlds.  Just as I don’t want my grad students coming of age believing that only white guys write the “best” academic books, I want to see more films in which female characters have complex thoughts and lives that don’t revolve solely around men.  The problem is, to achieve it requires pushing back at men’s defensiveness and the pugnacious claim that the creative and academic works by men are better than those by women.

Of course, I didn’t change my colleague’s mind about putting more books by women on the syllabus this fall.  But I’m enough of a chess player to see this as one play in a long-term strategy.  We’ll see about next semester.

Poor Timothy Olyphant.  While he’s wallowing about as the big fish in the very small pond that is “Justified,” his former “Deadwood” co-stars Garret Dillahunt (who played the psychopathic Mr. W.) and John Hawkes (Sol Starr) have found much richer material in Debra Granik’s wonderful rural thriller, “Winter’s Bone,” based on the Daniel Woodrell novel.  Moreover, these actors have delightfully reversed their earlier characters; while Dillahunt now appears as the ineffective but earnest cop, Hawkes no longer offers us his wide blue eyes as in “Deadwood,” but uses his hollow cheeks, broken nose, enormous (and beautiful) hands, and perpetual cigarette to become the terrifying meth-cooking Teardrop, who isn’t quite sure whether he cares enough about his brother’s family to help them escape starvation.

But I digress.  This movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence in the major role of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, whose sole concern is to find a way to keep her family alive.  Lawrence appears in virtually every scene — teaching her two younger siblings how to shoot and skin a squirrel, hunting down her father whose disappearance makes it likely they’ll lose their home, hanging laundry, frying potatoes.  This is a story about a very young, very smart woman who’s taken on the unenviable job of ensuring that her family survive (not unlike another one of my all-time favorite films, “Fresh”) in the Missouri Ozarks.  Moreover, she’s got to accomplish this job amidst the complicated, competing logics of family loyalty and disloyalty, pride in the midst of poverty, and the rules of law and outlaws; it doesn’t occur to her or anyone else that she is a child and shouldn’t have such heavy responsibility.  Lawrence plays her role with an extraordinary sureness, even when she’s surrounded by experienced actors like Hawkes whose parts give them the chance to appear more vividly creepy.  I fear she’s too subtle an actor to receive the recognition she deserves, as awards so often seem to go to the grandstanders; but she’s sure to add many more nominations to the Best Actress Prize she won at the Seattle Film Festival this year.  When she’s getting in a car with someone very scary, she turns to her younger brother and says, “Fry the potatoes till they’re brown and then turn off the stove,” exactly like a big sister would do.  She’s multi-tasking — frantically trying to teach her little siblings how they might feed themselves in case things get worse than they already are, at the same time that she’s afraid she really might not come back.

It’s about time we had a film that showed us true Southern poverty without turning its inhabitants into simplistic rubes or romantic Hollywood versions of “authentic.”  I even found myself entering into their own ways of thinking.  The characters speak of certain men in the Dolly family with a terrified reverence that verges on myth-making; but slowly one begins to realize that the women possess an equal if not superior capacity for brutality all the scarier because no such reverence for them exists.  Family pride is one place where they glean this power.  “I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered,” Ree spits at a bail bondsman looking to collect on the debt — and that pride is genuine, even if her family is the heart and soul of her problems.  There is no local color, and Lawrence never prettifies herself to ensure a career as the next Lindsay Lohan.  This film feels truer than that — and depending on its popularity, might well curb tourist traffic to the Ozarks for years to come.

And then there’s the music, which Granik uses throughout to jar us.  Acid metal blurts out of the house of her best friend, now married to a petty patriarch.  In another house, a group of old-timey bluegrass musicians play a couple of heartbreakingly lovely classic tunes — but by this time, that music seems so awfully out of touch with the grim realities of life in the Missouri mountains that we’re mostly struck by the disjuncture.  Even when Teardrop picks up a banjo and strums it with expert, if rusty, fingers (again, those beautiful hands of Hawkes’), the music comes from left field, always making you realize you don’t know what’s coming next.  (Apparently Hawkes has contributed to the forthcoming soundtrack with an instrumental called “Bred and Buttered.)  Best of all is a terrific sequence shot at a cattle auction, where Ree is overwhelmed by the sound of the cattle lowing, the auctioneer babbling, animals banging into metal cages.  It’s one of those extraordinary true moments onscreen — you have no idea how perfectly such sounds might capture her mood until you see it.

If there’s one thing that motivates everyone equally in Ree’s world, it’s talk.  Worse than Ree’s walkabout through the back woods to successively higher-ranked crystal meth dealers as she looks for her father is the resulting gossip about it.  At first Ree hopes that word will get around to her father so he’ll come back to help save the house, but it ends up serving the purpose of shaking the bad guys’ trees.  Her world hangs on the delicate balance of silence and reputation; thus, talk becomes a weapon far more effective than any other, and Dillahunt’s Sheriff Baskin knows this as well as any of the macho meth kingpins.  Not talking is a point of pride for Ree, but this is a political position that only makes sense in an environment where talk can destroy.

Granik keeps her eye on the ball.  Another director might pause for a romantic view of the hills or a charmingly dilapidated house, or insist that her characters voice those Southernisms that make a show like “Justified” so obviously designed for outsiders.  In contrast, Granik knows this is a film about focusing on the trees — the interpersonal politics and rules of a real community; even the characters’ accents aren’t overdone.  When the story really begins to cook into a thriller, you realize how fully you’ve begun to make sense of things on their terms.  This is her real accomplishment as a director: to avoid all the pitfalls of Southern stereotypes and Hollywood glamorizing of the rural.  Like Lawrence’s tight, perfect performance, Granik’s directing is unembellished while still jolting her viewers as she gradually reveals the truth of the tale.  The proof is in the storytelling, and Granik gets it.

Great film.  Go see it to get more attention for this little gem.