I have tried for weeks to write this piece. Every time I vacillate between an opening like, “The Bling Ring may not be Sofia Coppola’s best effort, but …” and the more definitive “The Bling Ring is not Sofia Coppola’s best effort.” Let me cut to the chase — I’m caught exactly between those two positions for one reason:

How is it possible that such a female-oriented film ends up with a male protagonist who’s the only sympathetic character in sight? And how is it that I’m still weirdly riveted by this film?

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Considering critical attacks on her that appear every time she releases a new film, I’m (unusually) reluctant to offer criticism. I’ve written before about the oddly harsh critical question marks thrown at Coppola, criticisms that seem to waive her track record and accuse her of focusing too exclusively on privileged white people’s ennui. In addition, I’ve never so many critics accuse her of benefiting from nepotism — ignoring that her films have generally earned both critical and commercial success (and the fact that Hollywood is Nepotism Central). Why Coppola and not a conversation about how Jason Reitman and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith’s children are benefiting from nepotism?

I haven’t always loved her films, but they’re invariably interesting and beautifully filmed, and this one is no exception to that rule. But compared to her earlier films, it occasionally manifests a confusion and sloppiness that surprises me, and I think part of that confusion lies in its desire to tell a “female” story with a male protagonist.

MV5BMTU2MDk0Nzg2N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzEwNzkzOQ@@._V1._SX640_SY450_Marc (Israel Broussard) is new to the alternative high school in Calabasas, California, and with a few deft shots of Coppola’s camera we sense the many reasons for his unease, as he shuffles inside his shirt to conceal the baby fat. When he begins to develop a friendship with the glamorous Katie (Rebecca Ahn), the unease doesn’t go away — but Coppola likewise makes tiny, elegant little moves to show that Marc has become more comfortable displaying his gayness to his new friend, and ultimately to a wider circle of girls.

Broussard is great in this role as the film’s protagonist. My question is, why do all his female friends have to become such cartoons?

_DSC7370.NEFKatie introduces the reluctant Marc to petty theft — breaking into cars in their posh neighborhoods, lifting cash out of the purses of their fellow teens at parties, “borrowing” the Porsche that belongs to a classmate’s parents out of town on an extended trip. She also teaches him about the pleasures money can buy. They go out to pricey clubs, take well-practiced selfies to post on Facebook (as above), get spectacularly high on the drugs they find, and every once in a while they get glimpses of Paris Hilton or one of those other Hollywood stars whose glamorous, materialistic lives they envy.

Throughout, we see Marc’s unease about the stealing; Katie’s experience of it is inscrutable. Does she do it for the thrill? because she feels herself entitled to the money? because she cannot conceive that it’s wrong? because she wants to mimic the image of wealth that celebrities display? Throughout the film, the girls’ motivations and emotions are as obscure as Marc’s are clear to us.

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Their stealing becomes more adventurous, springing naturally from their fixations on celebrities. It’s just too easy. Internet gossip sites tell them when, for example, Paris Hilton will be out of town for a gala, and the street address of her house; they simply drive up, find the key under the doormat, walk in and begin “shopping.” No worries if they fill up their backpacks; they can just take use some of Hilton’s many designer bags for more jewelry, sunglasses, shoes, and breathtaking amounts of cash.

Marc takes a pair of pink stilettos. Back in his room at home he locks his door and puts on the shoes. It’s a lovely scene that captures the ambivalence of the stealing — the privacy he needs to enjoy the shoes, the impossibility of his wearing them anywhere. The heaviness of the fact that he has stolen them and that people will find it odd that he wants to wear stilettos.

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Bragging about their haul adds more wannabe thieves — all girls — to their raids. Among them are Nicki (Emma Watson), and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) who get homeschooled by their earnest, clueless mother (Leslie Mann) in the self-help delusionalism of The Secret and its trust in “the law of attraction.”

Watson is great in this small role as Nicki. That pretty little mouth of hers is hard as iron, and her dark eyes exude thinly-disguised narcissism — she has nursed at the law of attraction long enough to believe that wanting to be a model/actress will make it happen. Her perfect California accent only adds to that veneer, to our capacity to despise her. Nicki is the perfect embodiment of a culture that privileges celebrity and materialism.

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Let me repeat: Watson is scarily good. But as the film moves along she becomes so despicable — such a liar, so deluded, so absurdly willing to spout inane things in front of cameras — that her character sits uneasily alongside the more nuanced portrayals of Marc and, to a lesser extent, Katie. Coppola is ordinarily such a subtle tracer of characters and so generous even to the self-deluded that this feels … ham-fisted.

So what is Coppola saying here? What is the takeaway?

bling-ring_2596144bThe best thing about this film is recognizing your own conflicting emotions throughout. When the thieves wander through Paris Hilton’s awful home, filled with awful things and tributes to Hilton’s own face (and indeed, these scenes were shot at Hilton’s actual awful home), you find yourself a roiling bundle of conflicting sources of anger: what kind of idiot celebrity hides her key under the mat and/or leaves windows open? clearly the kind of idiot celebrity who deserves to be robbed. Will she even notice that anything’s missing? Why doesn’t she have a security system? At the same time, you get angry at the teenagers — for not getting caught immediately, for their greed, their incredible obliviousness.

In the midst of all that anger, however, you realize all this anger is directed at the female celebrities and the female thieves, while your empathy orients to “poor” Marc.

b18e2456f21811b187648cc695b1920eIn the end, Coppola has painted a portrait of an unusually “female” world of celebrities and materialism, but gives us a sympathetic male protagonist through whom to experience it. As a result, no matter the many vivid and inscrutable moments in it, the film upholds those associations between femininity and fripperies (read weakness, effeminacy, anti-intellectualism, unseriousness) that go back to the 18th century. Especially when Nicki uses her bling ring celebrity to become a quasi-celebrity on her own, just as the real-life Nicki, Alexis Neiers (who served as a consultant for the film), became yet one more brainless television personality and reality-show starlet.

The Bling Ring is not Coppola’s best effort. But then again there’s the long, long take of Katie and Marc breaking into yet another house — all filmed as via a long-distance security camera, following them as they move through the house and remove things from drawers. That visual distance and anxiety created by the take — a distance that belies the complicated intimacy we feel for these two, knowing they’re being watched by that camera — is a remarkable achievement and ought to be rewarded with a special kind of cinematographic prize for mini-moments in film. Not her best effort and simplistic when it comes to gender politics, but Coppola’s films are always interesting, and this is no exception. The fact that it took me weeks to write this is yet another testament to her capacity to confound.

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You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

Sofia Coppola’s Golden Lion-winning Somewhere can be disconcerting for its paucity of spoken words. It is, above all, about people who spend their time looking and being looked at rather than speaking: A-list movie stars, models, exotic dancers. Its protagonist, action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), spends his days at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel drinking and lounging and picking up women and watching blonde pole dancers in twin sexy nurse outfits dance for him alone.Recovering from a broken wrist, he’s in this strange limbo, this somewhere, that seems alternately exotic and utterly mundane: he gazes impassively out of car windows, stares blankly at the pole dancers, and falls asleep in the middle of performing cunnilingus. He’s passive, lacking agency except for all those random hookups — and in Coppola’s subtle way, she asks us to think about such an existence in a way that never seems simple, never merely empathetic. What would it mean to spend your time being wordless?

For me such an existence is fundamentally foreign, for my world is structured by words — my days are (happily) filled with writing, reading, listening, debating, and (less happily, but I’m okay with it) lecturing and leading discussions. Here I am, in my free time, writing some more. There’s nothing that makes me happier than the anticipation of cocktails with quick-witted friends full of tales and observations; a perfect sentence in an email can make me emit involuntary squee noises. Words made me fall in love; they made me have an existential crisis while reading on a bus back in college. This film made me step out of my logocentric world to somewhere else.

After watching Johnny stare with blank pleasure at the pole dancers, it’s disconcerting to watch him gaze at his 11-yr-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). And yet … it’s not the same gaze, is it? Cleo has arrived for a regularly scheduled visit from Johnny’s ex; one of their first stops is the ice rink, where she’s taking skating lessons. At first, Johnny’s distracted — he keeps getting threatening texts from an anonymous number — but then he turns away from his phone and starts to watch Cleo move through a choreographed routine. She’s still tentative, but graceful; one can see her growing confidence in making difficult moves. Director Coppola is content to just let us watch Cleo, and watch Johnny watching Cleo, for it brings up strange emotions. One can’t help but think, at first, about how much Johnny’s tired eyes are more accustomed to watching exotic dancers; is he sexualizing his daughter? Coppola knows we’ll move through that thought to something more subtle: the ways that when he’s with Cleo, Johnny starts to show signs of life.

It took me a while to see Somewhere, and by this time I worried I wouldn’t like it. A lot of critics expressed a kind of frustration with it that amounts to something like, Why should I care about some rich actor’s ennui? I’ve written before about the suspiciously sweeping criticism leveled at Coppola: for example, although he attributes these complaints to unnamed “critics,” Dennis Lim of the New York Times claimed last December that “she makes the same film over and over again,” and that “the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism.” As Rob noted back then in the comments to my post, it doesn’t really make sense to call Coppola an auteur and simultaneously complain that she returns to similar themes from one film to the next, which is pretty much what auteurs do.

After reading all that naysaying, imagine my delight when I found Somewhere to be striking and different than Coppola’s earlier The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette. This one is ultimately about a kind of unexpected parenthood — a man living an aimless, oversexed life begins to find himself opening up to a new, inexpressible love and connection to his daughter. Just look at that complex expression on Johnny’s face, above, as he watches Cleo skate on the ice: this is a lovely screen portrayal of what parental love can do for a man who’s essentially just a child himself. It might well be an idealized portrait of fatherhood — after all, Johnny is unencumbered by worries about money or work. But I’ve never seen it before onscreen, and it doesn’t feel idealized when you watch him experience these emotions.The hardest part for Dorff and Coppola was to achieve all of this wordlessly, in long shots of facial expressions. Imagine the contortions involved: you are Stephen Dorff (a famous actor with many rabid fans out there), playing a different famous actor who’s used to crazy adoration. Your job is to act without any crucial dialogue, and to express on your face that weird conglomeration of feelings — from a growing contentment with life to anxious protectiveness — that emerge from this deepening relationship with your kid. Let’s face it: words don’t really capture those emotions.

Which brings me to one last note about an uncharacteristically funny moment in the film. Despite speaking very little Italian themselves, Johnny and Cleo fly to Milan to attend an Italian TV awards show at which the garrulous hosts ramble on with typical MC repartee in rapid-fire Italian. They invite Johnny up on stage to receive an award and tell him “the stage is all yours” — but as soon as he expresses gratitude and delight in his limited Italian, an overcaffeinated group of female dancers pour out on stage to wiggle and grind and sing lyrics he can’t understand, leaving him perplexed as to what to do. He’s left standing there again, wordless, grinning uncomfortably.

Yeah, maybe that moment is a little bit like Lost in Translation — but the context is so different that it’s unfair to make that charge. Honestly, I don’t care if Coppola herself is rich, the daughter of a famous director, and preoccupied with capturing inchoate feelings onscreen. She does extraordinary work, and I can hardly wait to see what she’ll do next. I, for one, am happy to set aside my logorrhea for a Sofia Coppola film in which emotion comes before words.

“Oh, you look so pretty!” coos one of Aura’s old friends as she walks into a party — a line that drips with fake flattery. Aura (Lena Dunham) responds, “Oh, are you serious? I feel like this outfit just screams, like, ‘I’ve been living in Ohio for four years — take me back to your gross apartment and have sex with me.'” She has returned home to New York after graduating from college; in Tiny Furniture, writer-director Dunham tells the tale of being a 23-year-old adrift by highlighting her sense of disjunction with this world, a New York that seems as cold and hermetic as the miniature furniture Aura’s mother photographs in tiny scenarios. Tiny Furniture is a comedy, but it’s also a mood film akin to Sofia Coppola’s work — a film about what it means to be young, gifted, and dreaming of connection.

Maybe her Ohio college encouraged Aura’s earnestness and wry self-deprecation, but it’s clear they’ve always been part of her personality — and both tendencies are out of place in New York. Part of her sense of alienation is physical: her pudgy body contrasts with her mother’s and sister’s tall, willowy elegance (and Dunham loves to exaggerate with slumped shoulders and unflattering scenes of wandering the apartment in a t-shirt and underwear). Making it worse is the fact that her family doesn’t quite welcome her back with open arms; in Aura’s absence the two seem to have formed a tight bond that now feels exclusive, even chilly. Aura’s true sense of difference, however, comes from her desire to be an artist like her successful photographer mother and prizewinning poet sister — yet with only 357 hits on her YouTube video and a liberal-arts college degree in film theory, where does she start to find a path to artistic success? Her New York friends are tragically hip, glamorous, and decidedly unambitious; in fact, they seem to view ambition as the road to public humiliation, so they sit back and observe the world instead. Like so many recent college grads who move back home, Aura skirts the issue of her own dreams by getting a stupid job at a restaurant, going to parties with old friends, and drifting.

Then there are the boys. Aura’s longtime college boyfriend just dumped her — “something about having to build a shrine to his ancestors out of a dying tree” back home in Colorado, she explains with self-deprecating skepticism — and the New York options get worse the more we get to know them. She develops a crush on the restaurant’s hot chef (above), who only notices her intermittently and seems to see her primarily as a source of prescription painkillers. Then there’s Jed (below), an artist with a minor YouTube following for his Nietzschean Cowboy video despite its dubious contribution to the world of performance art. Jed coyly indicates he’s visiting New York for meetings with agents and producers, yet he has no money, no place to stay, and no clear interest in Aura. When she hears of him, Aura burbles, “He’s a little bit famous,” to which her more cool, cosmopolitan New York friend responds dismissively, “Yeah, I guess, in, like, an internet kind of way.” Plowing ahead with her aimless hopefulness, Aura invites Jed to stay in the apartment when her mother and sister depart on a college tour.

Critics have rightfully sung the praises of Dunham’s funny script — which only very occasionally suffers from a bit too much of a 23-year-old’s eagerness to include all her funny observations of stilted interactions — but for me it was the cinematography that marks the film’s best achievement. The filming does such a great service in marking the story’s contrasts. We faintly perceive that Aura’s mother’s apartment is one of those rare, extraordinarily huge and sunny New York spaces only possessed by the very wealthy and those who purchased real estate in the very distant past — yet the film portrays it as sterile, windowless, a sea of white paint and forbidding minimalism. The rare exterior shots are almost jarring when we realize there might be an outdoor urban world to be enjoyed; Aura’s one chance for sex takes place in a grimly awful enclosed space in an abandoned lot. Between those shots and the closed-off emotions of the New Yorkers around her, Aura appears even more a breath of fresh air utterly out of place. And that freshness goes for much more than her terrific sense of humor. The last time I saw a female protagonist onscreen with an imperfect body was in Precious (2009), a film that sought to make a very different point. Dunham plays this role with a determination to show how much her character feels physically and emotionally stymied by New Yorkers’ svelte, arch coolness. This is the film Greenberg could have been if it hadn’t been so determined to humiliate women.

Tiny Furniture is the kind of film I’m looking for as a feminist — written and directed by a woman, featuring a story about a woman that doesn’t limit her to romance or a rape scenario, and going in unexpected narrative directions. 2010 seems to have been a good year for women in film, but as Melissa Silverstein’s facts about the numbers of women in film show, there’s still a long way to go. Good thing that Lena Dunham is now only 24 and has a lot more films left in her.

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.

The Sunday New York Times Arts section is typically full of generous articles about movies designed for those of us who love film — but not so Dennis Lim’s article this week about Sofia Coppola.  Let’s see if we can sense … oh, let’s call it the slight whiff of patronizingly sexist disdain here in his first paragraph:

AT 39 and with four features to her name, Sofia Coppola finds herself caught in something of a double bind — the predicament of the auteur whose constancy risks being seen as predictability, or worse.  Her admirers detect in her work a good eye, impeccable taste, an exactitude with indistinct moods and feelings.  Her detractors claim that her frame of reference is narrow, that she makes the same film over and over again.

Lim continues in the next paragraph:

By her own admission Ms. Coppola’s first three movies — “The Virgin Suicides” (2000), “Lost in Translation” (2003) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006) — constitute a trilogy about young women on the awkward verge of self-definition.  As her critics see it, the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism.

As much as I love his side-stepping use of these unnamed “critics” and “detractors,” let’s set aside the patronizing air for the moment to ask whether he has seen anything other than Marie Antoinette.  (And I hasten to add that I really liked that film, though I know some didn’t.)  How, Mr. Lim, can anyone characterize her first two films as about “young women on the verge” when The Virgin Suicides is at least as much about boys who look at and admire a group of unknowable sisters, and Lost in Translation is about a relationship between a shlubby, aging actor and a woman less than half his age?  Deep into the article Lim recounts Kirsten Dunst’s exasperated response to this charge at Cannes several years ago:  “Observing that ‘mopey-man movies’ often get a free pass, Ms. Dunst suggested that there is less tolerance for feminine introspection.”  That’s the very least one can say about movie-makers’ tolerance for male solipsism.

Most of all, Lim casts a skeptical eye on the fact that Coppola is the “supremely well-connected daughter of Francis Ford Coppola” and that this has dictated her interest in filming what he calls “the luxe life.”  (Again, have you seen the decidedly middle-class The Virgin Suicides?)  No one doubts that her family ties have helped her, but they didn’t bring her the multiple awards she’s received, including a Golden Globe (for Lost in Translation) and the Golden Lion (for her current film Somewhere).  And I ask you, Mr. Lim, have you ever described Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Jaden Smith, director Jason Reitman, or even Coppola’s cousins Jason and Robert Schwartzman as the “supremely well-connected son of …”? 

Turning to Lim’s sexist and patronizing dismissals, let’s tick through some of his charges:

  • Her work is predictable
  • Her work is somehow about herself
  • Her work is solipsistic
  • She got where she is due to nepotism
  • Her films only portray the cloistered elite, because that’s all she knows
  • She is well known to love fashion, “which seems to have contributed to a perception that there is something frivolous about her films” (we here at Feminéma LOVE the use of the passive voice!)
  • She has responded to past criticism by turning her film Somewhere into a minimalistic film about a male perspective
  • Her films are “delicate”
  • Coppola displays a “lack of awareness” about her films as a group, a lack of awareness Lim calls either “blissful or protective” (hang on, she’s both solipsistic and blissfully unaware?)

Great job, Dennis Lim!  Let’s hope that your own supremely well-connected work with The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Moving Image Source, the Museum of the Moving Image, The Village Voice, The Village Voice Film Guide, the National Society of Film Critics, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the 2010 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and many film festivals including New York, San Sebastian, Vancouver, Tribeca, and South by Southwest Film Festivals — to name only a few I found online — permits you to continue to offer such useful assessments of one of the very few top-shelf female directors in the world.  The New York Times does it again!