The magnificent La Jefita statuette, featuring a gen-yoooo-wine Spartan female athlete

The magnificent La Jefita statuette, featuring a gen-yoooo-wine Spartan female athlete

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 YearWhere 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?)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!)

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Many of my friends are currently in end-of-semester grading hell, a period inevitably followed by the grade complaints, and thence by lying on the sofa in fetal position. To all of you I recommend you self-medicate with a dose of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Once you hear that the “prevention” sign keeps falling off the Suicide Prevention Center manned by Violet, Rose, Heather, and Lily, don’t you understand how therapeutic this film might be for you?

Topping the list of suicide prevention tips offered by these women are tap dancing, scented soap, eating doughnuts, and dating morons. I suggest that seeing this film is equivalent to such advice — and I offer it as medicine for melancholy.

There’s a trick to watching it. You may go in expecting something more like Stillman’s earlier films, Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) — each of which follows its likeable, everyman protagonist into a strange subculture with its own mores and social codes. The comedy and drama of each film benefits by means of that contrast between subculture and a sense of “reality” outside it. Not so with Damsels in Distress. 

The trick is that this is secretly a just a frothy Broadway musical, except with fewer overt song-and-dance numbers, about a cartoony, P. G. Wodehouse version of college life. There is no outside reality, no representative from our own world. You might be fooled at first because it’s filmed like an indie, and featuring what Broadway cannot do: offer us lovely, up-close shots of Greta Gerwig’s lovely, serious face. But once you embrace the idea that this is an oddly 2012 incarnation of a Fred Astaire musical, with all the ridiculous non sequiturs and silly conversation (albeit with less singing), you’ll see why this is so therapeutic for those of us actually wrangling with the horrors of actual college.

I don’t make the Fred Astaire reference lightly, for he starred in a 1937 musical entitled A Damsel in Distress in which he sings and dances to the same “Things Are Looking Up” Gershwin number used here by Stillman. Moreover, with P. G. Wodehouse co-writing the script and George Stevens directing — and featuring a romance with a character named Lady Alyce Marshmorton, I think you can guess exactly what kind of silly romance might ensue. Now, imagine the same artists behind a current-day film, cast instead with a minor character calling himself Freak Astaire and a 20-something crowd of mumblecore actors who excel more at expressing their physical awkwardness than their dancing chops.

And Greta Gerwig, whom one could look at all day. She was the sole shining light in that execrable Greenberg, and here she steers between her work at the Suicide (Prevention) Center and her own plunge into depression. Or, rather, “I prefer to say I’m in a tailspin.”

Those quips! Every single line of dialogue is ridiculously delectable, just like a Jeeves and Wooster tale; we walked out of the theater kicking ourselves that we couldn’t remember very many of them. “We’re also trying to make a difference in people’s lives,” Violet (Greta Gerwig) tells her new friend Lily as she explains their work at the Suicide Center. “And one way to do that, is to stop them from killing themselves.” My favorite lines always underlined the film’s distance from reality, its silly anachronism. When the characters encounter an untrustworthy man, for example, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) proclaims him “a playboy, operator type.”

When we walked out, I said approvingly (making clever reference to this week’s episode of Mad Men), “It’s like a bowl of nothing but Kool-Whip.”

My partner disagreed. “It’s more than just Kool-Whip,” he said. “It’s also got a little bit of fruit and some crunchy bits.”

We loved it.