The coveted La Jefita statuette, based on genuine Bronze-age Cycladic art!

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.

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Mija lives with contradiction. So do I, and so do you, of course, but in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, it seems so stark. This 66-yr-old grandmother (played by beloved Korean actor Yoon Jeong-hee) has an almost whimsical lightness, as when she announces she’s going to take a poetry class at the cultural center. “I do have a poet’s vein,” she says. “I do like flowers and say odd things.” Yet her life also looks pretty bleak from our perspective, from the grim apartment she shares with her sullen teenaged grandson (Lee Da-wit) to her part-time job working as a maid and caregiver for an old man who seems to have suffered a stroke. This movie is a small masterpiece that reminds me of exactly why I watch film: to find unexpectedly searching, overwhelming films that haunt me for days afterward.

Poetry is such a perfect central conceit for the film, for the class sends Mija into an eager new determination to see the world with fresh eyes. When her teacher explains, “Up till now, you haven’t seen an apple for real,” she gazes up at him with naïve awe. “To really know what an apple is, to be interested in it, to understand it,” he explains, “that is really seeing it.” This is exactly Mija’s view of poetry: lovely words about lovely things. But as she struggles to complete her sole assignment for the class — to write a single poem — her world begins to change, and she finds herself forced to see the ugliest things.

Mija may seem a bit foggy-headed in her innocent cheeriness, but we realize soon enough that everyone around her works is even more expert at overlooking their own pain as well as the tragedies of others. When she learns that she has the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she won’t tell her daughter, who lives in another city and seems to have very little to do with her son Wook. Instead, Mija cheerfully explains on the phone that the doctor told her to write more poetry, and then proceeds to boast a little about how close she is to her daughter, what good friends they are. But when she does broach something more serious — the fact that Wook is driving up her electricity bills to unmanageable levels — her daughter seems to brush over and ignore Mija’s precarious financial situation. Mija’s almost comical attempts to sing away her worries at a karaoke bar or gaze into the soul of a tree or a piece of fallen fruit in search of poetic inspiration appears, after all, to be perfectly in keeping with the head-in-the-sand approach to life taken by all around her.

There is one thing that cracks her surface dottiness: learning that not only is her grandson Wook a typically self-centered teenage douchebag, but he’s also a member of a group of boys responsible for a shocking series of crimes. It’s so shocking, in fact, that Mija’s first response is to repress the information — and you realize by the end of the film that we viewers, too, are weirdly eager to repress it. It’s the most eerie bit of finger-pointing I’ve ever seen a film achieve. The other boys’ fathers invite Mija to a cafe to discuss the problem — and by problem they mean how to bribe the victim’s family so they will not bring in the police to prosecute the boys. These men insist they feel bad about the crimes, but “now’s the time for us to worry about our own boys” — the boys’ futures must be secured. Mija wanders outside in a daze, crouches near a lovely flower, and takes out her notebook to jot down some poetical notes. Yet despite her instincts to repress the information, now when she sees red flowers, she can’t help but take notes about blood and pain.

It’s extraordinary, this film. It’s sending me on a quest to locate all of Lee’s previous films — not an easy task, as it turns out — and confirms my uneducated view that South Korea is one of the very few most creative cinemas in the world right now. It’s also one of the few that regularly features retirement-age women in phenomenally complex and rich parts — witness last year’s Mother, which should have earned its star a best-actress Oscar. There’s also a feminist vision at the center of this film that I can’t delve into without spoiling crucial parts of the plot; and I can’t help but see a potent political fable in Poetry, one that worries about society’s future in a way that is both transfixing and, ultimately, transcendent. Please see this film, and then tell me how much its elements come to you in dreams and visions. For it has most certainly haunted me in a way no thriller or horror film can.

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.

Mom, you’re scaring me!

22 October 2010

Halloween is a week away, the days are getting shorter, my neighbors all have their scary bling out on their lawns … and I’m in the mood to be scared.  Why, I even scared myself putting out the garbage cans in the dark last night.  Oh how I love a scary movie — not horror per se, as I have a hard time with lots of blood & guts, but a movie that doesn’t let you blink as you watch that girl walk, slowly, slowly, down the hallway toward that room that she shouldn’t go into.  My advice to those of you who agree:  watch scary movies about mothers, starting with the fantastic “The Orphanage” (2007) and “Mother” (2009). 

The Spanish know how to make a damn good scary movie; more important, they’ve raised the scary movie to a high art that touches on fairy tales, politics, and history.  See Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) if you need any confirmation — it set its scariness in a remote orphanage in the era of the Spanish Civil War to great effect.  Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Orphanage” (“El Orfanato”) is even scarier, and makes great use of three key scary plot elements:  the haunted house, the protective mother-heroine, and the fractured fairy-tale fantasy of the child who never grows up.  It’s the tale of Laura (Belén Rueda), a woman who left an orphanage as a child only to return as an adult with her young family to the same seaside building, long closed, with the plan to open a home for several developmentally disabled children.  Her son, Simón, doesn’t know that he was adopted or that Laura and Carlos are carefully managing his HIV with a drug regimen.  What Simón does know is the world of imagination:  his imaginary friends follow him everywhere, so Laura isn’t surprised to find him in a cave on the beach, whispering to a new imaginary friend that he should come visit them at their big house nearby.

Things get strange right away.  An odd old woman with white hair and coke-bottle glasses shows up, claiming to be a social worker checking in on Simón’s progress — but she seems to have other, shadowy motives.  Worse, Simón starts acting strangely.  His new imaginary friend has arrived with no fewer than five others, making a small army to distract Simón from his close relationship with Laura.  What is she to make of the fact that suddenly, her son has learned that she’s not really his mother and that his daily pills are designed to keep him from dying?  How will she make sense of the strange new games Simón plays, games he couldn’t possibly have invented himself?

But if Laura is our heroine in “The Orphanage,” we’re never quite sure what to make of the unnamed Mother (Kim Hye-ja) in Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother,” just released in the U.S. earlier this year.  This film takes a David Lynchian perspective from the get-go, so we’re never quite sure whether to sympathize with her or expect her to start stabbing people.  She earns such a small amount selling medicinal herbs from her little store that she secretly works as an unlicensed acupuncturist, despite warnings from the people around her that this might land her in jail or with an impossibly high fine.  But she’s not overly concerned, because the one thing — the only thing — that occupies all the space on Mother’s frontal lobe is her son, Do-joon (Won Bin), a mentally handicapped young man who still sleeps with her every night, hand cupped on her breast.  Because Do-joon is so simple, so suggestible, and surrounded by youths who alternately torment him and lead him into trouble, his mother’s attention is always distracted, watching him out the door, waiting for him to come home, picking him up at the police station.

No wonder that when Do-joon is arrested on suspicion of murdering a teenaged girl in town, every unalloyed maternal instinct in Mother’s body drives her to prove he’s innocent.  It’s enough to unbalance her already fragile life when she sees how easily the police convince her son to confess.  She snaps into overdrive to find the real killer — hunting down leads, finding new evidence, interrogating suspects — but all of it with such a sense of mypoic, frantic determination that we start to realize that this film is perched directly in-between murder mystery and horror.  “Mother” is an emotional thriller of the very best and most original kind, as the only convention it draws on is our belief in a mother’s love for her child — even as it twists and turns the positive connotations of mother-love to tweak our anxieties about such primal emotions.  Best of all, Kim Hye-ja’s performance is riveting, one of the best I’ve seen all year.  She plays this role as sympathetic, unknowable, and terrifying with such rapid-fire alternation that you don’t want to blink lest you miss the changing expressions on her face.  This is the woman who should win the Academy Award for best actress this year — and for that matter, the film’s screenwriters and director should be right up there with the top films, too.

I say indulge yourselves.  Turn out all the lights in the house, pour yourself a cup of tea, snuggle up on the sofa under a blanket, and pop in the DVD for a night of wide-eyed pleasure, mixed with a few gasps and “oh no!”s.  Halloween comes but once a year; this is a great way to celebrate.