I can’t begin to talk about the last horrible week, with the bombings, loss of life, manhunt, and all the bad behavior along the way. The fact that this took place during a hard week of the semester — and that I teach young 19-yr-olds like Dzhokhar all the time — makes it harder.

Instead, I turn to fable and film magic. I need escape; perhaps you do, too.

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Everyone is going to compare this enchanting film to The Artist (2011) — because it, too, is a neo-silent that gets part of its magic by borrowing from films of the 1920s and shot in the same 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio as films of yesteryear. Fair enough. Our heroine even has a plucky pet — not a dog but an intrepid rooster named Pepe, who blows Uggie out of the water. (And I loved Uggie.)

Rather, this film should be compared to Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), because both films sought to reinvent the Snow White story as told by Los Hermanos Grimm. Thankfully, this one gets it right.

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The director Pablo Berger seems to have been paying attention to the problems posed by current-day updates of fairy tales — and has found a way around them. Blancanieves isn’t the Snow White; rather, she’s Snow White — she really only gets that moniker after she suffers amnesia (amnesia! I love amnesia stories!) and gets adopted by a troupe of bullfighting dwarfs.

Did you fully absorb all the information in that sentence? Amnesia! Bullfighting dwarfs!

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I could tell you more about the story, but there’s no point, is there? We know there are going to be some key plot points: an evil stepmother, an apple, some sleeping. Berger hits those points while also unfolding Carmencita’s story in ways that take a sidelong look at the Sleeping Beauty fable, and which make it surprising and sort of delightful.

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This Snow White doesn’t live in a woodsy neverland, but rather in a very particular time and place: Andalusia during the 1910s and ’20s, where bullfighting and flamenco help to define the regional culture. (In fact, you find yourself marveling that the dance and the “sport” have a very lot in common.) Watching the hundreds of spectators gather in an early scene at a stadium to watch the great bullfighter — the as-yet unborn Carmencita’s magnificent father — is to gain access to one of those things you hunger for as a filmgoer: a ghostly shot from up high, showing the spectators as tiny figures moving toward the stadium, a shot that seems both awe-inspiring and historical at once.

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When little Carmencita is born to tragedy and her new stepmother, Encarna, installs herself in the household, all seems lost. And Encarna is, indeed, very evil. Played with gusto by Maribel Verdú (well-known in the U.S. for Y tu mamá también [2001]), she narrows her eyes, laughs demonically, and struts before mirrors and cameras like the best of the worst female vamps of old. She’s wonderful to look at: her mouth can twist with just the right kind of cinematic cruelty. She may be the least subtle thing about this film, but she makes a perfect and vivid villainess.

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And as Carmencita grows up into a young woman (Macarena García) in a lovely series of shots, we know she won’t last long on Encarna’s estate. How she takes up with the dwarfs — and ultimately becomes the nation’s newest sensation in bullfighting — is a longer and more twisted tale, but continues to vacillate between the classic elements of the Snow White fable and the more specific Andalusian story that Berger has created.

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I saw Blancanieves three weeks ago and have been turning it around in my mind like one sucks on an Everlasting Gobstopper. Last night we happened to catch a preview for it at our theater, and I was struck all over again by its visuals, its creativity, its memorable score, and that glowing black and white — so much so, in fact, that I whispered, “Let’s see it again!”

1184_2402-width=620&height=385&scale_mode=c_blancanievesWhat more can one say in recommending a film, but that one wants to see it again immediately?

Having just survived a very bad week, friends, let’s do something for our souls. Let’s turn away from the worst parts of the internet, from the bad news and the fearmongering. Let’s watch, instead, a film that feeds our souls. I’m not saying that Blancanieves is a perfect film; in fact, contact me or comment here when you see it and tell me what you think of its ending. But I would watch it again this minute if I didn’t have so much work to do.

blancanieves (1)On second thought, maybe I will go see it again — just to see Carmencita’s hopeful, upturned face, Pepe running through Encarna’s terrifying estate, and the dwarfs’ caravan lit with fairy lights. I could use some mercy now. Couldn’t we all?

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My eccentric Oscar ballot

26 February 2012

Here’s why I always lose Oscar betting pools with my friends: I try to make the Oscars about something bigger.

For example: I truly don’t understand why The Descendants gets so much love. It’s the story of a rich guy who’s selling off thousands of acres of pristine land so he and his family can phenomenally richer — and all of this when unemployment was still at 9% or whatever … well, you can appreciate why I get cranky about things.

I was also nonplussed by last year’s Up in the Air. We’re in the midst of a financial crisis and I’m supposed to emote on behalf of the dude who goes around firing people? It’s gonna have to be a goddamn fantastic film to get me over that obstacle.

Don’t worry: this post has its eyes on the actual nominees, not the films that didn’t get noticed (but how did Take Shelter not get a single nomination?).

Best Actor and Actress: in which I apply the “99% rule,” aka “redistribute the wealth.”

Critics seem to be guessing that George Clooney will win this, according to some kind of logic that we all like the guy and he’s been doing good work. I say that sounds like an old boys’ club if I ever heard one; this is why that “good guy” at work gets promoted and you don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Clooney. I love love him. But I don’t think he’s the best actor of the year, and certainly not for this film. The award should probably go to Jean Dujardin, who was effervescent in a lovely (and better) film. I’ll be delighted if Dujardin wins.

But because I’m feeling contrarian, I’m rooting for Demián Bichir — the stellar Mexican actor who’s so unknown in the U.S. he’s not even a dark horse in this category; the guy who appears as an undocumented worker just trying to make a better life for his kid in L.A. Bichir’s character is so much a member of the 99% that he’s practically off the map — and that’s why he should win Best Actor.

Look, A Better Life wasn’t great. Neither was The Help or The Iron Lady, for that matter. C’mon, members of the Academy — look beyond your white, male, privileged bubbles to the world around you, even just that guy who cuts your grass, and vote for something beyond yourselves.

Using the same logic, my Best Actress choice is Viola Davis, who gives a stellar performance in a pretty crappy film. It’s impossible to compare her role to Meryl Streep’s — Streep dominates virtually every scene in The Iron Lady and shows off so many virtuoso chops that Streep almost looks like a little rich kid surrounded by presents at Christmas. Davis, meanwhile, is so much a part of an ensemble production that she might well have been relegated to the Supporting Actress category.

But you know what? No matter how disappointing was The Help, we’ll remember Davis. She’s just so good — so transcendent in a sea of embarrassing writing and directing — and her kind of goodness is important to the field of acting in 2012. 99%, bitchez!

Supporting Actress and Actor: in which I cast my all-LGBTQ vote.

What a year for the ladies! I’m so delighted with this field that I’m not sure where to go. Should I stick with my 99% rule and root for the magnificent Octavia Spencer? Should I stick with my Foreigners Deserve to Win Oscars rule and root for Bejo? (Well, that probably wasn’t going to happen, honestly.) Should I assert my Women Of All Sizes rule and root for McCarthy, who practically stole Bridesmaids out from under all those top-billed/ skinny women?

I’m going with my heart on this one, as well as with my own insight that 2011 was the Year of the Trans Ladies. Janet McTeer made Albert Nobbs — she was the real heart and soul of this film, raised the whole thing to a higher level, and was ridiculously hot as a man, to boot. This film has received less love than it should have; yeah, it felt a little bit more like something that would have been profound in 1982 but in 2011 feels like yeah, already. Like Bichir in A Better Life, you don’t get more marginalized than trans persons. But honestly, I’ll be happy with any one of these choices. Even better: they should give three Oscars — to Spencer, McCarthy, and McTeer.

Meanwhile, the men’s category seems less competitive to me. Christopher Plummer will — and should — win Best Supporting Actor for his work in Beginners as the father who comes out as an 80-year-old. ‘Nuff said.

Best Picture and Director: In which I wrestle with my own “degree of difficulty” rule.

I’m rooting for two titles: The Artist and Tree of Life. The former is the film I’ll want to see again and again. It’s a crystalline, lovely piece of romantic comedy and melodrama; I found it especially sweet for the way it earnestly wants to teach viewers how to fall in love with classic cinema. I vote for The Artist to take Best Picture.

On the other hand, The Tree of Life attempted a much higher degree of difficulty; like a great diver or ice skater, it took wild risks and didn’t succeed all the time, but what it did accomplish was remarkable: a tale of childhood and early pubescence more real than any I can remember seeing onscreen. If notions like “degree of difficulty” mattered to the Academy, that’s the film that should win.

So I’m splitting the difference: The Artist for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick to take Best Director (or vice versa) — and for these two categories to be split apart. 

Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted: in which I root for the foreigners and commit fully to losing the pool.

A Separation and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 

The latter is just a beautiful film production — I can’t even imagine how hard it was to come up with a screenplay for this twisting novel that has already received a 7-part miniseries by the BBC in 1979. Starring Alec Guinness, no less. How do you get that down to a bankable 2 hours or so?

Don’t ask me, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did it. Nailed it. (Bonus: an actual woman nominated for an Oscar behind the scenes!)

So if I’m so pro-lady, why am I not rooting for Wiig and Mumolo for Bridesmaids? Because A Separation is so spectacular that the former just seems slight in comparison. Also: Leila Hatami:

From all accounts, I’m going to lose on both scores; I’ve heard people guess that Midnight in Paris and The Descendants will take these categories. That’s too bad. The best I can say is that at least I’m prepared for disappointment.

Best Original Score: how can this go to anyone else?

Listen to this medley of nominations for Best Original Score and tell me if the one for The Artist doesn’t leap out as so memorable that it actually recalls specific scenes. Also: because I found the Kim Novak reaction to be absurd.

It’s not that the other scores aren’t nice and emotional; it’s just that the one for The Artist means more to the film. (Runner-up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I loved its 1970s derivative, jazzy ambivalence, just like the film. The one for Hugo was okay too, but like the rest of that film, it felt over-cooked to me.)

Best Cinematography and Film Editing: 

Is it even possible for something other than The Tree of Life to win for Best Cinematography? I will throw an absolute fit if it doesn’t.

But in Film Editing, I’m more ambivalent. I think the truly Oscar-worthy editing jobs were overlooked in the nominations process — Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — so I’m left to wrangle with a disappointing list. Stuck between the rock of my frustration about how these nominations work, on the one hand, and the hard place of a group of films whose editing I didn’t notice as being tight and evocative, I choose The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Like Tinker Tailor, it took the tightest of editing to shape an expansive story to cram this into a watchable 2-hour film; it also demanded cuts and segues that forwarded the tale, evoked emotions with absolute efficiency. A couple of months later and I want to see David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo again so I can pay even closer attention to what its editors, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, did to propel us through that story at such a clip.

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There are other categories I’m not commenting on, obviously — a series of documentaries that are so lackluster in comparison to the ones that didn’t get nominated that I can barely breathe, categories I don’t really understand:

  • Why does costume design only get applied to period pieces? As Dana Stevens of Slate put it last year, the clothes worn by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right were so absolutely perfect; why isn’t that costume designer nominated for anything?

  • What does “Art Direction” mean — does this mean, for lack of a better term, some kind of unholy combination of “Stage Design” and “Location Specialist”? Or does it mean something else?
  • And while we’re on the subject: is there some kind of connection between Cinematographer and “Art Director”?
  • Why are there different categories for “Sound Editing” and “Sound Mixing”? Why isn’t this all just “Sound Editing”? Do I sound like an idiot for asking this question?
  • Why can’t I watch all the nominated short films on iTunes or some other service? (Here I go again with my complaints about access.)

Meanwhile, there’s the all-important issue of gowns. Please tell me that Leila Hatami will appear in something stunning, that Jessica Chastain wears something that shows off that strawberry hair, and that Janet McTeer wears a tuxedo.

Here’s hoping! and here’s hoping, too, that I don’t throw anything at the screen when Hugo wins everything in sight.

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.

The scene: an old 1920s theater with Art Deco designs and original (i.e., uncomfortable) chairs. Most of the audience is over age 65. They show us some previews and then the curtains on either side of the screen scoot in a bit, narrowing the view, because The Artist was filmed in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, just like old movies were. That very shape of that screen — virtually unseen in my lifetime except to watch old movies on TVs that used to be shaped like this (still are, for us old-school types) — makes me feel warm and happy, as if someone has handed me a down duvet to curl up in.

I have trouble understanding the rumblings from anti-Artist critics. This is a post about why.

I giggled from the film’s very earliest silly moments. I found myself so attached to Uggie, the dog, that I considered getting a dog. And I cried: the big melodramatic moment came and I was truly moved, with big affectionate tears running down my face. What a relief: after watching the trailer approximately 30 times, I had fretted the full-length film couldn’t live up.

That’s the thing, you see: director Michel Hazanavicius has created a primer for audiences unfamiliar with classic film, and what he teaches is how to fall in love with cinéma. For the rest of us who already love those early films, it’s a love letter. A very different love letter than the one Martin Scorcese created with Hugo, and one that’s more affecting.

For me, the key to the film is that it understands the central, simple brilliance of early film: The Artist asks only that you to fall in love with the two main characters, and especially to enjoy their falling in love. Peppy Miller (Bejo) lands a role in the new big film starring George Valentin (Dujardin), and she winds up as an extra in a silly scene in which he must dance with her briefly as he makes his way across the room. But as we see in a series of takes, he keeps flirting with her, joking, each time requiring a new take — and each time it’s a little harder for him to get back into character to start the scene again for a clean take.

In short: director Michel Hazanavicius isn’t pedantically telling us about the history of cinema. (I found Hugo delightful but a bit pedantic.) Rather, he’s given us a way to connect emotionally with cinema that most of us aren’t familiar with, and which gives unexpectedly pure delight. Some filmgoing pleasures are old ones, with a few sight gags tossed in.

Hazanavicius’s interviews have been great to read in part because it’s clear he feels his love for old film so passionately. Asked by a reporter for Chicago’s The Score Card about the differences between this and his earlier OSS 117 film, he explains:

The most important change was the absence of irony. There’s no irony in this movie. Quick into writing this movie, I watched a hundred silent movies. The ones who aged the best were melodramas and romances. And even the issue with Charlie Chaplin is that people think he is a comic, but his films are melodramas. Pure melodramas, nineteenth century dramas.

There’s no winking at you. The film isn’t saying, I know that you know that I know this is all stupid, even if it’s sweet. This is a 21st-century version of a classic silent film.

The closest it comes to a wink is when the film plays with sound. There are a couple of early scenes, designed to get us to laugh, that introduce us to the experience of watching a film with no sound. The subject of sound becomes a prominent theme — whether films will use it, whether audiences prefer it, whether Valentin might be right about resisting the big transition to talking film. Sometimes it’s used initially to prompt laughter, like at the beginning of a dream sequence.

But that sequence quickly turns to eerie nightmare, showing us what Valentin really fears: irrelevance. And somehow that scene is resonant beyond the gag at the center of it — making us viewers feel the threat of sound, and the safety of silence, at least in Valentin’s eyes.

The best melodramas always have dark elements, characteristics that ring true. One of these is Valentin’s hubris. I don’t want to oversell the film’s story — it’s determined to remain light melodrama — but nevertheless I found it surprisingly touching to see how Valentin wrestles with his pride and growing public insignificance.

What made that story so appealing, I think, was the paired tale of Peppy Miller’s rise to stardom and how she experiences her own expanding success as being related to Valentin’s fall — that is, the fall of a man she loves without disguise. Her need for him is something that you almost feel corporeally from those scenes of her very long arms. Again, I don’t want to oversell this story; maybe my appreciation for it is predicated on hearing so many critics accuse Hazanavicius of creating a mere pastiche. Suffice it to say that I believe some critics have underestimated the story’s resonance.

Of course I can see that director Hazanavicius creates a number of scenes by quoting from all manner of earlier movies — Astaire and Rogers, James Whale’s FrankensteinThe Thin Man, even Citizen Kane. Yet again to fly to his defense, I see those quotes as being done out of an abiding love of film and a consciousness of the way film is always quoting from itself. (Remember The Ides of March and Moneyball? Constant references to other films!) If you watch movies purely out of a desire to see something new, you’re depriving yourself of some of the joys of cinema.

So, what’s the difference between “quoting from” other films and “creating a pastiche”? Again, I’d say it has to do with whether the film ultimately seems self-conscious, ironic, winking at us. Maybe some viewers see The Artist as an amalgam of other things, but that wasn’t my experience, and nor was it Hazanavicius’s intention, according to his interviews.

Most of all, I believe Hazanavicius chose silent film, specifically, for a good reason: to teach us something we’ve collectively forgotten. He wants to show what film could do when we had to use our eyes so searchingly. Within a few days of seeing the film — and reading a few more reviewers who called this a gimmick or a form of pandering — I became more convinced that the director may not be a pedagogue, but he certainly wants us to learn something in the course of watching this film.

To wit: in my theater, you could hear the viewers gradually starting to laugh more, to intuit the internal logic of a silent film. Even though most of them were 65+years old, it’s hard to imagine any of them had ever seen a silent film on the screen while they were growing up. They started vocalizing non-words more — with silent film, you don’t need an audience to be silent — so you could hear people uttering things like, “ahh,” “oh!” and “wow” (especially when Jean Dujardin tap-danced). That low-level, unobjectionable audience murmuring enhanced the experience of watching, contributed to the communal pleasure. But it’s something we had to learn in the course of watching it.

I have the teensiest of complaints about ‘s The Artist — that some scenes felt like a mishmash of 1920s, 30s, and 40s influences, and that however charming she is, Bérénice Bejo seemed too tall and twiggy for the era — but my full range of emotions during the course of the film shows the limitations of my small criticisms. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I just burbled with the unmitigated pleasure of watching film, like when I saw the pitch-perfect grizzled face of Malcolm McDowell in a bit part (below). Oh, hang on, I experienced the same when I re-watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the frothy Top Hat (1935) on New Year’s Eve.

And oh, Jean Dujardin! He can look beefy during his Douglas Fairbanks scenes, “who, me?” disarming during his William Powell scenes, and fantastically light on his feet during his Gene Kelly scenes; egotistic early on, depressive later. And when he gets himself into a love scene with Bejo … well, he has a gravity, and a genuine sense of surprise and feeling, that makes us feel as if we’re falling in love, too. (In a way, we are.)

It’s strange that I loved the film this much and yet it took so long to express it here — I saw it nearly a month ago. It seems so horribly stereotypical that I, as an academic, would formulate a pile of tedious words to analyze something that’s like a visual soufflé. But there you have it — academics are bound to try to deflate the beautifully, improbably fluffy in order to understand how it works.

Should it win Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars? I think its only serious competition is Hugo and, as I’ve indicated, there’s no question for me that The Artist is better. I’ll also have to see Demián Bichir in A Better Life before I weigh in on Question #2. It’s my opinion that the Oscars put up a weak list this year (where is Poetry? where is Higher Ground? why are Moneyball and The Help up there?), and that given those lists, I’m rooting for The Artist. What can I say? Michel Hazanavicius shows us how to fall in love with cinema, and in love with a love story — and I went there with him. I hope you do, too.

Feminéma's new La Jefita statuette for those women bosses of film

I know what you’re thinking: at last! An unabashedly subjective set of awards given by an anonymous blogger to her favorite women on and off screen — as a protest against a sexist and male-dominated film industry! Awards that feature a statuette based on genuine Cycladic art of the early Bronze Age! And now handily divided into two parts for ease of reading!

The raves are pouring in, from humans and spam-bots alike: “I’ve waited months for this handy list, and I can hardly wait to visit my video store.”

“Could you choose a few more obscure films, already?”

“I take excellent pleasure in reading articles with quality content material. This write-up is 1 such writing that I can appreciate. Maintain up the excellent function. 560942.”

Yup, it’s La Jefita time here at Themyscira/Paradise Island, where our crack team of snarky feminist film fans has been scouring our many lists of favorite films and great scenes to boil it all down to a carefully-calibrated list of winners. (Winners: contact us to receive your awards, which you must receive in person.)

First, a few bookkeeping points: Our one rule is that no single person or film could win in two separate categories, although a winner can receive an honorable mention in a different category. (This is why we choose categories like Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, which will be awarded during Part 2). We are good small-d democrats here at Feminéma — “spread the love around” is our guiding raison d’être.

A related note: we at Feminéma want to express our distress at the contrast between, on the one hand, the omnipresence of blonde white girls like Jessica Chastain, Chloë Moretz, and Elle Fanning — they’re great and all, but they’re everywhere — and the virtual invisibility of people of color in top-notch film. It is a central aspect of our feminism that we call for greater diversity in casting, directing, writing, and producing overall. We can only hope that 2012’s Best Director nominees might have non-white faces as well as women among them.

Finally, you’ll remember that our Best Actress La Jefita prize has already been awarded to Joyce McKinney of Errol Morris’s Tabloid. In mentioning this again, we fully intend to list our Honorable Mentions as soon as we’ve seen two more films.

And now, on to what you’ve all been waiting for!

Feminéma’s Film of the Year (Which Also Happens to Be a Female-Oriented Film):

Poetry, by Lee Chang-dong (Korea). I wrote extensively about this immediately after seeing it, so here I’ll only add two comments. First, this film has stuck with me, poking at my conscious mind, in the intervening months in a way that some of the year’s “big” films did not. Second, this was a terrific year for film, especially “important” films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter that deal with the biggest of themes (existence, forgiveness, apocalypse…). I will argue that, even alongside those audacious films, Poetry deals with even more relevant matters — responsibility — and that given the state of our world, this is the film we need right now. It’s ostensibly a more quiet film, but will shake you to the core.

Go out of your way to see Poetry. Let its leisurely pace and surprising plot turns wash over you, and the sense of mutual responsibility grow. It’s truly one of the best film I’ve seen in years — and if the members of these Awards committees bothered to see more films with subtitles and non-white faces it’d outpace The Tree of Life and The Artist in prizes.

Most Feminist Period Drama that Avoids Anachronism:

A tricky category — it’s so hard to get the balance right. After much hemming and hawing, and after composing many pro and con lists, we have determined that only Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre can be the winner. Mia Wasikowska’s perfect portrayal of Jane was matched by a beautiful script by Moira Buffini that carefully uses Brontë’s own language to tell a tale that underlines how much Jane wants not just true love, but a true equality with Rochester. (Add to that the fact that the film fassbendered me to a bubbling mass of goo, and we have the perfect feminist period drama.)

Mmmm. Muttonchop sideburns.

Honorable Mentions: La Princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier and Cracks by Jordan Scott (yes, Ridley Scott’s daughter). Sadly, there’s a lot of anachronism out there: even if I stretched the category to include miniseries, I just couldn’t nominate Downton Abbey, The Hour, or South Riding because of their overly idealistic portrayals of women’s rights; while as historically spot-on as Mildred Pierce was, it’s no feminist tale.

I still haven’t seen The Mysteries of Lisbon but will make a note during Part II of the La Jefitas if it deserves a prize, too.

Sexiest Scene in which a Woman Eats Food (aka the Tom Jones Prize):

Another tricky category. Because I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, when you get a typical actress into a scene in which she’s expected to eat, she instantly reveals how little she likes/is allowed to eat food. Every single time I see such a scene, I become hyper aware of the fact that she’s looking at that food thinking, “This is the ninth take of this scene, and there are 50 calories per bite. That means I’ve eaten 450 calories in the last two hours.” Most don’t eat at all onscreen; all those scenes at dinner tables consist of no one putting food in their mouths. Thus, when I see an actress devouring food with gusto, I feel an instant sexual charge.

Thus, the best I can do is Sara Forestier from The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), a film in which her character, Bahia, wears her all her many passions on her sleeve, eating among others. When, that is, she’s wearing clothes at all. One might complain that Bahia is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl On Steroids — in fact, a central concept in the film is that she’s such a good leftist that she sleeps with conservative men to convert them away from their fascistic politics. (What can I say? it works for me; I was ready for a supremely fluffy French comedy.) Even if the manic pixie trope sets your teeth on edge, you’ll find yourself drawn to Forestier. The film won’t win any feminist prizes from me, but I quite enjoyed it nevertheless and would watch her again in anything.

(A brief pause to remember last year’s winner with a big sigh: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Now that was sexy eating.) Sadly, there are no honorable mentions for this prize. But I’m watching carefully as we begin a new year of film.

Most Realistic Portrayal of Teen Girls (also known as: Shameless Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award):

Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at length — a film that up-ends the typical teen dramedy and makes some lovely points that I wish had seemed possible for me back in high school. I loved this film for its frontloading of real teen girls and the real situations they get themselves into; I loved it for that weird combination of leisureliness and urgency that infused real summer nights in high school; and I loved it that it didn’t devolve into a pregnancy melodrama or a story about cliques. And just look at Sloma’s face; it makes me want to cry.

After seeing it, you’ll wonder whether you’ve ever seen a film that showed teen girls like this. And you’ll join my Sloma fan club.

Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress in a comic role: 

Nina Arianda only has a few lines in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as Carol, the insecure wife of Paul, the overbearing, pedantic professor (Michael Sheen), but she almost steals each one of those scenes. She struggles to please and to pronounce her French words properly. She fawns over Paul in a way that makes you realize quickly how futile it is — taking photos of him as he holds forth annoyingly, for example, in the scene below. I don’t know how many of you readers are also academics, but Sheen’s portrayal of that professor was hilariously, perfectly accurate — and Carol is just as recognizable a type, that younger woman who married her former professor a while back and is still trying to make it work. (Skin: crawls.)

Arianda also had nice, slightly larger parts in Win Win and Higher Ground, although nothing that let her express her gift for wit that she displayed in Midnight in Paris. Let’s hope that with these three 2011 films, Arianda is getting more attention — and that she’s got a good agent.

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Theme for Female-Oriented Film: Fairy Tales.

C’mon, people. I couldn’t bear to see Catherine Hardwicke’s vomit-inducing Red Riding Hood (highest rating on Feminéma’s Vomit-O-Meter® yet, and I only saw the trailer!). Nor did I see Julia Leigh’s poorly rated Sleeping Beauty, though I’m likely to see it sometime soon. I did see Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty — such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics.

I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened sexism.  Filmmakers have not yet realized that fairy tales have become a site for critique rather than retrograde confirmation of sexism. (Please, read Malinda Lo’s Huntress or A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.)

And this is only Part 1 of the La Jefitas! Stay tuned for the final roster of winners and honorable mentions — in such categories as:

  • 2011’s Most Feminist Film! (Such an important category that it might be divided into three categories for clarity, and because I’m having trouble choosing a single winner!)
  • Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say, and Which Passes the Bechdel Test!
  • Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass!
  • Best Veteran Actress who is not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep!
  • And Best Female-Directed Film! (This one is turning out to be a scorcher — can it be that I’ll divide this into separate categories, too?)

Sometimes a girl just goes through a week in which none of her posts get finished. Also there was snow, which in this case was very teeny and powdery and sparkly and demanded my full attention as it fell. (There was also cross-country skiing.)

My long, increasingly unmanageable post, still unfinished, is on my La Jefita (the boss!) Awards in which I celebrate women on & off screen — and in the course of writing it has come to my attention that even all the fucking animals this year were gendered male. Not that this is a new thing. (Bambi was male. Bambi! Explain that to me!)

Now, I’m on record as saying that Caesar the chimp (Andy Serkis) should win Best Actor Oscar this year for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it’s a sign of how stupid the whole farce of the Academy Awards is that he won’t even be nominated. But let’s think back. All those apes, chimps, monkeys and gorillaz were gendered male. The one simian female was Caesar’s mother, who gets killed off immediately. The ones with names are all male — Maurice, Koba, Buck, Rocket. I’ll bet if you asked audiences, they’d say that they assumed  all the rest are dudes, too — especially when they cross the Golden Gate Bridge en masse and overturn cars.

Here’s my radical suggestion: no one will care if you gender some of these animals female instead. Or if you leave their genders ambiguous.

Who’s going to care, for example, whether instead of naming the War Horse Joey, they called it Maggie or Star or Chestnut? I can guarantee that once the horse starts to do noble things, no one’s going to give a shit whether it’s male or female. The one thing I’ll give Tintin — a film I have completely forgotten, it was such a boring sausage-fest of dudes — was that at least the dog’s name was Snowy, even though we all know he was a dude. The most ambiguously ungendered animal onscreen last year was the annoying Paw Paw, the old, sick cat from Miranda July’s The Future. (We never even saw Paw Paw’s face.)

It wasn’t just Snowy: dogs were always male in 2011. There was the lovable Uggie in The Artist, Arthur in Beginners, Hummer in Young Adult, Willie Nelson in Our Idiot Brother. But it was also the ensemble pieces. The only animal in any of the Harry Potter films gendered as female was Hedwig the owl — the rest, Crookshanks, Firenze, Scabbers, Fawkes, even the evil snake Nagini — and anything in the Weasleys’ house, all male.

All male. Why? I don’t get it. What’s so difficult about having a phoenix or a cat be female? What’s so distasteful about having adorable pets that are female? I have two suggestions. First, maybe the concept of male dominance is so crucial to Hollywood that filmmakers cannot imagine having female pets, especially when they’re central to the script like Caesar or Joey the horse.

Or, second, maybe this is connected to the fact that virtually all these films have human male leads and the filmmakers have “reasoned” that men must have male pets/animal counterparts. But if this is the case, I need explanation: please explain to me why it would be problematic for Ewan McGregor’s character to have a female dog. Can it be that filmmakers find it unseemly, somehow sexually inappropriate? Have we sunk that low?

Needless to say, the imaginary animals are also male — aka The Beaver. But at least in that case I can understand that he was Mel Gibson’s alter-ego.

Okay, there are a few ensemble films with some token girls. The Muppets, Winnie the Pooh (but let’s be precise: Kanga is also just a mother to Roo), and even Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked appears to have a girl. Don’t misunderstand me: I haven’t seen that film. What do you take me for?

The most radically gendered ensemble film I can see is Kung Fu Panda 2. That is, both Tigress and Viper are female. Out of about 12 male leads. See what happens when a woman directs a film, like Jennifer Yuh Nelson did in this case? It’s a comparative girl-fest!

Geena Davis started her Institute on Gender in Media because when she started to watch TV with her young daughter, she couldn’t miss the gender disparity. In family films there’s only “one female character for every three male characters. In group scenes, only 17% of the characters are female. The repetitive viewing patterns of children ensure that these negative stereotypes are ingrained and imprinted over and over,” the Institute’s website explains.

As Melissa Silverstein shows us again and again with her brilliant blog Women & Hollywood, children’s media is just the tip of the iceberg. Women appear far less often both on and off screen. Which makes me wonder why Hollywood couldn’t just throw us a bone with a few female pets.

Whichever way you lean — whether we think male dominance is so fundamental to Hollywood that all the animals must be male, or whether we think our male heroes cannot possibly have vital relationships with female animals — I hope you’ll agree with me that this is just really weird.

I’ve fallen so deeply in love with this trailer that I’m afraid I can’t possibly love the real film as much — whenever I manage to see it. The Artist: it’s a silent film about the silent film era! Could there be anything more delightful?

(Don’t you just love his Thin Man-style wire-haired fox terrier?)

It stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, the excellent actors from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (the French James Bond spoof, also directed by Michel Hazanavicius), in which Dujardin was so fabulous that he was nominated in the Best Actor category for the César Awards — a rare commendation for a goofy comedy. Both stars and the director have already earned a pile of prizes and nominations for The Artist, including a Best Actor win for Dujardin at Cannes last summer.

I was delighted with OSS 117 back when I watched it one Saturday afternoon with popcorn, and was especially impressed by Dujardin’s innovative, expansive talents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve now watched this trailer, marveling over his tap dancing chops and light physical comic gifts that never seem too corny. Excuse me for gushing — and believe me when I insist that my effusive love is strongly mitigated by anxiety that the full-length feature can’t possibly live up. Note to self: this is why many professional reviewers don’t watch trailers first.