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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MANifestos & manthems

9 March 2010

When Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar, the orchestra burst into a rendition of “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.” My friends and I thrust our hands high in the sky from our position on the couch, thrilled that she’d won. And then I thought, “Wait.”

First, there’s the obvious fact that I now know the Helen Reddy song less for its 1970s feel-goodness than for the ironic 2006 Burger King version, which they call the “Manthem”:

Enlightened sexism, anyone? As Susan Douglas brilliantly defines it, this ethos follows the argument that “women have made plenty of progress because of feminism — ideed, full equality has allegedly been achieved. So now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.” Even better to resurrect funny caveman stereotypes of men who need hamburgers, Dockers, Old Spice, and Axe Body Spray to clarify their über-manliness and ironic sensibility. “Now that they ‘have it all,'” Douglas explains in the voice of the enlightened sexist, women and girls “should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping.” Meanwhile, men can go primal — ironically, of course, but the effect is the same. As Kjerstin Johnson shows in a Bitch blog post, there’s even a fake-umentary about plummeting testosterone levels and the emasculinization of men in America. Ha ha!

I’m thrilled by Bigelow’s Oscar win. But in this cultural environment of enlightened sexism, it’s hardly a feminist triumph, as Helen Reddy might have desired. It’s all well and good for so many commentators to trumpet the fact that “The Hurt Locker” is a really good dude film (see? women can even direct good films that dudes want to see, not like chick flicks at all!) and that Bigelow has a knack not just for putting together great action scenes but finely-wrought interactions between men.

It’s all about the guys. Who can blame them, in this stifling environment of feminist control, for issuing such a long series of MANifestos and manthems? In the meantime, ladies, get back to the gym!

Feminism, cinéma

8 March 2010

I begin this blog on an auspicious day: The day after the first woman in the history of film has won an Oscar for best director (and best picture). Only four women in history have been nominated for this award. I liked the movie, although I found all the kow-towing to the military grating and politically restrictive. It’s a good film, not a great one.

Let’s bring up the obvious:  Kathryn Bigelow is shit-hot. According to imdb.com, she’s only 1/2″ shy of six feet tall (which explains why she towered over all her stars). She’s fifty-eight and looks twenty years younger than her vile ex-husband, James Cameron — who was providentially seated directly behind her in the audience at the Oscars, and who is actually three years her junior. All of this is hugely satisfying.

So why do I feel ambivalent about this? It’s a little too close to The Onion’s brilliant take on women onscreen. “Women can do anything men can do on television,” the morning-show host chirps. “You can be sexy and tough. Sexy and smart. Sexy and professional.” You can be sexy and win an Academy Award for Best Director — just don’t expect the same award to go to someone who looks like, say, Kathy Bates or Gabourey Sidibe. Those women will still be given crap directing jobs for lite romantic comedies and “women’s films” about abusive husbands or children with leukemia. A woman has finally won Best Director at the Academy Awards — and I feel like I’m looking at one of those other female “firsts” early in the 20th century whose desire to be accepted by mainstream culture completely outshines their “first-ness.”