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This bronze Greek statue of a female Spartan athlete, ca. 500 BCE, serves as this year’s La Jefita award! (Winners must contact me directly to receive these excellent prizes.)

Only one more week before Oscar night, but who cares about that charade when there are the La Jefitas to think about? For the second year now I’ve compiled my list of the best 2012 films by and about women to celebrate those female bosses. It’s just one way I seek to subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry. Because who cares about that Hollywood red carpet when you can enjoy an anonymous, verbose film blogger’s Best Of list?

Oh yeah, baby!

Unlike the flagrantly biased Oscars, the La Jefitas are selected with scientific precision; and although each year we have a select number of categories (Most Feminist Film; Best Female-Directed FilmBest Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass) we also add or tweak other categories to suit that year’s selections.

Shall we? Let’s start with a big one:

Best Actress:

Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. No matter how ambivalent you may feel about Paquin’s earning paychecks with fodder like True Blood (the later seasons, anyway) and the X-Men franchise, you can’t deny the force-of-nature bravura she displays in this extraordinary film. Replacing the saccharine Southern accent she put on in those other productions, she appears here with a kind of nervous mania that suits the particular cocktail of high school, trauma, selfishness, and guilt cooked up by this girl. When I wrote about it last spring, I called Paquin’s character an “asshole” — it’s hard, even now, for me to back away from that harsh term, for she has truly channeled the kind of chatterbox/ smartypants self-absorption and avoidance so crystalline in privileged teenaged girls. She captures it perfectly, and her particular vein of assholery is crucial to a film that wants us to think about the wake we leave behind us as we stride through the world.

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Paquin won Best Actress, yet I have so many honorary mentions. I’ll narrow it down to two: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea and Nadezhda Markina in Elena — two eloquent drawing room dramas that rely on perfectly-drawn portrayals by their female leads.

 

Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen (extra points for its political riskiness):

 

The abortion scene in PrometheusSeriously? The film displayed such a strangely negative view of parenthood overall — indeed, I wondered in my long conversation with film blogger JustMeMike whether the film’s major theme was patricide — that in retrospect one was left shaking one’s head at all of Ridley Scott’s madness. And still, I return to the abortion scene. Wow — in this day and age, with abortion politics as insane as they are — did we actually witness an abortion in a major Hollywood release?

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Yes, I know she was trying to abort an evil monster/human parasite/amalgam; but I’ll bet there are 34 senators in the U.S. Senate who would argue it was God’s plan that she bring that evil monster baby to term.

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Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:

Gina Carano has no competition this year after her performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. I know, I can’t remember the plot either; nor can I remember how it ended. And no, I’m not going to talk about the dialogue, or Carano’s acting ability.

Rather, the entire film was a paean to Carano’s superiority in ass-whupping. It was a thing of beauty — starting with her takedown of Channing Tatum in the diner and reaching its crowning glory with teaching Michael Fassbender a lesson in the hotel room. Be still my heart. Who needs plot or dialogue when you’ve got a human tornado?

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year:

quvenzhane-wallis-beasts-of-the-southern-wildWhere did all the parts for Black women go? The tiny dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of Black women on her tiny little shoulders.

Sure, we all complained last year about The Help — really, Hollywood? you’re still giving Black women roles as maids? — but let’s not forget some of the other films last year, most notably (to me) Dee Rees’ Pariah. And although I’m not surprised to find an actress of Viola Davis’ age struggling to get good work onscreen, I want to register how utterly depressing it is to find a Black woman of her talent and stature not getting leading roles in great films.

One can argue that high-quality TV is making up for the dearth of great parts for Black women onscreen. Just think about Kerry Washington in Scandal, for example. But for the sake of the La Jefitas I’ve limited myself to film — and I want more non-white actors, dammit.

Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012:

96e01327d031803081109f0f0a25c1e12012 was the Year of Fierce Girls. It doesn’t take much to call to mind the most obvious films, starting very much with Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. To list a few:

Now, I will also say that with all these good parts going to awesome girls (some of them animated, however), I didn’t see as many terrific parts going to mature/ middle-aged women; but still, considering how deeply male-dominated children’s filmmaking is, this is a very positive trend indeed.

Helene Bergsholm in Norway's Turn Me On, Dammit!

Helene Bergsholm in Norway’s Turn Me On, Dammit!

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles:

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have a big ol’ crush on Lawrence from her serious roles, but I’ll be the first to admit that she found herself getting the same part over & over — that fiercely independent teen girl who struggles against the Great Forces that make life so difficult (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games). Comedy wouldn’t have struck me as Lawrence’s forte.

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So count me impressed. Surrounded by excellent actors inclined toward broad humor, she does something crucial to make this film work: she balances her humor with a true gravitas that keeps this dizzy screwball comedy grounded. She’s funny, but it’s her seriousness and laser focus that stay with you and remind you what a good film this is. And part of the way she does it is through her sheer physical presence — she is so sexy while also being formidable. This is no tiny slip of a girl who’ll fade away from Bradley Cooper’s character, the way his wife left him emotionally. You get the feeling their relationship will remain a rocky road, but their attraction and shared neuroses will keep things interesting for a long, long time to come.

Best of all, this change-up will hopefully give Lawrence lots of scripts for the near future, giving her the chance to develop more chops.

Most Feminist Film:

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

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Like Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? addresses the serious problem of war via a deep unseriousness; the Muslim and Christian women in this village seek out increasingly goofy means of distracting their men from hating one another. Add to this the fact that beautiful widow Amale (Labaki) and the handsome handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) can barely stay away from one another, despite the fact that they hold separate faiths.

That tonal unseriousness leaves you unprepared for the terrific quality of the women’s final solution — which reminds us that the topic ultimately addressed by the film (violence in the Middle East more broadly) is so important, and so rarely examined from women’s perspectives. A terrific film that makes you wonder why no one else has mined the genius of Aristophanes until now.

Honorary mentions: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Brave.

That’s all for today — but stay tuned for tomorrow’s La Jefitas Part II post, in which I announce this year’s Film of the Year, Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, Sexiest Scene in Which A Woman Eats Food, and Best Female-Directed Film. Yes, these are all separate categories. Because reading Feminéma is like everything you’re missing at the Oscars, friends! it’s like Christmas in February!

And in the meantime, please let me know what I’ve forgotten and what you want to argue about — I do love the give and take. Winners: contact me directly at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to receive your prizes!

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So I have this 5-yr-old niece who would love The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti). She’s got a twin brother and an older sister who take after their father — blonde, loud, socially charming, hyperactive. In contrast, this one is her mother’s child: dark-haired, quiet and imaginative, and prone to artistic focus for hours at a time. She would be entranced by the slow-moving beauty this film displays, because she’s very little, although not quite as small as Arrietty.I can’t help but watch Arrietty with a sense of regret. Hayao Miyazaki didn’t direct this film, but his hand is all over it as screenwriter, production planner, and having the whole thing done via his Ghibli Studios. Miyazaki refuses to make those computer-animated, jacked-up, and over-caffeinated films that fill theaters. In fact, our theater prefaced this film with at least ten previews for kids’ movies — Brave, Mirror Mirror, The Lorax, and The Pirates (a new claymation film by the Wallace and Gromit people) most notable among them — all supercharged and moving so quickly you feel like you’re missing half the action. In contrast, Arrietty takes its time, lets you pay savor every beautiful, hand-drawn and colored shot. The down side: it can get a little dull. Also: the dialogue can get pretty creaky for people over the age of 5. But mostly: it’s not weird, like Miyazaki’s best films, such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Spirited Away (2001).

Arrietty is based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), a book I remember only loosely — but what a great idea for little kids. Arrietty and her parents are tiny people who live under the floorboards of a country house. They are borrowers — that is, they take little bits of things that the family will never notice, like a sugar cube, pins, tissues, a bit of string, and only things that allow them to survive. It’s a kind of big fish/ little fish symbiosis scenario premised on a couple of things: they must borrow without being seen, and if they cease to be secret, they must move away to a new house. What child wouldn’t want to think of a tiny family cobbling together a mirror house underneath your own, and stealing a postage stamp or a fish hook here & there to make life a little easier?

It’s a strange film to see as an adult, as it’s really more appropriate for small children. Arrietty’s parents are voiced recognizably by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, two of the funniest people in show business, but they’re weirdly low-energy and unfunny. It’s as if they’ve received mild lobotomies, which distracted me from the story — even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to think so much about the voices behind the characters. There’s also a prevailing sense of sadness in the tale that works together with the film’s slowness and visual wonder. Sadness because the boy Shawn arrives at the house to prepare for his upcoming heart surgery while feeling neglected by his busy professional mother; and sadness because Shawn spots Arrietty, offers her the gift of a sugar cube, and gradually becomes friends with her, making it necessary that the borrowers leave their lovely house for parts unknown.

Sadness is a strange mood to prevail over such a lovely film. I love what the Ghibli filmmakers decided to do in creating this world: although the characters big and small are all obvious cartoons, the backdrops are beautifully realistic, if idealized. When Arrietty climbs the ivy up the side of the house, the ivy is portrayed in all its colorful, light-filled, twisted majesty. The camera occasionally scans a meadow full of flowers and bugs. Or it scans upward to watch light coming through the leaves of a tall tree. For tiny children, such scenes must be even more entrancing than for adults — a reminder to observe the world around you with even more attention in case you might catch a glimpse of a tiny girl in a red dress, slipping amongst the leaves.

But for the rest of us Miyazaki fans, it’s beautiful yet disappointing and oddly tame. What I love about his sometimes ponderous films is the way they take strange turns, display strange and dark motivations, and feature female characters who must address scary situations they’re not really prepared for, either emotionally or physically. At times, as in Spirited Away, the girl is not even very likeable for a while. Considering that Arrietty clocks in at a tidy 94 minutes (speedy by Ghibli standards), it’s kind of boring.

As much as I found myself disappointed by the film, I’ve got it on my list for the next time I see my little niece, who has all manner of weird things going on in her little mind. She’ll love it. It might even be one of those films that hits her quiet 5-yr-old mind in that way that means something beyond the shape of the actual film. Because really, how do we know how film works the way it does? How do we know what will stick in our minds as meaningful long after the fact?