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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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Remember Blue Crush (2002)? Kate Bosworth as a Hawaiian surfer who works as a hotel maid and is sorta-kinda working her way back to serious surfing competition with the help of her tough-love friend Michelle Rodriguez? The film spent a lot of time showing us beautiful bodies and truly great, beautiful shots of surfing & Hawaii, while offering up an “I’m not ruling it out” relationship to feminism (aside from a couple of really stunningly great lines, but that’s another matter). It also sported a pretty interesting relationship to class and sex if you could be distracted from the hot bodies long enough to notice. There was just enough dramatic tension to hold the whole thing together, and it remains a better-than-okay thing to catch on TV on a Saturday afternoon.

Sigh. In too many similar ways, Magic Mike follows suit with predictable (yet not cheesy enough) plot points and a general lack of commitment to any one vision. (And certainly not enough to be the Citizen Kane of male stripper movies.) The renowned director Sidney Lumet’s eloquent book, Making Movies, reminds us of the simple question every director must answer before beginning: what is this film about? I don’t think Soderbergh would have an answer.

Matt Bomer as Ken, suggestively fondling his belt in his Officer and a Gentleman fantasy outfit

Steven Soderbergh made Magic Mike with the same cool vibe as Blue Crush — it resists going too far down any particular path, but flirts with a number of them. It’s not nearly the cheesy romp you might expect/ hope for (sigh x 2), considering the male stripper subject matter, and despite every single appearance by Matthew McConaughey (and after laughing at him, you want to wash your hands).

Also: it’s not nearly as gay as it ought to be. I was afraid that’d be the case (sigh x 3). Even though it shows men touching one another and loving one another — “Hey, Mike, I think we should be best friends,” Adam (Alex Pettyfer) says with unfiltered gushiness — it spends more time trying to get nervous laughs from its straight viewers from some of those scenes. And let’s not forget that it shows so much straight sex that, frankly, this straight girl got a little bored; I preferred the dancing, which suggests a broader, pan-sexual range. Its sole openly gay actor, Matt Bomer (as one of the strippers) is, oddly, the sole character portrayed as married in the film.

In fact, the gay potential is so subdued that you have to go looking for it — which makes no sense for a film like this. I mean, all those shots of bulbous, perfectly hairless butt cheeks? The Village People-style outfits/ personae the dancers don for their routines? The scene of Mike (Channing Tatum) and Adam shopping for thongs?

On the plus side, goddamn that Channing Tatum can dance. I’ve never cared for him — and his acting/ face still leave me meh — but dude can grind. The dance sequences rock, even when they’re ensemble routines that include the strippers who can’t dance for shit. The choreography of those strip routines is creative and occasionally hilarious and make up for a lot of the film’s shortcomings; there’s just not enough of them. I still doubt I’ll ever be a fan of Tatum’s, but watching him dance was sometimes jaw-droppingly fun, almost to the point that I might have to check out Step Up (2006) to see what he does beyond the male stripping métier.

So why does the film feel so scattershot?

First, the filming style is ambivalent about its relationship to the audience’s gaze. On this point I chime in with bloggers Dark Iris and Alex over at Film Forager about distancing tactics. About half the dance sequences are filmed from a distance — sometimes a crazy far distance — resulting in a weirdly untitillating style of camerawork, to paraphrase Iris.

Dark Iris wonders whether the filmmaker tried to be respectful of the male dancers’ privacy, and perhaps as a nod to the odd (nervous) straight guy who wanders in. Alex wonders about all that audience giggling:

The ladies in the audience (both the one onscreen and in the real-life theater) are giggling like crazy. Is this because we’re uncomfortable with all that sexual energy being directed at us, since usually it’s the other way around?

Whatever’s going on, it’s clear that Soderbergh wants to make his viewers self-conscious of the fact they’re watching strippers — registering with all that nervous giggling and those long shots (just when you want a closer look at Pettyfer in that cowboy outfit) what a strange phenomenon male strip clubs are, with their screaming women and/ or gay men.

That’s what’s weird, right? The many degrees of separation between truth and fiction, lived experience and virtuality, the titillating and yet distancing camera. This story is sort of based on Tatum’s real life, but he was the Adam character, not Mike. How many women in my audience would never, never, ever go to a real-life male stripper show, even if it had Channing Tatum in it? Yet they showed up in packs at my theater, all squealing and hooting — truly, the best part of watching this film was the fact that the audience insisted it live up to its promise to be hot.

You can’t watch this film without thinking how much safer it is to go see this stuff in a cinema with your friends rather than drive out to that skeezy place on Route 365. It’s safer because you’re not implicated in the watching. Magic Mike shows just as many screaming, stunned, drunken women as it does great dance numbers, reflecting back on its cinema viewers their own faces. So the film gets marketed heavily to women and gay men due to its representations of dance scenes in the club — and we all dutifully file in — but it’s so anxious not to replicate the scene of the club that it turns a mirror on us?

I’ve spent a goodly amount of time thinking about this and can’t figure out what the rationale would be to pull back from the cheesy/ titillating dance scenes. There’s no larger point the film is trying to make about the audience’s gaze.

Now, I shouldn’t give the impression that the dance scenes fail to be titillating altogether. In fact, one of the most stunning things about Tatum’s dancing is his bumping and grinding and mimicking really banging sex onstage. It’s just that once the film shows some of those full-on sexy dance routines, it backs away from the implications of those scenes to cool off — like with some chill scenes at the beach, or Mike working at all his other jobs, or actual sex scenes that are just boring compared to that the simulated sex onstage. The Magic Mike persona is the sex fantasy; the real Mike is a mensch.

“Am I Magic Mike talking to you right now?” he demands of Adam’s sister Brooke, the sort-of love interest, during a fight. “I am not my lifestyle.” But he kind of is. And he’s actually a lot more interesting when he’s Magic Mike than when he’s just Mike. Brooke fires back, “Do you believe what you’re saying right now?” The audience thinks, yawn, now please do some dancing.

The second disconnected thing about the film is its uncertainty about the self-made man narrative — the way it gestures at telling a story about being a man during a terrible economy, about working as hard as you can to realize a dream and still failing — but the writing/ filming never really commits itself to that purpose. Mike is working about three and a half jobs so that he can work his way up to doing what he wants to do: building custom coffee tables. (Tables that are really ugly. Anyway, a dream’s a dream, I guess.)

That same Runnin’ Toward A Dream theme undergirded Blue Crush, as did the threat that our hero might get distracted away from it. Except that whereas in Blue Crush her desire to compete seriously in surfing competition gave the film a goodly part of its feminist potential, Magic Mike is about dudes, and it’s about a post-financial crash America.

And there’s something crazy that happens toward the end of Magic Mike.  ***SPOILERS AHEAD***

The film holds up Mike as a kind of idealized Everyman — he’s hotter than shit (or so the film tells us), works like a dog, saves his money, looks out for his little buddy Adam, and is ultimately the male stripper with a heart of gold.

But (and here’s the spoiler): Mike fails. He’s no self-made man; he’s a schlemiel.

In Blue Crush, Kate Bosworth loses the competition but (like Rocky) she really won because she proved something to herself. She even got rid of the lame-ass guy because he was getting in the way of her dream. Magic Mike reverses all those narratives. He finds that no matter how hard he works, he can’t win. His own niceness gets in the way; he learns he can’t control the behavior of a young gun like Adam. He can’t even get paid decently by his supposed partner at the club, even though Dallas (McConaughey) wants him to move to Miami to set up a new club.

Finally, defeated and distressed, he turns to Brooke for a real person to talk to — and she (finally) propositions him before he can say much of anything. Having gotten them to the point of having sex, the film ends abruptly. WTF?

What’s weird is that it’s a girl ending. Well, to be fair, a real girl ending would have her reluctantly face the end of her dreams just as the handsome guy proposes to her, and she rapturously accepts. Even Blue Crush wouldn’t go there — it’s so retrograde as narratives go. But in having Magic Mike end that way, it weirdly feminizes Mike — turns him into the girl whose dreams aren’t important enough to overshadow love with the right person.

Now, there are a lot of things about the current economy that make men (and women) feel helpless, or perhaps forced to choose between chasing the dollar at any expense of one’s moral code. The financial crisis turned all of us into girls, too afraid to leave our bad jobs lest we lose our health insurance and never find another one. On some level we’re all working girl jobs, hating our bosses and feeling desperate for the lack of options.

If only this narrative felt intentional, brilliant, purposeful, a statement about manliness in the modern world. Instead it feels like a punt. Mike faces a genuine crisis, seeks out the one person whom he feels might help him find answers, and she proposes they go to bed. In other words, the film kind of says he really is just a sex object — Brooke ignores his personal crisis, or (worse) she assumes that sex will resolve it all.

In 2002 I walked out of Blue Crush feeling ridiculously disappointed — I was full of mixed feelings just as I was after seeing this film. But in the years since when I’ve caught 30 minutes or so of it on Saturday afternoon TV, I always find myself viewing it with fondness — an affection for its willingness to open up to other narrative possibilities. I’ve stopped blaming it for its weaknesses, its missed chances.

Will I feel the same way about Magic Mike? Will I laugh again at those crazy dance numbers, at those plastic male bodies onstage and their screaming white lady-fans? Will I see that Soderbergh is attempting to say something more profound about manliness, gender, or the female/ gay male gaze?

I’m honestly not sure. But the film’s generally cool, laid-back aesthetic — punctuated with hot dance scenes — will probably get better on second viewing. And who knows? Once I stop approaching it with other expectations, it might grow on me. (Heh: I said grow on me.)

Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself: she’s watching films like Magic Mike and Ted? Mainstream comedies in regular theaters oriented to general audiences?! Has this blog been hijacked by an evil-minded imposter?

(I admit: in retrospect it appears that watching Ted at the theater goes against all my principles. All I can say is that my friends chose it.)

But I must defend my anticipation of Magic Mike — because it’s being eagerly anticipated by so many of my favorite gay and/or female film critics, including Louis Virtel’s videos The Weeklings:

[Sidebar: I’m relatively new to The Weeklings, but I have now scanned about one-third of these 2- to 4-minute videos and they’re so quick-witted that sometimes you have to watch the videos 2 or 3 times to absorb everything. To wit: the episode in which Louis Virtel takes issue with moron Adam Carolla’s views on whether women are funny. Or when he proposes to do a proper interview with Anderson Cooper about coming out — his list of questions is genius! “How do you feel about forcing straight kids to come out as uninteresting?” Or when he joins the rest of his troupe, The Gay Beatles — oh, the episode in which they explain which Beatle they would be … which leads them to explain which member of Sex and the City they would be, or which Cosby Kid, or which Fanta Girl….]

But back to the issue at hand: Magic Mike. Because I believe it is my duty as a woman — nay, as a human being — to hand over my money to see a film about male strippers. I fully expect that within a few days’ time, I will be back reporting that Magic Mike is, indeed, the Citizen Kane of male stripper films.

I confess: that is not my line. It really belongs to film critic extraordinaire, Libby Gelman-Waxner.

My most secret and powerful desire might be to get paid to write film reviews not just with a nom de plume, but an entirely made-up persona like hers. When I was in college I discovered Gilman-Waxner’s genius reviews in Premiere magazine. She is a middle-aged wife of a dentist, mother, suburban New Yorker, and buyer for the juniors department (also: “she” is secretly screenwriter/ humorist Paul Rudnick). She’s always spot-on with her criticism, like when she describes Daniel Craig in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: “He wore reading glasses, which on a dreamy guy like Daniel are the male equivalent of a nurse’s uniform or a schoolgirl kilt.” In short, Libby is the perfectly melded combination of gay man and straight woman.

Tanning salon-driven dramatic tension in the dressing room between Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey — but over what? I can hardly wait!

That’s the real secret, you see: Magic Mike represents the sweet spot where the interests of people like Libby Gelman-Waxner, The Weeklings, and Feminéma converge. Libby and I agree that there’s basically zero chance I will not enjoy this movie. Moreover, it is SO much fun to anticipate seeing it. I mean, just listen to her imagine the possible plot points:

And I’m praying that one guy is stripping his way through medical school, and that another guy gets drunk and falls off the runway, and that finally all of the strippers pull together and become a family and strip to rebuild a local orphanage, and that someone declares, “We’re gonna help those kids because, dammit, that’s what male strippers do.”

I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? I walk out and say, “The dancing was awesome, but it wasn’t gay enough.”

Want to know what I concluded after seeing it? Here’s the answer!