The magnificent La Jefita statuette, featuring a gen-yoooo-wine Spartan female athlete

The magnificent La Jefita statuette, featuring a gen-yoooo-wine Spartan female athlete

There’s nothing like the La Jefitas, is there? No, really, there’s nothing like it. This list of the best 2012 films by and about women — designed to celebrate those female bosses of modern film and subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry — is exactly what we need during years like this one, when not a single female director was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival or at the Oscars. I mean come on.

Plus, the La Jefitas feature much better statuettes.

Just to bring you up to date from yesterday’s winners:

  • Best Actress: Anna Paquin in Margaret
  • Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen: the abortion scene in Prometheus
  • Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass: Gina Carano taking down Michael Fassbender in Haywire
  • Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the YearWhere did all the roles for Black women go?
  • Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012: 2012 was the Year of Fierce Girls Onscreen
  • Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Most Feminist Film: Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?

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.

Before we finish the awards ceremony, I feel it incumbent on me to discuss the sad fate of my favorite category: Sexiest Scene in Which a Woman Eats Food. This year’s films did not have a single contender for this prize — a sad state of affairs and a sure measure of the state of our world. To be sure, I had a couple of films in which a woman ate food in an incredibly unsexy way (winner: Shirley MacLaine in Bernie) but that’s not the kind of prize I want to offer at all. Filmmakers: fix this, please.

And now on to the exciting 2012 winners!

Best Female-Directed Film:

This was absolutely the hardest category to determine — I even toyed with breaking my films-only rule and awarding it to Lena Dunham for her series Girls. But in the end there was one film I couldn’t get out of my head: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles, which (inexplicably) I never got the chance to write about last year. (Also was inexplicably ignored by the Academy Awards. Do you see why the La Jefitas are so vital?)

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Now this is brilliant filmmaking with a healthy dose of sheer karma. When Greenfield began, she simply wanted to create a documentary about a couple in the process of building the largest house in America, which they had already named Versailles. “In a way, it just seemed like this incredible microcosm of society that showed our values. Both Jackie and David [Siegel] had rags-to-riches stories,” she told Vanity Fair

But after the financial crisis hit and month after month passed by with increasing stress for the family, the director realized she had to change the story of the documentary. If it started out as a story about self-made Americans and their desire to symbolize their success in a house, by the time “they had to put [the half-finished house] on the market, I realized that this was not a story about one family or even rich people,” Greenfield continues. “It was an allegory about the overreaching of America and really symbolic for what so many of us went through at different levels.”

If you haven’t seen The Queen of Versailles, run — don’t walk — to your television and load it up right away. It’ll make you laugh and cringe, but most of all it’s a fascinating cinema insight into our culture’s obsession with wealth and display. Also, just for those scenes of the chaos in the Siegel household after they are forced to let go of so many maids.

Best Uncelebrated Supporting-Supporting Actor:

Jeannie Berlin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. As the best friend of a woman killed in a bus accident, Berlin attracts the attention of the young Lisa (Anna Paquin) for all the wrong reasons. But you can see why she would appeal so deeply. Prickly and no-nonsense, independent but capable of deep love for her friends, and — most important for Lisa — lacking a need for male attention, she seems perhaps to be the perfect replacement for Lisa’s actual mother. Best of all, she wears her Jewishness on her sleeve rather than push it to the side. Her self-possession is most of all marked by the way Berlin chooses to enunciate her words slowly and methodically, which has a surprising power over the emotional mess of a fast-talking teenager, like a balm to her soul. No wonder Lisa feels so suddenly invested in connecting to this woman.

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But she also sees Lisa’s selfishness clearly, and refuses to play a role in Lisa’s mini-drama of denial. It’s a beautiful performance that seems all the more meaningful because the film was so utterly shut out of Oscar competition this year, in part due to its complicated production. Here’s hoping a La Jefita ensures that Berlin gets a lot more work and recognition from here on out (is there a La Jefita bump? let’s find out!).

Best Role for a Veteran Actor Who Is Not Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren:

Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in Michael Haneke’s Amour. I only wish I’d seen this film with friends so I could debrief about it and Riva’s performance at length. It’s hard to believe that this magnificent, beautiful performer has only made 14 films since her début in 1959’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I tried many times to write about it here but found myself inadequate to the task; suffice it to say that even with a grim story like this one, the amour triumphs in a way that the inevitability of mortality does not.

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Amour is such a perfect portrayal of a good marriage in its final stage that it’s difficult for me to speak of Riva’s performance separate from that of Jean-Louis Trintignant as Anne’s husband Georges. Indeed, I don’t know how the Academy overlooked Trintignant for a Best Actor nomination; the scenes between them are so tender and honest that we’re left with powerfully mixed feelings. On the one hand, it made me desire with all my heart that I will have such a companion when I’m in my 80s (and oh, I’m almost terrified to hope it is my perfect, wonderful partner of today); on the other hand, I hope we will get mercifully hit by a train together on the same day. When it came to playing the role of a woman wrestling with rapidly-advancing debilities of age, Riva gave the role such realistic tenderness and brutality that I swear it must have taken part of her soul. As I watched so many of those scenes, I marveled — how did the 85-yr-old Riva make it through the filming, considering that she must have these same fears of aging on her mind?

Riva’s achievement is all the more impressive because of the stiff competition by veteran actresses this year. Just think of Sally Field in Lincoln and you’ll know whereof I speak; I also include Shirley MacLaine’s comic turn in Bernie and Nadezhda Markina in Elena. Truly: it was a great year for veteran actors.

Best Breakthrough Performance By an Unknown Actor:

No questions here: Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know this film didn’t work for everyone; indeed, the naysayers include big names in cultural criticism. But I believe this film constitutes a visionary outsider’s statement from a child’s point of view — a lovely statement about belonging and existence that ties together deep poverty and wild imagination.

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Wallis is so good that it makes me fret about her future — is she really a major acting talent, or a disarmingly wonderful child whose acting will vacillate as she grows older? Nor am I the only one to ask those questions. It makes me nervous about her Best Actress nomination from the Academy.

But in the end all this second-guessing is unfair to the performance as it appeared in this film, a performance that was just perfect. No child, much less any other 6-yr-old, could have gotten it so right this one time. And with that, I’m looking forward to the next role as eagerly as any of her other fans.

Performance So Good It Saves a Terrible Film … well, no, but almost:

Eva Green in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. I don’t have anything good to say about this film except that every time the evil witch Green showed up, I started having a good time again.

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That blonde wig! The facial twitches! The sex scene in Green’s office! Her gift for physical comedy!

What can we say about the film overall, except that it was confused and that it had a very few funny lines (all of which are helpfully compiled in the film’s trailer)? Yet Green was fantastic. Give this woman more work.

Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films:

They stop what they’re doing and start dancing. I can’t even remember how many times various films this year just stopped what they were doing and featured a great dance number — and I’m not even speaking here about explicit dance films like Pina, Magic Mike, or Step Up 4: Revolution. Remember the weird finale to Damsels in Distress, in which Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody sing the deliciously goofy “Things are Looking Up” and dance awkwardly through a pastoral scene? Or the final act of Silver Linings Playbook, all of it hinging on the goofy routine worked up by two (ahem) non-professionals? In Take This Waltz?

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Or the scene at the homecoming dance when the three leads let their freak flags fly in The Perks of Being a Wallflower?

Once you start to put them together, you find a lot of mini-moments onscreen when films adhered to the old theater maxim, you sing when you can no longer speak, you dance when you can no longer walk. Dancing has the capacity to take us out of the fictional magic of the narrative one step further and launch us into true fantasy. Is it a narrative shortcut? oh, who cares. I love it.

Film of the Year:

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Really: there’s just no question. This would receive my Film of the Year prize even if it had been directed by a man and/or featured a male protagonist.

Nor was it easy for me to let go of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; I even toyed with the possibility of declaring a tie. But I believe Zero Dark Thirty achieves something even beyond the former in working its viewers through the emotional aftershocks of that methodical search for our proclaimed enemy — it wants us as a culture to move away from retribution and toward some kind of catharsis.

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My appreciation for the film certainly doesn’t rest on Jessica Chastain’s performance, which didn’t work for me all the time. Rather, it’s the architecture of the overall film and the accelerating action-film aspects that lead toward an exhilarating (but ultimately distracting). Whereas poor Margaret shows in its fabric the scars of so many cooks in the kitchen, Zero Dark Thirty is just a masterful piece of work that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and Kathryn Bigelow was robbed when the Academy failed to nominate her for a Best Director Oscar.

So there you have it, friends — the year’s La Jefitas! Please don’t hesitate to argue, debate, send compliments (oh, how I love compliments), and offer up new ideas for categories. (You gotta admit, my Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films category should receive a Pulitzer on its own!)

It’s ironic that, during this film of all films, I’d be sitting in front of loud talkers. It was two 60-something women, women who looked immaculately put together. I asked them to please stop talking; they didn’t. I tried turning around and glaring at them; I shushed them. Other people shushed them. One of them seemed to get louder, as if to spite us. Who does this? Who feels self-righteous about talking in a theater after being shushed?

Talking in a theater may be one of the smallest of rudenesses, but it’s ironic because Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret treats such a tangle of related topics I almost wondered whether the women had been planted behind me as a form of performance art. This film is a poem about guilt and self-righteousness, childishness and alienation, bad behavior and misplaced blame in a chaotic universe. Its subject matter is so apt for our world, encompassing everything from spats between mothers and teenage daughters to the very largest questions about 9/11 or Israel/Palestine, that I feel gutted upon leaving it.Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a teenage asshole in the vein of Rutgers student Dharun Ravi, whose lawyers recently tried to argue in court that he wasn’t homophobic when he set up a webcam to catch his gay roommate inflagrante with another man; rather, they argued, Ravi was only guilty of being a typical college-age asshole. That defense didn’t save Ravi from being declared guilty of bias intimidation. In Lisa’s case, being a typical teenage asshole means she’s accustomed to such mundane thoughtlessness that she has no idea what to do with the consequences of her own actions when they are shown, uncontrovertibly, to make her guilty of the most serious crimes.

It won’t spoil anything to tell you that very early on in the film, she witnesses — and is partly responsible for — the gruesome death of a woman crossing an ordinary street in New York. Like any typical teen, Lisa tries to suppress the event, returning to the usual business of an overprivileged private-school kid: lazy performances on tests and in her debate class, boys, snapping at her mother. But gradually that business takes on an edge it didn’t have before. She jerks around one boy by messing with a different one; her sharp-tongued takedowns of her mother have a bitterness she can’t control; her debates in class turn vicious. Lisa becomes the human manifestation of Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi pullyu, simultaneously grasping for and pushing back at everyone around her. It’s so frantic, this pushing and pulling, that it starts to look almost sociopathic.

That neurotic quality of her own behavior is not lost on her. So she belatedly decides to mourn the woman who died in her arms, and those feelings ultimately morph into something more complicated — feelings Lisa clearly cannot handle. Does she want some kind of retribution? Is it enough to drag other people along with her on these emotional highs and lows? Will she feel better if she just wins a few arguments with her mother or in her debate class?

You can’t help but fret when she forms an attachment to the dead woman’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin) — a beautiful woman about the age of Lisa’s mother with an appealing, deliberate pattern of speech that contrasts sharply to Lisa’s patter. Is it the woman’s grief that draws the teenager, or is it the illusion of calmness in her carefully-chosen sentences?

One of her teachers asks her early on whether she’s ever found herself suddenly fascinated by something she’d never shown an interest in before. “No,” she says, like the asshole she is, like the teenager who feels bound and determined to be contrary, independent. Yet something eats away at her edges. When her English teacher (Matthew Broderick) reads the Gerard Manly Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall/ To a young child,” we see a glimpse of something — is it interest, or is it recognition?

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Does she hear that poem, its warning words about mortality, about self-recognition, about the cruel side of such understanding? When her teacher asks her to comment, she snaps back at him that she has nothing to say.

Between Anna Paquin’s talent and Kenneth Lonergan’s perfect dialogue — this man has reproduced teenager talk like no one I’ve ever heard — you find yourself spending 150 minutes with a person who is, unlike Hopkins’ Margaret, neither truly a child nor very likeable, yet still somehow riveting to watch. She’s so reckless with that force of will, so angry. No one escapes her lash, least of all herself. You can’t watch this film without decrying the fact that Paquin has settled in for wallowing in all that campy True Blood TV nonsense (and let’s not forget the blonde dye job and the nasty tan), because in this role she shows a crazy genius for being way too smart and mean and unhinged, so much so that she comes close to despising herself.

Perhaps the most famous thing about this film (and the reason for its stingy limited release to only a few theaters in the U.S.) is the battle between director Lonergan and the distributors at Fox Searchlight. After completing the film in 2006, Lonergan embarked on a years-long battle with the distributor over its length. Whereas the director’s cut was nearly 3 hours long, the distributor demanded that it be cut by at least 30 minutes. Only after the intervention of Martin Scorcese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who together produced a 150-minute version that the director signed off on, did the film finally get released late last year — and then only in a tiny number of theaters. A grassroots movement of critics quickly grew up to keep the film in theaters and earn it a wider release (to limited success).

Even if I hadn’t known this back story, I would have noticed the film’s choppiness. I opened by calling this film a poem about guilt, and I mean it seriously — but it is a broken, choppy poem whose breaks and abrupt transitions feel increasingly messy as the film moves along. Anyone who knows and loves Lonergan’s perfectYou Can Count On Me(2000) knows that he is capable of laser-like poetic focus, unity, and subtlety, perhaps more than any other director you can think of. This is a broken poem, one that forces you to see its jumps and awkwardnesses.

But how is it possible that the film’s editorial choppiness nevertheless has a poetry of its own? It somehow nails down the film’s overall themes, and underlines them. Someday I want to see Lonergan’s own director’s cut; I can only hope he finds a way to release it on DVD when the time comes. But no matter how beautifully that version might flow from scene to scene, I won’t forget the way this version told me something else about the emotional pinball engendered by traumatic events, and the way a person might intermittently compartmentalize her own responses to the world around her.

My greatest fear is that Lonergan’s fight with Fox will embitter him to the screenwriting and directing he’s so extraordinarily good at. And if there’s anything I learned from watching Margaret, it’s that we need Kenneth Lonergan to help us through our ugly world. The film’s conclusion (resolution?) is so real, so simple, that it cut through the loud, rude chatter of those women behind me, such that I couldn’t muster much more anger toward them. Life is too short; as the heart grows older it will come to such sights colder.