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!)

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!