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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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It’s the strangest feeling, being with this man. Her attraction to him overwhelms her, almost to the point of making her unselfconscious of her facial expressions. Hester (Rachel Weisz) catches herself every now and then, gazing at him (Tom Hiddleston) with such naked longing that she might well have drool coming out the corner of her mouth.

Women like her — educated, beautiful, refined, and let’s not forget married — aren’t supposed to act like this, feel like this. Women like her spend their lives staying under control. What you realize in watching her face is that this is precisely the state of being that women like her, like us, like me, both desire and fear with every ounce of our beings.

What started this feeling? The fact that he told her how beautiful she is, all those months ago? Or is it a chemical dynamism — his smell, his taste, all of it combines to make her so wild for him?

One night, as she spoons his sleeping, lanky naked body — her face only reaches his angular shoulder — she opens her mouth and gives that shoulder a long, satisfying lick.

It’s so telling, really, that she would try to spoon him. Ridiculous because he’s so tall; their bodies don’t fit together in that configuration. But that’s the way of their relationship: she always reaches out for more, while he only seems there with her about half the time.

That’s the fear, of course. It’s not just that Freddie doesn’t have the same passion for her, no matter how charming he can be. It’s that her own passion feels so boundless, even increasingly so as he retreats. Her passion for him, enhanced by the periods of his withdrawal, goes to dangerous places.

Whereas this relationship unearths new depths of love and sexual excitement in her, it reveals Freddie’s true shallowness. He has no idea what to do with his woman who so willingly enslaves herself to him.

That passion was nowhere to be found in her marriage to William (Simon Russell Beale), the respectable barrister and judge. No matter how much he loved her (and he tries in vain to persuade her that he loved her very much indeed), this new love of hers makes her almost disdainful of other forms.

One time her husband accuses her of feeling mere lust for Freddie. It’s a good guess, but wrong nevertheless. How could he know anything like this love?

At rare moments she regains her self-control. Not just for Freddie’s or William’s benefit, but because it helps her to see the situation more clearly. The situation is a mess. Even in her effort to draw back inside herself, we see the truth: her desire is a problem.

Isn’t that how it always is? Desire causes problems. Especially in women. Women are supposed to be the desired, not the desirers. Women are supposed to appear nicely put together, in clothes that flatter them like the deep blues she wears so often. What problems will be unleashed when she releases her self control?

Academics often speak of women’s desire as a problem that resists intellectualization. What to do with the woman who’s harassed into that affair with her boss, but she falls for him in the end? What to do with the exotic dancer who says she loves sex? It’s so embarrassing, so weak, so much what we don’t want these women to do.

Watching Weisz’s face register these emotions makes the dangers of desire as palpable as I’ve ever seen it onscreen. She has no filter left. It’s not the flashiest role in town, but it’s Oscar-worthy for its rawness. As beautiful as she is — is there another actress more beautiful than Rachel Weisz? — her face startles you with its nakedness and lack of control to the point that you realize she is all of us, she is you and me.

Except unlike the rest of us, she has committed herself to a form of love as risky as it is life-altering and intermittently fulfilling. And when we watch her wrestle with that commitment, we feel how much she wrestles with the problem of her own desire. When Freddie’s absent, her desire lingers and floats around those drab postwar rooms, like the clouds of smoke she exhales — smoke that has nowhere to go except back into the pores of her skin, into the shabby upholstered furniture, into the dark recesses of that depressing flat.

What a gorgeous, thought-provoking film, and such a rich revival of the women’s weeper/ melodrama. And what an amazing actress that Rachel Weisz has become in such short order.