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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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Lysistrata:

There are a lot of things about us women
That sadden me, considering how men
See us as rascals.

Calonice:

As indeed we are!

Those of you familiar with Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata may have forgotten how funny it is, and how wicked. In it, the wise Lysistrata convinces the rest of the women of Greece that they can bring an end to war by refusing to have sex with their husbands until the men, driven crazy by lust, agree to peace — leading to all manner of surprisingly goofy scenes in which desperately erect men desert their ranks in droves and agree to the women’s demands.

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant, on va où?) is an ingenious reinterpretation of this ancient Greek play for our modern era. Set in a tiny Lebanese village evenly split between Christians and Muslims, in which the village women make regular pilgrimages to the cemetery to mourn their dead husbands and sons, Labaki captures all the lightness, sex, and humor of the original, but bolsters it with moments of dead seriousness about women’s grief and modern-day religious conflicts. If you saw Labaki’s earlier romantic comedy Caramel (2007) you know she has a gift for sexy humor. Believe me, you want to see this one.

Between the village’s small size and its isolation from other villages, its villagers have created a precarious peace between villagers — at least for the moment. Christian and Muslim women visit the cemetery together, sharing their grief for men lost in religious warfare. They may visit different churches for religious services, but the priest and the imam sit together in the café owned by the widow Amale (Labaki, whose heavily kohled eyes make her all the more distinctive), as do men of both faiths. But this peace is fragile.

When news seeps about renewed religious violence in a neighboring town, the men start to bicker amongst themselves, and the strict lines between Muslim and Christian are reestablished with mounting aggression. What will be the inevitable result? The women will have to bury more dead loved ones.

The village women share a mission that bridges the religious divide: to distract the men from fighting. Their efforts never quite correspond to those used by Aristophanes’ Greek women, but they reveal the same comic sensibility. When the village gathers in the evening to watch the sole TV that gets reception (a signal achievement of jerry-rigging it to a satellite dish by two village boys), their enjoyment is interrupted by a news broadcast about deaths in religious skirmishes nearby — so the town’s women leap up and invent myriad squabbles with one another and with the townsmen in a gambit to drown out the news and keep their minds off the subject of religious retaliation.

Meanwhile, Mme. Amale’s budding cross-religious romance with Rabih (Julian Farhat), the village’s painter and handyman — a romance that each of them lives out with sultry glances and hypnotic daydreams of singing and dancing together (yes, this film has beautiful and fanciful musical numbers!) — gets interrupted when Rabih, like all the other men, gets drawn into fighting alongside his Muslim fellows. Breaking the film’s generally light tone, Amale screams at him and all the other men to leave her café, reminding them that this behavior will just give her and the other women more bodies to bury and mourn.

(The images I’ve included with this post would seem to indicate that Mme. Amale is the Lysistrata figure, but that’s misleading; she’s really only one of many distinctive women who share responsibility for rascally peace-making. What can I say? When I raided the internet for images, Labaki got top billing.)

Maybe Lysistrata remains so vivid 2500 years after its original performance (it was first performed in 411 BCE) because there’s something about the battle of the sexes that hasn’t changed: when men make stupid, trigger-happy decisions about war, they ignore the burden they place on women. Yet the clever woman can use men’s testosterone to her advantage if she thinks like a chess player. In imagining new moves for her village women, writer-director Labaki encompasses both silliness and grave seriousness — right down to the spectacular end.

When we saw this film in a crowded theater last night, everyone got the jokes Labaki dished out at us: the whole audience laughed at all the right times, and one Arabic speaker even sang along, quietly, to the memorable song about the wonders of hashish. (A song about the wonders of hashish! Now that’s a pacifistic philosophy we can all embrace!) I enjoyed it all the more because of that environment, and found the dead serious moments all the more affecting because they served as such stark reminders of the real costs of war.

I can’t tell you what a great and silly pleasure this film is — perhaps all the more so because unlike so many grim Middle Eastern films about the horrors of war, this one sneaks in its gravity and pacifism via broad humor, vivid characters, and a couple of great tunes. No wonder it has won audience awards as well as last year’s Cannes Film Festivals’ Prize of the Ecumenical Jury: this film is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. This film is sure to appear somewhere on next year’s La Jefita awards for the Best Female-Oriented and/or Directed Films of 2012.

Well, aside from those hot and dreamy sequences with Amale and Rabih, of course. Mmmm.