What's that they say about accentuating the positive?
Writing about feminism and media often feels like banging pots and pans and yelling about how freaking slow things are to change. It doesn't look great, y'all, I'm not gonna lie. Hell, even the number of female critics and journalists isn't too encouraging, although I treasure and kvetch with my likeminded colleagues on the regular. There are a million and one things about this industry that are infuriating and ridiculous that I could go on about at length, and I've gotten the space and freedom to do just that with this column in the past year.
The end of the year isn't just a rad opportunity to binge on screeners and seriously depressing movies and arguments in 140-character snippets, but a chance to celebrate what's right with the film industry — which is why we all got into this anyway, right?
Once I started writing this list, I emailed David to say that it was already 2,000 words and I'd only gotten halfway through my list and I'm being played off the stage. Incredibly notable women that didn't make the cut are producer Megan Ellison (I don't care about her privilege, I'm happy she's using her billions of Oracle bucks to make movies that would otherwise never make it to theaters); "Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite for making a doc that's effecting change; Jane Campion for the strange beauty and horror of "Top of the Lake" (can we please get a short book of GJ's bon mots?); Sandra Bullock for absolutely owning a crazy outer space panic attack action movie, and "The Heat," and being a box office badass over 40; Lupita Nyong'o for an outstanding breakthrough role in a movie full of outrageously good performers; the women of "20 Feet From Stardom" for sharing their stories and giving me the chills with their gorgeous voices; and Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos for making one of the most intimate, tender, sensitive movies about first love and bolognaise sauce.
In no particular order, I present to you my entirely subjective list of women who rocked the film industry this year.
Haifaa Al-Mansour, writer/director of "Wadjda"
At its heart, "Wadjda" is a beautifully simple tale of a girl who wants a bike and has to find a way to earn the money for it herself. She's 10, and she's a little bit of a rebel and a tomboy, and she's funny and clever and wholly likeable. It's not a message movie, there's no Grand Lesson, but it illustrates life as a woman in Saudi Arabia in a way most of us haven't seen before.
If you went into the movie blind, without knowing the circumstances of its production, you'd still walk out feeling completely satisfied.
The fact that Al-Mansour directed it under the strictures of Saudi Arabian law — sometimes from inside a van using walkie-talkies to communicate with her crew — makes it all the more remarkable. It's the first feature-length movie made in Saudi Arabia, and the film Saudi film directed by a woman. But besides that, it is a wonderful movie.
Nicole Holofcener, writer/director of "Enough Said"
I don't adore all of Nicole Holofcener's movies, but when I do, I love then fiercely. "Enough Said" is the spiritual successor to "Walking and Talking," a movie about middle-aged divorcees who are a little bit more jagged around the edges, a little "tired of being funny," as Julia Louis-Dreyfus's character puts it. They're hoping to fall in love again but don't really know what that might look like. "Enough Said" is all the more heartbreaking because it finally gave James Gandolfini the chance to play a romantic lead, a gentle giant who sits in his backyard in sweat pants and Birkenstocks.
Some would argue its main plot device is contrived, but I don't particularly care. I've had dreams related to this movie. It made me feel like making a movie. It made me feel like the things I want to say are worth saying. What more can I ask of a work of art?
Jennifer Lee, writer/co-director of "Frozen"
Although the marketing might have you believe otherwise — seriously, the talking snowman is not the star — Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are some of the coolest and freshest female animated characters to come out of the House of Mouse since, well, Lee's last script, "Wreck-it Ralph." The next stop for "Frozen" should be Broadway, but in the meantime, it's still dominating the box office. This is her first director's credit — she shared duties with Chris Buck — but if Disney isn't totally insane, it won't be her last.
Lee's already planning ahead, though. She told The Hollywood Reporter, "I would love to be the first female director to do a giant sci-fi movie. I have a real love of sci-fi. A pretty obsessive love of sci-fi, actually."
Brie Larson, "Short Term 12"
The incredible success of "Short Term 12" as a film is due in no small part to its cast, although I can't say enough about Destin Cretton's script and direction. Larson is the movie's beating heart, a young woman who's struggling not to let her past overtake her even as her life's work is to help those who are equally, if not more, damaged. Brie's character is a barely healed open wound, but she's as strong as she is scared, she's as angry as she is sad, and she's as complex a character as you could want in film or literature. "Short Term 12" is a perfect storm of creative forces; without Larson or Cretton or her co-stars, it wouldn't be at all the same, but at the same time, there's no way it could have existed in its current form without Larson.
Larson also had small parts in "Don Jon" and "The Spectacular Now," and she made the most of them.
Scarlett Johansson, "Her"
Speaking of "Don Jon," Johansson escaped unscathed from her role as the one-dimensional dime that tried to tame Jon's johnson. Her role in "Her" as Samantha, an operating system that becomes so much more than she was programmed to be, proves that voice work is so much more than simply showing up and talking into a mic. (I mean, we knew that — no disrespect to my friends who do VO work — it's just that this makes it so much clearer.)
Plus, Johansson came in to do Samantha after writer/director Spike Jonze was editing the movie, so in addition to the demands of the character itself, she was basically acting by herself rather than being on set as Morton was. Jonze told NPR, "[Morton] was with us on set every day, and she was in [Joaquin Phoenix's] ear, and he was in her ear. And she was in another room, and they were just speak-talking. And so a lot of what he did was listen to her."
I was expecting "Her" to be an indictment of technology and how it's affect our ability to relate to each other, or about how men and women relate, or some other trend piece nonsense. Without giving too much away, I found it to be fascinating in a sort of metaphysical way, an exploration of human nature and its limitations, and that has everything to do with Samantha and the woman who gives her life.
Amy Adams, "Her" and "American Hustle"
Would it be possible for Adams to have taken on two more different roles in one year? In "Her," she's a lonely romantic who ditches her stifling marriage and commits to seeking out as much joy as she can in the limited time we're allowed on Earth. She's as much the curious, tender, open heart of the movie as Theodore (Phoenix) is.
In "Hustle," Adam's all décolletage and swagger. As Sydney Prosser, her eyes scrutinize and size up every situation she's in. Her every expression is so sly and quick that I couldn't stop trying to scrutinize every glance. Who's she conning? Who's she really in love with? What's she really scared of? Sydney's background could have made for a much less interesting character, someone boiled down to the scheming former stripper or something equally tasteless, but Adams reigns it in and gives us much more than what's on the page.
Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle" and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"
As Rosalyn Rosenfeld, with her "science oven" and anxiety and towering hair, Lawrence takes a pathetic character and makes her flesh and blood, equal parts hilarious, sad, and conniving. When she plants one on her husband's mistress Sydney (Adams), it's unhinged and aggressive, a little dangerous — and unscripted.
My esteemed colleague and friend Jordan Hoffman wondered, "Is Jennifer Lawrence Katniss-ing Us?" Is she playing us like Katniss is forced by President Snow to entertain and distract the people of Panem? Honestly, I don't care. I would respect her even more if she was being disingenuously charming and goofy. In the meantime, she's making boatloads of cash as a fascinating action heroine and changing the conversation to what an actor wore on the red carpet to what funny thing she said to catch the Caesar Flickermans of the world off guard.
Julie Delpy, "Before Midnight"
The "Before" trilogy wouldn't exist without Delpy. No other actress would have collaborated with Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke in the character creating and writing process like her, and no one would have come up with the "character" of Celine like she did. Jesse is another limp romantic schmuck without Celine. She brings the fire and the fight, the tits-out argument, the tears. Although it's always a danger to conflate an actor with his/her character, Delpy co-wrote these movies with Linklater and Hawke, and although it's also dangerous to conflate an actor giving an interview with the real person, I have a hunch there isn't a huge difference between Celine, public Delpy, and private Delpy. It's more complicated than that. It always is. But Delpy is one of a kind.
Delpy has no time for Hollywood. She gives none of the f*cks. If she's censoring herself for the press, I would love to know what she says privately.
Here's Delpy over at GQ.com:
"I'm the barking dog in the room. I'm like, "Hey, that's chauvinistic, you fuckers!" and they love it. It makes them laugh, you know? I'm such a feminist. But not in a wearing overalls and hating men kind of way. I love men. I was raised by feminists, so it's digested. Why am I even justifying myself? I'm a feminist."
She doesn't care that the idea of an overalls-wearing, man-hating feminist has gone the way of Dworkin, but she uses two of my favorite F words in one paragraph and that's good enough for me.
Lake Bell, "In A World…"
"In A World…" is the perfect example of someone just creating her own damn project because nothing else suffices. Who would have even thought about making a movie about the cutthroat world of voice-over acting? "In A World…" is charming and funny and smart, and it's a strong first feature. More importantly, it doesn't let women off the hook. That "sexy baby voice" and up-talking and all the other vocal tics she makes fun of cuts us off at the knees every freaking day! How are we supposed to get sh*t done if we sound like drawling, tentative tweens? It's self-defeating behavior; chauvinists like Gustav (Ken Marino) treat women like dumb garbage, but we don't have to make it easier for them every time we open our mouths.
Jehane Noujaim, "The Square"
Although "The Square" doesn't come out until January, I don't want to wait until next year to spread the word 'cause you need to see "The Square." And it's going to be on Netflix, so you have no excuse. Noujaim, who directed "Control Room" and "Startup.com," has made an imperative documentary about the Egyptian revolution.
Noujaim and her crew chronicle the early days of the Arab Spring, when people of all faiths took to Tahrir Square to oust Mubarak and his crooked regime, but it doesn't stop there. They took cameras and ran toward Tahrir Square even when the revolutionaries were being fired upon with live bullets and crushed by tanks. Few can claim to be that brave, myself included.
Many of us watched the revolution unfold on TV or across social media, but this is vital. This is up close. This focuses on a handful of activists trying to effect a change in their government and their disparate causes and shifting loyalties. "The Square" is thrilling because it chronicles events whose results are still unfolding, still affecting Egypt, still having a ripple effect across the world and inspiring others to take to the streets with cameras and smart phones in hand to demand a change.