Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Awesome Women of Cinema 2015

This was a pretty stellar year for women in film. Yes, there's still a long way to go, but some of the most successful movies this year (11 out of the top 25, in fact) had female protagonists or centered around women. So I want to celebrate some of the awesome women I saw at the movies this year.

1. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the Wives and the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road
Well, this one goes without saying. Women who are heroes with agency and who are not sexualized are usually hard to come by in movies, but MMFR is teeming with them. Young women, older women (old lady sharp shooters, no less!), and a badass truck-driving leader with a shaved head and mechanical arm, who you mostly see from the shoulders up. What a time to be alive!

2. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) in Inside Out
Okay, Sadness and Joy aren't "women" per se, but they are definitely anthropomorphic and feminine coded. And despite their simple labels, they are each fairly complicated -- Joy can be sad and shed tears, Sadness can smile. And of course Riley's wonderful emotional complexities are what the movie is about. She also has a nice mix of traditionally feminine traits and not-so-feminine traits; she plays hockey and reads sappy vampire romance novels.

3. Joy (Brie Larson) and Nancy (Joan Allen) in Room
Joy (or "Ma," as she's referred to most often) survives and ultimately escapes a horrible situation, with the help of her son, but she's not impenetrable. Every once in a while you can see her let a bit of despair in, and that comes back in a big way when an interviewer suggests that she might have made a poor choice regarding her son's well-being. Nancy, for her part, is a solid rock of support (in sharp contrast to her ex-husband), never once, not even subtly, blaming her daughter for what happened.

4. Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina
A robot, not technically a woman, but ... well, yes she is a woman. The story, from Ava's perspective, is much like Joy's in Room, actually. She's a captive, and she gets herself out by any means she can. She makes her own agency.

5. Carol (Cate Blanchett), Therese (Rooney Mara) and Abby (Sarah Paulson) in Carol
It annoyed me recently to see Carol referred to as a "predator" when all she does in this movie is pursue a woman she is interested in the same way a man would. I love that she's determined to live her life on her own terms, even if it means seeing less of her own child. I love that Therese, who preferred toy trains to dolls as a little girl, is reticent about vacationing with her boyfriend, even though he assumes she'll be up for it. But I especially love Abby's devoted friendship to Carol after their romantic relationship has dissolved, as well as her kindness to Carol's new love Therese. Women are almost *never* portrayed that way after a break-up; they're always jealous harpies (men are too, for that matter).

6. Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) in Joy
(This was the year of women named Joy, apparently.) Invented the Miracle Mop. Figured out when manufacturer was trying to screw her and turned the situation to her advantage. Convinced QVC to sell her product and film the spots herself. Managed not to kill excessively demanding and horrible family members. Stayed friends with her ex-husband who ended up being her close advisor. She's a textbook role model, but a role model nonetheless.

7. Amy (Amy Schumer), Kim (Brie Larson) and Dianna (Tilda Swinton) in Trainwreck
No, Hollywood, not all women are dying to get married, nor is there anything wrong with the ones who are. Amy Schumer basically won 2015 and changed the way a lot of people were willing to look at women, especially in comedy. Her character in this movie is a human disaster, as many women are, and even though Amy is the protagonist, the movie ultimately doesn't consider the more traditional Kim the bad guy. Dianna is also an interesting case; she's pretty one-note, but it's a note women don't often get to play.

8. Susan (Melissa McCarthy), Rayna (Rose Byrne), Nancy (Miranda Hart) and Elaine (Allison Janney) in Spy
This movie is almost (ALMOST) as awesome, lady wise, as Fury Road. Susan might seem like a familiar role early on -- the competent schlubby assistant who pines for a man she works with/for from afar. But the movie subverts the hell out of it. She's never the butt of the joke (nor is her delightfully awkward co-worker Nancy), and she is actually quite capable in the field. Rose Byrne's Rayna is an incredible comedic villain, and if it weren't for Melissa McCarthy's apparently limitless charisma, she might threaten to steal the show. And now that Judi Dench is no longer 007's boss in the Bond films, it's nice to have Elaine as an alternative lady-calling-the-shots in a traditionally male-centric world.

9. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in Crimson Peak
Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Hunnam are pretty faces, but Edith and Lucille drive all the action here. Edith is as independent as a woman could possibly be in this time period, at the beginning *and* the end of this movie. Lucille is just an all-around delightful villainess, and I had no idea Jessica Chastain could be so scary and intimidating. She's like Ms. Danvers, only more powerful. The final showdown on the titular "crimson peak" between these two women is pretty amazing.

10. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Can I get a hell yeah for more than one woman in a Star Wars movie?! Rey is not just "the girl"; she is the main hero of the movie (and presumably the entire new trilogy). Leia isn't a princess who has to be rescued; she's a frickin' General, leading the Resistance. Maz Kanata is a wonderful mentor figure who reminds me of Yoda. And we may not see a lot of Phasma, but she seems to be the new Boba Fett -- just a cool character that people love (without needing an elaborate prequel backstory *ahem*).

11. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) in Tangerine
This movie is a snapshot of a very specific place and circle of people. At the center are Alexandra and Sin-Dee, trans sex workers whose beat is Santa Monica Blvd. They're close friends and they look out for each other, never more movingly than in the film's final scene. Feminism in our world is all too often white straight cisgender feminism (and almost always sex worker exclusionary, unless it can be Disney-fied, a la Pretty Woman), leaving stories about people who don't fit that specific mold ignored. This movie is not only a compelling story, shot in a way that makes it feel like nothing you've ever seen before, it also specifically tells the stories of two non-white trans women in the sex worker industry. It doesn't gawk at them, it doesn't treat them like interesting oddities; they are simply two women in a very specific world, and there's no way not to sympathize with them when they experience the brutal transmisogyny that they undoubtedly experience every day.

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