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.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Film Discoveries of 2015

As much as I love the end-of-year "Top 10" lists, at a certain point, they start to look the same. As such, one of my favorite series of lists comes from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, where people submit their favorite "film discoveries" -- movies that aren't new, but that they saw for the first time that year. In that spirit, I submit:


10. Popcorn (1991)
My favorite from this year's "Dismember the Alamo" event.  I've already written about it here, but this is just a lovely bowl of candy goodness for any horror fan. Sure, there are some holes (in part because of development drama behind the scenes), but this is an incredibly entertaining movie. The B-movie spoofs alone make this worth watching. Add in Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) as the final girl and a brilliant performance by Tom Villard and this is a must-see. It also contains this gem of a line - "There's more social relevance in Police Academy 5 than in all of Ingmar Bergman's cinematic smorgasbord." - which I have no trouble believing came out of a hipster film geek's mouth.

9. The Big Knife (1955)
Earlier this year, at the prompting of my favorite movie podcast, I started to delve more deeply into the work of Robert Aldrich, starting with this film (mostly because it was streaming on Netflix and was the easiest to find). Jack Palance plays a movie star who wants out of the business because he's slowly starting to lose his soul (and his wife, played by Ida Lupino). A bleach-blonde Rod Steiger (playing a slimy studio boss) then proceeds to manipulate him to unheard-of lows, to the point that the movie's depressing ending is almost a relief. Shelley Winters also appears as a not-quite-starlet whose biggest roles have been schmoozing executives in dresses borrowed from the costume department. Aldrich had an interesting take on human frailty -- that people are always going to screw up, but they'll at least try to do the right thing, but it probably won't ultimately work out -- and this movie is a great example of that.

8. Lionheart (1990)
My favorite entry in "Van Dammage" (another stellar Drafthouse event), this is everything you expect in a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a few things you might not be expecting. In a lot of ways, this closely resembles another Van Damme film, Bloodsport, but here Van Damme isn't so much fighting for glory as he is fighting to help preserve the family of his recently deceased brother. Harrison Page gives a great supporting performance as Joshua, a man who runs fights for money and who hooks him up Cynthia (The Most 80s Woman Ever), who does the same thing but on a bigger scale. There are actually some interesting class issues at work in this movie, and the family drama, though hugely melodramatic, is pretty darn engaging.  I feel the need to point out that this is also the movie that gave us Jean-Claude in a singlet, fighting in an empty swimming pool.

7. Someone's Watching Me! (1978)
This is actually a TV movie, but it's written and directed by John Carpenter, right around the time he made Halloween and was at the height of his powers. This is a stalking movie starring Lauren Hutton, in which an unseen killer torments women until they commit suicide. It is also unmistakably a movie about casual sexism. Hutton's character has to deal with unwanted advances and turns the tables by doing some advancing of her own. She also strikes up a friendship with a woman played by Adrienne Barbeau (in a then rare sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian). This movie is kind of a product of its time (it was made at a fairly specific time in our culture, when people were starting to get interested in surveillance but there wasn't a lot of regulation yet), but it's still genuinely creepy and suspenseful with some great female characters. Probably one of my favorite things in Carpenter's oeuvre.

6. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
You might see this film as a knock-off of Ben-Hur, but you'd be wrong. One of the more intelligent and thoughtful entries in the "sword and sandal" genre, this is also a movie that boasts a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (suck it, Ben-Hur, you only have an 88%!). More about the events that began the onset of the empire's demise, rather than the actual end of it, this movie has a stellar cast (Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, a pre-Sound of Music Christopher Plummer, Mel Ferrer, James Mason, Omar Sharif) and some really well-done action scenes, including a breathtaking chariot race that gives Ben-Hur's chariot race a run for its money (yes really). The set design also deserves a mention, especially the replica of the Roman Forum, which is still the largest outdoor film set ever built.

5. Roar (1981)
Holy frickin' balls, this movie. I won't recount it all here, because it would take up too much space, but I HIGHLY recommend reading Tim League's article on the background of this movie. Director Noel Marshall stars in the film, along with his then wife Tippi Hedren and their children (including a teenage Melanie Griffith). Oh, and about 100 "big cats" (a cornucopia of untamed lions, tigers, jaguars, etc.), which lived with Marshall and his family on their California estate. I spent the entirety of this movie with my jaw on the floor, thinking "what on earth made someone think this was a good idea?!?!".  By the time the film was complete (an effort which took several years), 70 members of the cast and crew had been injured, including Melanie Griffith, who had to have facial reconstructive surgery, and DP Jan de Bont, who is quite explicitly scalped on camera in the film. This movie is insane, and there's no way anything like it would ever be made now.

4. Passione d'amore (1981)
This is the film that inspired Stephen Sondheim's musical Passion. I saw a French version with no subtitles, but the filmmaking was so strong that it made little difference. The story revolves around a young soldier who becomes the object of obsession of a homely, perpetually ill woman. Valeria D'Obici (who won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her role) is a revelation, and the weight of selling the love story is largely on her shoulders. Her character, Fosca, is so clingy and manipulative that it's difficult to root for her, but she makes you completely buy that the handsome soldier she's in love with will return that love in time. This is melodrama of the highest order (Douglas Sirk could never), but it's so beautiful and compelling that I couldn't take my eyes off it. (Side note: If you like this movie, I recommend checking out Sondheim's musical as well.) 

3. ...All the Marbles (1981)

Another Aldrich film, and his last. A post-Columbo Peter Falk plays a guy who manages a female tag-team wrestling duo. Their lives are decidedly unglamorous, and they hate it a lot of the time, but they know how good they are and they keep plugging away, trying to get someone to give them a shot at a championship title. The wrestling scenes are brutal, and you can practically smell the sweat in and around the ring. Falk is obviously the star here, but Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon are wonderful and have great, complicated characters to play with. Burt Young also appears, as the slimiest promoter you've ever seen, and Richard Jaeckel also shows up as a referee. This might look like a sleazy T&A comedy from the 1980s, but this movie is the real deal and a great capper to Aldrich's career.

2. Red Rock West (1993)
Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper and J.T. Walsh. That's all you really need to know, but here's a bit more. The film's director, John Dahl, does more television work than anything nowadays (including a couple of episodes of Hannibal), but his early film work was really solid, this film included. Cage plays Michael, a drifter who is mistaken for someone named Lyle, who J.T. Walsh's character is hiring to kill his wife. This reminded me a lot of Blood Simple, in that it's a rural noir with a lot of twists and double-crosses. Nicolas Cage's career is an interesting study in an actor who always brings their A-game, no matter how crappy the material, but when he does get good stuff, you can absolutely see why he became a star.

1. The House at the End of Time (2014)
This Venezuelan horror-suspense flick really took me by surprise, in a lot of ways, and I hesitate to say too much about it for fear of spoiling it -- I'm grateful that I knew very little going into it, and I think that's the best way to experience it. The plot, roughly, involves a woman named Dulce who is imprisoned for a murder that we know from the beginning she didn't commit. It's not clear what happened at first, but Dulce seems to be experiencing some paranormal phenomena. After a thirty year imprisonment, Dulce is released but remains under house arrest in the same house where the murder took place (elegantly solving the "why doesn't she just leave the house?" problem that plagues most "scary house" movies). And with the help of a priest, she tries to figure out exactly what happened all those years ago. This is seriously one of the better movies of this subgenre I've seen. The last twenty or thirty minutes were so satisfying to me, and there really aren't many movies that have made me as happy a viewer as I was during this movie.