Year End Wrap Up- The Women Writers Speak

by Melissa Silverstein on December 23, 2010

in Critics/Journalists,Women Writers

As you know male critics, writers and bloggers outnumber the women, and while gender is no indicator of what people will like or respond to, it is vital and important to have a diverse group of voices talking about films and other forms of entertainment. So, to wrap up the year, I asked a variety of women who cover the business to answer a couple of questions about films they liked and what was going on with women in film.

Here are some trends I noticed in the comments:

  • People saw and appreciated Agora and Going the Distance two films ignored by virtually everyone.
  • Katherine Heigl has a lot of work to do to get back in people’s good graces.
  • Strong young female characters had a great year on film.
  • Women directors still have a long way to go but the fact that no one is talking about the fact that two of the strongest films of the year are directed by women is not a big deal.
  • Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is a favorite of many.

Here’s what they had to say (the responses are not uniform)

Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY film reporter

Best film about women or about woman or about a girl this year?

Black Swan

Best feature directed by a woman?

Winter’s Bone

Best documentary directed by a woman?

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Have we seen any progress with women directors – AKA has there been a Bigelow effect?

Not really. It wouldn’t really show up for at least two years or so anyway. There seemed to be more prominent films directed by women last year, and if both The Kids Are All Right and Winters Bone are nominated for best pic, that would be great. But it is doubtful each director will be nominated. They probably will be for screenplay however. Until women are regularly in the running for best director I doubt much will change.

What stood out for you most this year about women and film?

The horrible depiction of their lives in so called romantic comedies. When someone like James Brooks blows it big time, what hope is there? Even Eat Pray Love was surprisingly joyless for what it was supposed to represent.

What was the worst thing that happened this year for women and film.

Katherine Heigl in two films and what Sandra Bullock went through but she handled the tabs so well so it is sort of a triumph however.

Thelma Adams, US Weekly, author of the upcoming Playdate

I am not one for bests, but the depiction of Mattie Ross by Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit was a portrait of a father’s daughter who became the master of her fate. How? Character! This fourteen-year-old female had intelligence, backbone, drive and the willingness to stand up as an individual on the frontier. Not every teenager is Miley Cyrus. We know that. And, yet, how many films show this aspect of the real children we know, the ones capable of knowing their own minds, of acting courageously in adversity, the individual spirits? The Coen Brothers stand out because of their ability to tell a strong story, and there are so many amazing stories of strong (but not phony) women. This is one of them. And it’s not the only one. It echoes Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone. This teenaged girl also has a heroic arc as she seeks her meth-cooker father, dead or alive, in order to protect her family from foreclosure. Again and again, she is warned off her mission, emotionally and physically. Yet she perseveres. She won’t back down. This characterization of strong young women with the power to change their fates is a welcome addition to 2010 – a stand out year in movies.

Paula Schwartz, NY Times Carpetbagger contributing writer

It’s not the best film that’s woman centric but it’s certainly one of the most intriguing and that’s the Lisbeth Salander trilogy. Many of us would like to look like her and be as independent and brainy, without her pain and aggression and anger of course. When I spoke to Noomi I think she put her finger on why women especially find her so fascinating, “The thing that I liked about her from the very beginning  is that she is such a survivor. She’s like a warrior…She wants to live and she wants to be free and she will never give up.”

That’s like every day life for most women….She’s sexy and she’s not a babe, which leads me to one movie you omitted: “Burlesque.”  Okay it’s gaudy, cheesy, but how could any movie with Cher be all bad? Just the fact she’s 64 and still kicking and still hot is an inspiration for all of us. On the down side there’s Christine Aguilera, who’s very talented, but whose every cliche hooker move just points out how much more interesting and riveting Cher is….if nothing else this movie just reminds you of how terrific Cher was in movies like “Mask,” “Mermaids” and especially “Silkwood.”

Two other outstanding performance were Paprika Steen in Applause and Lesley Manville, whose depiction of longing and loneliness and lost is unbelievably heartbreaking.  But for my money, the Academy Award should go to Korean actress Do-yeon Jeon in “Secret Sunshine,” who just tears your heart out as a grieving mother and proves her dramatic range in a role as dissimilar in “The Housemaid,” which will be released at the end of January.

We’ve been having the “this is it getting better for women directors dialogue” since Ida Lupino…the short answer is no…okay, maybe marginally.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Qualitatively and quantitatively,  2010 a very good year for women filmmakers. At the box office: not so much. (Last year, Julie & Julia and It’s Complicated were mainstream hits.)

Let me put it differently: At the box office, only three out of the top-ten grossing films had significant female character: Alice in Wonderland, Twilight: Eclipse and Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. And all those females are under 20 years of age. Needless to say, none of the top-10 grossing films was female-directed.

Very impressed by The Kids Are All Right, my favorite film by  woman in 2010;  very much liked Winter’s Bone, Tiny Furniture. Night Catches Us, Cairo Time and Nowhere Boy.

Happy to see that women of color — Tanya Hamilton of Night Catches Us and Sanaa Hamri of Just Wright– are getting  films made and distributed.

Happy to see that women artists like Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), Tanya Hamilton (Night Catches Us), Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways), Julie Taymor (The Tempest) and Sam Taylor-Jackson (Nowhere Boy) are making movies with distinctive different means of visual storytelling.

A “Bigelow Effect”? Too early to tell.

While I very much liked Countdown to Zero, Waste Land, The Lottery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child and Disturbing the Universe, most of them profile men. Is Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work this year’s only female-directed doc focused on a woman?

Where I begin to see the impact of women in film is in Date Night and Going the Distance — romantic comedies respectively disguised as an action movie and a fratboy comedy.

Apart from The Kids Are All Right, Fair Game and For Colored, Girls Eat Pray Love, there weren’t a whole lot of mature women in the best films of 2010. (The men, of Greenberg and Grown Ups  and Social Network are any indication, tended to be overgrown boys.)

But there were a lot of valiant teenage girls in 2010: Kristen Stewart in Twilight: Eclipse and The Runaways, Mia Wasikowska in The Kids are All Right and Alice in Wonderland, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Chloe Grace Moretz in Let Me In and Kick-Ass, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Zoe Kazan in The Exploding Girl, Lena Dunham in Tiny Furniture.I felt as if I was witnessing a generational shift as Millennial actresses took the stage.

Sasha Stone, Awards Daily

What was the best film about women or about woman or about a girl this year?

Winter’s Bone and True Grit.  In both of these films, a scrappy, resourceful teen becomes the hero of the story.  You don’t see that.  And they do it without having to use sex.  I am not opposed to sex as a powerful tool for women, but is also important to put forward the notion that we have other strengths at our disposal.

What was the best feature directed by a woman?

Winter’s Bone.  Debra Granik hit it out of the park so that her being a woman doesn’t even enter into it unless it’s been forced through to draw attention to it.  She is gifted visually and knows how to tell a good story. Moreover, she stared down into the abyss to get at the raw nature of this story.

What was the best doc directed by a woman?

Countdown to Zero.

Have we seen any progress since last year with women directors – AKA has there been a Bigelow effect?

Yes.  We are now looking more at women as powerful forces in the film industry.  It is easy to just say that it hasn’t made much of a difference since the Best Director contenders seem to be mostly men, but it’s possible that a woman can still sneak in there, and there will likely be at least two female screenwriting nominees, possibly more.

What stood out for you most this year about women and film?

That two films directed by women are strong contenders in the awards race.  Mostly no one is making a big deal about this but the fact remains, it’s unusual to have one at all, but two seemed like an out and out impossibility.

What was the worst thing that happened this year for women and film.

Probably Julie Taymor’s vision being misunderstood once again.  Perhaps a decade from now her work will be rediscovered and appreciated.

Elisabeth Rappe, CHUD and Film.com, among many others

You know it was a pretty decent year for women in film when you actually have a hard time picking what female-oriented film you liked the best.

I’m torn between three women-oriented films: “Winter’s Bone,” “True Grit” (which, despite having more male characters, is really about Mattie), and “Black Swan.”   Agora comes as a close fourth. “Winter’s Bone” and “True Grit” both starred very strong, capable, and determined women whose gender was an afterthought to their goal.  By contrast, “Black Swan” was about a fragile and broken young woman who snaps under the strain of sexuality and perfection.  I’ve heard Black Swan called an “unfeminist” film, but I don’t think anything could be further from the truth.  There’s nothing misogynist about exploring darkness, illness and pain, even if the medium is a fantastic one.  “Black Swan” is a “Taxi Driver,” and isn’t the point of feminist filmmaking to explore all the facets of women as people?  Thankfully, we had quite a few films like that this year, and it was a welcome break from the drippy “chick flicks” that the years have been offering.

Unfortunately, I’m behind on women directed films, but I think “The Kids Are All Right” offered a really refreshing dynamic. Many people are saying it wouldn’t be getting attention if it wasn’t a lesbian-oriented story, but since that’s precisely the point of it, I think it’s worth celebrating.  I don’t know if it is the strongest and most complicated film, and it’s not perfect, but it’s small and accepted stories like these that make gay oriented films make strides to becoming more mainstream.

That’s also the reason I nominated (and championed) Nanette Burstein’s “Going the Distance” which was unfairly maligned by a lot of critics. It’s not the usual romantic claptrap, and it’s probably more astute about the 21st century economy than last year’s “Up in the Air.”   Plenty of women have directed romantic comedies, and few of them have stood out as anything special, but I think Burstein gave “Going the Distance” a believable and honest core.  It wasn’t “The Bounty Hunter” and I hope it has a second and better life on DVD.

My favorite woman-directed documentary this year was Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s “Sweetgrass.” The highest compliment you can give any documentary or film was that you didn’t know it was directed by a woman (impossible, says the wider world!), and I think “Sweetgrass” is a particularly keen example. It’s just a snapshot of a vanished world, with no commentary or angle, and it could be by anyone.  It’s a documentary ideal and pure anthropology. I think it’s important that a woman was a part of that.  I think women documentary directors are often stereotyped as only filming or caring about women’s issues, and I think we need to highlight the ones that break that mold as much as possible.

I don’t think there has been a Bigelow effect, however.  Women still lag woefully behind when it comes to helming feature films, and you don’t see any female names being considered for big superhero or fantasy flicks.  Gary Ross got “The Hunger Games” gig, which is disappointing considering it is a franchise with a strong heroine at its core.

I think there has been a subtle shift in the way women directors are written about – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of “gee whiz!” reporting about Cholodenko, for instance – but that may only be because no woman director did a “macho” film like “The Hurt Locker.”  If a woman had directed “True Grit” there might be more of that analysis and excitement, but I think the fact that the big contenders directed more “feminine” movies (Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”, “The Kids Are All Right”) means no one is remarking on it. That’s as it should be, but I also wonder it suggests these are “safe” topics and “safe” films, and thus not worthy of much gender discussion or debate by the media.

In fact, that’s what has really stood out for me – best, worst, and otherwise.   We had several films with incredible female characters and no one is really talking about them.  The blogosphere (and I include everyone in that, from movie sites to general interest sites like Jezebel) is quick to blast “The Bounty Hunter” and “The Sex and the City 2″ for being fluffy, demeaning, and trashy, and rightfully so. But where is the praise for Jennifer Lawrence or Hailee Steinfeld?  Why didn’t anyone talk about “Agora”?  We had a brief flurry of “girl power!” discussion about Chloe Moretz and Angelina Jolie, but that was it.   We’re really quick to point out the misogyny of filmmaking, but we don’t praise when directors and writers get it right.   I wish one-tenth of the ranting about whether or not “The Social Network” was sexist was devoted to how icy and hard “Winter’s Bone” was.

It’s very frustrating to me.  I want less stories about the Bechdel Rule, and more about the method performances of Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman.  We need to be highlighting the transformative and powerful work women have accomplished this year, and not harping what was wrong about “Life As We Know It.”   I know it’s fun to vent, and trashy deserves scorn, but enough already.

And one last note – isn’t it odd that two of the toughest, meanest, and most physical performances came from teenagers?  I’m not sure whether to be thrilled that Chloe Moretz and Hailee Steinfeld out-muscled their older and established contemporaries, or upset at how few stories have let mature actresses show their grit.    But I think I’ll take my own advice, and be thrilled, especially as so many young women might see them and be inspired to tell their own strong stories.

Jenni Miller – is writer and critic at Cinematical.

There were many excellent films about and by women this year. Fish Tank finally opened in the US, but I think so much time had passed since it played Toronto, in addition to a January limited release, that it simply didn’t get the attention it deserved. It’s definitely a tough little movie, so it would be a hard sell to audiences anyway, but I think it stands shoulder to shoulder with Winter’s Bone. Winter’s Bone, also one of the year’s best, has more in common with Fish Tank than a female writer/director and young female lead; both movies take the viewer into socioeconomic environments that are, for the most part, utterly unfamiliar to us. And both treat these environments with respect and tenderness; they’re not exploitative, despite what you might think at first glance.

I also thought Night Catches Us was excellent, but it definitely got lost in the shuffle. You can feel the love that the director and cast put into every frame, and it deftly mixes a love story with politics — in this case, the Black Panthers.

One of the most exciting movies I saw this year was Made in Dagenham. It’s about capital F feminism, as well as labor rights, and it’s colorful and funny and powerful. Sally Hawkins, whom I adore, is an outspoken feminist, and I think that some of her comments in interviews this year rank with Helen Mirren’s takedown of Hollywood’s obsession with marketing to the “the 18- to 25-year-old male and his penis.”

Speaking of, Mirren is so right. It’s not that there aren’t female filmmakers or female-driven vehicles for studios to take a chance on, or even that there are women in high positions at some studios; it’s that everyone is afraid to take a step back from targeting that market and milking it for all its worth (heh). I don’t know that there is a Bigelow effect, or if there is, it’s so minute that it will take a long time for us to actually see it. The directors I’ve talked to certainly haven’t felt it. I still think TV offers the most freedom, the juiciest parts, the coolest writing and/or directing gigs for women.

One of this year’s big breakthroughs is Gemma Arterton; I think she’s fantastic in two extremely different movies — Tamara Drewe, which was wonderfully adapted from Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel for the screen by Moira Buffini, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Another is, of course, Noomi Rapace, who I find mesmerizing to watch. I’m also excited to see what Emma Stone will do next; Easy A really gave us a chance to see how sharp and witty she can be, and I’m looking forward to her next movie with Easy A director Will Gluck, Friends With Benefits. I like that Easy A addressed how confusing and weird and effed up things are today for girls and guys in a smart, really funny way, and I hope Friends With Benefits will do the same.

Salt is ridiculously kickass fun, and I really hope that we will be getting some sequels. I would watch Angelina Jolie in this role until the cows came home. Rabbit Hole is one of my favorites this year, and I adore John Cameron Mitchell; I usually avoid any movies dealing with grief because I find them manipulative and shallow, but Rabbit Hole is utterly satisfying and shot through with humor and beauty. Black Swan was terrifying and wondrous, and I want to see it again and again. I Am Love is gorgeous and delicious. Cairo Time is a wonderful muted romance, and comparing Patricia Clarkson’s role here with her role in Easy A shows you how frigging amazing she is. Going the Distance was goofy, sexy, and sweet. Somewhere is a peek into a fascinating, sad, weird world. And Heartbreaker is one of THE best romantic comedies I’ve seen in ages!

Dorothy Snarker, Dorothy Surrenders

What was the best film about women or about woman or about a girl this year?

The Kids Are All Right for its real and raw portrayal of a gay marriage that showed that families – gay or straight – are all complicated and fragile and difficult and precious.

What was the best feature directed by a woman?

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Cholodenko captured a universal truth about how hard relationships, marriage and parenting really are. Relatable is overused, but that’s what this film was – as well as hilarious and heartbreaking and ultimately just honest.

Have we seen any progress since last year with women directors – AKA has there been a Bigelow effect?

I don’t feel like there has been a tidal wave Bigelow effect. I think women directors have done excellent work this year from Cholodenko to Debra Granik to Floria Sigismondi and more. But of the top 50 grossing films at the box office to date this year, only one (No. 43, the Miley Cyrus vehicle The Last Song, of all things) was directed by a woman. The shortage, as always, is not in innovation when it comes to female directors but exposure and support.

What stood out for you most this year about women and film?

While there were standout films by and about women like The Kids Are All Right, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone, the story seems to be remaining the same both at the box office and in the major award races where films by and about men will dominate.

What was the worst thing that happened this year for women and film.

I think The Social Network, while a very good movie, is one of the worst moments for women in film this year. Not only do women play a periphery at best role in the film, their portrayal highlight an insidious and sadly widespread view of women. Women are prizes or problems but never actual people in the world of The Social Network – and that’s a really big problem for all women.

Kathy Wolfe, Wolfe Video

The worst thing that could be happening to independent filmmakers is the rampant practice of illegal file sharing and piracy.  Women, as well as all minorities, suffer when their stories can not be viable investments for their producers. As long as pirates profit from the ad dollars created from their stolen content, in the name of “freedom of speech”, we are systematically silencing our most powerful voices. Support Leahy-Hatch Anti-Piracy Bill S.3804.

Erin Donovan, producer/writer Steady Diet of Film

What was the best film about women or about woman or about a girl this year?

Pink Saris.

What was the best doc directed by a woman?

I really enjoyed the film William Kunstler’s daughters made (Disturbing the Universe) about his life and work. I’m also delighted to see The Lottery and Waiting for Superman on the Oscar short list. It speaks a great deal to public outrage about such a specific topic that a small film like hers could get noticed the same year a previous Oscar winner was working on such similar subject matter.

Have we seen any progress since last year with women directors – AKA has there been a Bigelow effect?

Change is always incremental, we’re still having this conversation about why there aren’t more female directors in the documentary community — and a woman won the Best Documentary Oscar in the 70s.

What stood out for you most this year about women and film?

We’re all holding our breath to see what the Oprah effect is going to be when she launches OWN Jan 1. Her company has been making really interesting acquisitions and she brings vast resources and built-in audience. I’m hoping she can do for docs what she did for book clubs in the last 10 years.

What was the worst thing that happened this year for women and film.

Rumors of Katy Perry playing Wonder Woman.

Regina Weinreich, Huffington Post and Gossip Central

I think people should have a second look at Ry-Russo Young’s You Won’t Miss Me about a young woman called Shelly played with wonderful raw energy by Stella Schnabel who also wrote the script with the director. The film got so-so reviews, but I think it merits another look for what it reflects about women coming of age today. On some level, it is a bookend to Black Swan.

MaryAnn Johanson, critic, FlickFilosopher.com

What was the best film about women or about woman or about a girl this year?

I loved *Agora* so much, not only for being about an intelligent, interesting, freethinking woman who made her own way in a time that wasn’t friendly to women or to freethinkers, but in how it was also about how women’s gender is used against them. Simply a fantastic and provocative movie, and hardly anyone saw it.

What was the best feature directed by a woman?

*Fish Tank,* directed by Andrea Arnold (you missed it on your list!). It’s a raw exploration of female adolescent sexuality unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Have we seen any progress since last year with women directors – AKA has there been a Bigelow effect?

I think it’s too early to say whether Bigelow’s Oscar win has had any impact — movies simply take too long to produce for an event that happened at the beginning of 2010 to have had an effect. Ask again this time next year. :->

What stood out for you most this year about women and film?

Surprisingly, that there were a lot, relatively speaking, of really good films of all stripes that treat women characters as people, as human beings with stories worth telling, from the wonderfully aggressive little girls of *Despicable Me* to Emma Stone’s smart sass in *Easy A* — the brilliance of which has now convinced me that Hollywood does indeed know how to tell strong stories about realistic women, it just chooses not to do so most of the time — to the force of nature that is Noomi Rapace in the *Girl with the Dragon Tattoo* trilogy, and Natalie Portman’s terrifying, but believable, performance as a women possessed by thoughts of perfection in *Black Swan.* And the aforementioned *Agora,* too. And *The Kids Are All Right* and *Winter’s Bone* and *City Island* and *Flipped* and *Ramona and Beezus* and on and on. From the arthouse to action movies to kids movies, there were a *lot* of great women onscreen this year. Not as many as they’re should be, still nowhere near as many of the great male characters we got. But maybe we’re seeing a bit of progress… if this year doesn’t turn out to be an anomaly.

What was the worst thing that happened this year for women and film.

The continued career of Katherine Heigl, who seems hellbent on sending women back to the 1950s.

Shannon, The Movie Moxie

What was the best film about women or about woman or about a girl this year?

I Am Love

What was the best feature directed by a woman?

Nowhere Boy by Sam Taylor-Wood

What was the best doc directed by a woman?

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; Honourable mention: A Small Act by Jennifer Arnold for being truly inspiring & uplifting

Have we seen any progress since last year with women directors – AKA has there been a Bigelow effect?

Yes, but it’s subtle. It’s more of a normalization effect, where if a film is directed by a women it’s still noted that it’s ‘by a female director’, but it’s not the only thing noted nor does it feel like it pigeon-holing the film.  I think films by women are starting to be taken on more even ground, which is a good thing.

What stood out for you most this year about women and film?

We are starting to see absolutely stunning coming-of-age girl stories told by women directors. Films that that can be gritty and honest, but also inspiring and refreshing.  They don’t shy away from the real nor do they glamourize the grit.  I’m talking about films like Fish Tank and Grown Up Movie Star.

What was the worst thing that happened this year for women and film.

The braveness of portraying the brutalized.  It’s great to have strong characters, and we got some great performances this year but I really look forward to the day when we can have a strong female protagonists who haven’t been attacked, assaulted and/or is mentally disturbed (i.e. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I Spit on Your Grave (2010).

Prairie Miller who runs the Women’s Film Critics Circle sent a list of the most overlooked films about women this year

Agora
Backyard
Children Of Invention [struggling single moms are not monsters]
Conviction
Exterminators
Falling For Grace [rebel Chinatown sweatshop women]
Greenberg [abortion is okay]
Hung
Lovely, Still
Machete
Made In Dagenham
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Perfect Game [news reporter Emilie de Ravin demands equality and respect]
The Trotsky [older women are not cougars]
Princess Kaiulani
Rabbit Hole
Rachel
The Tourist
Woman Rebel [female guerrilla uprising in Nepal]
Women Without Men

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura December 23, 2010 at 6:04 PM

Jeez, Nicole Holofcener really got shut out. She wrote and directed Please Give, a movie with mostly female characters that centered not on chick issues like love, marriage, etc., but on the more universal themes of selfishness, altruism and guilt. How did she NOT end up on any of these Best Of lists?

angelina December 26, 2010 at 7:27 PM

is there something missing from the end of Sasha Stones’s last answer?

What was the worst thing that happened this year for women and film.

Probably Julie Taymor’s vision being misunderstood once again. Perhaps a decade from now her work will be rediscovered and appa

Mahoney December 26, 2010 at 11:14 PM

Any mentions of “THE OATH” directed by Laura Poitras, shot by Kirsten Johnson as Best Doc… Critically received, repeat winner of high profile festival awards, yet somehow is sustaining a complete lack of Industry awareness and love.
Very warmed, someone mentioned “FISH TANK” Andrea Arnold’s sublime offering. Moments in that film have never been translated, in the way they are–thru (Arnold’s) eye.

Womens Voices December 29, 2010 at 10:18 PM

Please Give actually made our list – WVFC’s Alexandra MacAaron summed up the bad and good news in movies from the past year (http://womensvoicesforchange.org/2010-women-in-movies-good-news-bad-news.htm), naming Please Give, as well as the ones listed here like Tiny Furniture and Winter’s Bone.

pandora uk December 1, 2011 at 2:52 AM

You had some nice points here. I done a research on the topic and got most peoples will agree with you

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