All this week, Women and Hollywood will run our own “Best of” lists to honor and celebrate the year’s best women-directed and women-centric movies and TV shows. See our previous post on the “Best Women-Directed Documentaries of 2013.”
2013 was another execrable year for female filmmakers, but it was a pretty great one for actresses. A handful of over-forty superstars — among them Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, and Judi Dench — played the leads in the year’s most buzzworthy dramas. Their films are few in number overall, but their success increases the diversity of female roles and faces onscreen and may increase support for future projects about older women.
Of course, the past twelve months also launched the careers of Brie Larson and Adele Excharpoulous, two exceptional ingenues who made everyone take notice of their hitherto wasted talent. The following movies, great illustrations of the wonders actresses can achieve when they’re provided meaty roles and interesting storylines, were our favorite women-centric films of 2013.
In alphabetical order:
Frances Ha – A young woman full of promise but few possibilities, Greta Gerwig’s Frances is one of the best characters of the year. As a twentysomething woman unsure of herself and the future, Frances is optimistic — perhaps overly so — of her station in life as a broke Brooklynite who doesn’t know how to get her life on track. Stuck in a rut, she becomes restless — traveling back home to Sacramento, splurging on a miserable trip to Paris, staying at her old alma mater upstate for a humiliating stint as a waitress for the alumni club — but eventually discovers she can’t escape her problems by running away.
Gravity – Sandra Bullock stars in the year’s most technically advanced film, a nail-biter about an astronaut afloat in space without any means to contact mission control. Praise for the film’s zero-gravity effects, however deserved, has unfortunately obscured Bullock’s career-defining portrayal of a woman in an existential crisis — after the death of her only child, Ryan (Bullock) isn’t even sure that she wants to continue living. Bullock’s wonderfully thorny chemistry with brief co-star George Clooney elevates her already accomplished performance. And while we’re giving out credit where it’s due, let’s applaud director Alfonso Cuaron once again for refusing the studios’ request to change Bullock’s character into a man.
Philomena – As a drama about how the Catholic church stole children from unwed young women and sold them to rich Americans, this ripped-from-the-headlines British drama could have been unbearably somber. The success of Philomena, then, comes from its status as a lovely and upbeat crowd-pleaser, as well as Judi Dench’s haunting (yet hilarious) performance as a woman searching for the son who was taken from her fifty years ago. Dench and co-star (and co-writer) Steve Coogan embark on a life-changing trip to America, where they politely butt heads about issues of morality, faith, and class, and learn that the truth about Philomena’s son is both more inspiring and heartbreaking than could have been imagined.
Short Term 12 – The breakout performance of Brie Larson makes this drama one of the best movies of the year. As Grace, Larson plays a tough but troubled social worker in a short-term care facility for abandoned teens. A powerful indictment against a lumbering bureaucracy unable to provide full care to vulnerable children, Short Term 12 is most affecting as a portrait of the lifelong repercussions abuse survivors can experience — and the way they can battle against their pasts to create a better world for future generations.
20 Feet from Stardom – Capturing the faces of the women who have been deliberately or inadvertently erased from music history, this documentary gives voice to the singers you’ve probably already heard on your favorite albums. Back-up singing, as one of the subjects explains, can be a launchpad or quicksand — mostly the latter. The music soars, but the stories about the unfair downward trajectory of these creative women — surrounded by male superstars who’d prefer to hog the spotlight — are both revelatory and depressingly familiar.
Beyond the Hills — Directed by Christian Mungiu, the Romanian auteur behind the harrowing 2007 abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Beyond the Hills is another tale of two women in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. A post-break-up story between a too-practical nun (Cosmina Stratan) and a Westernized migrant worker (Cristina Flutur), Beyond the Hills is a social-horror tale set in a rural cloister where homosexuality is treated with violent exorcisms. The film makes clear that the Romanian countryside is a lifelong trap for women, but also humanizes their fear of leaving. The world is full of monsters, after all — some in holy garbs.
Blue is the Warmest Color — This French lesbian romance is saddled by a few feminist demerits, including a torturous shoot for the lead actresses and a nearly palpable male gaze that suffuses the notorious sex scenes. But the film still vibrates with life and longing, and the hungry carnality with which the two girls need each other makes their love supremely relatable. Adele Excharpoulous and Lea Seydoux give stunning performances that help create a love story that’s both archetypal and individual, and exquisitely sensitive to teenage cruelty, class differences, and emotional catastrophes.
Blue Jasmine — A modern update of A Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen’s latest and possibly best drama follows the slow mental breakdown of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a Ruth Madoff-type who suddenly finds herself vilified and bankrupt when her financial hotshot husband (Alec Baldwin) is imprisoned for fraud. Jasmine heads west to San Francisco to stay with her adopted sister (Sally Hawkins), a blue-collar single mother of two who’s too busy trying to keep her own life together to help Jasmine stay afloat. A Greek tragedy set in an American context, Blue Jasmine is most affecting as a study of how Jasmine doomed herself by colluding in her own feminine fragility.
Drinking Buddies — This underrated star vehicle for Olivia Wilde is a clever and affecting deconstruction of the romantic comedy genre. Wilde plays Kate, the only female employee of a microbrewery who tries really hard to be every guy’s idea of the dream girl (also see Gillian Flynn’s description of the “Cool Girl”) without being too obvious about it. Her soul mate appears to be her colleague and fellow bar-hopper Luke (Jake Johnson) — they’re awfully cute together — but he’s already engaged. The nifty trick that Drinking Buddies pulls off is to wish for Kate and Luke to be together — and to stay the hell away from each other — in equal measure.
Frances Ha — Millennial loserdom is the media topic du jour. Co-writer and star Greta Gerwig helped create the flaky flibbertigibbet that is Frances, an aging dancer (she’s 27) who’s seeing the final curtain call on her creative career, but doesn’t have a back-up plan for life. When she has a falling out with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), Frances becomes completely unanchored, even flirting with homelessness for a brief period. Frances Ha is a touching portrait of that time in one’s twenties when all the possibilities of youth suddenly disappear, leaving behind only a great sense of disappointment and the knowledge that the only way to progress in life is to move forward, however one can.