This year is a sorry state by comparison. Not simply for actresses, but for women in film altogether.
Outside the acting races and costume design, it seems unlikely that many women will find themselves Oscar nominees. This is perhaps most notable with regard to the directing and screenwriting categories, where women have historically struggled to be included (not necessarily always Oscar's fault, but the society in which Oscar exists).
Despite considerable progress in the past few years (Kathryn Bigelow's directing win the centerpiece of said progress), this year could potentially see no female contenders in any of the categories. Indiewire's current predictions suggest Bridget O'Connor (who co-wrote "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") and Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumulo (the team behind "Bridesmaids") as the best bets to avoid this fate, but they are far from locked nominees.
But let's get back to the actresses, the only mandatory female Oscar nominees and thus an interesting window into the year in film when it comes to women.
The best actress race this year has boiled down to three performances -- Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn," Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady" and Viola Davis in "The Help." All fantastic performances, to be sure. But also all performances forced to rise above mediocre screenplays and unfocused direction. Each of the films look back at 20th-century history with the introspection of a TV movie. They are worth watching simply because of Williams, Streep and Davis (as well as the half-dozen other actresses in the "The Help") and how they transcend the films themselves.
The films dominating the Oscar discussion right now are dominated by male characters: "The Artist," "The Descendants," "Drive," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "Shame," "The Tree of Life" and "War Horse."
Their plots all revolve around a sole male character's journey of discovery. A few have sizable supporting female characters, but they're the wives, ex-wives, dead wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters and daughters that aid in the male's quest for self-fulfillment. And these films give their lead actors juicy roles backed by strong screenplays and accomplished directing.
Last year, "Black Swan," "Winter's Bone" and "The Kids Are All Right" were among a multitude of deserving best-picture nominees that focused on female characters; two of them were -- believe it or not -- directed by women. This year, "The Help" is really the only possible best picture nominee that focuses on female characters, and it's not exactly a shining representation. The film has been strongly criticized for distorting and trivializing the experiences of black women and -- not that it necessarily matters -- it's adapted and directed by a white man.
This is not to say 2011 hasn't seen excellent films that dominantly explore female characters.
Lynne Ramsay's "We Need To Talk About Kevin," Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" are likely to be the 2011 films driven by female characters that are most remembered. All extremely unlikely best picture nominees (in large part due to how challenging they all are) and they each take their female protagonists on journeys far more drastic than their 2011 cinematic male counterparts.
How would Billy Beane of "Moneyball" or Matt King of "The Descendants" fare against their son going on a shooting rampage, surviving a sexually and emotionally abusive cult, travelling across the Oregon Trail in 1845, or brutal depression during an impending apocalypse? Sure makes your wife having an affair or your baseball team not having enough money seem like pretty unremarkable problems.
Unfortunately, the actresses at the center of those films -- Tilda Swinton, Elizabeth Olsen, Michelle Williams (at least for this role), Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg -- all face uphill battles in recieving any Academy recognition (though Swinton probably stands the best chance of the five).
Beyond those three films, there's exceptional female representation it would be irresponsible not to note. In this regard, "Albert Nobbs," "The Arbor," "Bridesmaids," "Carnage," "Certified Copy," "Circumstance," "The Future," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," "Higher Ground," "In The Land of Blood and Honey," "Jane Eyre," "The Lady," "Like Crazy," "Pariah," "A Separation," "Tyrannosaur" and "Young Adult" all -- to varying degrees -- deserve recognition. But collectively they make up just a teeny tiny fraction of 2011's releases as a whole. And for a variety of reasons, none of them will end up best picture nominees.
So as critics and bloggers start trying to sum up 2011 in film, it seems just as imperative to note what wasn't present as it does to note what was. With no disrespect to Ms. Williams, Ms. Streep or Ms. Davis, "the year of the actress" 2011 most certainly was not. Not because of the actresses themselves, but because of the limited roles that had to work with.