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Heroines of Cinema: An A to Z of Women in Film in 2013

By Matthew Hammett Knott | Indiewire December 12, 2013 at 3:30PM

It’s at times like these that twenty-six letters seems awfully few. Not that this list is intended as an encyclopedia.
3
"Gloria"
"Gloria"

P is for Paulina Garcia
It sounds like the most contrived of filming conceits, but I managed to watch “Gloria” twice without realizing that Paulina Garcia in fact appears in every single frame of Sebastian Lelio’s film. Garcia’s spellbinding role was emphatically co-authored by the actress, who improvised every line and choreographed every sex scene. The result is one of the year’s finest performances and most downright refreshing characters - or as critic Anne Billson put it, “after Blanche DuBois, Norma Desmond etc, how wonderful to see a fiftysomething female character who isn’t pathetic, needy, faded”. Quite.

Q is for Quotas
Are they needed? In June, I wrote about my own gender-related experiences on a film set and invoked the dreaded Q word. Meanwhile, Melissa Silverstein reported on Sweden’s all-too-unusual decision to divide state film funding equally between male and female talent. Nobody likes to praise unqualified any measure which seems to privilege the gender of an artist over any other qualities they may possess. But nor does there appear to be any more viable solution to the industry’s indelible sexism.

R is for Rachel Morrison
“Fruitvale Station” is gaining rapid awards traction for debut director Ryan Coogler, but less frequently noted is his collaboration with the film’s cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Her CV prior to the Sundance hit is eclectic, from “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” to an Emmy nomination for high school documentary “Rikers High”. But it is her work on “Fruitvale Station” that promises to place her among the elite in the notoriously male-dominated world of cinematography. If anyone can provide inspiration, it is last year’s occupant of this slot Reed Morano, whose career, profiled here last month, scaled ever-greater heights in 2013.

S is for See You Next Tuesday
There were any number of worthy contenders for this slot - Scarlett Johanson had a banner year for a start, and then there are directors Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”), Amy Seimetz (“Sun Don’t Shine”), Stacie Passon (“Concussion”), Sarah Polley (“Stories We Tell”) and Sofia Coppola (“The Bling Ring”). But since this is Indiewire, it felt most appropriate to spotlight an as-yet-undistributed film, whose all-female cast provided a delightfully bitter breath of fresh air on this year’s festival circuit. Drew Tobia’s “See You Next Tuesday” follows Mona, played by a gutsy Eleanor Pienta, through the relentless humiliations of pregnancy, poverty and a horribly unwholesome relationship with her mother (a livewire Dana Eskelson). There is no greater mark of its brutal lack of sentiment than Mona’s grim alternative to a birth scene, which is best experienced on screen, then never spoken of again.

"Fruitvale Station"
"Fruitvale Station"

T is for Twitter
Love it or hate it, Twitter has become a fertile breeding ground for feminist discussion, from  passionate defenses of the Bechdel test to the aforementioned sex-positive diatribe of Evan Rachel Wood. More edifying than the unholy spats are the voices it throws up - in my case, people like Marian Evans (@devt), tireless in her cheery advocacy of women’s causes, or MaryAnn Johanson (@maryannjohanson), author of the appealingly autonomous Flick Filosopher site (her strikingly critical review of “The Heat”, for example, should not be missing from the debate). If you can succeed in not getting sucked into the void, the conversation can be enlightening.

U is for Under 40
The most read and most widely debated Heroines of Cinema column this year was my highly subjective list of the ten most exciting young female directors in the world. While youth can be an asset in this industry, it does not seem to be so for female directors, absurdly scrutinized for everything from the validity of their ideas to their capacity to lead (by contrast, the industry’s thirst to discover its next boy genius remains unquenchable). An outcry on behalf of the directors who missed the arbitrary age limit led to a subsequent, complimentary list - 15 women who made their feature debut after the age of 40.

V is for Valentine Road
Marta Cunningham, profiled by Shadow and Act as one of five black female directors of feature documentaries this year, debuted at Sundance with her powerful first-time feature. Cunningham spent four years piecing together the tragic backstory of Larry King, shot dead by his classmate after asking him to be his valentine. What she uncovers is not merely a story of adolescent homophobia but a compellingly tangled network of damaged youths and misguided adults and institutions systematically pressurized away from love and compassion towards judgement and denial. Essential viewing.

Wolf of Wall Street

W is for Wide Releases
Possibly the most depressing statistic of the year is that only two live action films directed by women achieved a wide release in 2013 - Kimberley Peirce’s “Carrie” and Kasi Lemmon’s “Black Nativity”. Peirce thus joined Jennifer Lee, co-director of “Frozen”, as the only two women with entries among the Top 100 highest-grossing films of the year. The trouble with having so few instances is that each is judged more harshly, potentially reducing the field of opportunity yet further. And that would be a sorry result for what is already a grotesquely unbalanced scenario.

X is for Adele Exarchopoulos
OK, so this is cheating, but perhaps that can be an excuse to focus on the non-X-rated elements of one of the year’s most misrepresented lead roles. Abdellatif Kechiche has been accused of harsh methods in extracting Exarchopoulos’s immersive performance in “Blue is the Warmest Color”, but the power of the resulting character study cannot be denied (even if you are, like me, only partially sold on the film as a whole). Like Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret”, the film’s three-hour running time grants an epic grandeur to the perpetually trivialized condition of female adolescence, as Exarchopoulos rises to the size of the canvas with the performance of her life.

Y is for Yaya Alafia
For as long as the MTV awards feel the need to hand out the dubious honor of Hottest Screen Couple, they could do far worse than David Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”. This was only the most high-profile of three roles played by Alafia this year in films by black directors - she also appeared in Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George” and Neil Drumming’s “Big Words”. Such parts are a clear source of pride - discussing her Butler role with Latina magazine, Alafia explained “we need stories that represent the work people like my parents who were active in the Civil Rights Movement did. This is how we will be able to learn and move forward with society”.

Z is for Zero Tolerance
Some actors play the Hollywood game, some hedge their bets, and others stick furiously to their principles. One of the most lively presences on the interview circuit this year was Emma Thompson, back with a bang in “Saving Mr Banks”. During the Hollywood Reporter actress round table, she revealed that her latest role was rather more dignified than some she has been offered in the past. "There was a patch of time when I was in my thirties and just started [being offered] a whole string of roles that basically involved saying to a man "Please don't go and do that brave thing. Don't! No, no, no, no, no!". That's a trope, the stock woman who says "Don't do the brave thing". I said no to all of them. I'm so proud”.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer. Follow him on Twitter.


This article is related to: Heroines of Cinema, Ava DuVernay, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Kimberly Peirce, Adele Exarchopoulos, Nicole Holofcener, Haifaa al Mansour, Frances Ha, Enough Said, Frozen







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