It’s at times like these that twenty-six letters seems awfully few. Not that this list is intended as an encyclopedia. Instead, please see it as a mere sample of the films worth seeing, the talents worth tracking, the prejudices worth fighting and the debates worth having if you care about women and their role in this simultaneously depressing and inspiring industry.
There are no criteria for inclusion, other than the obvious one. I have tried at least to namecheck some of the films and filmmakers I was not able to discuss at greater length, but regrettable exceptions to this rule begin with directors Joanna Hogg, Kelly Reichardt and Clio Barnard and extend indefinitely (feel free to add your vote below). I also tried to maintain my focus on the indie-spirited. So while I highlight various performances, they don’t include any of the Oscar Best Actress frontrunners. And though you will find discussion of studio releases as part of the wider film culture, there is sadly no further mention of Katniss Everdeen.
But with that caveat, allow me to commemorate 2013 as the year that, for better or worse, gave us the following:
A is for the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement
Ava DuVernay has not exactly had a quiet year as a director. Following an episode of “Scandal” she is preparing to write and direct Martin Luther King film “Selma” - a rare instance of a female director being granted the power to tell the story of a major male historical figure. But alongside her own projects she has been plotting a bold expansion of AFFRM, a grassroots distribution movement aimed at cultivating an audience for black independent cinema - a niche repeatedly under-estimated and under-served by the wider indie film scene. The enthusiastic response to AFFRM’s latest funding drive leaves DuVernay and her fellow so-called “rebels” set for a rowdy 2014.
B is for Before Midnight
The third part of Richard Linklater’s acclaimed series heralded the return of Celine, one of American cinema’s most well-sketched feminist creations. The evolution of the character has been strongly guided by Julie Delpy, with a co-writing credit on the past two films, and this year she was more willing than ever to push Celine into areas that weren’t necessarily likable, but resonated with authenticity. Delpy meanwhile, back on the interview circuit, was well aware that her complex, difficult and sexually engaged character was something of an anomaly for actresses her age. “It’s funny”, she quipped. “In a year, I could probably play Christian Bale’s mother, but I’m already too old to play Clint Eastwood’s girlfriend”.
C is for Cheryl Boone Isaacs
In 2012 the Los Angeles Times found that Oscar voters were 94% white and 77% male. And while that may still be close to the case, this year AMPAS took steps in the right direction, appointing its first black and second female president. Cheryl Boone Isaacs is no stranger to firsts - in 1997 she became the first African-American woman to run a studio marketing department at New Line. Upon her appointment in July, she made clear her priorities, explaining “we have increased the diversity with the inclusion of new members, and we are going to continue on this road. It's very important to me”.
D is for Double Standards
Last month, Evan Rachel Wood took to Twitter to call out the MPAA when their cuts to her film “Charlie Countryman” involved the deletion of a scene in which her character received oral sex from Shia LaBeouf. Wood was incensed, calling it “a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex”. Whatever the specifics of the case, the MPAA’s distaste for scenes involving female sexual pleasure was well-documented in 2006’s “This Film is Not Yet Rated”. But Wood had some choice words for such an attitude: “Accept that women are sexual beings. Accept that some men like pleasuring women. Accept that women don’t have to just be fucked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves. It’s time we put our foot down”.
E is for Enough Said
Such is the lack of directing opportunities for women in the American studio system that Nicole Holofcener’s modest indie romance is currently the second highest-grossing film of the year directed solely by a woman (behind Kimberley Peirce’s “Carrie” remake). Throughout her career, Holofcener has maintained an unapologetic focus on the lives of women of a certain age and status, a stance which has gained her sneers as well as fans. But this year, critics and audiences alike embraced her spritely romantic comedy with its pairing of the late James Gandolfini and Julia-Louis Dreyfuss, on sparkling form in her first ever feature film lead at the age of 52.
F is for Frances Ha
Like Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig co-wrote her lead role in one of the year’s best female-driven films. Some called it lightweight, as if the whole point wasn’t Frances’ attempts to breeze over the daily problems of a mostly privileged life, allowing her reserves of deep melancholy and disappointment to accumulate almost unnoticed. Facilitating this unusual tonal quality was the less heralded contribution of 31-year-old editor Jennifer Lame. Hired as assistant to Tim Streeto and then promoted when he dropped out to work on “Boardwalk Empire”, her featherlight sensibility proved to be the heart and soul of the film, and Noah Baumbach has since recruited her for his next two features.