With only a couple of months left on the 2013 film calendar it has become increasingly clear that this has been a great year for women in film. Sure, it would be great if we had more big budget fare starring women, but the opportunities in smaller films are becoming more plentiful and taken full advantage of.
Looking at my favorite films of the year it is dominated by pictures led by women, and if they aren’t in the lead roles women are turning in great supporting roles in some of the male driven material that dominates the calendar.
I mentioned that women have taken advantage of smaller films this year, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had an impact on some of the big films of the year. The Conjuring is full of great turns by women, young and old, and the film’s main theme is as much about mothers and their daughters as it is as about ghosts driving down the property value of your new home. The best character of Pacific Rim was also female, but sadly Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako is marginalized behind the boys just when she gains equality. Side Effects has a pair of great female performances where both of the women are in positions of power and not merely damsels in distress in a great studio drama from Soderbergh. Gravity has already received much deserved praise for its lead Sandra Bullock, and while I would have enjoyed a bit more depth to her character, the film is an Oscar frontrunner and raking in the cash for what is, basically, a one woman show.
When you dig into those smaller pictures the work only gets better. Amy Seimetz delivers an emotionally and physically draining performance as the lead of the phenomenal Upstream Color. Julie Delpy shares the screen with Ethan Hawke, but she’s essential to delivering one of cinema’s most realistic relationships ever put on screen, both in front of the camera and on the page, in Before Midnight. Similarly, Greta Gerwig writes and stars in one of the best looks at coming of age in your late twenties in the wonderful Frances Ha. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell shakes up the documentary formula in what is one of the year’s finest directorial efforts. Rooney Mara and Mia Wasikowska cement their smaller films Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Stoker. Lake Bell does it all (writes, directs and stars) in the best comedy of the year, In A World. The ladies of Spring Breakers steal the crime genre’s masculinity in Spring Breakers while Zhang Ziyi beautifully upsets a man’s world in The Grandmaster; Ziyi also might have the year’s best fight scene to boot. Brie Larson’s work in Short Term 12 was a breakthrough for the actress in a film whose first hour is as good as just about anything released this year. Julia Louis-Dreyfus successfully makes the jump to the big screen, killing it in Enough Said which was her first starring role in a film. The women of Blue Is the Warmest Color are not to be forgotten either, as Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux deliver some of the year’s most raw performances; both physically and emotionally. Disney’s Frozen has two great female leads and is a story about sisters well before it is about anything to do with a man; a huge step forward for the Disney Princess brand. Jennifer Lawrence’s return to the role of Katniss is breaking box office records and they made a borderline great movie this time after the horrendous first film. Katniss is given a lot more depth as well this time around and Lawrence takes full advantage of the opportunity.
Even when women weren’t leading the way they were delivering, arguably, their film’s best performance. Lupita Nyong’o is incredibly affecting as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, delivering some of the film’s biggest emotional wallops. Kristin Scott Thomas is a demon unleashed from hell in Only God Forgives. Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson are also great playing their respective ends of Don Jon’s female entanglements; with Johansson delivers one of my favorite performances from her ever. Jena Malone is having a blast and is the most memorable thing about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. June Squibb might best all of these ladies in Nebraska, where she delivers, possibly, the best comedic performance of the year. Michaela Watkins also burst on to the scene as a comedic talent in films this year, stealing scenes in Enough Said and In a World.
That is quite the formidable group, and I am sure I have missed plenty of smaller entries that fit the bill, and I hope that Hollywood is paying attention. We shouldn’t have to be pointing out how great women can be in front of and behind the camera, but sadly that is the day and age we live in. Women have killed it this year and I want more; you should too.