Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
This year’s holiday season hasn’t been all jingle bells and Christmas cheer. Gun violence drowned out festive tunes and for the film fiends, Christmas Eve saw the deaths of both Jack Klugman and Charles Durning. But let us end this year on a positive note. As we look beyond December and back to the year as a whole, surviving the Mayan calendar wasn’t our only achievement. Hollywood’s top five blockbusters all relied on the fierceness and determination of skilled women.
It’s been a pretty intriguing year for girls on film. Snow White finally took over her fate in not one, but two films, while Pixar focused on fate for its first starring heroine. Quvenzhané Wallis ruled over the Beasts of the Southern Wild, Emmanuelle Riva faced the end of her long life in Amour, and Rebel Wilson jumped out of the secondary shadows and into the spotlight with a whopping six films. But none of that is quite as exciting as the look of 2012’s box office.
Last year, the top five was filled with the likes of boy wizards, drunk men, manly transforming cars and smarmy pirates. Bella Swan was our only front-and-center heroine in not only the top five, but the whole top 10. This year, however, she’s not alone. Two of the five "top 10" films focus on women, while the remainder not only feature strong supporting actresses with multiple films screening, but also boast strong female characters integral to each film’s plot. The year 2012’s box office shined because of the following.
Only the fiercest woman could hold her own against the charisma and skill of the infamous 007, especially as the agent finally comes into his own as the suit-fixing, martini-drinking, unstoppable James Bond. Judi Dench’s M has always been a highlight of the latest series of films, but in Skyfall, she is the glue that made the film a wild success. M is a skilled warrior stuck between old and new, but determined to fight ‘til the end. Again and again, her age and skill are questioned, and she meets them with the precision of Bond’s aim. Her words are just magic; when asked to “retire with dignity,” she retorts: “To hell with dignity! I’ll leave when the job's done.”
The line sings for M, but also speaks to the world of Ms. Dench, one of the few actresses whose age hasn’t killed her acting opportunities. Dench’s work in 2012 has become a rallying cry for the benefits of women with age and experience. She began the year as a newly widowed woman crafting a new life and purpose for herself in the niche sleeper hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, before taking the theme to a new level as Bond’s trusted M in one of Hollywood’s most successful films of the year.
4. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part Two
It took four very long years to see Bella Swan take active control of her life. As the Sisyphean weight of Twilight fandom seemed too heavy for naysayers to bear, Kristen Stewart’s heroine became one of the most controlled and gifted vampires ever made. She easily avoided the dangers of newborn hunger, crushed stones like crackers, and managed to evolve her vampiric gifts in mere days. She even got to transcend Stephenie Meyer’s anticlimactic finale with a little ass-kicking… kind of.
And, much like M, this wasn’t the first real heroic gig Stewart had in 2012. Before her red eyes opened in November, Stewart starred as Snow White in the 15th most successful film of the year, Snow White and the Huntsman. It was another tale of the passive girl finding her power and fight, one that allowed her some gnarly action without any special cinematic twists. It proved Stewart’s ability to shoulder box office success without sparkles, while she continued to court her uber-indie side with an impressive turn in the man-centric On the Road.
3. The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen didn’t need to brew for years. When the Twilight whirlwind descended, the big question was whether big, femme-centric Hollywood films could thrive outside of Meyer’s whimsy. Everdeen pierced all naysayers with one easily aimed arrow as Lawrence served a character with strength, smarts and range. Though the film hasn’t beat Breaking Dawn’s worldwide total for the year ($686 million versus $795 million), Katniss proved to be exactly what domestic audiences wanted ($408 million versus $282 million).
Of course, this is just another badge on Lawrence’s acting vest. Her swift rise began with her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, which she leveraged into two blockbuster franchises (X-Men and The Hunger Games) while also earning heaps of critical praise and a Golden Globe nomination for her work in Silver Linings Playbook, proving her skilled in indie drama, blockbuster action films and romantic comedies. If she pulls off her upcoming Depression-era film Serena next year, there’s likely no genre that can stop her.
2. The Dark Knight Rises
Catwoman. For years she has been at the whim of men – spanked by chauvinistic bat guys, tantalized by Adam West in spandex, prostituted by Frank Miller, driven insane by Tim Burton, and absolutely ravaged by Pitof. Under the eye of Christopher Nolan, Anne Hathaway dashed all nervous anticipation over her casting, wiped away the bad taste of a purring Halle Berry, and managed to not only modernize Catwoman, but also make her the first true embodiment of her character’s original aim – to be both a femme fatale and a female Batman.
Hathaway’s Selina is equally sexy and capable, but she also redefines how we see film’s female ass kickers. She plays with cinematic tropes, offering sexiness through utility (her formfitting attire has no broken, cleavage-revealing zipper), femininity with function (stillettos as a weapon), cat-like attributes without the campy feline aspects (goggles that look like cat ears), and an incredibly nuanced performance for a superhero film. Though a supporting character and love interest, Catwoman is never reduced to any superficial role; she’s integral to the survival of Gotham and Bruce Wayne.
Like Lawrence, Hathaway continues to employ a wide variety of talents to her ever-growing career. It seemed like nothing could compare to her turn as Selina, until the actress stole the show in this year’s Christmas release of Les Misérables.
1. The Avengers
Resting at the top of the pile is Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Though the actress doesn’t boast double hits this year like her fellow top fivers (Hitchcock just barely makes the year’s Top 150), her heroine is instrumental in saving the world, while calling the injustices of “rabbit food” questions.
Oh, Natasha. She might boast that irksome broken zipper, but Romanov also loves toying with stereotypical expectations of female vulnerability. Much like Joss Whedon’s most iconic female character, Buffy, the Black Widow likes to prey on assumption and manipulate situations to her advantage. As an Avenger, she’s plagued with some of the most seemingly ineffectual powers (some good guns and wild acrobatics), but employs them so fluidly that she’s just as capable as her inhuman co-fighters. In fact, if not for Mark Ruffalo’s absolutely awesome reframing of the big-screen Incredible Hulk, Johansson’s performance would easily steal the film.
Women have been infused into the biggest box office films of 2012, showing the power of ages young and old. We’ve seen female filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow and Sarah Polley offer all manner of cinematic adventures, and blockbusters rise on the shoulders of new female stars. Now that the year is about to wrap up, it’s time to look to the future and put our hope into the New Year.
Women have stretched the boundaries of age and showed their monetary power… now if only Hollywood could embrace a little diversity so that the most successful film with non-white female leads isn’t Think Like a Man. Fingers crossed.