Due to events within the last year, I have not been able to take in and scrutinize the latest releases as I would have in years past, and much of what I did see in 2017 I found underwhelming. But there was one recurring theme I noticed, something so profound and exciting that it deserved to be celebrated. That is the presence of women taking a leading role in several films where, while there might be interplay between them and a male co-star, the characters were neither defined nor lessened by that relationship.
I won’t call 2017 the Year of the Woman simply because I have lived long enough to see plenty of Years of the Woman come and go, followed by long periods of stagnation and even regression. But as women continue to make their voices heard both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, I sincerely hope that this is more than just a trend.
The films I have singled out are just the tip of the iceberg. Other films that didn’t make the cut nevertheless had a huge impact. I, TONYA took a public figure long reduced to a punchline and turned her into a powerful and relatable human being. LADY BIRD’s director was able to make a coming of age film about herself. THE SHAPE OF WATER featured a voiceless woman willing to stand up to the tyranny of misogyny and xenophobia. On the flipside of that, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI showed that even angry protests can conceal a broken spirit.
And then we have the five films listed below, in alphabetical order and without further preface, each one featuring a new and exciting woman at the heart of it.
ATOMIC BLONDE – There are two things I dislike about ATOMIC BLONDE: 1. the title and 2. some unfortunate CGI snow in the opening scene. As far as the snow is concerned, it seems like a post-production decision to add some moodiness to the proceedings, not much you can do about that. As for the title, the film was obviously called THE COLDEST STATE for the longest time, a title which lends itself more towards John Le Carré-type espionage than high-octane action. This is appropriate since ATOMIC BLONDE is a film that exists in both worlds.
The film is set in Berlin at the exact moment the wall is about to come down. The Cold War has been going on for decades and agents on both sides have gotten used to the back and forth. And then there are those who have found a new life by breaking free of the accepted rules of engagement. This is a world in which betrayal exists on all sides and you are meant to accept this as standard operating procedure. And yet, being out there on your own, you are still told that you are doing this to preserve a way of life you will never be a part of and is now entirely foreign to you. So, rogue agents have begun playing both sides or indeed no sides, embracing a lifestyle of chaos.
Charlize Theron plays an MI6 agent tasked with tracking down one such rogue element in a city where the barrier between East and West is literally about to come tumbling down. She is partnered with a cynical agent (James McAvoy – and it’s this film, not the offensive and overpraised SPLIT in which he really shines) to find this mysterious figure. But could the target be closer than anyone expects? There are so many double and triple crosses in this film, you have to track things as carefully as they do.
Though an established and incredible actress, Theron has been courting action movie stardom for some time. It obviously wasn’t going to happen with AEON FLUX (a property whose animation was the only thing going for it) but it was a sure thing when she took the reigns in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Her performance of Furiosa was so incredible, they decided to shift Max to the sidelines and just make the movie about her. And I for one didn’t mind. What makes Theron so much more successful than most people in this type of role is that there are layers to her character she explores through the subtleties in her performance. It’s never a “tough woman” facsimile. This is someone who is as damaged as the people she pursues, enough so that you sometimes wonder if she is the person she’s pursuing. ATOMIC BLONDE is next level action filmmaking with an amazing character and performance at the center of it.
COLOSSAL – The trailers sold this film pretty well. COLOSSAL was presented as a film in which a mixed up and unremarkable young woman discovers that her physical actions mimic those of a giant monster which has inexplicably appeared in Seoul. That’s what we were sold and for a little bit that’s what it appears we get. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman who apparently has been very self-centered and lacked all sense of direction. She also seems to have a growing drinking problem. She returns to her old home town and her old, bare house. She immediately reconnects with Oscar (Jason Sudekis), a childhood friend who now owns the local bar. She starts going through the paces before discovering her connection to the Korean monster.
And that’s where things get weird. Because the ads do not show you where this film goes next or why it is so important. It is such an important but unexpected facet of the film that I am taking this space to issue a SPOILER ALERT. If you have not seen this film, don’t read any further until you do.
Because at this point, we start to notice things around the same time Gloria does. Oscar starts to flirt with Gloria immediately. He seems to listen to her advice. Then he starts sending her gifts, which make her life a lot more comfortable than what it would be without them. Then he starts to react when he’s questioned. Then he drinks some more, he begins to gaslight her. Then his already emotionally abusive behavior turns violent. In this role, Sudekis is unnervingly believable.
COLOSSAL is not just a quirky comedy, it is an exploration of toxic masculinity and rape culture, most importantly how this is perceived by women. The behavior comes about subtly, slowly. There are warning signs. But by the time we realize Oscar is not the nice guy he appeared to be, Gloria is being menaced by an abusive personality. And that’s when you realize, this is a situation that while terrifying, is nothing new to Gloria. And you realize this is what it is like for a lot of women in the world.
Of course, there is still the monster, which is used as both a tool and a symbol for Gloria’s becoming. COLOSSAL is an empowering dark comedy featuring yet another incredible performance by Anne Hathaway. It’s one of those rare films that should be considered required viewing.
MOTHER! – It was clear from the beginning that MOTHER! was going to divide people. That it would not be embraced by mainstream audiences couldn’t have been more predictable. That it would be attacked and crowed about by elitist has beens such as Rex Reed as well as clickbait pseudo-journalists was painfully clear in this age of ridicule. It is not a mainstream film, not that Jennifer Lawrence was ever drawn to those in the first place. Even in indie circles, opinions were split.
But how do you tackle the astonishing achievement that is MOTHER! without giving away its secrets? Truth is, I don’t know and that is frustrating because this is the type of film you want to talk about. I am surprised by the multitude of people who asked “What does it all mean?” Okay, there are a couple details I’m fuzzy on too. But as the film goes on, it’s purpose becomes all too clear. Darren Aronofsky has broken down the very meaning of western spirituality and what he comes up with isn’t exactly flattering.
But still trying to be vague, we need to talk about Lawrence and what an incredible actress she is. Just when you think she’s proven herself enough, she proves herself even more. In MOTHER!, she embodies a role that is so important for a woman and yet it transcends gender entirely. It’s astonishingly complex and it wouldn’t be out of line to suggest no one has ever tackled a role like this before, certainly not with this much success. What she does here goes beyond a mere portrayal, her performance is an elemental force of nature. MOTHER! is evolutionary, a film of emotion and ideas that wants to provoke it’s audience into new realms of thought. It has something to say and doesn’t care if it comes off as too artsy or cerebral. And at the center of it is an uncompromising actress who achieves the impossible and leaves everybody else in the dust.
PERSONAL SHOPPER – Are we finally to the point where people have ceased harping on Kristen Stewart about the TWILIGHT movies? If you’re not, you should note that you are griping about a franchise that’s been dead for five years. In the meantime, the stars of that film have continued to grow as actors with Kristen Stewart proving herself as a force to be reckoned with.
PERSONAL SHOPPER is her second collaboration with director Olivier Assayas, following CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA for which Stewart became the first American to win a Cesar for acting. Here, she plays an American woman who pays for her stay in Paris by serving as personal shopper to a spoiled celebrity. Her attraction to the City of Lights is not merely aesthetic. She is also a medium who is still trying to cope with the death of her twin brother, in whose shadow she continues to live. She goes about mundane activities, all the while feeling restless. She continues to get messages from sources both modern and supernatural that lead her to believe her brother is trying to communicate with her from the beyond.
Of course, this isn’t your typical ghost story, even with ectoplasmic manifestations and the occasional real life horror. These are mere punctuations in a life of directionless exploration. Assayas excels at showing the mundane only to reveal upon further reflection that perhaps nothing is mundane. Even the not exactly riveting practice of texting is given a sense of life-or-death urgency. Through it all, Stewart is extraordinary, continuing the path of her becoming one of the most fascinating actresses of this generation. It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary film.
WONDER WOMAN – Let’s face it, this is a film a lot of us were pulling for. After all, there had never been a live-action theatrical film featuring Diana of Themiscyra and even the TV show resides in an era of entertaining but dated 1970s kitsch. And yet, there was reason to worry. Would Warner Bros. give her the respect she deserves? And after last year’s twin disappointments, BATMAN V SUPERMAN and SUICIDE SQUAD, would this be just another sullen-faced spectacle?
Thankfully, director Patty Jenkins set everything right. WONDER WOMAN was not only the best movie of the summer, it was one of the best movies of the year. The character secured her place in the DC trinity as this film could be compared favorably to Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN and Tim Burton’s BATMAN. It gives a real origin, as we are filled with the same wonder and learn the same difficult life lessons as Diana. The film feels so fresh it’s easy to forget we get a half dozen comic book movies each year. Jenkins seems to be aware this is more than another superhero movie and she’s hell-bent on creating something special. It also allows Wonder Woman to be both the warrior and hero missing from the recent DC output.
Gal Gadot is fantastic in the lead role precisely because she is not there to simply be a hero in skimpy clothing. She brings wide-eyed optimism and fierce determination to her performance. This is a legend being made before our very eyes, finally placing Wonder Woman as the icon she was always meant to be.