No matter how many female-driven movies make a splash at the box office, Hollywood never seems to learn its lesson. Sure, the top-grossing movie of the year, for now, is Iron Man 3, and Man Of Steel is also in the top five. (That’s two with “man” in the title.) Then again, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire could very well end up trumping Iron Man 3 as 2013’s ultimate financial victor, and that movie is nothing without its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, and the equally formidable actress who plays her. (And let’s take a moment to remember that even Iron Man 3 gave Pepper Potts a fiery kick-ass moment near the end.)
And then there’s Gravity, one of the year’s other biggest success stories, which is carried almost entirely by one woman — Sandra Bullock, in a role that, like Lawrence’s, is very physical. Both Bullock and Lawrence are likely to see themselves back in the Oscar lineup this year (Lawrence for American Hustle rather than Catching Fire), but unfortunately, both Actress races are relatively thin this year, with only two or three solid, surefire contenders in each. Compare that to Best Actor, a category which could easily have ten or more deserving nominees this year, all quite deserving. (Best Supporting Actor, however, is this year’s weakest race of all.)
It’s still a rather male-dominated year at the movies, with lots of fairly masculine films out there, per usual — including so many of the awards contenders (12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips, All Is Lost, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis). It’s still a man’s world, as far as Hollywood goes — but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a number of bright spots for the ladies in 2013.
Let’s start with the biggest. No one predicted the sequel to The Hunger Games to disappoint at the box office, as the series has proven to appeal to the same demographic as Twilight without becoming the butt of nearly so many jokes. (It doesn’t hurt that Katniss Everdeen isn’t a loverlorn wet blanket, incapable of extracting herself from danger.) Critics have generally responded warmly to the series, in particular the latest installment, which brings the second of Suzanne Collins’ YA books to life in pretty straightforward fashion. This one kicks in a year after the original, as the 75th annual Hunger Games are gearing up. That brings a Quarter Quell, meaning things will be shaken up. How so? The Games are to pit prior victors against each other. It’s the best of the best in a fight to the death.
Catching Fire is an improvement on the first film in practically every way, thanks in large part to a boosted budget. The stakes are higher with Katniss now competing against the other district’s champs, and the arena is more lethal this time around. Yes, the film is essentially a beat-by-beat retread of the original, and the ending — as in the book — leaves room for a lot of questions about the logic of the master plan behind it all. It suffers from Harry Potter syndrome, which may leave non-readers a little cold with such a faithful adaptation. But I’ve read these books, so I was perfectly happy.
What the film does have is appealing new characters, mostly in Katniss and Peeta’s charismatic competitors-turned-allies Joanna (Jena Malone) and Finnick (Sam Claflin). Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta has a couple charming moments, even if he doesn’t register as a major factor this time around, and even Gale (Liam Hemsworth) manages to be marginally less useless. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s phenomenal work that continues to elevate the Hunger Games movies above all comparable teen fare. It’s the year’s second-best blockbuster, and like Gravity, it’s all centered around a smart, capable woman who doesn’t need a brawny stud to save her. (Well, maybe once or twice.) In another year, there might even be a push for Lawrence to nab a Best Actress nomination for her work here, since the film rests on her capable shoulders nearly as much as Gravity rests on Bullock’s. But Lawrence already has an Oscar nod on the way and the series isn’t considered substantial enough for the Academy, so worldwide stardom and untold millions will have to suffice for poor Jennifer Lawrence.This is mainly notable because 2013 was a pretty big dud in the blockbuster department otherwise, with a long string of disappointments over the summer. (Iron Man 3 being one of few true exceptions.) It was also a reasonably lame year for comedies, with the male-driven Grown-Ups 2, The Internship, Delivery Man, and The Hangover III failing to provide many laughs. (The fame-skewing boys’ club in This Is The End fared a little better.) The female-driven Bridesmaids knocked everyone’s socks off a couple summers ago by proving women could be raunchy and financially viable, but Hollywood can only learn so much so fast. There are successful female-driven movies every few years, at least, yet it seems like it’s news whenever another one hits.
But the aptly-titled The Heat did — another instance of women catching fire this year. It’s the year’s highest-grossing comedy (followed by the surprisingly decent We’re The Millers), coming from Bridesmaids director Paul Feig. But The Heat is a very different animal than Bridesmaids, focusing on a feisty cop paired with a straight-laced FBI agent. It’s a classic buddy-cop setup, the only novelty being that these two are women. Melissa McCarthy is foul-mouthed and funny in a stronger role than her hustler in the so-so Identity Thief; Sandra Bullock essentially reprises her Miss Congeniality role. (Between this and Gravity, 2013 is a very good year to be Sandy.) The Heat isn’t a remarkable comedy, but both leads are giving it their all, and it doesn’t make many allowances for the fact that it’s about women instead of men (though there is lots of talk about dick-shooting).
The year also saw the buzzy release of a very different story of female bonding — Blue Is The Warmest Color, most notable for its explicit, minutes-long depictions of lesbian sex (and there are several of them). Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, the film follows a high school student named Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) — I mean literally follows, as the camera essentially stalks her, lingering obsessively as she eats, sleeps, showers, masturbates, and wanders around — so it’s no wonder we get an eyeful of her sex life, too. The movie is voyeuristic about more than just the sex, giving us an immersive view of Adele that is rare (the French title translates to The Life Of Adele, and it does seem like we’re catching a glimpse at virtually every aspect of her existence). That’s a blessing and a bit of a curse, since the movie runs three hours — maybe we didn’t need quite such a thorough examination of this fairly average young girl.
Blue Is The Warmest Color takes its sweet time getting to the heart of the story, which is Adele’s attraction to a blue-haired stranger she encounters on the street. She’ll later meet this women when she dares to venture to a lesbian bar, finding that the older, cooler Emma (Léa Seydoux) returns her affection. At one point, the film takes a rather large leap forward in time, and that’s where Kechiche loses focus a bit — we’ve gotten to know Adele so intimately that it feels strange to suddenly miss so much, and narratively, there doesn’t seem to be a real need for such an extreme time jump. (The same events could have happened in a more truncated fashion.)
Both actresses are quite exceptional, and the film has a mesmerizing attention to detail that few others do, but it also indulges itself with long, ultimately inconsequential scenes that drag more and more as the film goes on. Adele is a fascinating character whose non-Emma romances tend to involve men; the film never seems that interested in explaining her sexual orientation, which allows for a more complex reading. Blue Is The Warmest Color certainly stretches beyond the usual coming-of-age tropes; for whatever reason, Adele finds herself captivated by Emma and lets that relationship become her entire world. A few later scenes go further over-the-top than the more believable and intimate first half, particularly when Adele and Emma meet for a drink late in the film and practically get it on right there in public.
The movie is filled with scenes of rich dialogue, occasionally too heady and on-the-nose, but it’s always well-acted. (Adele’s early romance with Jérémie Laheurte’s Thomas is as compelling as the film’s central love affair.) The actresses shared the Palme d’Or with their director (who they’ve notably spoken out against in the press, thanks to those graphic lesbian sex scenes), and Exarchopoulos could be a dark horse contender in the Best Actress race if voters decide to throw an ingenue into the mix. (The current favorites have all won before.) It’s certainly not unheard of for a French-language performer to find herself in the running — last year, Emmanuelle Riva had a solid shot at a win, and Marion Cotillard did win for La Vie En Rose. The film totally hinges on Exarchopoulos, and she gives a thoroughly natural performance of the sort that’s hard to pull off. It’s one of the year’s best, to be sure. Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said is another female-driven film getting some awards season buzz — though the awards buzz is primarily centered around Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Catherine Keener’s male co-star, since the dearly departed James Gandolfini is the film’s best shot at some Oscar love. It’s not just a sentimental thing — the Best Supporting Actor category this year is thin and Gandolfini is pretty great in Enough Said, showing romantic lead potential that we haven’t seen in Tony Soprano. The movie is a smart romantic comedy for adults, with great work from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Catherine Keener. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s a warm and likable film. (It’s also the only film mentioned here so far that is actually made by a woman.)
And let’s take a moment to acknowledge Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg’s largely improvised dramedy about two friends who work together at a brewery. Both are in relationships when we meet them, but that doesn’t stop us from wondering whether or not their simmering buddy chemistry means they should be together. (They, eventually, wonder too.) The film’s lead is Olivia Wilde, showing chops and warmth she isn’t often allowed to display in bigger studio movies we’ve seen her in, with Jake Johnson providing a suitably scruffy love interest for Wilde’s boozy, self-destructive temptress. Anna Kendrick plays Johnson’s girlfriend, once again making the most of what could be a throwaway role. The film has an easy, breezy, natural quality that’s similar to Enough Said. It’s as refreshing as a cold beer on a summer’s day.
And finally, there’s another woman who throws herself a little too hard into her relationship, Blue Is The Warmest Color-style. Did you know Charles Dickens had a secret lover? I didn’t, but then again, I didn’t know much about Charles Dickens at all, except that he was paid by the word. I resented him for that, since it made Oliver Twist longer than it had any right to be. (At least, that’s how I felt in eighth grade.) I knew some of the broader strokes of Dickens’ life, but I knew nothing about Nelly Ternan — and neither did anybody else, apparently. Hence the fllm’s potentially misleading title, The Invisible Woman.
No, The Invisible Woman is not about Charles Dickens’ little-known, illicit romance with Sue Storm of Marvel’s Fantastic Four — though somebody please, make that movie — but a reference to the fact that in prim and proper 19th century England, Nelly had to keep gossip about her relationship at bay or face a horrible sullying of her reputation. She was a single woman, but Dickens wasn’t a single man, and a sex life of any kind outside of marriage was considered a major scandal for a woman. So what happens when following your heart means pretending you don’t exist?
The Invisible Woman gives a voice and a face to Charles Dickens’ mistress, who is simply beside herself with longing for the man. (Who knew anyone could find Charles Dickens so… sexy?) Nelly is played by Felicity Jones, a terrific actress who hasn’t exactly broken out in a major way yet, but probably will after she appears in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. (She’s half of one of the best romances of the past few years, Like Crazy.) The Invisible Woman depicts Nelly as an 18-year-old ingenue as well as a considerably older woman, still struggling with the fallout of her romance with Dickens and endeavoring to keep it a secret from her current husband. Dickens is charmingly played b Ralph Fiennes (also the director of this film), portrayed as the biggest celebrity in England at this time (as he would be). There are echoes of modern-day celebrity life, with gossip rags and swarming mobs of fans clamoring for a handshake or an autograph. Next to Dickens’ fame, Nelly looks and feels quite invisible, indeed.
Fiennes’ grasp on the material is strong, and all the below-the-line work is top-notch. (Special shout-out to the cinematography, editing, and costumes.) Jones carries the movie, believably portraying a naive young girl and a rather embittered married lady. (Not every actress can age up so convincingly.) It’s a perfectly fine film, yet not exactly a remarkable one, even if everyone involved seems to have done their job right. Perhaps there just isn’t quite enough meat to this true-life story — for all Nelly’s fast-walking across the beach (her preferred coping mechanism), her haunted past doesn’t seem all that tortuous. As famous lovers go, Dickens is a pretty sweet one. (Witness the gentlest sex scene of all time, so demure that you can’t even tell if they’re about to do it, are doing it, or have just done it.)
There is one true revelation in The Invisible Woman — a performance that stands out even amongst the heftier performances of Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes. It’s Joanna Scanlan. Who? you may ask. Scanlan plays Catherine, Dickens’ wife, who puts up with a lot from her husband. She’s the movie’s most fascinating character, even with relatively little screen time, as her reaction is far and away different than most contemporary wives’ would be. It’s not a high-profile enough role to garner her an Oscar nomination this year, but it’s certainly one of my favorite supporting performances this year.
The Invisible Woman is set for release on December 25, but no one’s talking about it despite the fact that it has all the right elements for Oscar bait. (An actor-turned-director, a period piece, a famous historical figure, sumptuous costumes, and so on.) You could say that, at this point in the Oscar race, The Invisible Woman is very invisible indeed.
None of the women in these movies are likely to make a showing in the Academy Award nominations, even if they’ve made their impact at the box office or in other prizes. Along with other deserving actresses who will almost certainly be overlooked by the Oscars — including Frances Ha‘s Greta Gerwig, Short Term 12‘s Brie Larson, Fruitvale Station’s Melonie Diaz, and Before Midnight‘s Julie Delpy — they are the invisible women of 2013 in the eyes of the Academy. But they deserve better.*