Lena Dunham blew us away this year with her new HBO series 'Girls.' Written, directed and starring Dunham, the show explores the lives of 20-something women living in New York City. It's almost shameful to call the show or Hannah Horvath's willingness to bare all (emotionally and physically, but always uncomfortably) "brave," when this is the kind of honest, genuine material we should see more of on television and in film. Hannah is a flawed character, whose mistakes and feelings are relatable in ways the audience may be uncomfortable admitting, but that's the mark of truly great content -- the kind of stuff that challenges you to accept its flawed characters, even if you don't like or agree with them, and the kind of show that makes you turn an eye back in on yourself to ask why you do or don't agree with the characters' actions.
I covered the show extensively in reviews and weekly talks with fellow critics this year, and I certainly can't wait to get back into it this January.
'Take This Waltz'
Written and directed by Sarah Polley and starring Michelle Williams, 'Take This Waltz' is an uncompromising examination of a married woman who hates the feeling of being inbetween places. The end is painful, but quick and often inevitable, and the beginnings are always so intoxicating, but it's that inbetween place that's terrifying to Margot, who views comfortability as complacency.
From my review: "Where many films last year — ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Melancholia,’ ‘Young Adult’ — sought to explore regressive female behavior in ways both comedic and tragic, ‘Take This Waltz’ suffers no such lofty ambition. It simply wants to explore relationships in a way that is, simply, honest. There’s no heightened reality or complex visage; it’s just a series of tangible moments between characters who feel less like characters and more like nouns — versions of people, places, and things we’ve all been."
Often we watch films in which actors portray those afflicted with addiction and there's something so disingenuous about the performance -- it's either over the top, or clearly a sober person meekly playing dress-up, stumbling around in someone else's shoes. Not so with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who gives what I feel is the performance of her career up to this point. As Kate, Winstead plays an alcoholic, married to her similarly afflicted husband (Aaron Paul), and while we've been conditioned to see drunk women on TV and in movies as cute and slurring, clumsy baby deer, Winstead gives us the antithesis with her brutal, unflinching portrayal of true alcoholism. In my review I noted that when intoxicated, her voice becomes something unnatural and inhuman, and it's completely unsettling to watch. When alcoholism takes over, the people we once knew no longer exist -- they may look the same, but their mind has been replaced by someone we no longer know, and just the same, Winstead may look like Winstead the actress, but in 'Smashed,' she's no longer the same person, and it's incredible to watch.
People keep saying Ann Dowd is the supporting actress of 'Compliance,' and while Dreama Walker certainly gives a breakout performance, it's Dowd who owns the film. It's her actions that guide the film, and it's her character that challenges the audience to ask what we would do in similar circumstances. The film is based, incredibly, on a string of real events in which an anonymous caller dialed fast food joints pretending to be a police officer, and convincing personnel (typically management) to undress and often sexually assault their subordinates. 'Compliance' examines our blind submission to authority, and Dowd has the hardest job of them all: as the manager of the restaurant, she is the one who believes the prank caller to be a legitimate law enforcement officer, and it could be so easy to despise her for her ignorance, but Dowd finds the humanity in this woman and creates an atmosphere in which we can empathize and understand how a person might be this blind. It's no easy feat.
Written by and starring Zoe Kazan, 'Ruby Sparks' is the deconstruction and near-demolition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As Ruby, Kazan is the woman-as-object onto which her creator/boyfriend projects his ideals, quite literally. In typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl films, we watch as women are treated as less than the sum of their parts, and men use them to fulfill their needs without giving them full recognition as human beings. What 'Ruby Sparks' and Zoe Kazan do here is nothing short of fascinating, taking the MPDG idea and making it literal, and then showing us why it's a load of crap and why this ideal is harmful.
But it's not just taking apart a trope. From my review: "‘Ruby Sparks’ isn’t just about deconstructing, though — it’s also about the creation of art and the ways in which we feel we must always perfect, rewrite, redo, and how we fear sending that creation out into the world. Once we do that, the product is finished and we have to let it go to exist on its own terms, to be appreciated or criticized by others.
Written by Kathryn Bigelow and partner Mark Boal, directed by Bigelow, and starring Jessica Chastain, 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a remarkable film about a familiar subject that remains compelling and engaging even though we all know the end. Chastain stars as Maya, a CIA agent who dedicates her career to finding Osama bin Laden over the course of a decade. Chastain's portrayal is fierce as the uncompromising Maya, who refuses to back down when she knows the information she has is the key to finding the world's most dangerous man. Throughout the film men underestimate her and pacify her by giving her what she wants just to keep her out of their hair -- and while Bigelow has said that the film would be the same if the lead were a man or a woman, there's definitely a correlation to be drawn between Maya's mission and Bigelow as a female director in a male-dominated system. Maya just wants to do her job, and isn't concerned with accolades or politics or courtesies. In the end, she earns respect from her male peers for her confidence and her drive to get the job done, but she's still only referred to as "the girl," even in her most triumphant moment.
'The Master' is, quite obviously, a film about a man who fashions himself as a master, but who needs a dog -- someone feral, driven by Id, the very man the master teaches his disciples not to be -- to train. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give great performances as the trainee and the trainer, respectively, and as the film unfolds we see the ways in which the two need each other in order to exist and feel whole, in ways that often boarder on depressingly romantic. But it's Amy Adams' role as the wife of the master that had me most intrigued -- given few scenes and perhaps half the dialogue or less of her male co-stars, it's Adam's character who steals the show as the woman behind the man, and then 'The Master' takes on a whole new meaning. Adams might just be the real conductor of this show, and her subtly aggressive ways of exerting her authority coupled with her natural sweetness in both appearance and demeanor make for one dangerous cocktail, leaving the audience thirsty for more. It's the sort of performance that leaves you wanting, but you know that to have more of Adams would almost certainly kill the very feeling her limited presence inspires.