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At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
    by Chris Bellamy

New wave

If there's any justice, the recent crop of strong female characters will change Hollywood's gender paradigm, at least a little

Did you notice those torches passing? Sure you did. Couldn't miss 'em.

A mysterious uncle shows up and passes along his, shall we say, unique lifestyle (and accompanying skill set) to an inquisitive niece. A father passes away, and his daughter, years later, picks up where he leaves off. A mother and daughter subvert, and ultimately overcome, a centuries-old patriarchal tradition. An alpha male, out in the middle of space, floats to his presumed death, leaving an audience in the hands of a woman who proceeds to command the screen for the duration of the film.

Some variation of this kind of scenario has popped up again and again in recent months and years; the message couldn't be clearer.

It's long been the accepted custom that Hollywood is, for all intents and purposes, run by 13-year-old boys. Their dollars are worth the most. It's yielded a robust superhero- and robot-based economy. It's why every year is dominated by male crimefighters and heroes of all stripes. Nothing has exactly changed on that front (yet), but what you may have noticed is that, on quality if not quantity, the women are kicking the men's asses.

I touched on this in my 2013 Year in Review, but didn't get into too much detail. Now, to be fair, I must acknowledge that my own top 10 of last year included movies about: a solitary man on a boat, a solitary folk singer with a cat, a solitary man whose great romance is with a computer program, a solitary man in Rome's high society, and a bunch of male white-collar crooks and scumbags. But bear with me here. That was, again, largely a matter of quantity.

But what struck me were the signs, baby steps though they may be, of things trending in a different direction - or at the very least a burning desire to push them that way. Especially given the particular places where these trends are showing up. Sci-fi and fantasy have been more male-dominated than anything else, yet filmmakers did dramatically more interesting work with their female leads this year than their males.

While studios over the last few years have carved out the YA niche to target female audiences (condescendingly offering them their own little corner of the sandbox), boy-centric action pics remain the industry's bell cow.

The gender dynamics in sci-fi - slyly upended in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity - are particularly interesting. There's no shortage of brilliant women in sci-fi cinema, but the Ellen Ripley model didn't exactly catch on. Aside from Alien, Aliens and that fake Julia Roberts/Anna Scott flick from Notting Hill, I don't remember the last science-fiction film so wholly dominated by a female character the way Sandra Bullock does so memorably in Gravity.

Typically, even the best examples are either paired with a dominant male figure (Sarah Connor with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, Leia with Han and Luke (OK fine, just Han) in the Star Wars trilogy, Trinity with Neo in The Matrix) (what trilogy?), or are part of a larger ensemble (i.e. River in Firefly / Serenity).

But Gravity - against the outdated expectations of various box-office gurus and insiders - unapologetically went there. Not only that, but Cuarón gave us a fully self-aware subversion of those expectations, presenting us with a heroic male figure with an A-list face, only to get rid of him by the half-hour mark*. And what he left us with was the kind of female protagonist the movies have been missing for a long, long time. Oh, and to the tune of $714 million worldwide, and counting.

* Yes, with the exception of Ghost Clooney's brief appearance a bit later on. And while, yes, Clooney may be a savior figure in a couple of different scenes, Bullock's character does most of the heavy lifting, survival-wise.

But Cuarón's Oscar-winner hasn't been alone in nudging us - and, hopefully, Hollywood itself - in a more progressive direction. Even if many of the best examples are too small-scale to make themselves heard on a large scale. To me, the most powerful statement was made by Neil Jordan's Byzantium - written by Moira Buffini based on her play - a brilliant feminist critique of patriarchal social structures, buoyed by a pair of great lead performances by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as immortal mother-and-daughter vampires trying to survive off the grid.

Hovering over their lives, and the film as a whole, is a set of ancient traditions put in place, maintained and enforced by a priest-like order of vampires for whom the passage of time (an irrelevant concept for an immortal) is no call for progress. Which leaves independent women like Clara (Arterton) out in the cold, and subject to execution.

Its religious commentary is elegant, if unsubtle, but what really makes it soar is the potency of the two central figures. It's funny - I was revisiting Byzantium around the same time I saw and reviewed 300: Rise of an Empire, and there's a distinct similarity between Arterton's Clara and Eva Green's Artemisia. Both are powerful figures - the former noble and insanely protective (and for good reason); the latter, merely insane. But try pairing up Green's intimidating seduction/sex scene midway through the film with a key scene late in Byzantium, when Clara confronts her daughter's teacher after he has gotten a bit too close to the truth. What ensues is a slow, meticulous and erotic scene of manipulation that ends as badly (and as bloody) as it could possibly end for someone on the receiving end of Clara's maternal instincts.

Her authority as both a maternal figure and a survivor (thematically not unlike Bullock's character in Gravity) was among the most viscerally affecting things I saw in theatres all year.

Another favorite example of mine from last year is Chan-wook Park's Stoker, which fills the strangely under-tapped subgenre of a female coming-of-age film (for various reasons, it seems there are countless prominent male-centered coming-of-age stories every year), the twist being that she's coming of age as a killer. When we first meet India (Mia Wasikowska), she's an enigma - observant but strangely aloof, curious but hesitant. The sudden appearance of her dapper, mysterious uncle - all slithery charm and menace - opens up the corners of her psyche that she'd kept buried for 18 years. The way Park's character study / chamber horror piece plays out is not simply mentor and protégé, but something more complex and incestuous, and what's great is the way her relationship to her uncle, and to her own actions, keeps shifting; we see her blossom into a stone-cold psycho. We've seen (and identified with) so many male loners-turned-psychopaths that it's refreshing to see the sardonically playful way Stoker approaches the female version of that.

Meanwhile, a pair of films refashioned old stories into righteously triumphant feminist fables - Pablo Berger's Blancanieves and Disney's smash hit Frozen. The former reimagines Snow White in the world of bullfighting in the 1920s, focusing on the brilliant young Carmen as she comes into her own, thwarting all her evil stepmother's ill intentions (not to mention an attempted murder) and grows up to follow in her legendary father's footsteps in the ring. Frozen, very loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, features two wildly different but equally compelling princesses in a movie that satirizes the idea of Disney romance and focuses instead on the love between sisters. Even better? It marked the second Disney princess (Elsa) in as many years (joining Brave's Merida) to not be defined by a male relationship whatsoever.

The deeper Hollywood has gotten entrenched with its current blockbuster business model, I've seen its central (mostly male) characters streamlined into cookie-cutter movie-star heroes. But perhaps that has allowed strong female characters to blossom a bit more under the radar. Or maybe these particular women stand out more simply because studios have given us so few characters like them in recent years. Either way, at least a few people have been doing things right over the last year or two. Hollywood can keep churning out Spider-Mans and Avengers all they want; I'll find my way back here to Clara, Eleanor, India, Carmen, Elsa, Anna and Dr. Ryan Stone, thank you very much.

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