1. One shines above the rest from this year’s offerings and she isn’t even human. 2008’s badass Eve spends her time saving the future of humanity and falling in love. She is so cool, holding her must feel like an Ipod Touch – sleek and perfect. She is the ultimate gadget but she’s also the hero of Wall-E. How many films in any year feature a true female kicking ass and taking names? Usually the women are dressed up in a sexy outfit, do a few high kicks before the male comes in and finishes the job. Eve mostly does it all, while Wall-E is in the place the female usually occupies — an inspirational force, a hopeless romantic, the beating heart of the story. Eve is number one.
2. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) in Frozen River –any mother who has ever written a bounced check to buy groceries or counted out the pennies to buy some milk will recognize a little of themselves in Ray. It’s not often that the movies gets that kind of desperation this right. Much of it is Leo and her willingness to go deep, but a lot of it is due to writer Courtney Hunt’s insight. Cassidy is hardly perfect; so often single moms are written as saints. They aren’t afforded faults because one whiff of one and the character is neglectful. She does her best and makes it work. We look at her not just as single mom, though. We see her as a whole human being, one of the few in the awards race this year.
2. Doubt’s Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is far from perfect.¬† But John Patrick Shanley has written a complex character who isn’t just one thing. She isn’t just strict, she isn’t just pure, she isn’t just judgmental, she isn’t just good – she is all of it, wrestling itself out of her. She stands on one side of the divide between priests and nuns, no doubt. There is a hierarchy which makes her confrontation with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) all the more poignant. At the same time, she has difficulty understanding the point of view of Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), even though they’re both women. It doesn’t hurt that Streep acts the hell out of the thing.
4. April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), Revolutionary Road – probably because, as Kenneth Turan points out, Winslet was the driving force behind getting the film made, and because she’s acting alongside her trusted pal, Leonardo DiCaprio, and because her husband was directing her – however she arrived at this wonderful portrayal, there it is. April Wheeler is a complicated creature – someone who chafes against the confines of the “perfect life.” If that was all of it, she might have run off and joined a biker gang. But there is a part of her that longs for stability, that longs to have it all – marriage, fulfillment, happiness. It is all there in the Yates novel but somehow it is Winslet who brings those beautiful words to vivid life.
5. Three women in Benjamin Button- one of the best things about Button is how the lead character’s life turns on his experiences with women. How often to male stories follow those paths? They rarely do. But Benjamin Button is taught by, loved by, cared for by women. This film seemed to me like writer Eric Roth’s and maybe director Fincher’s homage to the great women in their lives. Taraji P. Henson as Queenie, Cate Blanchett as Daisy and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbot all shine so brightly in the film and not just because they are one thing. While Queenie might come the closest to an archetype, there is no deying the various shades on the other women. Daisy is self-centered and too vain. Elizabeth Abbot is dissatisfied, ambitious and cold. Benjamin Button bumps around with them as their lives takes their natural turns. He must find intimacy and closeness where he can. These three women were smart enough to see beyond what was happening to him on the outside.
6. Juliette Fontaine (Kristin Scott Thomas), I’ve Loved You So Long – although the ending is a cheat, Thomas’ Juliette is intriguing in almost everything she does. Her tight and controlled gestures, her varying reactions to the children she comes in contact with, her ways of relating to men. She clearly wishes she is dead but at the time, there is the slightest glimmer of hope behind her sad eyes.
7. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) Happy-Go-Lucky – she has to be the world’s most annoying character but there is something genius about her, the way Leigh conceived her and the way Hawkins realized her. She seems like someone who’s always stoned so everything seems funny to them – they can’t just be there because they’re always buzzing. But she is also like a humming bird – a creature destined to shame those miserable souls around her, those who gaze at her momentarily, in between complaints, or even wonder what it would be like to reach out and touch her. Poppy is a good person, the kind the world could use a lot more of.
8. Rachel and Kym, (Rosemarie DeWitt and Anne Hathaway) Rachel Getting Married, so it has to be that women writers write the best characters. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t but Jenny Lumet absolutely did. Kim is a typical fuck up, and her sister is the typical “good one.” But underneath those labels, the things they say to each other, how they relate to one another – it’s all very interesting. They aren’t there to necessarily serve a purpose, or to drive a plot point, they ARE the plot.
9. Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), The Wrestler – you’d expect a stripper with a heart of gold but what you get is a kind of female counterpart to Randy (Mickey Rourke). She is someone whose identity seems a bit too wrapped up in the show she puts on. Who is she if she isn’t the hot spot of desire for all of those loser dudes who wander into the bar? Tomei doesn’t give too much away in her portrayal, which makes Cassidy all the more compelling. What could have been the world’s most cliched character ended up being something unique.
Honorable mentions because I haven’t yet seen them but I’ll bet they are good: Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy, Emma Thompson in Last Chance Harvey, Penelope Cruz (and/or Rebecca Hall) in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Female characters pretty and interesting but nonetheless decorative wallpaper: Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) in Frost/Nixon, Latika (Freida Pinto) in Slumdog Millionaire, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) in Changeling (no mother would be that wimpy for that long), Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Dark Knight