2015 Films Gave Actresses Real Vehicles for Greatness

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(WOMENSENEWS)–While renowned actresses continue to demand equal pay for their work and to lobby for better representation of women on the screen, this year’s crop of films did provide something, here at year’s end to savor: a rich harvest of exceptional roles for women.

We have seen dozens of female characters from history and fiction whose stories epitomize accomplishment and the ability to prevail.

These roles have given actresses tremendous opportunities to show their physical and emotional mettle and they’ve done so beautifully. With hope, this proliferation of strong and complex female characters–matched with superb performances–will help level the moviemaking playing field in years to come.

One note of concern is that women of color are underrepresented in this year’s femme-centric productions.

With that caveat, and hoping not to find the same omission next year, it’s time to applaud the exceptionally strong and inspiring female characters we’ve seen on screen during 2015, and to honor the great actresses who brought them to life.

Blanchett Stars Twice

“Truth” stars Cate Blanchett as “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes, the woman who bravely brought George Bush’s dicey military service to public attention. Based on Mapes’ book, the film presents her perspective on what happened when some of her documentation couldn’t be authenticated and her sources reconsidered their testimony. The situation is still the subject of controversy, but this version asserts that she and Dan Rather were fired because CBS succumbed to political pressures. Whatever history’s final judgement on the situation may be, this compelling truth-based drama raises the important subject of how news media can be influenced and corrupted by political interests.

Singing Trio of Documentaries

This year also saw three compelling documentaries about the lives, loves and careers of ionic female vocal artists: “Amy” about Amy Winehouse, “Janis: Little Girl Blue” about Janis Joplin and “What Happened, Miss Simone” is, of course, all about Nina Simone. All three films delve into the needs of these fabulous women and expose the effect of celebrity on their lives. Don’t miss a single one.

Big Year for Carey Mulligan

Like Blanchett, Carey Mulligan has brought two magnificent women — one based on an historical person and the other a favorite fiction heroine — to life on big screens. In “Suffragette,” Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a character based on several working-class women who fought for women’s right to vote in England in 1912-13. Directed by Sarah Gavron, scripted by Abi Morgan and with an extraordinary female acting ensemble headed by Mulligan, the film helps us appreciate the women’s determination to become part of the political conversation, and their fortitude in realizing their goals.

Mulligan was also wonderful as Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Vinterberg’s beautifully crafted cinematically epic rendering of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Mulligan’s Bathsheba is the perfect 19th century heroine: independent, smart, fair-minded, loyal and charming. In overcoming the adversities of a woman’s second-class citizenship, the hardships of rural life and a commitment to an abusive man, Mulligan captures all of those heroic qualities and more.

Action Thrillers

Actresses who were front-and-center with commanding performances in action thrillers include Rebecca Ferguson. Hot on the case in saving the world and her male counterparts from destruction, Ferguson’s character conceives and implements nearly impossible stunts in “Mission Impossible.”

In the same genre, Emily Blunt proved to be a force to be reckoned with as an FBI agent in “Sicario,” the action thriller about terminating drug traffickers who are tantamount to terrorists, killing cruelly and randomly as they move their product across borders.

Jennifer Lawrence again played Katniss Everdeen (named after Bathsheba Everdene, by the way), retiring the iconic and heroic character in “Mockingjay 2,” the final chapter in “The Hunger Games.” Katniss and the franchise are destined to become iconic classics, to be watched time and time again, and handed down to future generations as a female-driven heroic saga.

Sci-Fi Divas

Other topnotch kickass women who hit big screens during 2015 include sci-fi divas Charlize Theron as Furiosa, the heroic rescuer of female “breeders” in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and Daisy Ridley as Rey, the new heroine of the fan-favored “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the seventh episode in the franchise that may well continue into the intergalactic future it predicts.

Alicia Vikander’s triple-header year included the sci-fi “Ex Machina,” in which she plays a cyborg who plots to escape her test lab environment and become a real woman in the real world. Vikander’s other strong characters were entirely human and feminist. In the truth-based war drama “Testament of Youth,” she plays Vera Brittain, a British woman who came of age during World War I and wrote a memoir about her experiences as a nurse on the front. In “The Danish Girl,” another truth-based film that’s set in the early 20th century, Vikander plays Danish painter Gerda Wegener, the ever-supportive and never-victimized wife and partner of Einar Wegener, who became Lily after undergoing one of the first transgender operations. Vikander is getting Oscars buzz for all three performances.

No Longer Lost to Memory

“Effie Gray” is another real life woman whose story was receding from view – until she was portrayed by Dakota Fanning in the film scripted by Emma Thompson. Effie was the wife of John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic who, in this depiction, is renowned as much for his misogyny as for his intellect. Tutored by an older woman (played by Thompson), Effie escapes the misery of her marriage by forming a liaison with artist John Everett Millais. Scandal risked. Scandal survived. Good show.

Helen Mirren’s turn as Maria Altmann in “Woman in Gold” elucidates the true story of the Beverly Hills matron who escaped Nazi-occupied Austria. Decades later, as the sole survivor of her family, she decides to sue the Austrian government to reclaim Gustav Klimpt’s iconic portrait of her beloved aunt, Adele, slain by the Nazis, who also stole the painting from her family’s home in Vienna. Women seeking justice are always inspiring, and especially when they prevail.

Brava to Motherhood

Motherhood is the core of characterization in two brilliant femme-centric dramas. “Room,” adapted for the screen by Emma Donoghue from her novel, is built on Brie Larson’s stunning performance as Ma, a woman who was kidnapped as a child and locked in a shed, where she’s been repeatedly raped and has given birth to a son who’s been kept captive with her. Her efforts to protect him and engineer his escape are awesome. Brava Larson and Donoghue, and Jacob Tremblay, who plays the son.

In “The Second Mother,” Regina Case plays a trusted housemaid who has left her rural Brazilian home to serve a wealthy Rio de Janeiro family who’ve left the care of their otherwise neglected son to her. The household dynamic changes dramatically when the daughter she’d left with relatives comes to Rio to attend university. She moves in with her mom, but isn’t practiced in playing the role of a servant. Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, the film is a profoundly affecting take on mother-daughter relationships and a provocative illustration of class struggles in Latin America.

“Grandma” stars the incomparable Lily Tomlin as a feisty and somewhat antisocial but nearly broke senior who will move heaven and earth to help her granddaughter (beautifully played by Julia Garner) finance an abortion. This includes appealing to her estranged daughter, the girl’s uptight mother (a superb Marcia Gay Harden), for help. Writer-director Paul Weitz’s film is funny and poignant. It’s also a joyful celebration of three quirky women who rediscover the importance of motherly love in their lives.

Charlotte Rampling is sensational as an aging housewife who, “45 Years” into her marriage, finds her comfortable world threatened by her husband’s (Tom Courtenay) memories of a long-past love. Rampling’s performance is quiet, honest and absolutely riveting. Lots of Oscars buzz.

Bel Powley is also getting Oscar talk for her breakout performance in Marielle Heller’s cinematic adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a gutsy play by play of a young woman’s determination to discover sex on her own terms and chronicle her experiences.

Stay tuned for next week’s posting of my top 10 films of 2015.

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