The Big O: Remembering 2013's Top Female Film Moments

Features
by Susan Wloszczyna
December 31, 2013 12:00 PM
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Julia Roberts hugs Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County," while wanting to strangle her.

I have always been a list-maker. After all, they come in handy when it comes to remembering what groceries to buy, what clothes to pack and what chores to nag my husband about.

But unlike many film writers at this time of year, I find it difficult to sum up my reactions to the best releases of the past 12 months with a simple top-10 ranking of titles.

Instead, I prefer to recall certain on-screen moments, performances or achievements that left a lasting impression -- especially when they involve women onscreen.

Here, in no special order, are the 10 scenes that defined 2013 for me.

Sex and the older woman. Their love lives might pale next to the debauchery on display in The Wolf of Wall Street, but the elderly salt-of-the-earth characters played by Judi Dench, 79, in Philomena and June Squibb, 84, in Nebraska have the rare opportunity to speak frankly, even shockingly, about their youthful exploits.

Dench's retired Irish nurse confesses that the interlude that led her to become an unwed teen mother was "wonderful -- I thought I was floating on air" before noting, "I didn't even know I had a clitoris." Meanwhile, Squibb's no-nonsense Midwestern homemaker stands before the tombstone of a deceased would-be suitor and lifts the front of her dress, taunting, "See what you could've had, Keith, if you hadn't talked about wheat all the time."

Vocal pyrotechnics20 Feet From Stardom, a spellbinding documentary that shines a well-deserved spotlight on some of the music industry's top backup singers, has many anecdotal high points.  

But the one that gave me the shivers is when the mighty Merry Clayton recounts how she was beckoned in the wee hours of the night to a recording studio -- wearing curlers, wrapped in a fur coat and many months pregnant -- to wail the lyric that would turn the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" into an instant classic: "Rape, murder -- it's just a shot away." When Clayton's scorching vocal track is played separately from the rest of the song for Mick Jagger to hear, his astonished on-camera reaction is priceless.

Oprah's return to the spotlight. In Lee Daniels' The Butler, Oprah Winfrey proves that her stunning performance in 1985's The Color Purple was no fluke. She plays Gloria, Forest Whitaker's long-suffering alcoholic wife, who is sick of playing second fiddle to a string of First Families served by her White House steward husband. 

The talk-show legend oozes sensuality and heartache through the decades, no more so than when she drunkenly slathers on crimson-red lipstick in front of a boudoir mirror while quizzing her spouse on Jackie Kennedy's shoe collection.  

Elsa's self-affirming strut. Several critics decried Disney's continued reliance on princesses as role models, along with their over-prettified features, in the fairy tale-based animated hit Frozen. But they must not have been paying attention to the transformation sequence showcasing the character of Elsa, who grows from cloistered misfit to confident monarch before our eyes as she finally embraces her gift for turning whatever she touches into ice.

As Broadway star Idina Menzel gloriously roars through the ballad "Let It Go," Elsa literally lets her hair down, transforming her dowdy duds into a glistening gown and striding with her head held high through the fantastic ice castle that she has created. In this scene, a young woman takes charge of her destiny by truly being herself for the very first time. Anyone who cares about the fate of young girls in this day and age can't help but be moved by the message of this sequence: Don't deny the very essence that makes you special and sets you apart. 

Decolletage as a power accessory. While her male co-stars Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper cope with seventies-era hair issues like perms and comb-overs, Amy Adams, playing a con woman who passes herself off as a refined English lady, is defined by a series of clingy outfits with dangerously deep V necklines.

But even though her sexuality proves useful in her line of work, the brazenly braless Adams always stays in control of just how much cleavage is actually exposed. Which allows her to be more in charge of the action onscreen and less vulnerable to being fooled than any of the men.

The queens of comedy. Name the highest-grossing comedy of 2013. If you guessed The Hangover Part III or Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, you would be way off. While these male-heavy sequels underperformed at the box office, the female buddy romp The Heat, starring the ever-more-popular Melissa McCarthy and the never-hotter Sandra Bullock as mismatched cops, won the title with a domestic gross of $160 million.

Funny ladies also earned second and third place in the comedy sweepstakes. Jennifer Aniston stripped her way to a $150 million in ticket sales in the raunchy We're the Millers and McCarthy went two for two this year as a scam artist in Identity Thief, which took in $135 million.

A heavyweight Gravity. No one was surprised that Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire would give Tony Stark of Iron Man 3 a run for his money at the box office, with only $18 million separating the No. 1 and 2 films of the year.

But the experimental Gravity, which was mostly a one-woman show, proved quite the draw with Bullock in the action-hero seat. A gross of $255 million was good enough for sixth place.

If there is one indelible image to be cherished from the visually engrossing 3-D space odyssey, it is when Bullock's tears turn into frozen pearls and fly off the screen at the audience. Three-dimensional cinema has rarely been so poetic.

Pit stop. Cate Blanchett might have given the first great female performance of 2013 in summer's Blue Jasmine, playing a disgraced socialite who pops pills, guzzles vodka and continues to put on airs in order to survive.

But one of the more unusual features of her work in Woody Allen's impressive spin on A Streetcar Named Desire -- especially when Jasmine realizes her fabricated world is collapsing around her -- is how she physically exhibits her character's meltdown by sweating profusely through her designer blouses. Tilda Swinton's equally armpit-drenching portrait of a desperate lawyer in 2007's Michael Clayton earned her an Oscar. Don't be surprised if Blanchett doesn't perspire all the way to the podium, too.   

Julia vs. Meryl against Rocky vs. Raging Bull. Grudge Match, the gimmicky boxing matchup between two oldsters played by Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro that opened wide on Christmas Day, couldn't crack the list of top-10 grossers this past weekend.

However, the showdown between two over-40 Oscar-toting divas is proving to be a more potent main event. With Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts swearing, snarling and swatting each other as mother and daughter in August: Osage Country, the adaptation of the Tony-winning play, collected a strong $180,000 since opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles. The true test will be when the film goes wide on January 10.

The naked truth. If a couple is going to lay bare the flaws in their relationship, especially if the nearly 30-minute argument disrupts their lovemaking, why not allow the female half to go topless?

While that detail would seem like gratuitous nudity in any other film (or, ahem, HBO), that was not the case in Before Midnight, which follows the ongoing relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) that began with 1995's romantic Before Sunrise and continued with 2004's Before Sunset.

That the audience was still able to focus on Delpy's complaints about her partner putting his needs before hers while in such an eye-catching state of undress is a testament to her talent and to her character's fascinatingly blunt way with words -- dialogue co-written by Delpy, Hawke and director Richard Linklater that just might lead to a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination.

Brava, ladies. 

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