Your Feminist Holiday Movie Guide

freeheld movie

Diversity was a hot-button issue at the Oscars last year, and we still have a long way to go. But I believe that this year holds a lot of promise for women—particularly in the LGBT community—who yearn for more dimensional characters onscreen.

Late February/early March holds a tradition for my best friend and me. On one special Sunday night, we spread out on the floor of his living room with some wine and hors d’oeuvres, fawn over gowns, and scribble furiously into our Oscar prediction sheets. Last year’s ceremony, fashion aside, gave us a lot to cheer about in the way of women. A first-time hiker dismantled by her mother’s death, a linguistics professor battling early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the world’s most unreliable narrator were just some of the increasingly complex roles in the Best Actress Category, while an aging action hero’s fiery daughter and a female code-breaker fleshed out the Supporting nominations.

Diversity was a hot-button issue at the Oscars last year, and we still have a long way to go. But I believe that this year holds a lot of promise for women—particularly in the LGBT community—who yearn for more dimensional characters onscreen. Here is my list of five films that could very well make 2016 another year for strong women.

Freeheld
Directed by: Peter Sollett
Starring: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon
Release Date: October 2, 1015

Between the tidal wave of giddy promotion on Ellen Page’s social media and the disconcerting 43% Rotten Tomatoes rating, I had no idea how I’d feel at the end of the Freeheld screening I attended last month. A labor of love for Page, who came out as gay last year, Freeheld is a fictionalized cousin of the award-winning eponymous 2007 documentary. Julianne Moore stars as Laurel Hester, a closeted police officer battling lung cancer in conservative Ocean County, New Jersey. Despite the 2004 ruling that state employee pension benefits can be received by domestic partners, Hester and her girlfriend Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) must enlist the help of Garden State Equality so that Stacie can continue to live in their home.

The only glaring issue for me was Steve Carell’s comedic caricature in an otherwise serious film. Freeheld received flack for its “cardboard characters and by-the-numbers drama” on Rotten Tomatoes, but Moore and Page are convincing and tender onscreen lovers, and Michael Shannon shines as Moore’s police partner and strongest ally. And as most widely-recognized LGBT films feature gay men (Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, Milk), Freeheld’s love story between two women is a welcome change.

Suffragette
Directed by: Sarah Gavron
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep
Release Date: October 23, 2015

I’d be remiss not to mention Sarah Gavron’s highly publicized (and criticizedSuffragette, which explores the most radical factions of the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain and finally places Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep on the same screen. Mulligan is already receiving high praise for her role as Maude Watts, a fictional young wife and mother who labors under her abusive boss at the laundry. As conditions at work and home escalate, Maud joins the Women’s Social and Political Union led by the relentless Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep).

When I first heard about the film’s development several years ago, I was hoping for more of a biopic on the (admittedly American) activists I came to know in college like Lucy Stone and Ernestine Rose. But the lack of biographical characters doesn’t make Suffragette less palatable. Maud’s “gradual transformation from bystander to activist” echoes that of other beloved freedom fighters in film, and her everywoman lens may be a useful tool for today’s young feminists to learn more about the movement’s roots.

Carol
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara
Release Date: November 20, 2015 (limited)

Grab the tissues for this one. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol tells the story of 20-something photographer and department store clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) who is enraptured by the older, glamorous Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) after selling her a toy train at Christmastime. The two women stay in touch, and over time their close friendship develops into a romance. Sadly, neither time nor circumstance is on their side: It is 1952, and Carol’s husband threatens to deny her custody of their daughter unless the affair comes to an end.

Carol’s direction is in the capable hands of Todd Haynes, whose period film Far From Heaven about the unraveling world of a 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore) received Oscar nominations for Best Actress, Screenplay, Score, and Cinematography. The screenplay is a product of Phyllis Nagy, who previously adapted Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and served as the London Royal Court Theatre’s writer-in-residence under director Stephen Daldry (The Hours). But most importantly, Carol is an adaptation of a work written in the year it takes place and thereby a genuine product of its time. Unsure of how it would be received, Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt under a pseudonym, but received letters upon letters from female readers grateful for her honest work.

The Danish Girl
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander
Release Date: November 27, 2015 (limited)

“I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoy myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing. I felt very much at home in them from the first moment.” This was the point when Danish artist Einar Wegener, standing in as a female model for his wife to illustrate, realized that he was transgender. Eddie Redmayne, who received last year’s Best Actor award for his performance as physicist Stephen Hawking, portrays Wegener through his gradual transition to Lili Elbe. In 1930, at 47 years old, Wegener became one of the first recipients of sex-reassignment surgery.

The film explores not only the complications of transitioning in early 20th century Europe, but the strains placed on an originally heterosexual partnership. Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) agrees to stay with her husband despite the change, even accompanying him as he takes “Lili” for a test run at formal galas. As we celebrate the success of transgender women like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner and mourn the deaths of those like Leelah Alcorn, The Danish Girl is an important reminder of both how far we’ve come and how much work we have left to do.

Joy
Directed by: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper
Release Date: December 25, 2015

Finally, it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s turn to lead the flawless ensemble cast David O. Russell has harnessed for the third time in four years. Lawrence stars in a loose biopic on Joy Mangano, frequent Home Shopping Network favorite and inventor of modern household wonders. A divorced mother raising her three children in Smithtown, New York, Joy’s desire for a smarter way to clean leads her to design the Miracle Mop. The mop’s absorbent cotton head and user-friendly design—not to mention Mangano’s spirited live demonstration—turned it into an overnight success on QVC in 1992.

Just as Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke held her own in a room of male cryptographers (The Imitation Game), Lawrence’s Mangano shows us that women can be inventors too. First inspired as a teenager to design a glowing flea collar to keep pets safe in the dark, she builds an entrepreneurial empire out of items that make life a little easier. (Her Huggable Hangers are a personal favorite.) “I’m a mom, I work, I have a house to clean, things to organize,” Mangano explained to The New York Times in 2001. “We all have similar needs, and I address them.” That attitude, combined with another whip-smart performance from Jennifer Lawrence, is the perfect rouser for women who want more efficient, more successful lives.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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