Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1945 – 1950

The time has come for me to bid a fond farewell to my favorite era of cinema history, the 1920s through the end of World War II. It wasn’t the best era; after all, the repressive Hays Code was in play for much of it, and while modern cinema could stand to be a lot more inclusive, particularly in welcoming and supporting directors and screenwriters who aren’t straight white men, it’s certainly more inclusive than, say, 1933, when an actor like Morgan Freeman, instead of crushing it in important roles in films like The Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby, would have been lucky to find extra work in King Kong. Also, three of my five favorite classic films of all time — To Kill a Mockingbird, Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s a Wonderful Life — come from this postwar era. Yet for some reason even I don’t quite understand, I find the movies of the 20s and 30s more purely fascinating than anything more recent, perhaps because through them I can look back at a time when the overall aura of cinema was one of glamor rather than grit, of magic rather than realism. Adieu, my shiny, glitzy Hollywood. We’re heading into darker territory.

1945: The Lost Weekend [Never Seen]

This dramatization of an alcoholic’s descent into madness has been called the most depressing Best Picture winner to date. This hasn’t made me especially eager to see it. Eventually I might, if curiosity compels me.

1946: The Best Years of Our Lives [Good]

I can’t quite put this film in God-Tier, because It’s a Wonderful Life came out the same year and should, I believe, have won Best Picture. The triumph of Best Years at the Oscars may have owed a lot to the film’s timeliness — it tells the story of the difficulties of three veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell) to readjust to civilian life after the War — as well as Wonderful Life‘s dismal box office showing. Yet on its own merits, this film is very good indeed, well acted by all parties, including Myrna Loy as March’s patient but not passive wife, Virginia Mayo as Andrews’ shallow wife who loses all interest in him the minute she sees him in civilian clothes, and Teresa Wright as March and Loy’s sweet. smart daughter, toward whom the unhappy Andrews is drawn. Veteran Russell, who lost his hands in combat, earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as a young man with the same injury, and his scenes with Cathy O’Donnell, as his loyal fiancee who senses him pulling away from her, are both heartbreaking and (ultimately) heartwarming. The only problem, quality-wise, that I have with the movie is that it takes its own sweet time getting started. If you can make it through the first thirty minutes or so, your patience will be rewarded.

1947: Gentleman’s Agreement [Not for Me]

It’s with regret that I come at last to the first of the Best Picture winners I actively dislike. I’ve seen it once, and have no intention of ever seeing it again. The premise is strong — as research for an article on anti-Semitism, a journalist (Gregory Peck) pretends to be Jewish so he might experience the bigotry first-hand — and some of the performances are solid, including Peck, John Garfield as his best friend, and Celeste Holm as a glamorous, whip-smart magazine writer. But every bit of credit this movie earns is completely undone by an infuriating, shameful cop-out ending that I can’t discuss in detail without Spoilers. I can only tell you that it still makes me angry every time I think about it, even though it’s been more than two decades since I watched it. In all the years before or since, I can recall no other movie so utterly ruined by a conclusion that (although I can’t find positive proof) must surely have been studio-mandated. I include this article for the curious; its view of the movie is far more tolerant than mine, but it does go into detail about my problems with it.

1948: Hamlet [Never Seen]

Laurence Olivier was a gift to classic cinema, but this big-screen adaptation of what many consider Shakespeare’s greatest play is so heavily truncated that I’ve never felt the driving need to see it. Again, maybe one day.

1949: All the King’s Men [Okay]

I’ve seen this one, but I have clearer memories of the Robert Penn Warren novel on which it was based — a fictionalized account of the career of crooked Louisiana politician Huey Long, called Willie Stark in the novel and film — than I do of this movie. I don’t remember hating it especially, but it hasn’t stuck with me. Its fellow nominee, military drama Twelve O’Clock High, which features a stronger and more complex Gregory Peck performance than Gentleman’s Agreement, has made a far more lasting impact on me.

1950: All About Eve [Good]

Here I come to another Best Picture winner with a disappointing ending, though not (as with Gentleman’s Agreement) an infuriating, movie-ruining one. This cynical study of life in the theater, narrated by the deliciously cynical George Sanders as a poison-pen critic, tells the story of a renowned actress at the top of her game (Bette Davis) betrayed by an ambitious young upstart (Anne Baxter). Sanders, Davis, and Baxter are all superb, as are Celeste Holm, as a playwright’s wife and Davis’ best friend, and Thelma Ritter (who is never not amazing) as Davis’ dresser. In most respects, thanks not only to the performances but to the razor-sharp dialogue, the film hasn’t dated at all. Yet in one aspect, it’s sadly a product of its time: it asks you to accept that Davis’ marvelous diva Margo Channing, realizing that she’s getting on in years and soon won’t be able to play the leading roles she’s used to, would give up Broadway and happily settle down to a life of domestic bliss with the director she loves (Gary Merrill). Sorry. Not buying it. Margo the housewife wouldn’t be Margo at all; she’ll be the queen of a community theater group in less than a year.


Oscar’s Animation Snub

I must interrupt my regularly scheduled “Ranking Every Best Picture Winner” series; I will post the next entry in that series soon, to close out the 1940s, and I still hope to have the series finished by March 12, when the 95th Academy Awards ceremony will take place, but since my previous entry, this year’s Oscar nominations have been announced. I have some thoughts.

This year finds me, on the whole, pretty happy with the nominations. Everything Everywhere All at Once was my favorite movie of the past year, so I’m glad to see it get plenty of love in multiple categories, especially in Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Best Actress. The Banshees of Inisherin was also a compelling watch (my husband called it the most honest movie he’s seen this year), and Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Barry Keoghan, and Kerry Condon all gave spot-on performances that deserve the Academy’s recognition. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans felt a bit more like standard Oscar-bait fare, but then I love standard Oscar-bait fare as long as it’s good, which this film was. I confess I didn’t enjoy the much-lauded Tar, but then, I don’t think “enjoyment” is very high among that film’s goals; those who enjoy movies with an icy tone of clinical detachment would find much to admire in it, and Cate Blanchett’s performance in the kind of “arsehole genius” role men have gotten to play for years is admittedly a tour de force. I haven’t seen All Quiet on the Western Front or Women Talking, but I’m eager to do so; the subject matter for Triangle of Sadness doesn’t exert much of a pull on me, but I’ve seen and heard nothing that would lead me to believe it doesn’t deserve its place among the Best Picture nominees.

Yet every year brings a little something to regret. Like many, I’m not pleased to see Viola Davis denied a Best Actress nomination for The Woman King; even those who criticize the film for its historical inaccuracies cannot find fault with her performance. As much as I liked Michelle Williams’ luminous performance in The Fabelmans, her role is more supporting than leading, so Davis would, in my opinion, have made a better choice for the lead actress category. I’m also sorry to see Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery left out of every category except Best Adapted Screenplay; even Janelle Monae, whom many critics named as a strong contender, failed to score a nomination. But my greatest regrets involve this year’s animated features being shut out of all categories except Best Animated Feature, even though Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is richer and more memorable than John Williams’ weak entry for The Fabelmans, and both Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (my second favorite movie of the year, and my husband’s favorite) would have been more deserving of recognition for Best Adapted Screenplay than Top Gun: Maverick.* It’s become increasingly clear over the last few years that Academy voters feel a Best Animated Feature award is all the recognition animated films really deserve, even if they’re among the year’s very best. Too many Academy voters can’t even be bothered to watch them.

The tendency of Hollywood’s movers and shapers to relegate animation to its “lane” was never more apparent than at last year’s Oscar ceremony, when Amy Schumer, who caught a lot of (deserved) grief for her lackluster hosting job, quipped that she hadn’t watched any of the Best Animated Feature nominees except Encanto, and that one only “because I have a toddler.” Making matters worse was the choice of Halle Bailey, Naomi Scott, and Lily James — actresses who have played (or in Bailey’s case, will play) Disney princesses in the live-action remakes of animated classics — to present the award for Best Animated Feature, rather than anyone known for their work in the medium of animation. Just how grave a mistake this choice was became even clearer when these ladies started to talk, and revealed pretty clearly that they have little to no interest in, or admiration for, animated films. Their presentation speech revolved around the joke that children watch these movies over and over and over and over, much to parents’ weary dismay. The idea that any adult might enjoy an animated movie on its merits as a piece of storytelling lies beyond their comprehension. Phil Lord, one of the producers of 2021’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Tweeted that they were basically “position[ing] animation as something that kids watch and adults have to endure.”

This misguided notion most often meets with two responses, both of which I agree with. The first is that, as Guillermo del Toro points out, animation is not a genre of film but a medium through which a wide variety of stories can be told, and as such it should not be forced into some narrow pigeonhole. The second is that dismissing animated movies as children’s entertainment ignores the existence of films like last year’s nominee Flee, as well as Anomalisa, Mary and Max, Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis, and the magnificent, heartbreaking The Tale of Princess Kaguya, all of which are geared toward more mature audiences; these are the kinds of movies that animation-ignorant Academy voters don’t watch, the result being that the Best Animated Feature Oscar is almost always awarded to a Disney, Pixar, or Disney/Pixar release. And anime has delved into many films not intended for children nor families- but that list is too long.

But there’s a third response that I hear far less, and that I feel deserves an airing. Let’s concede that many animated films are indeed “family entertainment,” designed to please an audience of all ages. The best of Dreamworks’ films, like the How to Train Your Dragon and the Kung Fu Panda trilogies, can be described this way, along with most of Disney/Pixar and even the works of Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (with the possible exception of The Breadwinner). Yes, youngsters are going to want to watch these movies, maybe even repeatedly. And I have to ask: why is that a bad thing?

A review of the first Minions film, released back in 2015, made a distinction between it and Pixar’s Inside Out, arguing that while the latter was a family film in the truest sense of the word — a movie that would touch and intrigue child and adult viewers alike — the former was merely “a kids’ film that adults will tolerate.” The live-action Disney princesses and those who share their views fail to understand this distinction. They see all animated films in the same light that the reviewer sees Minions, because they don’t comprehend just how much skill and ingenuity go into crafting a story that can honestly resonate with audiences of all ages. Renowned theologian and SFF author C.S. Lewis once stated, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally — and often far more — worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” I would argue that the same logic applies to movies. Well-told stories have value and should be honored, regardless of their presumed target audiences. This is why my husband and I, child-free unless you count our beloved tuxedo cats (and they have no say in what they watch, but Demelza does enjoy “Star Trek Discovery” for Lieutenant Tilley), hurried to the theater to see Inside Out almost as soon as it was released. It’s why when we were waiting in line to see Toy Story 3 in IMAX, almost everyone in line with us was a millennial who had grown up with the first two films and were now eager, as twentysomethings, to reconnect with the Andy’s-Room gang.

As a fifty-three year old woman, I’m drawn to films like Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and Turning Red for the same reason I would be drawn to any film: their stories are involving and their characters engaging. But they also have something that Tar and The Banshees of Inisherin lack, something we adults in the middle years of life may value more than some folks seem to realize: hope. Many (though far from all) films aimed at adults are made by directors and screenwriters who mistake cynicism for intelligence, who think that scrubbing out sentiment and increasing despair are signs of substance. Yet the best family films offer a mix of wit and warmth that an audience can take heart from. This mix takes real craft to achieve. And it’s past time for the Academy and all other arbiters of culture to honor that craft

*I have not seen Top Gun: Maverick, but my husband has, so I’m working with the information he gave me. He is not the only one who questions the nomination.

All Best Picture Winners, Ranked: 1940 – 1944

1940: Rebecca [Good]

This was my maternal great-aunt’s favorite movie, one she watched repeatedly, and if I didn’t at least place it in the “Good” tier, I suspect her ghost would return to torment me until I developed better taste in movies. Fortunately, I can say with perfect candor that it is, indeed, good, with strong performances by Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and especially Judith Anderson, whose diabolical character will give the viewer chills. This was legendary suspense-film director Alfred Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, and while it’s neither his best film nor my favorite of his films, it does bear his stamp, with plenty of flashes of the style that made him an icon.

1941: How Green Was My Valley [Personal Favorite]

Okay, I get it. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is a masterpiece. Yes, it should have been nominated; yes, it should have won. It’s a thought-provoking and pictorially mesmerizing classic, unique among films of its time, innovative in its documentary-style narrative and detached, objective tone, and burying the movie to ensure it wouldn’t receive the honors it deserved counts among the worst things the offended publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst ever did. But the film that actually won Best Picture that year should not be held accountable for the wrongs done to Kane. It deserves to be judged on its own merits, and while I can understand why some might still dislike it on those grounds — I will admit that it’s a bit thin on plot, being more a series of incidents in the life of a Welsh coal-mining family than a narrative with rising action that builds to a climax — the movie has been a favorite of mine for years. The paterfamilias played expertly by character actor Donald Crisp is, along with Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite Movie Dad, a wise, warm-hearted man, sometimes stern, occasionally flawed and stubborn but ultimately loving, and his relationship with his young son Roddy MacDowall is beautifully poignant. Walter Pidgeon (as the local minister, a friend and mentor to young MacDowall), Maureen O’Hara (as MacDowall’s older sister, who loves Pidgeon in vain), Sara Allgood (as Crisp’s wife and MacDowall’s mother, tough but flawed), and Rhys Williams and Barry Fitzgerald (as a pair of prizefighters who give MacDowall boxing lessons when he’s being bullied at school, and then later, in my favorite scene, give a “boxing lesson” to the biggest bully of all, MacDowall’s teacher) also turn in brilliant, touching performances. Alfred Newman’s superb score is the cherry on top. Call it boring if you must, but I stand strong in my affection for it.

1942: Mrs. Miniver [Okay-to-Good]

A beautiful woman with class to burn, Greer Garson was the Emma Thompson of her day, and the choice of her to portray a typical middle-class British housewife driven to heroic extremes by the advent of World War II cannot be faulted. The movie also boasts a roster of superb British character actors such as Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Henry Wilcoxon, and Rhys Williams (again), plus the stalwart Walter Pidgeon (again) as Garson’s husband. Nonetheless, I can’t place this movie securely in my “Good” tier because with the exception of a few scenes — among them Garson’s confronting downed German pilot Helmut Dantine and the climactic tragic air raid — the movie has somehow failed to take firm hold in my memory, even though I’ve seen it twice (and for movies in my Good tier, twice is all it takes). Those parts are more interesting than the whole. It doesn’t help that the same year boasted three other movies that have made the room for themselves in my heart and mind that this film failed to make: Pride of the Yankees (starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig), Yankee Doodle Dandy (starring James Cagney as George M. Cohan), and Random Harvest (starring Ronald Colman along with, of all people, Greer Garson, whose performance her is better, IMO, than her turn in Mrs. Miniver, even though the latter won her a Best Actress Oscar).

1943: Casablanca [God-Tier]

I’ll get the negativity out of the way first: it may be heresy to say so, but I find the love story the least interesting part of this iconic movie. Ingrid Bergman is luminous, and the camera loves her as much as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine loves her character, but Ilsa Lund is underwritten. Though I’m pretty good at accepting each movie as a product of its time, her telling Rick, “You have to do the thinking for both of us,” does make me grind my teeth a little. (If you want to see Bergman as a heroine with some substance and complexity to her, check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious.) Yet this quibble doesn’t suffice to keep this film out of God-Tier. It’s a masterpiece, one I could watch again and again at the proverbial drop of a hat. (In one of my highlights of 2022, my husband and I saw this film on the big screen at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, along with a sizable audience of fellow classic movie nerds.) Aside from Bergman’s underwritten role, which she still manages to invest with a dash of charisma, everything about this movie works. The refugees from the Nazis, stuck in Casablanca waiting for the exit visas that will enable them to emigrate to the US, are played by actual refugees from the Nazis, giving the film an authenticity no remake could hope to duplicate. Every bit of casting is spot on, from Madeleine Lebeau as a desperate good-time girl in love with Rick, to Leonid Kinskey as the funny and slightly naughty bartender, to Curt Bois as the pickpocket taking every opportunity to fleece the wealthier refugees (“Vultures! Vultures everywhere!”), to S.K. Sakall as the chef at Rick’s Cafe Americain, to Dooley Wilson as jazz pianist Sam, who can stop the Cafe’s floor show by leading a rollicking singalong of “Knock on Wood” but can’t quite remember “As Time Goes By.” Paul Henried and Conrad Veidt make strong impressions as the movie’s Pure Hero and Pure Villain, as Henried leads the Cafe’s patrons in a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise” that drowns out Veidt and his men’s comparatively feeble chorus of “Watch on the Rhine.” Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet make the most of their little screen time. And of course there’s Bogie himself, rarely seen as a romantic lead before this film and proving himself a natural in such roles. (His scruffy cynicism as a mask for a heroic nature would again serve him well in 1951’s The African Queen.) I’ve saved my favorite part for last: Claude Rains, as the Prefect of Police in Casablanca, an agent of the Nazi-tainted French Vichy government. As Rick’s frenemy, he has as much chemistry with Bogart, albeit of a different kind, as Bergman does, and over half the film’s best lines come from their exchanges, while most of the other half belong to Rains himself. Somehow he missed netting a Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, but his turn as Louis Renault has lingered in our cultural memory long after Charles Coburn’s Oscar-winning performance in The More the Merrier has faded. Without Rains, Casablanca might still have been a pretty decent movie; with him, it’s God-Tier.

1944: Going My Way [Okay]

Most Best Picture winners from this era distinguish themselves by gravitas, wit, or some combination thereof; this movie doesn’t have much of either. I can’t think of anything objectionable about it, but that’s largely because I can’t think of much of anything about it at all, except the song “Swinging on a Star.” It failed to inspire any strong feeling in me one way or the other, which is, after all, the very definition of “okay.”

All Best Picture Winners, Ranked (1936 – 1939)

1936: The Great Ziegfeld [Okay]

1936’s Best Picture winner is an interesting case, as it has a link to a crucial moment in my formative years. When I was five years old, my parents took my sister and me to the movie theater to see MGM’s popular retrospect on its classic musicals, That’s Entertainment! (1974). That experience left me with a life-long love of movies in general and musicals in particular, as well as a strangely specific fascination with the black-and-white movies of the 30s and 40s. The clip from The Great Ziegfeld, the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” number, had a lot to do with the latter. I’d never seen anything that looked quite like it, and I wanted to see more. Yet it wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally sat down to watch the movie in its entirety… and I realized that when I’d seen that clip of the “Pretty Girl” number, I’d already seen the best part.

The sad thing is that the raw materials for enduring awesomeness are here. You have William Powell, one of the most charming and engaging actors of the period, in the lead, and the latter part of the movie teams him with his partner from The Thin Man movies, the equally charming and engaging Myrna Loy. Yet its core flaws are over-length and plodding pacing; this movie far outstays its welcome. You know a movie has problems when the combined forces of Powell, Loy, and Fanny Brice can’t generate enough excitement to justify its 177-minute runtime. Yet this was a “prestige picture” in its day, extravagantly mounted, with sky-high production values that managed to trick Academy voters into thinking the movie was actually good. My recommendation: if you’re curious, as I was, fast-forward through everything that 1) isn’t a musical number and 2) doesn’t involve Fanny Brice, and you should have a decent time. For a truly good “prestige picture” — both well-mounted and emotionally engaging — try the same year’s A Tale of Two Cities, featuring the dashing, tragic Ronald Colman and a roster of top-notch character actors.

1937: The Life of Emile Zola [Good]

Most of the YouTube “I’ve Seen Every Best Picture” video rankings place this one near the bottom middle. I think it deserves better. It’s nowhere near God-Tier or even Personal Favorite, but I find it solidly good, certainly a better “prestige picture” than the previous year’s winner. Like The Great Ziegfeld, it’s a historical drama, but rather than the meandering portrait of a great man’s “life” that the title seems to promise, it’s a depiction of French author Emile Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal in which an Army officer was framed for espionage and exiled to Devil’s Island, the fact that he was Jewish making him an easy scapegoat. Zola, among others, fought hard for Dreyfus’ release and won, but not until the man’s health and spirit had been broken. The story both provokes thought and inspires rooting interest, and the film is anchored by two outstanding performances from Paul Muni (as Zola) and Joseph Schildkraut (as Dreyfus — a performance that netted him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). If you’re not a big fan of historical dramas, as I am, this movie may not be your proverbial cup of tea, but if you enjoy them, give it a look. You might be pleasantly surprised.

1938: You Can’t Take It With You [Okay-to-Good]

Here’s another one to which I have personal connections: in my early twenties, I acted in a community-theater production of the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart play on which this film was based, so I already knew the basic storyline when I sat down to watch it. That experience may have prejudiced me in the movie’s favor, as I appreciated some of the changes made to the source material, particularly regarding Alice, the female lead (played here by Jean Arthur); I liked her in the film, whereas I had little to no patience with her in the play. I also enjoyed seeing Frank Capra direct Lionel Barrymore in a role that is the diametric opposite of the iconic villain Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet this second Capra-directed Best Picture winner doesn’t reach the high bar set by 1934’s It Happened One Night, or even 1936’s nominated-but-not-victorious Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Give it a look if you’re a Capra completest, and you’ll have a pretty good time. But to see the real Best Picture of 1938, track down the sumptuous Technicolor classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, featuring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland burning up the screen with chemistry, an amazing supporting cast including Claude Rains (whom I worship) and Basil Rathbone, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s rousing musical score, one of the best ever put to film.

1939: Gone With the Wind [Aged Like Milk]

First off, Clark Gable was the man. When he learned that “White” and “Colored” signs had been hung on the toilets on the set of Gone With the Wind, Gable, the highly bankable male lead on whom so much depended, threatened to walk if the signs weren’t removed. His mensch-itude didn’t end there. He was fully prepared to boycott the film’s premiere because it was held at a segregated theater, and only backed down when Hattie McDaniel, who would win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this film (the first ever for an African-American performer), persuaded him to go. As Rhett Butler he has, as the cliche goes, charisma to burn, and he and McDaniel together might make the film worth watching. It’s also an eyeful of Technicolor spectacle, surpassing even The Adventures of Robin Hood in terms of overall look, although after three hours and forty-two minutes you might find yourself a little bored looking at costumes.

To judge a film made in 1939 by 2023’s social standards is folly, I admit, and I will give the movie some credit for giving McDaniel a complex and interesting character to play. I also know that depicting a social evil of the past — in this case, slavery in the pre-Civil War South — is not the same as endorsing that evil. Yet I still can’t help finding this movie’s rose-colored look at the Confederacy off-putting. Plus, I have a personal preference for central characters I can admire and root for, and Scarlett O’Hara is, well, not that; Rhett, despite Gable’s charismatic portrayal, isn’t much better. In short, despite the impressive spectacle, I can’t bring myself to love this movie. Cinephiles might want to give it a look for its place in the overall history of film, but those looking for an engaging story with enjoyable characters would be better off watching almost any of the other Best Picture nominees from that year. My own personal favorites are The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka.

All Best Picture Winners, Ranked (1928 – 1935)

Movie Awards season is in full swing, and I’ve discovered a pleasant time-waster on YouTube: watching videos made by young cinephiles, entitled “I Watched Every Best Picture Winner” or some variation thereof. I’m always fascinated to learn what these movie buffs think of the winners from the Pre-Code and Code Eras; I’ve found, to my delight, that many of them have opened their hearts to these films of long ago. I also can’t help but admire their dedication to their project. “I’ve watched every Best Picture winner” is more than I’m able to boast, though I have seen quite a few of them. The Academy being the flawed organization it is, these young folks have forced themselves to sit through some real stinkers. And they’ve inspired me to come up with my own assessments of this roster of Award-winning films.

For my ranking, I’ve come up with my own Tiers:

Never Seen [NS] — I just haven’t sat down to watch it yet.

Never Seen, Want to See [NS/WS] — It’s in my To-Watch pile.

Never Seen, Never Will [NS/NW] — This tier is for films that, while they may be beautifully made and brilliantly acted, aren’t on my To-Watch list because their subject matter and/or characterizations don’t interest me.

Not for Me [NFM] — I understand why it won, but it doesn’t appeal to my own personal taste.

Aged Like Milk [ALM] — This movie is dated to the point where it’s almost painful to watch.

Personal Favorite [PF] — I love these movies, even though they’ve gotten substantial backlash after winning Best Picture. While other films made in that same year may have been technically better and more influential overall, these movies have my heart.

Okay [O] — I don’t hate them, but neither do I love them. They’re just… okay.

Good [G] — Even if another movie made the same year might have been more deserving, these movies are solidly Good, and most movie fans agree. Some of these are double-tiered with Personal Favorite.

God-Tier [GT] — Beyond dispute, this movie deserves the Award.

And now…


For the one and only time, Best Picture was divided between two films, William Wyler’s epic World War 1 bromance Wings [G] and F. W. Murnau’s tone poem about the restoration of a failing marriage, Sunrise [GT]. Both are excellent introduction points for movie buffs who haven’t yet seen any silent films and want to know what they’re like. After finishing them, you might feel the just-around-the-corner advent of the talkies was almost tragic.

1929: The Broadway Melody [NS]

This movie ranks near the bottom of almost every Best Picture ranking. Based on commentary I’ve read and clips I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure this movie, one of the earliest all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing pictures, won the award due to its novelty, not its quality.

1930: All Quiet on the Western Front [GT]

In 1930, directors and actors were still trying to figure out talking pictures, yet somehow this movie emerged, and even more remarkably, it has barely dated at all. While most films around this time suffered from Stationary Camera Syndrome, this faithful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s powerful novel looks great, and the lack of musical score, a problem with many early talkies, actually works to this film’s advantage. No other film made that year is even on the same level.

1931: Cimarron [NS]

What I’ve read and seen of this film suggests to me that if I were to see it in its entirety (and it is veeeeery long) it would belong in the Aged Like Milk tier.

1932: Grand Hotel [O]

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this one, but it’s left very little imprint on my memory. From what I can remember, the Barrymore brothers — dashing John, tragic Lionel — are both quite good. But I couldn’t tell you the plot of this one if you threatened me with torture.

1933: Cavalcade [O]

This one isn’t easy to track down; I was lucky enough to find a copy at my local library more than a decade ago. It tells the story of two British families, one gentry and the other servant-class, from 1900 to the early 30s, and it does feature one masterful stroke of blackest humor: the older son of the gentry family and his wife, on their honeymoon aboard a passenger liner, wax lyrical about their moment of perfect happiness, declaring they’ll never be this happy again — and then the camera homes in on a life preserver reading TITANIC. I’ve got to give it some credit for that. Yet as drama, this movie fails. The death of this young man and his wife makes no visible impression on their parents, nor does the younger brother appear to regret the loss of his sibling. When the younger brother is subsequently killed in World War 1, his death is given a little more attention, but not much more. If characters’ loss makes little to no impact on the surviving characters, how is it supposed to impact its audience? The same year’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is both more thought-provoking and more emotionally powerful, in short, more deserving of the award.

1934: It Happened One Night [G, PF]

This charming romantic comedy, still easily among the top five romcoms ever made, has a few detractors here and there, but it still holds up, thanks to Clark Gable’s and Claudette Colbert’s sparkling chemistry and Frank Capra’s note-perfect direction. This movie rescued its studio, Columbia Pictures, from bankruptcy and set Capra on the road to success, as he’d direct a string of hits through the rest of the 1930s and on into the 40s. (Ironically, his masterwork, 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, was also his first big box-office flop.)

1935: Mutiny on the Bounty [G, PF]

Oh, this movie. The only thing that keeps it out of God-Tier is that I’ve heard some critics suggest that either Captain Blood or Top Hat should have taken the prize, but while I adore both those films, I’d still give the top honor to this compelling and brilliantly acted drama about a crew of sailors driven to desperation and, in the end, mutiny by their tyrannical captain. While the sequences that take place in Tahiti, where the men experience days of bliss that contrast sharply with their life aboard ship, might raise a socially conscious 2022 eyebrow or two, I find the performances of Charles Laughton (as the relentless bully Captain Bligh), Clark Gable (as mutiny leader Fletcher Christian), Franchot Tone (as idealistic, naive Midshipman Roger Byam, over whose soul Bligh and Christian do pitched battle), and Dudley Digges (as tipsy, tragic ship’s surgeon “Mr. Bacchus”) keep it from being dated. Laughton’s performance in particular would be a contender even if he were nominated for Best Actor against today’s best.

Reflections: “The Fabelmans”

When Steven Spielberg received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, his parents, Leah and Norman, were at the ceremony. He thanked them warmly for, as he said, “not panicking and trying to spoon-feed me all the answers . . . I have been to so many AFI dinners where recipients have only been able to thank their parents by looking up to Heaven. And I feel so lucky that all I have to do is look out at Table 211 and say how much I love you both.” Those words were very much in my thoughts last night as my husband and I watched Spielberg’s latest film, The Fabelmans, an autobiographical look at the filmmaker’s childhood, beginnings as an artist, and complicated relationships with his mercurial, imaginative mother and his stolid, brilliant but prosaic father. If the film indeed is anything to judge by, he did indeed love them both, as his and Tony Kushner’s screenplay shows them at both their best and their worst, people too complicated to feel just one way about.

The Fabelmans, in my opinion, is an excellent movie. It definitely earns a place on the Favorite 2022 Movie Releases I posted on New Year’s Eve, but I haven’t quite decided where I’d put it. Everything Everywhere All at Once and Glass Onion are more fun, and Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is more unique, and Matilda the Musical, with its strong songs and extraordinary girl-protagonist, is much more a movie after my own heart. But The Fabelmans is beautifully crafted and full of note-perfect performances, the standouts being Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman (Spielberg’s counterpart) and Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as his parents. If I can point to one flaw in the filmmaking, it would be the loose, at times rambling narrative structure, a need for a slightly stronger sense of rising action to climax to falling action. But it still leaves an impact, and without question it will be a big part of the Oscar conversation in the coming months. (I mentioned to my husband, on the way home, that we might see a “Battle of the Michelles,” Yeoh in Everything Everywhere and Williams in The Fabelmans; he agreed.) Yet my seeing the movie has given rise to some reflections that have little if anything to do with the movie’s quality.

First, from a visceral personal standpoint, I hated the character of Monica, young Sammy’s first girlfriend. She’s the first girl ever to pay him any attention, so it’s not too surprising that he would lose his head over her even though the best things that can be said of her are 1) she’s cute-ish, and 2) her father has a state-of-the-art-for-the-time movie camera that he’s willing to loan Sammy so the young genius can hone his moviemaking skills by videoing his high school senior class’s “Ditch Day” at the beach. Yet realistic though it might be, the sight of creative genius-level boys falling hard for painfully stupid girls makes me cringe. These girls don’t need to have any special interests or talents or even any intriguing personalities in order to impress the superior boys. They just have to be cute-ish and (seemingly) available. Thank Heaven I’ll never be a teenager again.

More crucial, Spielberg’s film, through no real fault of its own, couldn’t help reminding me of what I don’t see in the movies these days, that I long with all my being to see: a movie about a woman of creative/artistic genius, made with the same level of production values, craftsmanship, and passion as The Fabelmans.

Though it may have started slow, 2022 hasn’t been a bad year for women in well-reviewed movies. I’ve already mentioned Everything Everywhere All at Once, a bright spot in the first half of the year, but since then we’ve seen the release of Nope, The Woman King, Till, She Said, Women Talking, and of course Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Yet of the female characters driving these narratives, none, as far as I’ve been able to discover, are artists of some kind. These days Hollywood seems more comfortable showing women as scientists than as authors, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, etc. When women do have passion for some form of art, it’s more likely to lead to misery and/or toxicity than to success, as we see in Tar and even, to a lesser degree, The Fabelmans. If this year has an equivalent of previous years’ Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Colette, stories in which we root for the heroines to achieve artistic success, I haven’t heard of it yet.

This lack would trouble me in any case, but it weighs especially heavily on my mind thanks to a recent Twitter discussion, prompted by a user’s post of a famous quote from Camille Paglia: “There is no female Mozart for the same reason there is no female Jack the Ripper.” This of course prompted some back-and-forth about whether the comparative lack of female creative genius was the result of nature or culture; to my regret, I saw more posts citing exceptions to the serial-killer rule (Aileen Wourmos, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the women in the Manson Family) than the creative-genius rule, though Mozart’s older sister Nannerl, whose story is told in Marie Lu’s beautiful novel The Kingdom of Back, did get a few mentions. The original post was eventually taken down, but it’s stayed with me, as the idea that women are less gifted, less extraordinary by nature — a nature that all the effort and ambition in the world are powerless to overcome — has needled me for years, leading me toward frustrating and even painful moments of self-doubt. Why bother trying, whispers the demon with Paglia’s voice, if you can’t hope to rise above mediocrity? This kind of insecurity forms a current that women with creative aspirations have had to swim against for decades. (Joanna Russ understood.)

This is why I’m so hungry for high-quality films about female painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, and authors, women whose drive to create is painted as sympathetic and admirable rather than toxic bordering on monstrous. We need to be known, in colors too vivid and words too strong to ignore. Back in 2018, a documentary called Be Natural called attention to pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache, one of a number of women in early cinema who walked so Steven Spielberg could run. Shouldn’t her story be told in a biopic? What about Lois Weber, Lotte Reiniger, Dorothy Arzner, Maya Deren, Agnes Varda, or Chantal Ackerman? Do these women not merit a tribute?

The Fabelmans includes a moment in which Sammy’s sister calls him out for making too many movies about boys. Is this a self-rebuke on Spielberg’s part? Might he be considering making more woman-centered films? Psst — make a movie about Alice Guy-Blache, Mr. Spielberg. Please.

Ruminations on Another Year

First and foremost, I need to apologize profusely for neglecting my blog over the past year. My 2022 has by no means been bad, but it has been packed, and most of my creative energies have gone into getting my new novel project just where it needs to be for a solid beginning, as well as drafting plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. But among my New Year’s Resolutions — yes, I know, good intentions — is, “More Writing, Fewer Excuses.” Even if I can’t write as many in-depth examinations of the things I love or loathe, I should contribute something, if only a link or a paragraph, at least once a month in 2023.

So as I sit here at my laptop on New Year’s Eve 2022, I have a few things on my mind.

  1. Men Who Write Women Well (follow-up to my previous blog post):

Frustrating as it may be to see that irksome quote from As Good As It Gets (“I think of a man, and then I take away reason and integrity”) thrown around as if it possesses all the wisdom of Kant or Voltaire, I’ve found that most male authors in the fantasy genre are moving away from that method of characterizing the women in their stories. Some of my favorites include: 1) P. Djeli Clark, author of The Black God’s Drums and A Master of Djinn; 2) Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of the Song of the Shattered Sands series, which I started reading earlier this year; and 3) R.J. Barker, author of the Bone Ships series, whose prose I find slightly on the dense side but whose Lucky Meas is among the most fascinating and complicated female leads I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

These authors understand that writing important and interesting characters of a different genre isn’t nearly as hard as we sometimes make it out to be, as long as you think of them as people first and foremost, and women/men/nonbinary second. Gender is not the the key determining factor in our personalities, our interests, or our ambitions; it’s part of us, but not all of us. It helps that neither Clark nor Beaulieu nor Barker adheres to the Smurfette Principle, one crucial area in which quantity is a marker of quality. Women are everywhere in these books — some heroic, some villainous, some in-between, with a satisfying range of personalities.

2. Favorite Reads of 2022

Kaikeyi (Vaishanvi Patel): Like Madeline Miller’s excellent Circe, this feminist retelling of Hindu mythology rehabilitates the reputation of a female character long vilified. While Miller’s book had me from the first paragraph, this one took me a little longer to get into, but its heroic female lead and emphasis on non-romantic relationships won my allegiance and held it to the end.

Ariadne (Jennifer Saint): Another myth retelling, this work confronts us with the uncomfortable truth that in many respects, stories of the “heroes” of Greek mythology have been stories of the use and abuse of women. Theseus is not a man to be admired. Saint takes us inside the minds of not only Ariadne but her sister Phaedra, another woman often vilified, and brings both of them to life as interesting, complicated women.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess (Sue Lynn Tan): This one takes its readers inside Chinese mythology, and Tan paints her world in delicate, vivid prose. The first-person heroine is a sympathetic figure, if perhaps a little less complex than the female leads of my previous mentions; while she doubts herself at times and feels in over her head, she proves resourceful, and resourcefulness is, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I love most in a heroine.

The Heroine With 1,001 Faces (Maria Tatar): I didn’t read much nonfiction this year, but this one stands out as a favorite, as it examines the journeys made by female characters in both myth and literature.

The Mask of Mirrors (M. A. Carrick): Lush, descriptive prose and complicated characters make this foray into a magical version of Renaissance Italy one of my happiest discoveries of the year.

3. 2022 Movie Releases Worth Seeing

From Favorite to Least Favorite: 1) Everything Everywhere All at Once; 2) Marcel the Shell With Shoes On; 3) Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery; 4) Matilda the Musical; 5) The Banshees of Innisherin; 6) Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio; 7) The Woman King; 8) Turning Red; 9) The Northman; 10) The Sea Beast; 11) Wendell and Wild.

Movies I still need to see: The Fabelmans; She Said; Till; Nope; Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Bring Me the Head of Melvin Udall: Male Authors, Female Characters

Part 1: The Bad News

One of my greatest vices these days is my inability to resist an Internet hole. A couple of nights ago, I ventured down such a hole in search of opinions on which male authors have or have had the most success at creating complex, active, and believable female characters that transcend the usual tropes and stereotypes. One discussion thread (here) boasted over a thousand posts and replies, and lots of familiar names cropped up, from Terry Pratchett to Brandon Sanderson to Jeff VanderMeer to Garth Nix to Jasper Fforde to Charles de Lint to Scott Westerfield — worthy names, all, deserving of their places on such a list. But as I scrolled through, determined to read the thread to its end (I did mention this was a vice), I noticed that people kept bringing up the film As Good as It Gets and quoting its protagonist, writer Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), responding to a young female fan’s question of how he writes women so well with, “I think of a man; then I take away reason and integrity.”

Every reference to Melvin Udall and his snide riposte reminded me of how heartily I dislike that movie, and in truth don’t care for James L. Brooks’ films in general except for maybe Broadcast News. I do get that we’re not supposed to like Udall. We’re meant to chuckle at his quips because they shock and disturb us; he inspires uncomfortable rather than open-hearted laughter. We’re even left to wonder how much he actually means the things he says. Yet the line still bothers me, for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t think the fangirl deserves Udall’s disdain. Sure, she’s blonde and speaks with a high, breathy voice, but at least she has read Udall’s work, which is probably more than can be said for the movie’s female lead (Helen Hunt), who can’t even spell a common two-syllable word without asking for her mother’s help.

Secondly, and far more importantly, his pithy remark rings uncomfortably true. Many highly regarded authors, not all but mostly men, have followed Udall’s prescription when creating female characters. Twentieth century fiction, in particular, features a long list of writers whose female characters conspicuously lack reason, integrity, or both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski, Saul Bellow, Ken Kesey, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, George Orwell, Ian Fleming, Arthur C. Clarke, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, Kingsley and Martin Amis, and H.G. Wells seemed to struggle mightily to conceive of a woman with intelligence and honor. Of all the bright lights of the literature of this period, only Tennessee Williams manages to summon much empathy when he shapes his female characters, and even his women tend to lack integrity.

“Struggle” isn’t quite the right word for some men when they write women: they simply don’t believe a woman of reason and/or integrity can be found. “Don’t wait for the good woman. She doesn’t exist,” says Charles Bukowski. “You don’t know a woman until you’ve met her in court,” opines Norman Mailer, who also suggests that “a little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul.” L. Ron Hubbard, prolific author and head of the Church of Scientology, notes, “The historian can peg the point where a society begins its sharpest decline at the instant when women begin to take part.” We have this bon mot from T. S. Eliot in 1922: “There are only half a dozen men of letters (and no women) worth printing.” Ernest Hemingway suggests, “If you leave a woman. . . you probably ought to shoot her. It would save enough trouble in the end even if they hanged you.” Kurt Vonnegut observes, “Educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch: everything stops.” And finally, Robert Jordan, one of the best-known and best-loved authors of epic fantasy fiction, responds to criticism of his writing of female characters as bullies and shrews by saying, “Women are, for the most part, consummate actresses who allow men to see exactly what they intend men to see. Get behind the veil sometimes, boys, and your hair will turn white.” (This quote, incidentally, is from 2013, a full sixteen years after the release of As Good as It Gets.)

Udall’s pithy remark to the fangirl works on me like a paper cut because it sums up what so many actual writers have said and thought. Men like this write female characters, when they bother to write them at all, in an effort to work out the unsolvable Mystery of Woman, the vast and inscrutable Other, rather than attempting to empathize with individual women as people not so very different from themselves. They can’t get female characters right because they refuse to see women as anything but a collective. What sorts of fictional women are birthed by this thinking? Many of them are embodiments of that ever-elusive Mystery — slippery, mercurial, untrustworthy. Others are shallow, materialistic, unable to think beyond the moment — the “other girls” that the ostensibly more enlightened heroines of today claim they’re not like. Yet nearly all of them share a core flaw: as Susan Isaacs puts it in Brave Dames and Wimpettes, “They can’t see past the pickets of their fences.” When they on occasion take action, they’re motivated less by ideals or ethical principles than by tangible practicalities. Lacking that crucial element of integrity, they may stand up when a loved one is threatened, but not when, or because, it’s simply the right thing to do.

Most of the men who laid the foundation for Melvin Udall’s thinking came from a time when men weren’t expected to interact much with women who weren’t their sweethearts, wives, or family members, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they had trouble envisioning female characters beyond these roles or gifting them with any traits beyond what would help or hinder them in fulfilling these roles. Traditionally, that has put male writers at a disadvantage over female writers when it comes to creating effective characters of a different gender from themselves. In general, women are better at it — because they’ve had to be.

Consider Mary Shelley, author of the iconic work generally considered the first great science fiction novel. She had a story she wanted to tell, of a genius driven by insatiable scientific curiosity to endow a stitched-together humanoid creature with life. Since this story came into her mind at the beginning of the 19th century, she had no choice but to make her central characters — the genius, the creature, the Arctic explorer who provides the frame narrative — male. Even her rich imagination couldn’t have conceived of such characters as female. She had to make the empathetic leap into the shoes of male characters to bring their perspectives to life, and readers of Frankenstein may decide for themselves how well she succeeded.

Many other women writers, both before and since Shelley, have chosen to tell male protagonists’ stories, because male characters have given them more to work with. For most of history, women’s capabilities and activities have been restricted to a narrow sphere, severely limiting the kinds of stories that might be told about them; male protagonists, by contrast, can do anything. Stepping into the shoes of male leads doubtless gave women authors prior to the 1970s a heady though vicarious sense of freedom and possibility. With such a foundation, it’s little wonder that even today, many women authors relish telling men’s stories. Writers such as Carol Berg, Anne Rice, Sarah Monette, and Courtney Schafer actually prefer writing male characters to female ones, finding the most pleasure and comfort in crafting male perspectives.

Considering how heavily the deck is stacked in favor of male characters, it’s almost a miracle that complex and memorable female characters, fictional women who possess both reason and integrity, ever get written at all. And yet, somehow, they do.

Sometimes — shocking as it may seem — they’re even written by men.

Monstrous Liberty: Wolfwalkers and Turning Red

Part II: Turning Red

Wolfwalkers might best be described as historical fantasy, as it’s set in mid-17th century Ireland and features an actual figure from history as its villain, “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell. Yet when the scene shifts from Kilkenny to the forest, it takes a turn toward the mythic, something that might exist beyond the bounds of time. In short, this movie hits my sweet spot precisely. It’s one of those movies that seems to have been designed specifically to appeal to me. So the minute it became available to watch on AppleTV, my husband and I watched it.

By contrast, Pixar’s latest feature, Turning Red, had been streaming on Disney+ for over a month before we finally decided to view it. This one falls under urban fantasy, not my favorite subgenre. Previously, Pixar had been getting past my dislike of contemporary or close-to-contemporary settings by featuring nonhuman characters, and I wasn’t sure I could fall in love with a human-centered fantasy tale set in the year 2002. Criticisms of the movie as “unrelatable” due to its nonwhite girl protagonist and Toronto place setting won my support, but what finally got me to sit down in front of the television for it was seeing a clip of protagonist Meilin Lee playing the flute like an absolute boss. Girls playing instruments is an instant sell for me, and the flute happens to have been my own instrument back when I played with my middle-school band and aspired to musical greatness. This told me right away that Mei, despite short-sighted reviewers’ calling her “unrelatable” and even (gasp) “unlikable” would be a girl after my own heart. That instinct proved correct.

The most common “I’m not a misogynist, but–” criticisms I’ve heard leveled against the film were Mei’s obnoxiousness (the word “cringe” has been thrown around a lot) and the supposedly “bean-mouth” art style. Those who carped on these grounds clearly have different standards from mine. The first word that comes to my mind when I think of Turning Red is adorable. Mei, striding down the sidewalk towards the bus stop with her backpack strapped to her shoulders and her flute clutched tightly in her fist, exuding youthful confidence with every step, pausing to turn a spontaneous cartwheel without bothering to remove her backpack, is by far the most button-cute animated heroine I’ve seen besides Wolfwalkers‘ Mebh. The stickers on the flute, especially the one proclaiming “This Girl Loves Math,” complete the picture of a funny, whip-smart girl who doesn’t know she has rough seas ahead of her. I wanted to hug her and pray for her and maybe offer a word or two of assurance as someone who has been right where she was. (My own flute sticker would have read “This Girl Loves Theatre,” with the “re” spelling we theater nerds — excuse me, theatre nerds — tend to prefer.)

In Turning Red, as in Wolfwalkers, growing up comes with a transmogrification, but whereas Robyn’s wolf form is a fairly unambiguous symbol of freedom from the get-go, Mei’s red panda form is a metaphor for what feminist poet Marge Piercy calls “the magic of puberty” (not menstruation, as some have claimed), a time of swift, confusing, and frightening changes. Robyn, after an initial stab of fear, comes to appreciate her wolf form quickly, thanks to guidance from Mebh. For Mei, however, the red panda is a curse to be controlled and then banished, and her arc centers on her coming to terms with it and deciding what it means to her. The panda is Change itself, the beast all of us must confront when we grow up, and it’s fitting that it emerges in moments of intense emotion. First, Mei must figure out how to control it. Then, she can own it. Once she has come to see it as a valuable part of herself, she flies across the rooftops of Toronto, shifting joyously from one form to the other, in a sequence reminiscent of Robyn’s first run through the forest in her wolf shape. All that’s missing is a beautiful song on the soundtrack.

The core difference between Wolfwalkers and Turning Red is the absence in the latter film of a clear and hate-worthy villain, a “Lord Protector” who embodies the oppressive constraints the monster heroine is pushing against. A film like Wolfwalkers, part history and part myth, benefits from the presence of an identifiable villain, one with too much unshakable faith in his own righteousness to be within reach of redemption. But Turning Red, like Encanto before it, represents Disney-Pixar’s move away from traditional hero/villain narratives and towards stories in which flawed but basically decent people with good intentions come into conflict, and pure evil is less a threat than our own unwillingness to listen to each other. Ming, Mei’s mother, loves her daughter deeply and would never consciously hurt her, but she has her own firmly fixed idea of who Mei is and will become (“Today, honor student; tomorrow, UN Secretary-General!”), and she closes her ears to anything that might challenge this idea. Mei is pushing toward freedom, not from institutionalized misogyny but from the image her mother has shaped of her, which may or may not reflect who she really is. Mei’s eventual choice of what to do about her red panda is an assertion of self-determination.

Yet a core similarity between the films, which sets them both apart from Margaret Atwood’s melancholy “Lusus Naturae,” is that the heroines’ monstrous sides don’t isolate them from others. Before becoming a wolfwalker, Robyn is alone except for her father, despised and mocked by the other children in Kilkenny; her wolf side leads her to a friend, a peer, and a place where she can belong without sacrificing her true self. Mei has a strong circle of friends at the outset of her story, and their choice to stick close to her after they discover her in panda form gives her the power to calm the turmoil that sparks the transformation. Friendship is central to, and is celebrated in, both narratives — something we see entirely too rarely in animated features that star female protagonists.

In my ongoing struggle to understand why I don’t share pop culture’s enthusiasm for female villains, I keep coming back to one point: no matter how powerful they might be, they almost always lose. And as things go from bad to worse for women in the real world, I need more and more to see girls winning. When misogyny makes the news, I can find some glimmer of comfort in the image of two beautiful wolves racing side by side through a mystical forest and an adorable red panda soaring through the night sky, enjoying their monstrous liberty. Most of all, I can find joy and hope in knowing that generations of young people now have these stories to grow up with.

(I do have one word to say to Mei: I know that you’re figuring out who you are, and at thirteen you’re still young enough to explore a myriad of passions before you settle on a path — but please, whatever you do, don’t give up your flute. You’ll regret it if you do. I know. I’ve been there.)

Monstrous Liberty: Wolfwalkers and Turning Red

Part 1: Wolfwalkers

In my daily prayers I habitually give thanks for the different kinds of stories in my life: those I read, those I write, those I watch, and those I teach.

One short story I’ve begun to include in my Freshman Composition II class is Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae.” As someone with an affinity for tales of monster heroines, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a narrator who suffers from a condition that gives her the characteristics of a vampire/werewolf hybrid. The story opens with her looking on and listening as her family discusses her as a problem in need of a solution, but when they finally decide to hold a fake funeral for her so they can rejoin society while she remains in seclusion, she discovers she actually likes the change: “Now that I was dead, I was freer.” Without social constraints, the titular “lusus naturae” (freak of nature) thrives and can shape her environment to suit her needs and desires. Her story at this point reminds me why I’m so drawn to the female monster; when “normal” society limits women to a narrow field of roles and acceptable behaviors, monster heroines can leap over the fences.

Yet in most monster narratives, society and its rules emerge triumphant, and Atwood’s story has her heroine give into her human nature — the longing for kinship endemic to the social animal — and step outside the isolation that has kept her safe and free. Observing a couple in the throes of sexual excitement, she mistakes them for “beings like myself” and later touches the man, who predictably reacts in horror. At the story’s close, she awaits the approach of an angry mob that includes her “normal” older sister, and contemplates the possibility of an afterlife where she is the norm: “Perhaps the angels will look like me. What a surprise that will be for everyone else!”

The mob marching on the lusus naturae’s habitat intent on doing away with her evokes images of such mobs striding down the streets of Universal Studios’ backlot in their iconic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. It reminds us that despite the ambiguous conclusion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which literature’s most famous monster exiles himself to the arctic wilds, traditional stories generally end in death for the monster. Frankenstein’s monster may achieve a Pyrrhic victory in the novel, but in the classic film adaptations he’s repeatedly disposed of (by fire, by explosion, by sulfur pit, etc.). Blood-hungry Dracula, lovelorn Imhotep, anarchic invisible Jack Griffin, and wolf-men Wilfred Glendon and Laurence Talbot all meet untimely ends, and thus the chaos they represent is neutralized and the status quo maintained. Where Atwood’s lusus naturae differs isn’t so much that she is painted sympathetically — after all, both wild, woeful Laurence Talbot and Frankenstein’s monster as played by Boris Karloff earn quite a bit of audience sympathy as they journey toward their predestined ends — as that she is female, and therefore even further outside the lines society draws.

Recent decades have seen writers of genre fiction move away from the traditional model, to expand the monster’s possible fates beyond permanent exile or death. In the realm of fantasy fiction, vampires, werewolves, and even zombies can be romantic interests, knights in cobwebbed armor who shamble to the rescue of innumerable generic high school girls. Dragons can be heroic warriors and the allies of human soldiers. But there is still one thing the sympathetic monster must nearly always be: male. Female monsters, 95% of the time, are painted as evil, a problem that can only be solved by slaying. In the majority of monster tales, as in the majority of superhero tales, girls and women still represent normalcy, the comfortable ordinariness for which male monsters (and male superheroes) presumably yearn. Beauty tames the Beast. All well and good; I enjoy a well-told Beauty-and-the-Beast tale. But my heart still yearns after the monster heroine, the female Chaotic Good, and I write her because she is so hard to find.

So when I do stumble onto exceptions to the general rule, I treasure them. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two animated films in which young heroines find a kind of freedom in monsterhood, but unlike the lusus naturae, they lose neither their liberty nor their lives: Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers (2020) and Pixar’s Turning Red (2022).

In its opening sequence, Wolfwalkers presents us with a different take on the werewolf than we’re used to seeing. Not driven to kill, the wolfwalkers — humans by day, then wolves by night as their human bodies sleep — are protectors of the ancient forest near Kilkenny circa 1650, and all the creatures who live there, especially the pack of ordinary wolves with whom they are spiritually linked. They’re dangerous to humans only so far as humans threaten the forest. The first scene shows the wolf pack attack a pair of woodcutters before they can fell a tree. Yet when one of them is injured, the wolfwalkers, Moll and her young daughter Mebh, emerge from the rear of the pack to heal him with their magic. He returns to Kilkenny a wiser man. Yet the town is locked in a state of fearful ignorance that will take more than one simple healing to cure. The people there view the wolves as evil creatures to be destroyed — none more so than Robyn Goodfellowe, daughter of a soldier under orders to hunt the wolves to extinction.

Robyn, in her first appearance, fires a crossbow at an image of a wolf tacked to the wall, yet she nonetheless wins sympathy pretty quickly. We’re touched by her warm relationship with her father, Bill, and we can identify with her chafing against the boundaries prescribed by her age and gender. She hates being stuck behind the town’s walls and wants nothing more than to hunt alongside her father in the forest. What she wants most is freedom. All her instincts tell her that she belongs to the forest, not to the town. Once Robyn, sneaking into the forest against her father’s orders, learns the truth about the wolves and wolfwalkers for herself, she discards her old prejudices and bonds with the young wolfwalker girl, Mebh. She represents the hope that humans can learn better, that understanding might triumph over ignorance. But bigotry — here taking the form of the evil Lord Protector, whose orders Bill is bound to follow — isn’t going down without a fight.

Her friendship with Mebh gives Robyn a taste of the freedom she’s been craving, a look at life beyond the rigid confines of the town. Yet in an initial scuffle, Mebh nips her, and though she heals the wound, it proves too late to prevent the spell from taking effect: when night comes, Robyn learns she has become a wolfwalker herself, and in her newly minted wolf form she barely manages to escape from town with her life. She has become lusus naturae, something not merely unwilling but unable to fit within Kilkenny’s social mores. Understandably terrified, she bolts into the forest to find Mebh, and in perhaps the film’s most beautiful and stirring sequence, Mebh teaches her the advantages her wolf form gives her. Freedom is Robyn’s at last, as long as she runs with the wolves.

“Being a wolf is way better,” Mebh tells Robyn, and the film’s very color scheme — lush greens and blues and earthy browns for the forest and dull, flat grays for the town — makes us feel the truth of this and root for Robyn’s ultimate escape from stifling civilization. As a human, she must abide by the Lord Protector’s notions of what is “appropriate” for girls, which means working in a scullery and remaining meek, quiet, and subservient. (“I already am in a cage!” she cries when her father warns her of what might happen if she remains defiant.) As a wolf, she can run and leap and, with her heightened senses, experience the world as she’s never known it before. She also has something Atwood’s lusus naturae never finds: a friend, a being like herself. Robyn’s flight from civilization takes her not into isolated exile, but into a new and more nurturing community.

How she manages this, and how the final battle between understanding and bigotry plays out, I won’t Spoil in further detail. Please, if you haven’t seen it, seek it out and discover it for yourself.