By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 7:35 PM
Say this much for movies in 2010: It was a pretty good year to be a girl.
It seems like a dim memory now that, soon after the year began, its first potential cinematic scandal began brewing. The trailer for the comic-book action movie "Kick-Ass" surfaced, featuring a pint-sized, foul-mouthed little lady named Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) with a penchant for mowing down guys twice her size with double-fisted firearms while spewing progressively more shocking epithets.
As someone who began her journalistic career at Ms. magazine, I had all my antennae up when I attended the preview, my pen and notebook at the ready to record any number of anticipated outrages and instances of anti-feminist backsliding. Imagine my surprise when "Kick-Ass" turned out to be not only smart and cheekily entertaining, but a vehicle for one of the most subversively feminist heroines in recent years.
With her purple hair, black face mask and prim plaid skirt, Hit Girl wasn't just a female version of the hackneyed male trope of psychopathic killer, as I feared. Instead, as written by comic book authors Mark Millar and John Romita, and brought to the screen by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, she emerged as a character of complex psychological drives, spurred to violence not out of mindless aggression but canny self-preservation.
As the only daughter of a dad who admittedly took overprotectiveness to an extreme, Hit Girl presented viewers with the bracing image of an adolescent female fully capable of taking care of herself and her loved ones, even within the outrageously exaggerated cartoon world that "Kick-Ass" imagined. Never a huge fan of foul language or graphic violence, I found myself celebrating Hit Girl as a genuine step forward within a medium where the self-reliance, swashbuckling adventure and swagger has historically been reserved for the guys.
And Hit Girl served as a harbinger of equally cheering things to come. Think of the top movies this year: Sure, we had "Eclipse," the latest installment of the "Twilight" saga that gratifyingly returned the franchise to its roots after the turgid "New Moon" misfire. But Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) still seemed infuriatingly passive as her would-be lovers, vampire Edward and werewolf Jacob, engaged in a far more interesting battle for her affections. (If only Bella could see "Let Me In": The remake of the Swedish horror movie "Let the Right One In" featured "Kick-Ass's" Moretz, this time as a self-assured, physically invincible young vampire who comes to the aid of a bullied schoolboy.)
A far more encouraging book-franchise installment came by way of watching Hermione come into her own in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." In the first part of the last chapter of the series, the now-teenaged schoolmate of Harry and Ron repeatedly saved the day through cool thinking and an admittedly super-cool handbag.
But the real strength of Hermione - often otherwise relegated to the supportive shadows - wasn't to be found in showy scenes of magic-making, but in the film's far quieter and most meaningful moments: An early shot of Hermione "obliviating" her parents' memories of her, in order to protect them from the evil Voldemort, carried unexpected emotional force, as did a sequence in which she wordlessly conjured a simple bouquet to adorn Harry's parents' grave. As embodied by the lean, solemn Emma Watson, Hermione's get-on-with-it confidence and strength became the best reason not just to see "Deathly Hallows" but to hang around for the second, final installment next summer.
If 2010 had a genuine surprise hit, it was Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." Part of the film's popularity no doubt had to do with Johnny Depp's draw as the Mad Hatter, and by its 3-D bells and whistles. But I'd like to think much of the appeal had to do with Mia Wasikowska's gutsy girl power as Alice, depicted as a sturdy, capable 19-year-old. Thanks to Wasikowska's frank, self-assured performance, Alice found respite from wide-eyed, pinafored childishness to become a young adult forging a path of adventure and, in the case of the climactic fight scene, some old-fashioned (if revisionist) armor-clad heroism.
As a damsel who becomes her own white knight, Wasikowska's Alice would no doubt have heartily approved of Rapunzel in the animated comedy "Tangled," wherein Grimm's long-tressed princess as often as not rescued the bandit Flynn Ryder.
But teenaged heroines weren't only the remit of fantasy: In Andrea Arnold's British realist drama "Fish Tank," newcomer Katie Jarvis delivered an alternately ferocious and fragile turn as 15-year-old Mia, who navigates poverty, a difficult mother and the appearance of a would-be father figure to, if not triumph, then at least survive.
In Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone," Jennifer Lawrence brought breathtaking physical presence and quiet fortitude to Ree, a 17-year-old girl overcoming her own impoverished, dysfunctional circumstances as she searches for her dad in the meth labs and backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks.
After these harrowing portraits of young women forced to evince strength beyond their years, the delightful comedy "Easy A" arrived like a breath of breezy, bawdy air, thanks in large part to Emma Stone's brave and knowing portrayal of Olive, a smart, feisty Hester Prynne for the Facebook generation. (It bears noting that the most visible young heroines of 2010 were white, although they represented a wave begun last year with the indomitable Tiana and Precious Jones, of "The Princess and the Frog" and "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." Still, one wonders what the "Karate Kid" reboot might have looked like with hair-whipping Willow Smith in the lead rather than her brother Jaden.)
It might have taken Hit Girl, Hermione, Alice, Rapunzel, Mia, Ree and Olive in their considerable combined force to save poor Nina in "Black Swan," in which Natalie Portman delivered a breathy, bizarrely bravura turn as a ballerina on the brink of stardom and psychotic self-destruction. But the fragile, fatally messed-up Nina wound up being an aberration in a movie season that ended with two wildly different but equally strong young female protagonists: Hailee Steinfeld's impassioned, implacable Mattie Ross, who formed the resolute spine and driving moral force of the Coen brothers' "True Grit," and Elle Fanning's Cleo Marco in "Somewhere," in which Stephen Dorff's narcissistic movie star turns his life around simply by seeing the world through his clear-eyed, down-to-earth 11-year-old daughter.
Why now? The success of "Twilight" helped show Hollywood that young women wield considerable force at the box office, so studios have understandably started to pay attention. Actresses like Angelina Jolie ("Salt," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith") and Milla Jovovich ("Resident Evil") have proven that action isn't just the sole purview of Y chromosomes. And we may be seeing a generational shift whereby writers and directors raised with an expectation of gender equality bring that sensibility to their filmmaking.
Or, 2010 may have just been an anomaly. After all, most of the year's best adult movies were anchored by men: "Inception," "The King's Speech," "The Social Network," "The Fighter," "127 Hours." It remains to be seen whether the teen and 'tween heroines of today give rise to more brave, complicated, powerful, autonomous grown-up analogs in the future. The world may end in fire or ice - but it just might be saved by Hit Girl and her sisters.