They say there aren’t enough roles for women in movies, and generally they’re right. There’s something called the Bechdel Test for film that is as follows:

1) Does this movie include more than one female character with a name (“Hooker #2” doesn’t count)?

2) Do those characters ever talk to each other?

3) Are they talking about something other than a man?

A film needn’t pass the Bechdel Test to be good or great, and to fail the test doesn’t necessarily make a film sexist. The Social Network fails the test. So does Brokeback Mountain. Considering my list of the year’s best films, off the top of my head I can say for sure that Lebanon fails it, Inception fails, and The Ghost Writer and Animal Kingdom are iffy. Three films pass with flying colors: Please Give, Winter’s Bone, and Black Swan.

Giovanna Mezzogiorno, in "Vincere"

But the standard itself is so meager (two female characters who talk about something other than a man once in a two-hour movie) that it’s surprising so many fail, and surprising that some films that pass it do so by a narrow margin: True Grit gets a pass based on an early scene where Hailee Steinfeld talks to a boarding house landlady about sleeping arrangements. Now flip the script: consider the test but replace “female” with “male.” Think of how many movies might fail that test. Not very many. According to the website bechdeltest.com, which has recorded over 2000 titles, only about 50% of films fully past the test, and 12% fail to meet even the first standard. That may seem like a small percentage, but consider it this way: roughly one in eight films released will have fewer than two female characters in it.

But in 2010, by my estimation, the great roles for women outnumbered the great roles for men, so in this year’s installment of my annual list of overlooked screen performances, I’ll focus on the achievements of women, and how cinema could use more of them.

It’s gratifying how many of those heroes actually were sung. The performances of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Actress were the best of any acting field: Annette Bening‘s funny and moving turn as a lesbian mother in The Kids Are All Right, Michelle Williams‘s searing portrayal of a wife falling out of love in Blue Valentine, Jennifer Lawrence‘s breakthrough work as a hardened teenager forced to provide for her family in Winter’s Bone, Nicole Kidman‘s emotionally fragile turn as a mother mourning the loss of her child in Rabbit Hole, and winner Natalie Portman, who showed ferocious physical and psychological commitment in her role as an obsessed ballerina in Black Swan.

In the supporting race were two more performances I greatly admired (and three others I was admittedly less enthusiastic about). Hailee Steinfeld, making her film debut in True Grit, showed an impressive command of the Coen Brothers’ fast-talk dialogue, playing a young girl in the Wild West with impeccable confidence, though she really belonged in the lead category. Jacki Weaver was even more impressive, subtle but very sinister as the mother of a family of criminals in Animal Kingdom.

But as often happens during awards season the race was quickly narrowed to a limited few contenders at the expense of many others who lacked the support of a studio Oscar campaign, or were supported unsuccessfully, or for reasons of distribution were ineligible. On-Demand availability disqualified some contenders, like Los Angeles Film Critics choice Kim Hye-ja, playing the title character in South Korea’s Mother, and the National Society of Film Critics winner Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as Mussolini’s mistress in Vincere.

Jeon Do-yeon, in "Secret Sunshine"

Foreign films provided many of the year’s best roles for women, the greatest of which was surely Jeon Do-yeon, whose extraordinary work as a grieving mother in Secret Sunshine helped make it my favorite film of the year. The German film Everyone Else provided an observant performance by Birgit Minichmayr as a young woman whose relationship takes an abrupt turn to disappointment and humiliation. British actress Tilda Swinton spoke Italian with a Russian accent (I’ll take her word for it) in the romantic drama I Am Love, playing a married woman who discovers a sensuality she thought was lost to her. Aggeliki Papoulia somehow finds just the right balance of anger, fear, and child-like rebellion in Greece’s absurd tragedy Dogtooth, playing a daughter fighting against the constraints of her isolated family home. And though the Swedish Millennium trilogy was far from perfect, its fierce, defiant star Noomi Rapace left big shoes for Rooney Mara to fill when she assumes the Lisbeth Salander role in David Fincher’s forthcoming English-language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

There was breakthrough work by young stars. In addition to Oscar-nominee Steinfeld, particularly excellent work was done by Chloe Moretz, who in Kick-Ass made us question the effect of superhero culture on our youth and played Hit Girl both as a formidable action heroine and a child growing up much too fast. 19-year-old Katie Jarvis made an impressive debut in Fish Tank, giving a natural but carefully shaded performance as a vulnerable street kid in an Essex housing project.

Two very underrated performances were given by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as teen rock stars Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, respectively, in The Runaways, which came out last spring and was mostly forgotten. These actresses, balancing mass-appeal projects (Twilight, anyone?) with interesting films like this, are building what should be lasting film careers. Elsewhere, Dakota’s little sister, Elle Fanning, gave a standout performance in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, as a daughter who can see right through her vapid movie-star father.

The best film about women was Nicole Holofcener Please Give, which starred Catherine Keener (who has starred in all of Holofcener’s films) as a woman we might hate – she manipulates grieving families out of valuable furniture to resell for profit, and feels guilty about her own upper-class privilege – but whom the actress makes brittle, funny, and sad. Keener is lent able support by other fine women: especially Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet, and Ann Guilbert. In a very different indie comedy, Greenberg, Greta Gerwig brought a sweet, offbeat warmth to balance the caustic inward and outward anger of the title character played indelibly by Ben Stiller.

Some performances remained under the radar despite appearing in award-contending films. Marion Cotillard, though playing a specter in Inception, gives that maze of a film its emotional thrust. Mila Kunis was rightly praised as Natalie Portman’s psychosexual foil in Black Swan, but mostly overlooked was the disturbing performance of Barbara Hershey as Portman’s mother, about whom the screenplay reveals little, but whom the actress imbues with an ominous kind of affection; being mommy’s little girl has seldom been so unsettling. Dianne Wiest, whose soft speaking voice often conveys gentleness, showed surprisingly raw feeling in Rabbit Hole, playing Nicole Kidman’s mother, who think she knows everything there is to know about grief but still finds herself reliving her own.

Chloe Moretz, in "Kick-Ass"

Dale Dickey was awarded an Independent Spirit Award for her brief but impactful role in Winter’s Bone. She played a fearsome woman threatening Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly when she comes asking dangerous questions, but the actress adds a layer of compassionate subtext; she wants to protect the secrets from Ree, but she also wants to protect Ree from the secrets.

But the best performance by a supporting actress in 2010 was by Olivia Williams, who brought an air of mystery and implacable intelligence to the role of a politician’s wife in Roman Polanski’s thriller The Ghost Writer.

One of 2010’s most pleasant surprises was Easy A and the star-making performance of Emma Stone, who was funny without being glib and sympathetic without being maudlin as a teenage girl whose white lie gives her a reputation she didn’t expect.

Am I missing anyone? Probably. I only saw about 100 films last year. But let’s pause for a moment to also acknowledge an even smaller minority: female filmmakers, who were responsible for many of 2010’s most outstanding films: mentioned above, Sofia Coppola and Nicole Holofcener, who directed Somewhere and Please Give with great sensitivity to character. Debra Granik gave Winter’s Bone a vivid sense of setting and culture. Andrea Arnold and Maren Ade made quietly perceptive films about young women: Fish Tank and Everyone Else. Floria Sigismondi brought a grungy visual sensibility that elevated the conventional making-the-band biopic The Runaways. And though it wasn’t among my favorites, The Kids Are All Right was one of the year’s most acclaimed films, and credit is due to its writer-director, Lisa Cholodenko. All of those films, it’s worth mentioning, pass the Bechdel Test.

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