2016 has been—well, not our favorite year for intense reflection. But as the year comes to a close, we at Audiences Everywhere want to celebrate the women who made 2016 one worth remembering fondly. From the brilliant writers and directors to the incredible actresses and comediennes to the beloved fictional characters, this year was lucky enough to see the most talented women in the industry creating some of this year’s best content.
The Multi-Hyphenate: Kelly Fremon Craig – Edge of Seventeen
Kelly Fremon Craig had earned writer’s credits before—with 2008’s Streak and 2009’s Post Grad—but 2016 provided our first glimpse at her multi-tasking chops with her debut as a director, writer, and co-producer of the sleeper hit, Edge of Seventeen.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as the vulnerable and acerbic Nadine, who’s busy navigating an upside-down high school experience, where the adults often act like teens, and the teens prove to be pretty smart (if not always wise). In this coming-of-age film, Fremon Craig draws an ur-teenage girl performance out of Steinfeld, whose role challenges her to be equal parts self-aware and selfish, articulate and frazzled, intelligent and clueless. In short, a very realistic portrait of what it means to be a 16-year-old girl learning to navigate life on her own terms. Kyra Sedgwick and Woody Harrelson turn in strong supporting roles, but it’s Nadine and her inner circle—an older brother, a lifelong best friend and a deftly drawn romantic interest—who really serve as the tent pole of this story.
We only have a little but to go on so far, but it’s easy to see how Fremon Craig’s career might be seen as a contemporary riff on the John Hughes films of the ’80s—and not just because they both treat the inner-lives of teens with respect. There’s an affable tenderness in the way she tells the characters’ stories that recall some of Hughes’s most humane moments. No doubt this empathetic ability contributed to the movie’s Best First Film win from the New York Film Critics Circle (as well as a slew of other awards honors).
So far, each of Fremon Craig’s forays into film have centered on girls or young women at transitional moments in their lives. You get the impression 2016 was one of those turning points for her. We’re excited to see where she’s headed next. – Samantha Sanders
The Comeback Kid: Gillian Anderson – The Fall
Gillian Anderson has had a bountiful 2016 not only with the much-anticipated X-Files reboot that fans were dying for in January. Though it went out with a fizzle instead of a pop, seeing her return as Dana Scully was a treat for those who loved her and this year her career continued to climb. 2016 was the American premiere of her off-Broadway debut giving an incredible and shrill performance in the taxing role of Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. This revival, also starring Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby, is an impressively fresh vision of the original play. At the same time, having a personal lean toward the humanitarian interested Anderson in starring in the drama film Sold, a story of human trafficking in Nepal and what freedom costs.
Keeping her schedule full, Gillian had her teeth in several TV roles at once. Simultaneously playing the title character’s psychiatrist in Hannibal, she put her captivating, smoldering presence to use in BBC’s crime thriller The Fall playing Detective Stella Gibson. Anderson’s ability to play off her costars is formidable as she relentlessly pursues and plays with Jamie Dornan as Spector, a serial killer known as the Belfast Strangler. Besides making us want to break the bank on silk blouses, Stella Gibson is one of the best female characters on TV of late, a complex mix of no-nonsense hardass and independent woman celebrating sexual freedom while dealing with her own demons. Her feminist verbiage is fierce and clear—her quotes used by debaters and meme-enthusiasts alike. The Fall was a tense thriller with the darkest themes that kept us on the edge of our seats gasping at the end of every episode, and Gillian Anderson’s performance kept the coals hot until the bitter end this year. Keeping up momentum, she’s currently filming for the upcoming TV series American Gods based on a novel by Neil Gaiman which is set to air in 2017. – Becky Belzile
The Veteran Breakout Star: Maria Bamford – Lady Dynamite
It’s tough to label Maria Bamford as a breakout star–she’s been writing and performing since 1998, having appeared on shows such as Arrested Development, Adventure Time, and Louie. However, May’s release of Netflix’s original series Lady Dynamite finally gave the comedienne the widespread critical recognition she deserves. Bamford’s searing self-reflection and goofy, surrealist comedic approach is amplified in the show, the content of which is loosely based on Bamford’s life. Bizarre in all the right ways, Lady Dynamite was groundbreaking in its unabashed portrayal of life with mental illness–the show focuses on Maria, playing herself, jumping back into Hollywood after suffering a nervous breakdown, and the consequential struggles of managing mental illness. Never one to shy away from topical issues, Lady Dynamite tackled a variety of serious subjects with a comedic lightness that wouldn’t have been effective had they been executed by anyone else. “White Trash” looks at implicit racism in Hollywood, whereas “A Vaginismus Miracle” discusses how mental illness can affect one’s sex drive. What makes this show so magical is how natural and unaffected Bamford plays her role–yes, Lady Dynamite’s episodes deal with aspects of life that aren’t always funny, but Bamford subverts the usual heavy-handed approach and applies an absurdist lens to it. Bamford’s tone and delivery leaps from self-deprecating to slapstick, and her multi-dimensional range allows her material on everything from her OCD and bipolar II disorder to her relationship with her parents stay sharp, but approachable.
Maria Bamford brought a complex and creative new voice to the table with Lady Dynamite, and raised the stakes for writers and performers to match her witty, feminist-positive, and stigma-challenging material. – Staley Sharples
The Composer: Mica Levi – Jackie
If you don’t know Mica Levi’s name yet, this awards season is likely going to change that. The composer made her debut in Under the Skin and is garnering a great deal of praise for her work in 2016’s Jackie. Director Pablo Larraín allowed the score to become a character in its own right—keeping audiences from slipping into a false, passive lull that Jackie feels like a documentary, even though much of the way its shot lends to that notion. Lesser films and filmmakers would’ve asked the score to fade into the background, but Larraín reportedly gave Levi a great deal of freedom. She composed much of the music without having seen much of the film. This unusual approach from a trusting director, who gave loose guidelines and just the script for reference, allowed her to create a striking, unforgettable score. Levi, not yet 30-years-old, composes subtle yet strategic music contrasting the turmoil Jackie faces internally and externally. In the most pivotal scene in the movie, as Jackie stumbles through the private quarters of the White House, Levi’s score punctuates the aftermath of Jackie’s trauma; it’s haunting to the point of frightening, allowing audiences to get lost in the spiral of deep, inconsolable grief—so much so that you expect to see the widow careen into something gruesome in her room. She’s haunted, and we are, too. Beautiful and unnerving, Levi’s work in Jackie matches, or perhaps exceeds, Natalie Portman’s captivating portrayal of the First Lady. It’s hard to fathom that this is only Mica Levi’s second score in a feature film—she’s that brilliant. – Grace Porter
The Leader: Moana – Moana
Chosen by the ocean, Moana crosses the horizon to restore the heart of a goddess and save her people, ultimately saving the world. Moana secedes the role of chief, embodying a natural born leader, a trustworthy member of the community whose fully capable of addressing day-to-day tribal concerns. In this position of power, her people do not let Moana’s gender dictate their beliefs in her efficacy. For young audiences, Moana’s upbringing precludes how environmental factors impact her own sense of self. Moana never questions her worth because she is a woman. The only doubt, doubt on whether she should immediately accept the chiefdom and resist the ocean’s calling, resides in Moana herself. A formidable plague begins to root itself causing unrest and uncertainty in the future, but also provides an opportunity for Moana to finally explore beyond the sheltered reefs of Motunui. Moana’s decision to set sail, despite her father prohibiting such travels and the societal norm to stay within the borders, emphasizes the significance in challenging and pursuing the unexpected for the sake of impacting the greater good. Her undying beliefs to help her people and persistent nature to learn new skills prove to be a new role model for wayfarers young and old. – Teaira Lacson
The Waverider: Lady Leshurr – Queen’s Speech
Every now and then real talent gets picked up to the heights of viral sensation on the internet. One of these is Lady Leshurr, though she’s no stranger to the rap scene. Hailing from England, Melesha O’Garro (Lady Leshurr) brings a fresh and feisty voice to rap, a charming accent and stunning smile winning over genre skeptics. She’s primarily known for her Queen’s Speech freestyles especially that of #4 (Brush Your Teeth) which went viral in 2016. This quickly became one of my most-listened to songs of the year for it’s catchy, cheeky lyrics. Releasing a Queen’s Speech EP this year, Lady Leshurr also kept her game strong with #UNLESHED (Panda Freestyle) and Where Are You Now? two singles that show her range and dedication to the craft. Her lyrics are witty and hard-hitting, making you feel like a boss and her ability to play with language makes her work immensely fun to sing along to. “Don’t think you’re buff ‘cause you’re wearing contour, I’ll wipe your brows off,” she quips in Queen’s Speech 4, just one track that pokes fun at haters and fakers. She’s hustling, honing her craft and shitting on anyone with the audacity to question her or her talent. Lady Leshurr has had a great year for her career and not just because of luck. Naming Missy Elliott and Eminem as inspirations, the future looks bright for this skilled rapper and I can’t wait for a full album. – Becky Belzile
The Changemakers: Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi – Making a Murderer
Writer-directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s 10-years-in-the-making documentary Making a Murderer first made its Netflix debut in the final few weeks of 2015, but word-of-mouth kept the film in the headlines and in our queues throughout much of 2016. While most were in agreement that the 10-part series made for compulsive viewing, critical and public reaction to the pair’s storytelling was mixed. Some lauded the two for the unusual degree of access granted by the family of convicted murderers Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, while others took issue with Demos’s and Ricciardi’s sympathetic portrait of the two men accused of the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach.
Regardless of where you stand on Avery or Dassey’s innocence after watching the film, it’s undeniable that the pair has been instrumental in dragging a botched and prejudicial investigation by the law enforcement of rural Manitowoc County, Wisconsin out into the light.
The series fostered a groundswell of both online slacktivism and real-world engagement, and drew renewed attention to the cause of criminal justice reform. The tireless work by attorneys affiliated with the Innocence Network has been instrumental in recent legal developments in both cases, but it’s fair to consider whether legal pressure would have mounted so quickly if the reception to the documentary weren’t such a distracting splinter.
As it stands today, Avery is still fighting. He maintains his innocence and his legal team have continued to investigate. A new round of independent testing of case evidence was recently been agreed to by the court and is now underway. Dassey—whose manipulation by law enforcement was extensively documented in the film—saw his conviction overturned in August 2016, because his confession was found to be coerced and unlawful. However, the state is appealing and Dassey remains behind bars pending the outcome of the appeal.
The first step in getting the world to care about an issue is getting them to pay attention to it—and in 2016 no one captured our attention better than Demos and Ricciardi. But the story continues; production on a second season has already begun. – Samantha Sanders
The Revolutionary Comedienne: Ali Wong – Ali Wong: Baby Cobra
How are Asians, or any minority, able to diversify Hollywood? By having stories developed by, written for, and played by Asians. Ali Wong represents a minority within a minority, an Asian actress, writer, and comedienne and frankly, an individual we need more of. Released early last year, Fresh Off the Boat, gained popularity airing alongside Modern Family and Black-ish, showcasing American families. Told in first person by Eddie Huang, a second generation Taiwanese pre-teen, recalls his troubles of growing up in the middle of suburbia.
For Asians, specifically Asian women, some topics do not enter the realm of any conversation, ever. In Wong’s Netflix stand-up comedy special, Ali Wong: Baby Cobra, Wong shoves aside any expectation of what an Asian woman should or should not disclose, leading into bits of sexual discovery, tribulations of baby making, and miscarriages. Her unrivaled and relevant candor in the Asian community and the current generation necessarily disrupts stagnant societal expectations, supporting the fact that it’s acceptable and encouraged to actively and openly share thoughts. Wong’s segment on how “feminism is the worst thing to happen to women” is the best thing to happen to women and men. Her seemingly anti-feminist rhetoric, adversely reaffirms feminist ideals as Wong emulates today’s feminist woman by approaching women’s issues in an explicit, unapologetic typhoon of ferocity, contrary her fragile image. Wong unintentionally built herself up as the next poster-woman for women’s rights.
Wong’s in-depth storytelling methods and pantomime–perhaps too deep for some audiences–leave sides aching, even for the imagination impaired. Wong’s comedy special, as a topic of conversation in itself, acts as a springboard to dive into uncharted waters. The exposure Baby Cobra created acts as a signifier and support for anyone debating turning to the arts for a career. It’s time to introduce mom to Ali. – Teaira Lacson
The Voice of the People: Kate McKinnon – Ghostbusters, Office Christmas Party, SNL
We can’t leave 2016 without recognizing one of its most visible on-screen stars: Kate McKinnon. Ghostbusters might have fizzled, and Office Christmas Party may turn out to be yet another forgettable hijinks-fueled comedy, but her performance as Hillary Clinton on SNL carried us through an election year that elicited a mind-boggling mixture of incredulity, horror, and amusement that threatened to leave us hysterical and barely functioning (or maybe that was just me?). McKinnon’s performance will be remembered not only because she was funny, or because her portrayal of Clinton was accurate, but because she used her Hillary character as a mouthpiece for America’s collective astonishment at the state of politics. And, when the unthinkable happened, McKinnon led us in a moment of grief for what could have been; her performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a cold open to the SNL episode following election day was moving, and you could see it was no joke (although McKinnon was in character as Clinton). This was McKinnon honoring a great composer and musician, someone who had contributed this song of such emotional rarity, and using his song to recognize Clinton’s hard work and to grieve for an America that turned out to be not quite the country of principle that we all hoped it was. We needed Kate McKinnon this year, and 2016 would have been even worse without her contributions. – Katherine Shelor
The Revivalist: Amy Sherman-Palladino – Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Few writers achieve what Amy Sherman-Palladino has—a show so beloved, after the seventh season wrapped, fans spent the next nine years asking for more. Gilmore Girls with its fast paced dialogue, witty quips, and pop culture references was an anomaly of sorts. Sherman-Palladino (along with husband Daniel Palladino) created a show with a simple premise: Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, a young mother and her best friend/16-year-old daughter, respectively, live in a small, quirky Connecticut town and navigate their relationships with Lorelai’s once estranged parents, romantic interests, and with their evolving mother-daughter relationship. The writing granted us real women full of personality, humor, and wit. Fiercely smart and world-conquering types, sure, but they were sometimes selfish, often self-righteous, and occasionally emotionally inept. So when the seventh season—written by not Sherman-Palladino—came to an end, fans were pretty disgusted. A team of writers botched the ending…an ending she’d had drafted from the start.
Those final four words haunted us all…the words we were famously supposed to get in Sherman-Palladino finale but never heard, of course. The eccentric writer, who was unable to come to an agreement with the network, chose not to renew her contract after the sixth season, and when the show’s new writers scrambled the show, its characters, and everything that made it great beyond recognition, Sherman-Palladino did what the rest of us couldn’t refrain from—she never watched that final season.
Buzz surrounding a proper finale penned by Amy and Dan swirled around for years. If she were to come back to Gilmore Girls, well, there was nothing to come back to. The show had long wrapped, its actors busy with new series and projects. A movie made sense, but no one, I imagine including Sherman-Palladino herself, believed we’d get the desired resolution in a mere 90 minutes. And movies after series are notoriously bad anyway. But in the fall of 2015, Netflix announced Gilmore Girls would be back with a revival and fans would get the version its original creators had always intended.
Being tasked with picking up where we left off, nearly ten years later, couldn’t have been simple…especially if you never watched the final season of your own show. And perhaps that’s why Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life picks up with Rory making some choices that seem misaligned with her season 7 decisions and with Lorelai still emotionally and relationally stunted. But despite the confusion audiences may have found in Rory’s much darker, messier storyline and Lorelai’s never-ending emotional tug-of-war with every significant person in her life, Sherman-Palladino resurrected Stars Hollow, its band of misfits, each Gilmore girl, and many of the men who loved them, bringing back everything we loved but shrouding it with a bit of darkness and a much-deserved maturation. Each of the 90 minute episodes (Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall) explore each Gilmore’s path to cope with grief—grief from death, failure, and the sobering realization that life may not be what she’d hoped. And those final four words—though maddening—proved what fans had always suspected: this one was worth the wait. Full freakin’ circle. – Grace Porter
Featured Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment