Ten more leading ladies behind the camera for you now as we continue our 100 Films Made By Women. In no particular order, but each one with a particular style or focus as directors. We go back ninety years, we venture to New Zealand, and Australia. We explore actresses changing roles in the profession, fiction and non-fiction. I implored many female film-lovers to step forward and contribute here, believe me, but they were, for now, far too busy changing the world. Amen to that.
Stories We Tell (2013) – Sarah Polley — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Someone I deeply admire (and have for some time) as a charismatic and powerful figure in the film industry, Sarah Polley appears to be a rare commodity these days. A woman under 40, having had a hand in some national (Canada) political and social issues, has several times proved her talent as an actress (she breaks my heart in The Sweet Hereafter), and directed both fiction and documentary films with critical success. It’s a separate debate altogether whether such a female talent ought to be a rare thing in the film world (no, is the answer by the way). In Polley’s splendid, candid, Stories We Tell, she writes and directs a documentary slap bang in the center of her own family tree, and the truth about her parents – primarily the identify of her biological father. There is nothing self-gratifying or pretentious about the subject, or how it is handled in the director’s capable hands. And although affectionate and touching in it’s human content of discovery and identity, Polley never ever resorts to schmaltz – her provocation is more about getting this right. It’s a raw, refreshing eye-opener, proving she can wear her heart on her sleeve while competently constructing one of the most awe-inspiring films in years. The film and the woman, are both to be treasured.
Wendy and Lucy (2008) – Kelly Reichardt — Steve Schweighofer @banjoonthecrag
Kelly Reichardt will never be accused of being frivolous in her filmmaking. Her films all have an existential nature and her conscious avoidance of the two biggest money-making devices in movies today, sex and violence, ensures that she will never direct a tentpole and may not even enter the mainstream. Reichardt has been quoted, saying “My films are just glimpses of people passing through,” and none are more simple, poignant or real than Wendy and Lucy. What makes this film so special is its unsentimental honesty about homelessness and sacrifice told through the exploration of the bond between a woman, Wendy, and her dog, Lucy. It’s not the downer one would expect; but neither is it a phony Disney sob-fest. Reichardt, and a brilliant performance by Michelle Williams, walk us gently through a particular chapter in the journey of a young woman making her way through the pitfalls of poverty and alienation, then give us a satisfying and unselfish conclusion. Nature and environment serve as both antagonist and shelter-giver – a character that presents challenges while at the same time providing comfort. The same can be said for Reichardt’s films. She claims that she treats each film as if it is her last. One only hopes that this does not become a fact for many years from now.
Palo Alto (2013) – Gia Coppola — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
You can’t help but wonder if Francis Ford Coppola wanted his daughter Sofia to follow on in his footsteps, to pick up a camera and makes movies. Perhaps not expecting to make them exactly the way he did (which she does not), but certainly may have wished for similar acclaim. We too, then, must imagine how much Gia Coppola was influenced by her grandfather, though it has to be said her fluidity and mellow style on show in debut Palo Alto resembles that of Sofia much more. A significant chunk of that visual credit has to be branded to the vibrant cinematography of Autumn Durald, her scope of varying soft pallets is both intimate and expanding. In depiction of a yearning and unhindered adolescence, Palo Alto benefits from smoother edges than, say, Larry Clark’s Kids or Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused – comparisons to which ought to be greatly received all the same. Some of Coppola’s almost experimental, spaced out sequences (like Emma Roberts shaking up her body alone in her room) feel like footage not intended for the final cut, but were justifiably included. It has quirks and a certain allure, and may stay with you longer than first anticipated. Those elements, and many more scattered teenager angst and longing, make for fascinatingly true, if not always comforting to watch, viewing.
The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) – Germaine Dulac — Desirae Embree @ZeeSayre
Germaine Dulac’s silent picture The Smiling Madame Beudet is a psychological study of the domestic dramas that lie behind the mannerly, tranquil exteriors of bourgeois homes. Largely considered the first overtly feminist film, Madame Beudet prefigures the famous “problem with no name” that galvanized the incipient women’s movement in the 1960s. Madame Beudet is the intelligent, imaginative wife of a crass and boorish husband. The monotony of her hours are filled with daydreams about the male models in magazine advertisements and interrupted by only two daily occurrences: the arrival of the mail and her husband’s “comedic” threat of suicide by revolver. Through her skillful employment of staple surrealist techniques, Dulac gives real presence to the interior life of her heroine. Germaine Dermoz’s subtle acting as Madame Beudet is beautifully set off by Dulac’s ability to pick her out of room with careful spotlighting. The result is a mounting sense of the heroine’s isolation and its deadly consequences. Viewers will notice this film prefigures modern classics of domestic anxiety like American Beauty, though one should not be too quick to read it as the simple marriage-murder plot. Its surprise ending is perhaps even darker and more fatalistic than that to which the contemporary audience is accustomed.
Whip It (2009) – Drew Barrymore — Al Robinson @Al_Rob_1982
In the movie Whip It, high school student Bliss Cavendar, played by Ellen Page, decides she doesn’t want to compete in beauty pageants like her mother wants her too, but instead wants some adventure in her life. One night out in the big city of Austin, she sees a roller-derby game. Bliss decides to try out for a spot on the Hurl Scouts team, and makes it. She also meets a guy named Oliver and falls hard for him. This film was written by Shauna Cross, who much like Gillian Flynn did 5 years later with Gone Girl, adapted the screenplay from her own book, titled “Derby Girl”. I think she did a great job because the film is filled with quick wit, and interesting characters. It’s also good with the humor, with great lines such as “but you don’t have the balls. / I can grow the balls”. What really makes this film great though is what director Drew Barrymore brought to it. She told a story about women, tough women full of bravado and spirit. The only thing I would have changed was to take the character Kristen Wiig plays, and make her the team’s coach. She would have been great in that role.
The Babadook (2014) – Jennifer Kent — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Horror films work on many levels, and to varying degrees – they are often much more than large white sheets with round holes in. The Babadook takes the age-old spooky house, scary story book, creepy kid, and monster in the dark formula and transfers the fear via lingering and anticipation. The narrative also propels a single mother, full to the brim with depression and grief long before the “ba-ba-dook-dook” sounds emerge (I shivered then). Essie Davis is a marvel here, playing a woman who has to break beyond her little boy’s disturbing behavior, as well as her own incredible anxieties, to stand tall and literally scream claim of her family and home (I cheered then). The Babadook is one of the scariest movies for many a year, a phrase over-used around the horror movie circles – but I mean it. Not just because of the genre-specific chills that work so well, but psychologically this stirs much deeper, almost messing with your own mind. In her debut feature film, Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent has done a grand job here, she has an expert grip on the horror proceedings, as well as the importance of the human story. With a keen eye on the rise of female directors in the movie limelight, as future projects go Kent’s is a name I am already looking out for. She does not put a foot wrong here.
The Furthest End Awaits (2014) – Chiang Hsiu Chiung — Paddy Mulholland @screenonscreen
Likely among the least well-recognized titles on this list is Chiang Hsiu Chiung’s The Furthest End Awaits. Known to many only for a small role in Hou Hsiao Hsien’s 1991 A Brighter Summer Day, Chiang’s credits as a director were limited to co-credits, short films and barely-seen titles since the turn of the millennium. Last year’s The Furthest End Awaits won’t exactly be breaking international box office records, but it’s a beautiful, mature work and a minor festival hit, which has attracted moderate popularity in the Far East. The story of a businesswoman who travels to her hometown on the Ishigawa Noto peninsula when her father dies, and of a local family she befriends and assists, it’s a warm and gentle character piece, an absorbing drama told with sumptuous sensitivity by Chiang. The young filmmaker demonstrates a deep sympathy for her characters, and the largely female cast responds with stirring, understated performances. Should visibility for this recent title increase, you may find an opportunity to catch this delightful film in an arthouse or at a festival near you. For now, put it on your watchlist!
Belle (2014) – Amma Asante — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Belle appears to have slipped through the net of many a movie-goers to-see list, and that is a real shame. Lavish, gorgeous and often intoxicating, Amma Asante’s costume drama has plenty of spark and substance to distinguish this from the standard crowd of a seemingly wilting genre. A refreshing take, too, on the ever-relevant social issues of race, gender, and class, Assante presents a thoroughly engaging story and setting, and keeps us attached to the triumph of identity and the consumption of good old-fashioned romance. At the heart of the film is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who with a very different role in Beyond the Lights had a breakthrough year in 2014 that’ll be tough to match – by anyone. A gorgeous woman, clearly, in those period gowns, but her talent as an actress is without question. In a tale about a marginalized woman in a shadowed time socially who just wants a voice, Mbatha-Raw’s commanding presence shouts loudest.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) – Chantal Akerman — Asif Khan @KHAN2705
Chantal Akerman’s feminist, aesthetical and subtextual masterpiece from the 70’s is one of those defining films that a cinephile gets to or needs to experience. If you haven’t seen it yet (be it for its length, subject or otherwise), I implore you to check it out. One of my early ‘experimental’ film viewings, it haunts me to this very day. Staring Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman, this Belgian feature is about a single mother’s strictly scheduled and modulated daily existence. Filmed in long takes with static and carefully detailed/regulated framing, this film follows the character through a time frame of three days. Filmed in what feels like real-time, it makes you experience things you rarely get to experience in movies like this. Cooking, cleaning, mothering and also prostitution. These are all part of Jeanne Dielman’s life. Essential, labour-like uneventful chores but essential. Her oppressive existence is central to this visceral and hypnotic film, rarely does mundanity offers such electrifying ‘twists & turns’. Akerman’s bravery as a filmmaker above all can not only be seen or gushed over but felt. Her contribution to cinema in general in the form of this wonderful gift is something to be savored and to be proud of. Other notable films from Chantal Akerman includes “I, you, he, she”, “La Captive”, “Almayer’s Folly” and “News From Home”.
Whale Rider (2003) – Niki Caro — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Until Quvenzhané Wallis (aged 9) turned up in 2012, Keisha Castle-Hughes (aged 13) was the youngest ever Best Actress nominee at the Academy Awards. A stat that goes little way to demonstrating any industry big-wig’s acknowledgment of talented kids in the movies (let alone adult women). Castle-Hughes making that shortlist was a surprise at the time, but warranted all the same. She turns out to be the Whale Rider of the title, and she is miraculously good in this (a scene were she is speaking to a school group but chokes up tearfully is heart-breaking – gulp). “Pai” is loved by her grandfather, no doubt about that, but there is a resentment in him that the long line of male tradition is about to be broken. Generally speaking, I rally the underdog character in an underdog movie, but especially so when the production is this rewarding. Miles and miles away from the Hollywood we know, both in geography and scale, Whale Rider stands firmly in it’s own beauty and grandeur, and is a revelation from start to finish. Lisa Gerrard chips in with yet another heart-warming film score, which almost merges exquisitely with Pai’s struggles and the whale cries. The touching New Zealand drama is expertly directed by Niki Caro, and although let’s the scenery and the acting do a lot of the work, her brush strokes give the movie some real finesse and warmth. Caro has made few movies since (including this year’s McFarland, USA), but I suspect this one is her baby.