100 Films Made By Women – Part Nine

My own inclusions here of two Danish films and their makers is purely coincidental. In the penultimate part (sob, sob) of the 100 Films Made By Women we also have Oscar-winners and yet another short film, but in all 10, more examples of women doing great work in the film industry.

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Blackfish (2013) – Gabriela Cowperthwaite — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes on the bold task of making us look closer at the tragic events surrounding the orca, Tilikum, and the whole killer debate. Whatever your idea of fun is, what is entertaining about taking young whales from their mothers, holding them enclosed from their natural wild habitat? That is not even the half of it. The enlightening, heart-stirring documentary is named Blackfish, a term used in the film to define “an animal that possesses great spiritual power, they are not to be meddled with.”. Cowperthwaite’s evidence is vast in backing this up, but my God we knew this already. Didn’t we? Documentaries persuade and manipulate, sure, but where is the line drawn with animal cruelty? I spent a lot of my time watching this shaking my head in disgust at the treatment of these animals, in Blackfish centrally around Seaworld and their apparent lack of awareness, training and ethics. It’s an essential film for many reasons. Loss of human life is an awful thing, there is no controversy there – but with the very state of nature that leads us to this bad place, we one day as human beings might learn finally to leave well alone in the first place.

Wadjda (2013) – Haifaa al-Mansour — Asif Khan @KHAN2705

Winning prizes at Venice film festival, being the first Saudi Arabian foreign language Oscar entry, the first feature to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia and the most important of all, first feature-length film by a female director from the country. Wadjda is the feature debut of filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, her 2013 breakthrough introduced her voice to the world from a distinct place in the world where cinema technically doesn’t exist. Challenging the notions and limitations her culture has put down upon her, she made a thoroughly warm-hearted and maturely handled film. Inspired by the neorealist cinema, Wadjda is the story of an 11-year-old girl whose desire is to own a bicycle that she sees in a store everyday on route to her school. Riding bicycles isn’t allowed for girls hence her mother refuses to buy it for her. Wadjda tries her best to save money via selling things she makes, like mix-tapes or bracelets. She eventually participates in a Quran recital competition hoping to win the cash prize and hence buy the bicycle. Filmed on the streets of SA (al-Mansour would film it through the back of the van or interacting with the crew via walkie-talkie), Wadjda packs realism without resolving to being a standard issue film. A film that carries themes of freedom and fear of emotional abandonment side by side, making for a bittersweet experience. The final sequence will have you quietly cheering, a simple moment that overwhelms.

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In a Better World (2010) – Susanne Bier — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World opens with suffering in Sudan, with Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor, working on location. He returns home to Denmark (I expect that’s one hell of a commute), greeted by one of his sons Elias (Markus Rygaard) and wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm). In the meantime a young boy Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) shows hostility towards his own father following his mother’s funeral, before starting at a new school. He befriends Elias, and becomes embroiled in the bullying he was receiving, beating one kid to the ground and threatening him with his life. It’s an assured, captivating opening to a terrifically intense, powerful film. A hefty amount of the credit for this goes to director Susanne Bier, In a Better World packs an enduring punch to both the gut and the heart, often sending shivers down the spine, and maintains the impact throughout. The sheer human reaction to one’s enemies, and keeping those close safe, is explored here with a great deal of force – too many such potent scenes to describe. Bier has not only once again proved herself a woman on a par with the male contingent of film-makers, she has also crafted one of the finest films of the last decade.

Monster (2003) – Patty Jenkins — Jonathan Holmes @MisterBrown_23

What most people seem to remember about this true story on the real-life murders of Aileen Wuornos goes like this: ‘The hot chick from The Italian Job got ugly and won an Oscar for it,’ which couldn’t be any further from the truth. Yes, Charlize Theorn gained weight in order to portray the lead character, but she, and writer/director Patty Jenkins go further: they make us feel sympathy for this lost soul. She finds love in Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) and tries to leave the prostitution game, but due to her past history, can’t find a steady job and out of a misplaced sense of fear that her male clients will rape her, brutally murders them and robs them. Everyone who’s seen this film has pretty much said it all about Theorn’s portrayal of the serial killer, but to add on here: it’s right there alongside Daniel Day Lewis as Danile Plainview and Heath Ledger’s Joker as one of the best performances of the 00’s. Her commitment to the role and to find the humanity of a person that kills and steals is a miracle onto itself.

Touch (2010) – Jen McGowan — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

A dimly-lit subway platform, a woman’s seemingly distraught face, eyes slightly glazed. As the train arrives the lights and sounds reflect and flash before her. The train makes its stop, then hurtles away again. Jean is interrupted by a younger, chatty woman, Heather. Apparently this is the first person who has spoken to her at the station, both are surprised by this in different ways. The woman has snapped out of her daze, but is still clearly distressed or distracted by something. The girl waffles on about how she is nervous about the job interview she is on her way to – and that when she is nervous she, well, waffles. When she observes that Jean looks sad, she admits that she is. Heather’s story about a film were an angel touches humans to make them feel better is unexpectedly moving. The woman admits what we may have suspected, that she wonders about jumping in front of the train. Director Jen McGowan has woven a tight-knit piece, deeply exploring the thoughts of someone wanting to kill themselves, looking to be the air gush caused by the train. McGowan involves you so much in that short time, when the next train is imminent you feel a certain nervousness. In a mere ten minutes of film, the two women are pretty magnetic, Lily Knight as Jean is utterly convincing as someone in a traumatic trance, while Rachel Kanouse’s vibrant Heather changes into a genuinely sympathetic bystander right before your eyes.

Jesus’ Son (1999) – Alison Maclean — Steve Schweighofer @banjoonthecrag

“When I’m rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus’ son/And I guess I just don’t know/And I guess that I just don’t know“. Lou Reed’s song, Heroin, from which the title comes, neither condemns nor condones the junkie’s high, but simply describes it. That is precisely what Alison Maclean expertly manages in her faithful and wildly episodic film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s wonderful collection of short stories by the same name. Films about drug abuse and addiction usually fall into one of two camps with the preachy finger-wagging sort being in the solid majority. Every decade or so we get works of great imagination, humor and poetry, such as Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream. Jesus’ Son is one of these. Billy Crudup – he of the four TONY acting nominations who can’t breakthrough in H’wood to save his life – plays Fuckhead, our Horse-addicted Huck Finn on his crazy encounters with drugs, women, crazies, do-gooders and the sometimes harsh and often glorious things he sees along the way. Maclean smartly veered from Johnson’s work and combined all of Fuckhead’s sexual encounters into a single character, played by Samantha Morton. This gives us a bit of an anchor in a very riley sea of comings and goings where the likes of Dennis Hopper, Jack Black, Holly Hunter Will Patton and Denis Leary pop up like whack-a-moles. Rivaling Adam Kimmel’s outstanding cinematography is the super-sized adapted score, which includes dozens of tracks ranging from Dylan to Barry Sadler; from The McCoys Sloopy to Dorothy Moore’s Misty Blue, each track perfectly placed for maximum impact. At one point, Fuckhead says ”All these, weirdoes, and me, getting a little better every day right in the middle of ’em. I had never known. I had never even imagined for a heartbeat that, there might be a place in the world for people like us.” With writing – and overall filmmaking – like this, there should always be a place for Alison Maclean, who has somehow chosen docs, shorts and TV over feature films. That is a loss for film-goers.

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The Kids Are All Right (2010) – Lisa Cholodenko — Al Robinson @Al_Rob_1982

The Kids Are All Right is one of those films that could have been okay if it had been directed by a man, but it’s great because it was directed by a woman. In fact, it’s story came from the director’s personal experience. Director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko and her companion Wendy have a son through a sperm donor. This became the idea for The Kids Are All Right. In the film, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have two children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Both children were conceived with help from a sperm donor named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). At the beginning of the film, Joni and Laser want to finally meet their biological father, Paul. From there, problems ensue, and in the end, it teaches us that no matter what your family makeup and sexual preference is, every family and everyone has the same issues. Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko gave it the right kind of care and you can tell that making this film was very personal and important to her. The film was released in the summer of 2010, and went on to be one of the best of the year, because it had wonderful performances all around, and it was a timely story with an important message.

Italian for Beginners (2000) – Lone Scherfig — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

Nearly 10 years prior to her most popular movie (in the mainstream anyway), the wonderful An Education, Danish film-maker (though well-known for her TV work too) Lone Scherfig wrote and directed Italian for Beginners. The film revolves around a pick-and-mix bunch of adults, all suffering in some way in their personal lives – in serious need of some tender, loving care you might say. The six of them are joined by an Italian language course locally. The circumstances of their current lives touches on moving, serious issues, but Scherfig is more interested in bringing this down to Earth, so light-hearted at times this might just be labelled a comedy in places. That said, this is not the romantic comedy we know, it will leave you feeling much more emotionally attached to these sympathetic characters in turmoil rather than have you sentimentally rolling in the aisles with laughter. The grounded tone is largely impacted too by the fact the movie is shot in a very no-thrills style, with it’s aspect ratio, unaltered lighting, hand held camera, very much in the style of the Danish Dogme 95 film movement that Lars von Trier has become accustomed to. Scherfig has effectively formed a bittersweet relationship between characters in social crisis and their personal quest for happiness, a simple collection of stories told in an insightful, attentive way.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) – Agnes Varda — Asif Khan @KHAN2705

Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the highest points of the Nouvelle Vague. It isn’t largely considered as significant or iconic as films by Godard or Truffaut, which is puzzling. Agnès Varda belongs to the Left Bank (Non-Cahiers du cinéma FNW filmmakers), who are mostly known for their literary influences. Varda’s approach is generally documentary-like, photographically rich, social commentary laden. All of that is at the heart and soul of her (and cinema’s) masterpiece about a singer Cléo who anxiously waits to hear the results of her medical test, fearing that she’ll be diagnosed with cancer. The film unfolds seemingly in real-time, as the title reveals. Nearly two hours in life of a woman, her fears, desires, insecurities, despair and search for something bigger and more truthful. There is a distinct quality and feeling to this work, apparently identifiable but truly, unlike anything. It is a devastating, revelatory, apocalyptic film. Taking objective approach in portraying the life of her character, the film nevertheless packs more emotions and gut-punch feelings in the subtlest of manner than most successful films by others. Varda uses techniques to the best of use for conveying the hidden or unseen aspects, to advance particular notion and not to look cool. Cléo from 5 to 7 is a feminist film without being political but human. Cléo looks at herself in the mirror, in other people, in clothes, on-screen and she sees herself and her life. Some of Varda’s notable films include the French New Wave precursor La Pointe Courte, Vagabond, The Gleaners and I, Le Bonheur, Jacquot de Nantes and The Beaches of Agnès.

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The Mourning Forest (2007) – Naomi Kawase — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

Japanese director Naomi Kawase has become a Cannes Film Festival regular over the years, with the likes of Hanezu and Still the Water – but the Palme d’Or eludes her so far. In 2007 her enchanting The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) won the Grand prix of the Jury in Cannes. It tells the tale of two grief-stricken individuals who form a strong bond, she is a young nurse (who lost her child) at a care home where he resides as an elderly patient – still spiritually connected to his wife. The two of them seemingly get lost in the forest that envelopes the facility, only he seems to be inclined by a certain abstract faith to go in a particular direction. There are some great moments, painful, blissful, as the companions seem guided physically and emotionally by their sorrow, and perhaps the urge somewhere to make peace with it. The Mourning Forest is a gentle, emotively luring piece of cinema, shot beautifully, it often fills so much of the frame with the scenery it almost pulls you in. The film also works so well with the scarce use of dialogue, the grieving characters allowed to just trek through the beauty and wonder of nature. Kawase is in complete control of the pleasure and intrigue of the story she sets out on film, fully aware she is providing those elements for her audience too.

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