Although I never claimed outright each and every one of the 100 Films Made By Women would be rare things, that was kind of the net I was casting. That said, with that extraordinarily laborious problem in the film industry, not having heard of so many female film directors out there means these gems and their makers are likely enigmas by default.
Thou Wast Mild And Lovely (2014) – Josephine Decker — Robin Write
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely might appear to be a certain way experimental or haphazard, but I would argue the talented writer and director Josephine Decker knows exactly what she is doing. The hand-held and hovering camera gives the impression of spontaneity, yet the visual splendor suggest this was a well thought out work of art. A floating balloon enveloping all manner of tension and seduction that, true, does seem to drift off and beyond, but not once allow you to let go of the string. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is set on a farm where the somewhat sexually-enthused daughter is the object of desire for the hired hand, unable to be too forthcoming with the father on the scene. A father open about the guy’s tension in his shoulders, though we suspect he just does not outright like him. The daughter’s voice-over reminisces over a lover, like poetry over the splendidly breezy cinematography. Its is somehow eerie not too deep inside, with the distant sound score which seems to come from within. A tension builds, not just the potential, sweltering passion, but something else, something forbidden and discomforting. Decker’s lenses also come in and out of focus without any great regard to audience expectations – telling a simple story in well under ninety minutes while filling each minute with substantial panache. Movies that meander in spite of their beauty (like the films of Terrance Malick sometimes for example) often receive some negative criticism, that narrative or pay-off are not sufficient. That’s not always for us to judge fairly, film-making is such a vast universe, interpretation and intention can be lights years apart. But without talking about our feelings for movies where would we be? And there is plenty of excellence to talk about here.
Middle of Nowhere (2012) – Ava DuVernay — Marshall Flores @IPreferPi314
If I had to choose one film made since the death of Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski that is an exemplary continuation of the femme-centric cinematic poetry found in his Three Colors trilogy and The Double Life of Veronique, it would be Middle of Nowhere. Just the second feature film from Ava DuVernay, Nowhere won the Best Director prize from Sundance in 2012 and unequivocally demonstrates an emerging film-making superstar at work. On its surface, Middle of Nowhere tells a familiar story of a young wife whose life is stuck in neutral as she attempts to stand by her jailed husband. But as told by DuVernay, Nowhere is an acutely directed triumph of emotional ambiguity, of nuanced characterization, of introspective humanism – all channeled through a resplendent Emayatzy Corinealdi. Corinealdi’s Ruby imprints upon the audience with her complexity, alternating between fortitude and vulnerability, earnestness and uncertainty – all done without dramatic histrionics. Ruby is both accessible and inaccessible, and that hazy duality (made apparent on screen through the use of shallow depth-of-field close-ups) results in a refreshing honesty that makes for one of the best lead female performances in recent memory. From start to finish, DuVernay and Corinealdi work to ensure Middle of Nowhere is a film that embeds in our consciousness long after the end credits roll.
A New Leaf (1971) – Elaine May — Robin Write
Oh Elaine May I do love you. As well as her terrifically funny work with the sorely missed Mike Nichols, I could watch this kind of comforting madness all day long. Writing and directing from a short story with consummate charm and magnetic wit, A New Leaf is a real treat, and so typical of the kind of comedy America did well. With the charismatic, naturally comical Walter Matthau on board too, this could hardly fail. Matthau has the ability to deliver lines with such snappy amusement, even in the most droll of sarcasm, but can also generate laughs from even the slightest responsive motions of his face. May is also without doubt a comic icon, her physical know-how and wisecrack timing is in the top tier of performance comedy. Her look on-screen here, dowdy appearance, scruffy hair, big glasses, has been mimicked a thousands times in movies since this. The story focuses on Henry, a once wealthy chap who has now bled himself dry, and is advised to marry a rich woman to solve his problems. A plot that would only work today to serve as ludicrous, unfulfilling, trashy comedy, but was much more a legitimate source of humorfest back then. There was a much greater brand of comedies that had both depth and quality. A New Leaf is instantly engaging, consistently amusing, and ultimately results in a warm, touching journey. We need more of these please.
Seven Beauties (1975) – Lina Wertmuller — Steve Schweighofer @banjoonthecrag
Lina Wertmuller’s magnum opus of survival and betrayal garnered her the first Best Director Academy Award nomination ever received by a woman, as well as a DGA, so why am I nominating her here, on a list containing lesser known gems directed by women? The answer is in the question, “when was the last time that Wertmuller was mentioned in the same conversation as her male contemporaries Altman, Fellini, Bergman, and Lumet?” The highly politicized Wertmuller opens her film with a dedication of sorts, read over archival footage of some of the horrors of World War II, including: “The ones who worship the corporate image not knowing that they work for someone else. Oh yeah. The ones who never get involved with politics. Oh yeah. The ones who believe Christ is Santa Claus as a young man. Oh yeah. The ones who keep going, just to see how it will end. Oh yeah. The ones who are in garbage up to here. Oh yeah. The ones who even now don’t believe the world is round. Oh yeah. The ones who say, ‘Now let’s all have a good laugh.’ Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah.“ This is heady stuff that gives us no indication of the horrific, yet superbly entertaining, story that’s about to unfold. That Wertmuller’s mentor was none other than Frederico Fellini – she served as asst. director on 8½ – becomes obvious right at the start with nightclub frolics and a bouncing musical score that precedes the swaggering entrance of our “hero”, played by Wertmuller muse, Giancarlo Giannini. What unfolds is a domino-effect series of events that include prostitution, murder and dismemberment, insanity, rape, war and desertion, seduction in a concentration camp and, ultimately, betrayal, all in the name of survival. This sounds bleak, but under Wertmuller’s deft direction and writing, she manages to bring a very dark sense of humor to the whole thing. Never is this more apparent than in a scene where puppy-eyed Giannini , in a last effort of desperation, manages to seduce the female camp commandant, played by a cigar-smoking, riding crop-wielding Shirley Stoler. With his striped pajama bottoms at half-mast, he reluctantly climbs bare-assed onto the mountain of a monster who holds his life in her hands. How far does one go to survive? Where does one draw the line as to what is expendable and what is worth saving? And the Faustian, what is one left with when we have sacrificed and sold all, including conscience and self-esteem? Wertmuller doesn’t blink when she’s asking these questions. She’s not afraid to anger or offend to make her point, either. She has incurred the wrath of both the Right and the Left and been a fox in the feminist henhouse. Be it political, sexual or class, it’s all warfare to Wertmuller and we all play the part of the hound and/or the whore, if necessary, to make our way through this absurd maze of life. Oh, yeah.
Unrelated (2007) – Joanna Hogg — Robin Write
We forget that angst is not just attributed solely to teenagers, there is indeed adult angst too. The adults getting together for a Tuscan holiday in Joanna Hogg’s observational drama Unrelated might have been better off keeping their mouths closed. From the outset this supposed set of friends and some family members can’t seem to simply converse without saying something they perhaps shouldn’t. There is clearly some unfinished business and damaged history, this results in some bleak and positively awkward moments, when what they really ought to be doing is relaxing. Some appear to be escaping their everyday real lives, some are keeping secrets, and they talk about, or rather dissect, the states of relationships, while hovering around current, very real sexual tensions. In her debut feature film Hogg serves these characters up on a plate and is casually ruthless in allowing them to gradually tear strips off one another, with their generational attitudes. That is not to say there are not some moments of tranquility and civilized interactions – at times seeing certain characters expose their weaknesses is actually quite moving. Whether the majority of these people we are seeing are very likable is neither here nor there, as their increasingly inept communication is something compelling throughout.
First published August 2015.