My own inclusions here of two Danish films and their makers is purely coincidental. There’s also another short film, but in all 5, more examples of women doing great work in the film industry.
In a Better World (2010) – Susanne Bier — Robin Write
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.
Touch (2010) – Jen McGowan — Robin Write
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.
The Kids Are All Right (2010) – Lisa Cholodenko — Al Robinson @AlRob_MN
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
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.
First published August 2015.