100 Films Made By Women – Part Three

I see stories of dreamy adolescence, or nightmares of suicide, and the struggles of emerging into womanhood. I see tales of abandonment, survival, and grief. I see psychos and murderers, and potential world destruction. What I also witness is girls on films offering social awareness and refreshing hope. Oh, it’s just another ten movies with the female of the species sitting in the director’s chair. Pay attention to Part Three of our 100 Films made by Women:

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Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – Maya Deren — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

Maya Deren was one of a kind, a creative thinker and executor of dance movement, photography, film theory, the written word. Her most famous, accessible accomplishment was the short film Meshes of the Afternoon. I say accessible not referring to the content of the piece by the way (Lynch and Hitchcock loved this I expect). Experimental, surrealist, avant-garde, however you want to label it (the super-talented Deren earned those terms for herself), the mere quarter of an hour film challenged standard narrative cinema long before most of us even knew what it as. Deren plays the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown herself, haunted through her own day-to-day routine. Where a key can drop down stone steps, and later be pulled from your mouth. A knife that keeps turning up, immediately implying deep, dark fear and dread – in some ways more effective than what we experience so frequently today in cinema. There are dark, clear shadows, sharp pans of the camera that manipulate the space, some fine editing jolting the very concept of time – somehow reminiscent of those dreams were you can never quite reach the thing you’re chasing. The mirror-face figure only contributes to its eerie nature. Meshes of the Afternoon was made with Deren’s second husband Alexander Hammid, and also features a nerve-jangling score by third husband Teiji Ito, which was added years later.

American Psycho (2000) – Mary Harron — Marshall Flores @IPreferPi314

Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho – the infamously lurid critique of American capitalism and consumer culture – was something I thought was completely unfilmable. Ellis’ satirical vivisection of the materialistic, shallow narcissism of the 80’s was a rich read, but there was just so much grotesque depravity permeating the world of serial killer Patrick Bateman. I strongly felt any honest adaptation of “Psycho” would not survive the scrutiny of film censors. But after a decade of development and multiple directors/stars attached, director Mary Harron (along with screenwriter Guinevere Turner) delivered a first-rate adaptation in 2000. Combined with a tour-de-force performance from Christian Bale, Harron’s “Psycho” stays true to its perverse roots while also excising Ellis’ excesses (and avoiding the wrath of the MPAA). With this “less is more” approach, Ellis’ caustic commentary on the “greed is good” decade is strengthened and focused. Harron and Turner also insert in a feminist subtext not present in the novel – all the male characters are interchangeable, soulless corporate vipers; only the female characters have some shred of humanity. That said, Harron certainly doesn’t shy away from detailing Bateman’s depravities on-screen, instilling a glossy, horror chic visual style appropriate to the setting. For example, the now-legendary scene where Bateman murders Paul Allen to “Hip to Be Square” isn’t explicitly gory, but the shiny, designer-looking axe, the crimson geyser spraying on Bateman’s face after the first whack, Bateman’s sitting on his couch half-drenched in blood while lighting a cigar – the entire scene plays like a horror yuppie funhouse depiction of Jackson Pollack at work. A dazzling, unforgettable moment that successfully evokes both shock and laughs — just like the rest of the film.

Ratcatcher (1999) – Lynne Ramsay — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

Set in a Glasgow in transitional turmoil during the early 1970s, Lynne Ramsay’s incredible, bleak Ratcatcher looks and feels like a film made by someone at the peak of their game – this is Ramsay’s debut feature, which makes it feel even more accomplished. From it’s sucker punch opening trauma, part of the director’s task is to keep the story compelling enough throughout the remaining ninety minutes following that heavily emotional pinnacle. Dredging through the misery of, and adapting to, the journey of fresh grief is handled assuring by Ramsay, taking her time with the`everyday recovery, primarily from the point of view of the young boy James. He feels responsible, and has to go about his childhood business in unfamiliar territory, forced to experience feelings even adults struggle to cope with. Ramsay takes James on a learning curve, as kids do, the stepping stones from trying beer for the first time, to the intrigue in the comfort of an older girl, to taunting with the big boys. Somber this is for sure, given the down-trodden landscape and the horrid circumstances of loss, but Ramsay carries the whole thing along with a somehow inspiring sense of progression and optimism. Children still want to know more about the world they live in, even in the hardest of times – that final smile feeds our heart with just the faith we might need.

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The Savages (2007) – Tamara Jenkins — Tobi Ogunyemi @spaceliontobi @SpaceLioncs

The most telling trait that The Savages carries with it, besides being a wicked top-shelf black comedy, is how human it carries itself – not just in its story but most importantly, with its characters. Siblings Jon and Wendy Savage have the difficult task of finding out and taking care of their increasingly senile father while they deal with the difficulties of their own lives as a college professor and a playwright respectively. As 2007 was a banner year in American cinema (especially on the independent front), Jenkins’ multi-layered writing and nuanced direction was up there among the best. The portrayal of generational abandonment and fracture within a family is harrowing to watch – what’s the best way to take care of a father when he needs it who never took care of his children when they needed it? But the performances by two master New York thespians by Linney and Hoffman anchor the portrayal and that question with such realism. Despite how hard the situation is, and the siblings are hard on each other as well, the love Wendy and Jon have for each other is apparent, from helping each other through their individual and tumultuous love lives to the last shot of them together hugging as Jon catches a cab. Oscar-nominated for Best Actress and Original Screenplay, Jenkins’ film is an incredible text on the multitude of levels that it delves into.

Deep Impact (1996) – Mimi Leder — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

You may think you know director Mimi Leder from the movies, but it is more likely you recognize the name from countless works on television, most notably China Beach and ER. Her filmography is actually only five features long. I’ve heard mixed things about the likes of The Peacemaker and Pay It Forward, but her most cinematic, crowd-pleasing film has to be Deep Impact, made in the late nineties by which time the disaster film was always a stone’s throw away. Leder’s big budget effort (penned by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin no less) packs quite a few punches in the entertainment arena, somehow remaining one of the more compelling, valid – can we say scientifically accurate – pictures of that genre surge. And a diverse, likable cast mixes kids (Elijah Wood, Leelee Sobieski), flavors of that time (Téa Leoni, James Cromwell), and acting veterans (Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave). The tension and adrenaline of such end of world tragedy is fast-balled, while the finale offers some true hope in the message that we can rebuild our planet. And Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States, well, we all had that dream.

The Ascent (1977) – Larisa Shepitko — Asif Khan @KHAN2705

Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko’s third and final film is a powerful account of sufferings endured by a group of partisans in Belarus during the winter of 1942. Released in 1977, this film became her most acclaimed work, winning the Golden Bear at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival. She died in a car crash, her planned film was completed by her husband Elem Klimov titled “Farewell”. The Ascent is a harrowing and bleak film that shows the fragile nature of human beings during severe times. How people react to survive, defiantly or cowardly. Based around a group but mainly about two men who inflict and endure different pain on themselves. Torturous men populates the cold and icy landscape. A film shot superbly, capturing the varied range of beauty and ugliness. It is a war film where the war is mainly of the morals among people. It’s a relentlessly horror-like account of these people and their inevitable fate. One of the most notable aspect of the film is its Christian allegory, the Christ like endurance of pain and sacrifice as well as betrayal and guilt-ridden existence. A film I would definitely recommend to those who haven’t seen it. The two films Larisa Shepitko made before The Ascent are the WWII female fighter pilot drama Wings and You and I.

 

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I Believe in Unicorns (2014) – Leah Meyerhoff — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

Not so much directly focusing on coming-of-age (though there is a strong whiff of it), Leah Meyerhoff’s feature directorial effort I Believe in Unicorns seeks out a teenage girl’s perspective of that yearning for adulthood. Or at least, being part of something grown-up, like seeking out new adventures and enveloping yourself in a rich romance. The choice of boy Davina (Natalia Dyer) makes though is a far cry from settling down and taking life seriously. Nor does Davina perhaps want this – she just does not know it yet. Teenage love is something of an experiment in itself for the most part, about discovery and craving and excitement, good, bad, or unknown. Davina and the unpredictable Sterling (Peter Vack) take to the road, they kiss and roll around, they also bicker and shun each other like an old married couple. Their relationship is fresh and enticing, but also volatile and intense – and that feels very, very real. Meherhoff’s visually beautiful, but never heavy-handed, film definitely gives the female, youthful touches here and there. The dreamy Davina imagines unicorns of the stop-motion variety, but is the one with the pants in the relationship, which makes Dyer the big shining star in front of the camera in this flourishing adolescent show.

Daisies (1966) – Vera Chytilová — Paddy Mulholland @screenonscreen

Vera Chytilová’s masterpiece among masterpieces, and a seminal film of the Czech New Wave. Nothing new there, but nothing false either – Daisies is a brilliantly energetic, technically innovative, deceptively profound work that achieves all that Chytilová’s contemporaries attempted to achieve, but has much more fun in the process. As will you, beholding a dazzling array of formal informality in the direction, subversive humor in the writing and joie de vivre in the acting. Giving Daisies its extra jolt of wonder is the uniqueness it holds even now, nearly 50 years on; for such an influential film from such an important filmmaker, Daisies’ techniques have yet to be truly exploited by subsequent generations of tiresomely-referential filmmakers – is it because Daisies is the work of a woman, or is it because it is the work of a genius, whose idiosyncratic talent imbues her films with an authenticity that no imitators could even approach. Too few still have heard of Chytilová – Daisies is the ideal starting point for those unacquainted with her canon. 

The Day I Became a Woman (2000) – Marzieh Meshkini — Asif Khan @KHAN2705

Wife of the prominent Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marzieh Meshkini is a filmmaker herself. This acclaimed feature from 2000 is her debut film, a feminist fable-like account of three women at different stages of their lives. The Day I Became a Woman as the title suggests is a film about the process of becoming a woman. A woman in a strict, patriarchal and fundamentalist society with codes and regulations to not only follow but live by. The setup of these three different stories can be called eccentric, Mr. Roger Ebert used the term “Fellinisque”. 1. A young girl on her ninth birthday can’t play with boys or step outside without wearing chador. 2. A married woman taking part in a cycling race with other women as her husband tries to stop her by threatening to divorce while pursuing on a horse. 3. An elderly widow has inherited lots of money so she decides to buy everything she has ever wanted to but never could. The women in all these accounts fiercely rebel in their own way to free themselves of the social constraints the best way they can. This is a film that in itself is free from constraints of narrative cinema and plot. The symbolism flows like a river that is free and quiet but slowly trying to carve a new path. It’s both minimalistic and grand in design. Wordless wisdom staged with such beauty. The only other film Marzieh Meshkini has made is a post-Taliban Afghan drama Stray Dogs.

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Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – Kimberly Peirce — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA

In 1999, as Hilary Swank reiterated in her Best Actress Oscar winning speech (“We have come a long way”), it was still something of a breakthrough that such low-budget indie cinema could catch a break with the Academy. Boys Don’t Cry also had the weighted issue of the transgender struggles, which Swank was also likely alluding to in her acceptance salute to Brandon Teena. It is a remarkable performance by Swank, I can say that even with the endless disappointment that Annette Bening lost that evening. Chloe Sevigny is also terrific as Lana, who was romantically involved with Teena. Director Kimberley Peirce took an active interest in the true story years earlier, and spent years creating and fine-tuning the screenplay. Her movie is brave, essential and sadly brutal. The naked truth of such delicate, tragic circumstances, that ought to be brought to the surface without question, are seldom portrayed so raw. Peirce and Swank in collaboration are not afraid to transmit every emotion from every pore on screen, that allows us to almost feel the pain of the kind of heartache Teena must have had to endure. I get a knot in my stomach each time I finish watching Boys Don’t Cry, but that sensation can’t really compare to the power of the fictionalized real-life experiences I’ve just witnessed.

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