July 11, 2014

10 awesome contemporary films directed by women

A post on Indiewire this morning reported that screenwriter James Vanderbilt has signed on to make his directorial debut with the forthcoming drama Truth starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford. The post highlighted the uncomfortable fact that this kind of story - where a first-time director gets a huge break on a high profile film - never happens to women.

It's not a controversial statement to claim that film industries around the world are patriarchal spaces (what industry isn't?). It's very difficult for women to get directorial assignments, and certainly all-but-impossible for them to get backing to make larger-scale films within the studio system. Whenever this problem is raised in filmgoer conversations, someone inevitably points out Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker and Point Break, as if the presence of one woman in Hollywood somehow argues for the presence of many others. The same goes for the late Nora Ephron, who found enormous commercial success with her romantic comedies, as well as Nancy Meyers, whose oddly misogynistic comedies (What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give) once made her the most commercial successful female director in the world.

In the interests of furthering the conversation on women in film, I figured it might be worth pointing out 10 great contemporary films directed by women. This isn't some kind of "best films directed by women list"; it's simply 10 films, released since 2000, that were directed by women other than Kathryn Bigelow (because we all seem to have her covered) and that are well worth tracking down and watching. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

Frida
USA, 2002, directed by Julie Taymor.
Julie Taymor is a theatre director - she famously adapted Disney's The Lion King on Broadway - and she brings that impeccable sense of visual design to all of her movies. She does a mean Shakespeare, and I'd advise everyone track down her films Titus and The Tempest, but I've always been particularly struck by her biographical drama Frida. It stars Salma Hayek as the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo's art is echoed visually throughout the film, and Taymor draws an absolutely brilliant performance out of both Hayek and her co-star Alfred Molina. I've always found this a particularly striking film, because Taymor transforms it from being a simple drama about an artist to a visually inventive movie about being an artist.

Morvern Callar
UK, 2002, directed by Lynne Ramsay.
Lynne Ramsay is a Scottish director with a fantastic visual aesthetic. Her films tend to be dominated by themes of loss or grief, and her sparse dialogue and sharp sense of character tends to make them very memorable - if oftentimes confronting - experiences. Her 2011 drama We Need to Talk About Kevin earned her international plaudits and acclaim, but it's her 2002 film Morvern Callar that's always stuck in my head. Samantha Morton is absolutely fantastic in this, playing a woman who steals her dead boyfriend's unpublished novel and sells it as her own. Lynne Ramsay's next film is supposed to be a science fiction adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick - I can't wait.

Close to Home
Israel, 2005, directed by Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu.
Back in 2011 I wrote that 'Close to Home is like a checklist for quality. Strong realism, powerful emotion, well-rendered characters, conflict, depth, challenging material, strong production values on a limited budget: this film seems to get everything right.' My opinion of the film hasn't really changed since then. This is an exceptionally well-crafted drama about two young women undertaking national service in Israel as part of the Magav, or Israel Border Police. Its politics are derived from the personal: it's not a film that slaps an agenda in their viewer's face, but through the experiences of the two protagonists it says some fairly profound and heartfelt things about life in such a complex and troubled nation. My full review is here, if you want to read further.

Treeless Mountain
South Korea, 2008, directed by So Yong Kim.
Treeless Mountain is a South Korean drama about two young girls who are abandoned by their mother and left with a disinterested, vaguely resentful aunt. Here's what I wrote about it a while back: 'It is a very slow, measured film, filled with small moments of character. It is shot in a very matter-of-fact, stripped-down manner. It exclusively follows the two protagonists, seven year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and five year-old Bin (Song Hee Kim). It does not follow a Hollywood-style three-act structure. Instead it’s more like a window into people’s lives. Alfred Hitchcock once famously stated that films were essentially life with the boring parts cut out. Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain is simply life.' You can read my complete review here.

Crossing Hennessy
Hong Kong, 2010, directed by Ivy Ho.
Ivy Ho's 2010 romantic comedy was one of my favourite films of its year. It doesn't do anything particularly clever or inventive, and it doesn't re-invent any wheels: it simply tells an interesting story, with likeable characters, in a breezy and entertaining fashion. When I reviewed it fully, I wrote that 'the thing is, making ordinary people entertaining is hard. Cinema gravitates towards the unique and the unusual. It craves exciting people doing exciting things. What it generally doesn’t crave is a slow, awkward friendship that builds between a guy who works at an air conditioner store and a girl who works at her uncle’s toilet shop. To make such an everyday story as appealing and riveting as she has, Ivy Ho has had to rely on a massive amount of talent as a writer and director.' The full review can be read here.

Fish Tank
UK, 2009, directed by Andrea Arnold.
I'm a big fan of Andrea Arnold, and I was particularly taken by this dark, rather bleak film about a teenage girl trying to escape her life in an English housing estate. It's a difficult watch, because while we are invited to engage with the protagonist - and we do - we're also unavoidably horrified by some of her actions. She's violent, rebellious, promiscuous and at the same time heartbreakingly naive. Katie Jarvis manages to pull off this conflicted character exceptionally well: I loved her, and I hated her, and I felt incredibly sorry for her. Michael Fassbender also excels, but then again when doesn't he? I've seen two other Andrea Arnold films, Red Road and Wuthering Heights, and dug the hell out of both of them.

Pumzi
Kenya, 2009, directed by Wanuri Kahiu.
This one is a real gem: it's a post-apocalyptic science fiction short (about 23 minutes long) in which a scientist attempts to leave her underground home in the home of finding arable soil on the Earth's arid surface. I'm worried that including it here is going to look like I could only find nine feature films worth mentioning, and threw a short in to round it up to 10. Nothing could be further from the truth: this is a smart, accomplished and dramatic film, made all the more interesting by the fact that it's a Kenyan production with a female director. I'm sure there are any number of reasons why we haven't see Hollywood pick up Wanuri Kahiu and assign her to a big budget science fiction feature, but it's difficult not to wonder if it's because she's a woman from Africa.

Attenberg
Greece, 2010, directed by Athina Rachel Tsangiri.
This odd little Greek film is named after BBC natural history presenter David Attenborough, although he has pretty much nothing to do with this final film. My review said: 'Attenberg is a strange movie. It's rather small-scale, based on just a few characters and entirely set in the one small town. It's shot with a high degree of artificiality, as if its writer/director wants us to remember that we're watching a film. The script and performances are quite stylised as well. Despite those elements it remains quite an engaging experience.' Arian Lebed gives a great performance in the lead role, a young woman caring for her terminally ill father while desperately seeking her first sexual experience.

Winter's Bone
USA, 2010, directed by Debra Granik.
This one probably doesn't need much of an introduction, since it got Oscar nominations and launched Jennifer Lawrence's career into the stratosphere. I remember watching it at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2010, having heard quite a bit of hype out of Sundance, but not really knowing anything about it. It completely blew me away. In case you haven't seen it or heard much about it, when the police turn up to repossess a teenage girl's house because her long-absent father defaulted on a bail agreement, she has to venture out into an extended community of meth manufacturers to track him down. Lawrence is amazing in this, but it's actually John Hawkes who steals the show as her uncle: he's both sympathetic and terrifying. Granik's earlier film Down to the Bone is also outstanding, and well worth tracking down.

Frozen
USA, 2013, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.
Yeah, yeah I know. But listen: Jennifer Lee didn't just co-direct Frozen, she also co-developed the story and wrote the screenplay. She also co-wrote 2012's Wreck-It Ralph. Plus Frozen is, for better or worse (I think better; it's great), the most commercial successful feature film directed by a woman ever - and that's even including adjusting for inflation. I think the other good reason to cite it is that a lot of people don't even know that woman wrote and co-directed this film. Frozen is Disney's 53rd animated feature film, and only their first to be directed by a woman - now that the ceiling has been cracked, I'd love to see it broken completely. DreamWorks Animation have also recently broken ground, with Jennifer Yuh Nelson directing Kung Fu Panda 2. Pixar Studios did hire Brenda Chapman (who co-directed The Prince of Egypt) to write and direct Brave, but she quit the project in 2010 over creative differences and was replaced by Mark Andrews.

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