A Year of Female Filmmakers: February

Another month has passed by and I have once again seen a great deal of great (and some not so good) new-to-me woman-directed films, all due to My Year of Female Filmmmakers. For all of you who wonder what I watched last month, here’s also my January wrap-up.

Middle of Nowhere (2012, written and directed by Ava DuVernay) – this masterpiece is Ava DuVernay’s second feature film that won her the Best Director Prize at Sundance Film Festival (she was the first African-American woman to win the award!). I saw her third feature Selma only last month, so I knew I was going to see something extraordinary before I even started watching this film. And I wasn’t wrong. This is a story about a medical student who puts her studies and future on hold after her husband receives an eight year prison sentence. DuVernay spent months conducting research for the film, interviewing the wives of felons, before writing a screenplay. As DuVernay herself explained why she felt such a story should be told: “You see women struggling to keep it all together while a loved one is in jail. But we don’t hear about them or their struggles in a way that resonates with others. I also wanted to talk about the love between two people in a setting that isn’t the norm and how they survive.” This is a powerful and multi-layered film about the women whose voices are rarely heard and whose stories are almost never discussed in a public space. DuVernay managed to give them a voice with this wonderfully written, directed and aesthetically breathtaking (cinematography is once more the work of the genius Bradford Young) film.

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Innocence (2004, written and directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović) – a French mystery drama, written and directed by French filmmaker of Bosnian heritage, Lucile Hadžihalilovič. The story was adapted for screen from Frank Wedekind’s novel and follows the life of the girls at a secluded and mysterious boarding school, where new students arrive in coffins.

My Life Without Me (2003, written and directed by Isabel Coixet) – this is a wonderful Canadian drama film by a Spanish director Isabel Coixet, about a 23-year-old married woman and a mother of two, who gets diagnosed with ovarian cancer, with only a few more months to live. She decides to keep quiet about her fatal illness, because she doesn’t want her family’s last memories of her to be of a dying woman. Instead she tries to make the best of her final months, all while secretly recording the tapes where she’s saying goodbye to her daughters. A beautifully filmed, heartbreaking film.

Respire (2014, co-written and directed by Mélanie Laurent) – click here for my whole review.

Away from Her (2006, written and directed by Sarah Polley) – Sarah Polley’s directorial debut about a retired couple whose marriage is tested when the wife (played by Julie Christie) begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s and moves into a nursing home. She slowly starts to lose all memory of her husband and falls in love with another nursing home resident. This is a wonderful, although heartbreaking, film that will stay with you for quite a while. As far as films about Alzheimer’s disease go, this is my favourite one. It’s far better than the acclaimed Still Alice that brought Julianne Moore this year’s Oscar.

Beyond the Lights (2014, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood) – this is a modern-day The Bodyguard, but with a Rihanna type of singer instead of Whitney Houston. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a 20-something pop singer Noni from Britain who came to USA in search of fame with her controlling mother/manager. Noni’s, who’s been participating in talent shows from an early age, all for her mother’s sake, has finally make it: she won a Billboard Music Award before she even released her first album. She’s on a way to stardom, but is this really what she wants? She’s a talented singer, she also writes her own songs; but none of that matter, because the record company that owns her doesn’t care about anything else but about her image, her looks. There’s hardly anything for her to do except for being pretty and half-dressed when on stage, of being objectified on daily basis and speaking only what’s expected of her. She always did what her mother expected from her, and along the was she completely lost her real self. But she suddenly comes to the realization that this is not the life she wanted. Unable to talk to her controlling mother, she tries to jump off the balcony – only to be saved by a police officer who ends up saving her in a much bigger sense. He gives her the courage to find her own voice and to break free from her mother, to become an artist she was always meant to be. This is a great study of stardom, wrapped up into a somewhat conventional love story that for the first time ever actually works.

Mansfield Park (1999, written and directed by Patricia Rozema) – this British drama by a Canadian writer/director Patricia Rozema is loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel by the same name. However, it in many aspects differs from the original novel as it addresses the issues of British colonialism, plantations in British West Indies and the slave trade. Although slavery is mentioned in Austen’s novel, she never elaborates on it – the film, on the contrary, makes it a central point of the story. Fanny’s character is also much more outspoken and confident as in the novel. She’s also a writer – which are all the traits that Rozema incorporated from the life of Jane Austen herself. I had no expectations at all before I started watching this film (Rozema was an unknown film director to me at the time), and I was completely blown away when this turned out to be an intelligent and uncommonly smart film.

High Art (1998, written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko) – I’ve never seen a film where the protagonist would mention studying cultural studies and then casually slipped Foucault, Derrida and Roland Barthes into the conversation. This happened within the first 15 minutes of the film and it was enough to get me hooked. Don’t get me wrong – this is not one of those “too smart for their own good” films. It’s about a 24-year old intern Syd who is fresh out of college and is working her way up at the respected high-art photography magazine. She seems to have her whole life mapped out in front of her – at least until a leak in the bathroom leads her to the apartment above hers, where she meets Lucy Berlinger, a world-known, heroin-addicted and curiously retired photographer and her bohemian group of friends. They soon start to work on a project together and it isn’t long before the relationship also becomes sexual. The lines between love and professionalism quickly begin to blur, but Lucy’s life on the edge doesn’t let them have a happy ending. Her heroin addiction isn’t the only problem, though – there’s also Lucy’s drug-addicted girlfriend Greta, a former movie star from Berlin who used to act in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films and who’s determined to get Lucy back all to herself.

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Slums of Beverly Hills (1998, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins) – this film is about female transition from a girl to a woman and the discomforts that come with it. The sudden body changes, the awkwardness of suddenly having breasts and shopping for bras for the very first time. I haven’t seen a film that would manage to address those issues in such a real and adorable way – but then again, how could I, when most of the films are written and directed by men who don’t know much about what girls go through at a certain age. There’s also this wonderful scene of the protagonist getting her period at the worst possible time while wearing the worst possible outfit. Again, not the subject that’s frequently approached in films, since most men are afraid to even think about women’s period, let alone write a movie that’s mentioning it. This is one of the most real and hilarious portrayals of being an awkward teenage girl and I warmly recommend it to everyone who doesn’t know what to watch tonight. This is woman film-making at it’s best.

New Waterford Girl (1999, written by Tricia Fish)

Eve’s Bayou (1997, written and directed by Kasi Lemmons)

Gas, Food Lodging (1992, written and directed by Allison Anders) – this one is about a single-mother/waitress trying to raise her two teenage daughters in a trailer-park on the God-forsaken town on the periphery of Texas desert. The younger one, Shade, spends most of her days watching Mexican movies and daydreaming about finding a perfect boyfriend for her mother, while Trudi constantly skips school to go on dates and is mostly known as the “girl who gets around”. But things suddenly turn around when a British petrologist comes to town and the two start to spend time together. She manages to open up to him, admitting that her inability to say “no” to guys derives from losing her virginity in a gang rape and starts falling in love for the first time. But the guy suddenly disappears, and Trudi, who expected a fairy tale and a ticket out of this town, finds out she’s pregnant. This is one of the most accurate and honest portrayals of mother-daughter relationships, as well as of complicated, love-hate relationships that often develop between sisters. It’s a surprisingly engaging film about three women trying to make the most of their lives in the middle of nowhere, all while being constantly disappointed by different men in their life.

Love & Basketball (2000, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood) – a story about two next-door neighbours is Los Angeles, California, pursuing their basketball career before eventually falling for each other. The film spans through thirteen years of their friendship – from the first time they meet when Monica moves next door to Quincy, and all through their high school and University years, until each of them starts pursuing professional basketball career. The main premise of the film may not sound interesting (especially if you’re not into sports, like me), but it’s actually a very engaging watch that addresses a lot of gender issues. Monica is a tomboy and all she wants to do in her life is to play basketball. Her parents, however, have trouble accepting that. Especially her mother is the one who can’t wrap her head around the fact that she prefers to wear tracksuits over girly dresses and that she doesn’t really care about her looks. In her mother’s eyes, she’s not feminine enough and it’s not until her prom night, when her older sister succeeds in Monica’s makeover, that her mother comments about how beautiful she looks. This is a particularly great scene because it’s more than obvious how uncomfortable Monica is. Not every girl can walk in heels and some of us feel weird in tight dresses – she also can’t help but sit with her legs apart, forgetting that for once, she’s not wearing sweatpants. Another detail that I liked was when Quincy and Monica (already an item and in their first year of University) have their first fight that eventually results in them breaking up. Quincy, who’s having a hard time dealing with his father’s infidelities, is expecting that Monica will hit a pause button on her life to be there for him. She, who had to work twice as hard as him to get the scholarship for University, should immediately forget about her career, her professional life, just to help her boyfriend. If the roles were reversed, there wouldn’t be any conversation about it: she would never ask him to do that, let alone break up with him when he wouldn’t be prepared risking his career for taking care of her messed up personal life. It’s a perfect scene that sums up how women are still perceived in a society. Okay, you can have a career, but when your man is in need, it’s still your duty to stand behind him, no matter the consequences. We can have a career, as long as it doesn’t stay in the way of our first and most important job: taking care of the loved ones, of the family. Anyhow, Monica chooses against it, even though their relationship ends because of it. She chooses a career over a guy: which is something that we don’t see often enough in American films. The film works perfectly until here – it, however, loses it’s edge in the third act with it’s happy ending.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999, directed by Jamie Babbit) – a satirical romantic comedy film about a high school cheerleader whose parents send her to a convention therapy camp to cure her lesbianism. But instead of being cured, she only then fully embraces her sexual orientation and falls in love with a woman for the very first time. The film explores the social construction of gender roles and heteronormativity and is a far more entertaining and engaging watch than I ever anticipated (I’ve come across the film before, but film’s poster somehow put me off – I expected another film about cheer-leading, something similar to Bring It On, but I couldn’t be more mistaken).

A Walk on the Moon (1999, written by Pamela Gray)

Love, Rosie (2014, written by Juliette Towhidi)

Disappearing Acts (2000, written by Lisa Jones, directed by Gina-Prince-Bythewood)

Seeking a Friend For the End of the World (2012, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria)

Please Give (2010, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener)

Valley Girl (1983, directed by Martha Coolidge) – a modern day Romeo and Juliet set in the 80’s Hollywood.

She-Devil (1989, directed by Susan Seidelman) – a story about Ruth Patchett, an over5155weight housewife (played by Roseanne Barr) who exacts revenge on her cheating husband after he leaves her and her children for a glamorous, thin, best-selling romance novelist Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep). It was directed by Susan Seildelman, but I must say that I didn’t like this one half as much as Desperately Seeking Susan. However, it isn’t a bad movie and the posters really don’t do the story justice. I don’t know what they were thinking, making it about the “girl fight”, when the story is about how the same guy screws both women over (and there’s hardly any confrontation between the two of them!).

Picture Day (2012, written and directed by Kate Melville)

Something New (2006, written by Kriss Turner, directed by Sanaa Hamri)

Jennifer’s Body (2009, written by Diablo Cody, directed by Karyn Kusama)

Carrie (2013, directed by Kimberly Pierce)

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, written and directed by Amy Heckerling)

Girl Most Likely (2012, co-directed by Shari Springer Berman, written by Michelle Morgan)

The Prince & Me (2004, co-written by Katherine Fugate, directed by Martha Coolidge) – this film is awful and I can’t believe it got three sequels. I don’t know when I last saw something so bland, predictable and full of clichés. The only thing that actually kind of worked was the ending where Julia Stiles, who falls in love with an exchange student (who turns out to be a Prince of Denmark, what a surprise! There’s obviously nothing more awful than for a girl to fall in love with a regular guy), chooses her career over the marriage proposal. Her refusal of becoming a princess because of her dream of becoming a doctor is the only thing that even remotely made sense. (But then again, why are the only two possible career paths for protagonists in Hollywood films medicine and law? Can they be any more boring? Why couldn’t she study anthropology, sociology, comparative literature, or maybe even physics or chemistry? How can they be so incapable of shaking things up every now and then? Like being a lawyer or a doctor is the only respectable career that exists.) 

The Proposal (2009, directed by Anne Fletcher) – click here for my whole review.

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The Proposal (2009)

Well, this was on a whole new level of bad. But let’s be honest, I knew what I was getting into, since I already saw Fletcher’s 27 Dresses a couple of months ago. I had the lowest possible expectations about this film, and yet it still managed to surprise me. It’s sad to see films like this being directed by women. It was, however, written by Pete Chiarell and considering how the main (female) character is constructed it really isn’t surprising that it was written from a man’s perspective.

Sandra Bullock plays an executive editor in chief of a book publishing company – and as in any male-written film where a woman plays an independent, career-driven and powerful character, she’s a cold-stone and insensitive bitch, who lives and breathes for her job and doesn’t have any personal life. She’s also immensely feared and hated by her employees. This is how men seem to perceive women in power: they’re emotionless, vindictive and mean, and the only option of them having a successful career is if they live for the job and don’t have any life outside of the office. Having a family and a career? This is something that only men can manage.

But when the main twist forces her into spending more time with her male assistant, she suddenly discovers her kinder, joyous side – and consequently stops worrying about work so much. If she wants to commit a felony at the beginning of the film, so she wouldn’t get deported to Canada, she’s prepared to leave her job and return back home by the time the film is about to end. All it takes is for her to take one weekend off, spending it with her assistant and his family and finding out that what she’s been missing out all these years when she’s been working, was a family. Having a family, not a career, is what’s really important. And a man (who else?) is the one who helps her find these new values in her life, a new purpose, something that will finally manage to fulfil her otherwise empty life. As you probably already guessed, they also fall in love in the middle of her “soul searching”. And because she couldn’t possibly fall for a regular guy, his family also turns out to be extremely rich.

Another detail that can’t go unnoticed is how the only non-white person in the film is portrayed. A Cuban-American actor Oscar Nunez, who plays a waiter/salesman by day and a local exotic dancer Ramone by night seems to harass Sandra Bullock whenever he gets the chance. While all the other characters get to be sophisticated individuals, he gets to play a weird eccentric whose behaviour has more resemblance with a wild animal with no control over it’s sexual impulses, than with a human being. It’s repulsive that someone could ever write a role this offensive and got away with it.

This awful, predictable mess of a film somehow managed to gross 317 million dollars (it grossed almost 13 millions just on it’s opening day). How is this possible? How are people prepared to pay for seeing something this bad? Even if you’re watching it just to get some cheap laughs, there’s no way this film will leave you satisfied. I would rather watch The Hangover on repeat for a whole day than ever having to see this film again.

I saw this film as a part of my Year of Female Filmmakers.

The Basics:
Directed by: Anne Fletcher
Written by: Pete Chiarell
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Betty White, Mary Steenburgen
Running Time: 108 minutes
Year: 2009
Rating: 0.5 (and I’m being generous here! It deserves a zero)

Great films that never won an Oscar

I think I’ve already established what I think about the Academy Awards in my Oscars Rant post, but since this awards remain to have such an influence on people (and because most people still see an Oscar win as some kind of determinant for a good movie), I’ll try to show you how much this isn’t true. I made a list of films that weren’t awarded with an Oscar (some of them weren’t even nominated!), but are nowadays considered as timeless, cult classics. I also picked some films that were awarded with an Oscar, but have since been completely forgotten. If you’re still getting angry year after year when your favourite film doesn’t win: don’t. The most ideologically “safe” and conservative films are the ones getting nominated – and because our taste is mostly quite different from that, it’s not surprising that our favourite films often get overlooked. So, if you’re choosing what to watch from an Oscar-awarded films list you’ll probably never see anything really good, edgy or fascinating that would stay with you and make you think about it for days.

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A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick was nominated in four categories but lost to Friedkin’s The French Connection – I won’t say this film wasn’t a worthy winner, but it can’t really be compared to the mastery of Kubrick’s satirical dystopian drama.

The Shining – NO NOMINATIONS. What the fuck. I mean, Kubrick’s direction? Jack Nicholson’s performance? Just because it was released as a horror movie – and the Academy isn’t particularly fond of that genre.

Taxi Driver – the Oscar went to Peter Finch’s role in Sydney Lumet’s Network, which was a great role, but I’m not sure it can measure up to the greatness of Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle. This is one of the most iconic roles in film history, after all. Also, Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for Best Director!

Psycho – if there’s one film taught and analysed over and over again in film schools, it’s this one. The direction, the mise en scene, the cinematography. And oh, that shower scene. Hitchcock got nominated and so did Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress. Do you remember Shirley Jones in Emler Gantry? No? Well, this is who won over Janet Leigh’s most famous scene in film history.

Mulholland Dr. – the fact that this film got completely overlooked at the Oscars (well, okay, David Lynch got a nod with a nomination) is downright embarrassing. This is one of the best films of the past decade, with Naomi Watts delivering one of her finest performances.

Do The Right Thing – it was surprising that this one even got nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay in 1989. It didn’t won, of course, but has since became one of the most important films about racial relations in contemporary America. It’s often cited as one of the best films ever made – but it caused nothing but controversy when it was released and since it represented the world from the black person’s point of view, it never really stood a chance of winning an Oscar. However, as Spike Lee recently commented (when they asked him about the similarities between his Oscar snub in 1989, and this year’s Selma’s snubs): “You don’t see Driving Miss Daisy being taught in film schools all across the world like Do the Right Thing is. Nobody’s discussing Driving Miss Daisy.” So much about the relevance of winning an Oscar.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – it is unforgivable that this film lost to MY FAIR LADY. I still can’t comprehend the fact that something like this ever happened.

Vertigo – do I really need to explain why this one should have won? It was nominated only for Art Decoration and Sound, even though it’s considered one of the best films of all time (and is quite possibly Hitchcock’s fines achievement!).

Singin’ in the Rain – this is one of the greatest American films (and the greatest American musical, period) ever produced. It features the legend himself, Gene Kelly, in one of his best, most widely known performances. It was, however, nominated only for Best Supporting Actress and Best Score. It won neither.

The Tree of Life – this Malick’s masterpiece won Cannes’ Palme d’Or. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Director and Cinematography. It won none – but please, do find me a film that is more aesthetically assured than this one. It certainly isn’t The Artist, who won Best Cinematography instead.

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Badlands –  A debut film feature by the brilliant Terrence Malick, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in the main roles. An absolute cult classic. That got no nominations.

Paris, Texas – Wim Wender’s masterpiece that won him the Palme d’Or at 1984 Cannes. It received no Oscar nominations – anyhow, it deserved to win Best Director, Best Actor or even Best Picture. Actually, it deserved to win all three of them.

Harold and Maude – this is the best black comedy I’ve ever seen. The screenplay is brilliant and Ruth Gordon is amazing as Maude. It’s considered a classic today, but it was probably too unconventional for the Academy back in the early 70’s., since they chose to completely overlook it.

The Big Lebowski – no nominations! I mean, best screenplay? Not just of 1998, but like, ever? If there’s any film where I know almost all the lines by heart, it’s definitely this cult classic written and directed by the Coen brothers. Jeff Bridges for Best Actor? And Goodman should get at least a nomination for a Supporting Actor.

The Night of the Hunter – this should win Best Cinematography and Best Actor. Maybe even Best Picture. However, film’s subject matter obviously didn’t sit too well with the Academy members, since they didn’t nominate it in a single category.

It’s a Wonderful Life – if there’s one film that is universally re-watched on every Christmas, it’s this one. (Well, besides Home Alone). It got five nominations, but no wins. Even though it features one of Jimmy Stewart’s most iconic performances.

Rear Window – Hitchcock lost to Elia Kazan that year and I won’t say anything against it, because On the Waterfront is an amazing film and it deserved a win. But how it’s possible that this one didn’t win Best Screenplay? The award went to The Country Girl. Which is simply ridiculous.

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Mean Streets – one of Scorsese’s early films and his first collaboration with DeNiro (they filmed Taxi Driver only three years later). It got no nominations whatsoever – even though DeNiro absolutely excels in his supporting role of psychotic Johnny Boy.

Shame – Steve McQueen’s masterpiece that addresses sex addiction at it’s worst. Obviously too uncomfortable to watch for the Academy. It didn’t matter that Fassbender gave one of the bravest, most affecting performances of 2011 (or ever?). Cinematography was also stunning.

The Shop Around the Corner – this is quite possibly my favourite romantic comedy of all time. It hasn’t received a single nomination – it did however get an adaptation with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks that hardly does any justice to the original.

The Big Sleep – this is quite possibly my favourite film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (they met on the set and married not long after). It hasn’t received a single nomination, even though it has an absolutely fabulous dialogues (it was written by William Faulkner).

City Lights – just like Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin never won a single Oscar.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – Leonardo DiCaprio’s first Oscar nomination when he was only 19 years old. He should have won. He hasn’t. Not then and not ever in the next 22 years.

Fight Club – I’m not as crazy about this film as most people, but I can’t deny it’s an ultimate classic and one of Fincher’s best films. It’s quite possibly also one of the best roles in Brad Pitt’s career. The only nomination it got was for Best Effects – there was no nomination for Cinematography or for Helena Bonham Carter’s great performance.

And then there are films that are quite awful or average at best, but were somehow worthy of an Oscar (or Oscars even):

Avatar – a recycled Pocahontas, moved to another planet and filmed in 3D. The most overrated film since… ever.

Forrest Gump – this one beat Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction for Best Picture. Erm, what?

The Help – this one thankfully only won Best Supporting Actress, but it also got a nomination for Best Picture. Best Picture? It’s about a white, middle-class journalist fresh out of college who is trying to build her career by convincing black maids to speak up about their oppression at work. How perverse is that? The point that this film (adapted from a best-selling novel) makes is that black people have to thank white generous individuals for everything that they accomplished in the last couple of decades in terms of equality. It was a white person behind every black person who ever raised their voice towards the racial inequality. This is how white people see their history – and this are the films that get awarded, while Selma, on the other hand, gets snubed and accused of “unfair portrayal of a white president!” The march in Selma was LBJ’s idea, after all! Martin Luther King was just a puppet, doing what the white guy in a white house wanted. (By the way, all the offended white people who watched Selma – have you ever considered how offensive this film was to black people? I don’t remember a film that would make me want to barf so much as this one.)

Argo – this won Best Picture? Of course it did. Over Michael Haneke’s Amour. Beasts of the Southern Wild would also be a much more deserving win.

Shakespeare in Love – Best Picture win in 1998. Instead of Malick’s The Thin Red Line. This makes no sense whatsoever. The Academy seems to really dislike Terrence Malick.

The English Patient – this won Best Picture over Fargo. FARGO. (Mike Leigh’s Secret & Lies was also nominated. It won Palme d’Or that year, but was obviously not good enough for the Oscars).

Kramer vs Kramer – I will never understand what people see in this film. It won a bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture, even though it was nominated alongside Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Chicago – Best Picture. It won over The Pianist and Gangs of New York. It isn’t an awful movie (it’s quite good as far as Hollywood musicals go – compare this to Nine, Les Miserables and Into the Woods and you’ll know what I mean), but it became universally hated because of this win.

My Fair Lady – it won Best Picture over Dr. Strangelove, which is unforgivable.

There are also films like Titanic, Braveheart, Crash etc. – I could go on forever. But you get the point – winning an Oscar really doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean the film is in any way good, it doesn’t mean it will be interesting to the next generations. It mostly means just the opposite – a film that wins an Oscar is rarely in any way groundbreaking. It probably won’t inspire any future filmmakers or film theorists. It’s an over-hyped annual event that doesn’t carry much artistic weight. So, next time when you get angry because your favourite director, actress or Leo DiCaprio didn’t win, ask yourself: is that really such a bad thing? Maybe it just means that the film or the performance will still be remembered and quoted 50 years from now, while no one will know that a film named Avatar or Argo was ever even filmed 10 years from now.

I won’t even try and guess which films will win this year. There’s no point. An awards show that didn’t nominate Winter Sleep or Under the Skin in a single category doesn’t really deserve much of our attention.

That being said, I hope you have a great weekend watching great films, instead of trying to see every single meaningless movie nominated for this year’s Oscar. Cheers!

Respire (2014)

Respire is Mélanie Laurent’s second feature length film and although I still have to see her 2011 debut The Adopted, there’s no doubt that she’s an incredibly talented filmmaker. This coming of age film, adapted for screen by Julien Lambroschini and Laurent herself, may seem simple at first, considering it’s about a shy and introverted 17-year old who becomes friends with a wild, extroverted and rebellious new girl that transfers to her high school. However, the film quickly evolves into a compelling and multi-layered drama about a destructive and obsessive friendship that develops between the two teenage girls.

High school, teenagers and female friendships: this already sounds like a catastrophe that is bound to happen. Guys may not know how awful teenage girls can be (or they might, I don’t know), but I was a teenage girl not so long ago and I still remember those days all too vividly. I’m sure that guys have their own ways of expressing the confusion, anger and the overall awfulness of a particularly uneasy life stage called adolescence, but for girls it mostly means being manipulative and self-involved to the point of being insufferable. This is exactly how Sarah, who transfers to a new school in Paris after moving from Nigeria, acts and she immediately finds herself a new friend (or rather a victim of sorts) in an insecure, quiet and trusting Charlie. I was Charlie for so many times in my life that my head literally hurt when I was watching her being continuously manipulated by Sarah and getting isolated from the whole classroom when she finally managed to stand up for herself. Everything in this film was all too familiar: how she doesn’t say anything about it and quietly tortures herself, quite possibly even defending Sarah’s actions in her head (“she comes from a troubled family, she didn’t meant to do that, it’s probably all my fault” etc.). I liked how it remains unclear if Sarah’s really just a friend to somewhat awkward and inexperienced Charlie, or if their drunken kiss during the holidays actually results in her having romantic feelings towards her best friend. It’s obvious that Charlie’s deeply infatuated with Sarah, but the film leaves it to the viewer’s interpretation if she’s actually in love with her or if her obsession is just pure admiration, her wanting to be like Sarah in every aspect of her life.

You may say that the whole story is unbelievable or over the top, that Sarah is a complete psycho and that friends would never act like this. If you’re saying this, you’ve clearly never been a teenage girl. I’ve met my fair share of Sarah’s in my life – and it may not have ended so tragically as it does in the film, but it was certainly something that I won’t easily forget. This film was like watching my own life when I was 12 years old (slightly younger than Sarah and Charlie are) and while I didn’t like the memories it evoked, I loved the film and it’s realistic portrayal of how psychopathic and manipulative teenage girls can be.

This film consists of almost entirely female cast, which is an extremely rare and precious thing (there’s some male characters here and there, but none of them is really important for the plot: there’s Charlie’s mostly absent Croatian father, a high school teacher, Charlie’s mother’s new love interest and a couple of male classmates). It’s also unbelievably refreshing to see that Sarah and Charlie’s fallout isn’t because of a boy (which is usually the reason for women to fight on screen), but rather Sarah’s troubling secret being revealed, which results in Sarah declaring war to masochistic Charlie, who seems to think she deserves all the hell that comes her way. The film is also impressively multi-layered with details like Charlie’s treatment of her childhood friend Valerie, who is her closest friend up to the point when Sarah enters the picture. After that Valerie’s mostly ignored by Charlie, who for the first time in her life feels liberated and alive, all thanks to her being around the spontaneous Sarah. Her treatment of Valerie isn’t much different to how Sarah later treats Charlie herself. Some parallels can also be drawn between Charlie keeping quiet when being psychologically tortured in school, repeatedly forgiving Sarah for acting this way and her mother’s constant forgiveness to her father’s transgressions.

Laurent certainly proved that she’s more than a capable director and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her films. Relatively inexperienced lead actresses Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge also give strong performances, with Lou de Laâge’s portrayal of Sarah being particularly haunting and hard to forget.

I saw this film as a part of my Year of Female Filmmakers.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mélanie Laurent
Written by: Julien Lambroschini and Mélanie Laurent (based on a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme)
Starring: Joséphine Japy, Lou de Laâge, Isabelle Carré, Claire Keim
Running Time: 91 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8

Valentine’s Day: 50 Shades of everything but grey.

So, Fifty Shades of Grey is finally in the theatres. Excited? No? For all of you who want to watch something more meaningful this weekend, here is my pick of 50 films that are perfect for Valentine’s day (or for whenever you feel like watching something a bit more romantic).

  1. Brief Encounter (1945, dir. David Lean)
  2. In the Mood for Love (2000, dir. Wong Kar-Wai)
  3. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
  4. Amour (2012, dir. Michael Haneke)
  5. City Lights (1931, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
  6. Breathless (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
  7. L’eclisse (1962, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni)
  8. Pierrot le fou (1965, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
  9. Wings of Desire (1987, dir. Wim Wenders) – a romantic fantasy film about the invisible, immortal angels who populate Berlin, listen to the thoughts of human inhabitants and comfort those in distress. One of the angels (played by Bruno Gantz) falls in love with a lonely trapeze artist and chooses to become human. (Does this summary rings a bell? Of course it does. This film had a disastrous American remake by the name of City of Angels with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan in the main roles. The original is nothing like the remake though! Another amazing fact about the original version: there’s a scene with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds performing From Her To Eternity.)
  10. Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967, dir. Dušan Makavejev)
  11. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
  12. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) – a love affair between 30-years old Moroccan migrant worker and a 60-years old widowed cleaning woman who are drawn together by their loneliness. One of Fassbinder’s most powerful films.
  13. Le Bonheur (1965, dir. Agnes Varda)
  14. Chungking Express (1994, dir. Wong Kar-Wai)
  15. In the Realm of the Senses (1976, dir. Nagisa Oshima) – this one may not be for everybody. Then again, if you considered watching Fifty Shades of Gray sometime in the near future, this may be just what you need to watch tonight. A story about a dangerous mutual obsession between Sada Abe and Kichizo Ishida that generated a great deal of controversy during its release. The fact that it contains quite a lot of unsimulated sex scenes is just one of the reasons for that.
  16. Badlands (1973, dir. Terrence Malick) – two psychotic young lovers commit a murder and run away into the desert. Malick’s first feature-film and an all-time American cult classic. “Transcendent themes of love and death are fused with a pop-culture sensibility and played out against a midwestern background, which is breathtaking both in its sweep and in its banality.
  17. Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)
  18. Vertigo (1958, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
  19. A Matter of Life and Death (1946, dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
  20. Before Sunrise (1995, dir. Richard Linklater)
  21. Before Sunset (2004, dir. Richard Linklater)
  22. Before Midnight (2013, dir. Richard Linklater)
  23. The Shop Around the Corner (1940, dir. Ernst Lubitsch) – you’ve probably all seen You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This is the original version of the film (with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in the main roles) – and I probably don’t have to point out that Lubirsch’s version is way better than the remake. And I mean – way better.
  24. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, dir. Michel Gondry)
  25. It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra)
  26. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, dir. Elia Kazan)
  27. Jules and Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut)
  28. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, dir. Gene Kelly)
  29. Weekend (2011, dir. Andrew Haigh) – two men meet and fall in love in Nottingham, UK, only a week before one of them plans to leave the country. One of my favourite LGBT love stories.
  30. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, dir. Jaques Demy)
  31. A Room With a View (1985, dir. James Ivory)
  32. Loves of a Blonde (1965, dir. Miloš Forman)
  33. Annie Hall (1977, dir. Woody Allen)
  34. Manhattan (1979, dir. Woody Allen)
  35. The Graduate (1967, dir. Mike Nichols)
  36. Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir. Arthur Penn)
  37. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989, dir. Peter Greenaway)
  38. Lost in Translation (2003, dir. Sofia Coppola)
  39. Certified Copy (2010, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
  40. Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby) – one of the best romantic dark comedies I’ve ever seen. It’s about a young man Harold, who is deeply intrigued by death and (to his mother’s displeasure) fakes his own death on regular basis. After meeting a 79-year-old woman named Maude, the two form a close relationship that eventually transforms into something quite romantic. The two meet at the funeral and what follows is one of the most unusual and funny love stories of all time.
  41. Love Is Strange (2014, dir. Ira Sachs)
  42. Design for Living (1933, dir. Ernst Lubitsch) – this Hollywood’s pre-Code romantic comedy revolves around a woman who can’t decide between two men in her life – they both love her, she loves the both of them. The trio eventually decides to live together in a platonic relationship – which doesn’t exactly work out as they think it would, of course, and she ends up having an on-again, off-again relationship with both of them. (How could a film about a woman who refuses to be in a monogamous relationship be released in the early 30’s is beyond me.)
  43. She’s Gotta Have It (1986, dir. Spike Lee) – “A woman can be a sexual being and doesn’t have to belong to a man – and perhaps shouldn’t even wish for such a thing.” This is a modern-day Design for Living, set in an African-American community.
  44. The Philadelphia Story (1940, dir. George Cukor)
  45. The Apartment (1960, dir. Billy Wilder)
  46. Last Tango in Paris (1972, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci) – this one probably doesn’t need an introduction, does it?
  47. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, dir. Jim Jarmusch)
  48. Maškarada (1971, dir. Boštjan Hladnik) – it’s about a love affair between a high-school athlete Luka and a happily married, but unfulfilled Dina. Slovenian cult film of the 70’s hippie generation that was extremely controversial (and consequently censured) upon its release. It was the first Slovenian film ever to be censured – and it remains the most controversial and erotic Slovenian film to this day.
  49. The Lovers (1958, dir. Louis Malle)
  50. Wild at Heart (1990, dir. David Lynch)

Edit: since it’s Valentine’s day again, but one year after I’ve made the original list, here’s 10 additional films:

  1. The Duke of Burgundy (2014, dir. Peter Strickland)
  2. The Lobster (2015, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
  3. Bright Star (2009, dir. Jane Campion)
  4. Beyond the Lights (2014, dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)
  5. Open Hearts (2002, dir. Susanne Bier)
  6. Sidewalls (2011, dir. Gustavo Taretto)
  7. Away from Her (2007, dir. Sarah Polley)
  8. Mansfield Park (1999, dir. Patricia Rozema)
  9. Show Me Love (1998, dir. Lukas Moodysson)
  10. Obvious Child (2014, dir Gillian Robespierre)

Female filmmakers: January

I’ve seen some great (and some not so good) new-to-me women-directed films last month, all due to My Year of Female Filmmmakers. Here are the top 3 films that deserve a special mention:

1. Selma (2014, co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay)

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Rating: 9

This was my first encounter with Ava DuVernay. I have yet to see her I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere that won her the Best Director Prize at 2012 Sundance Festival (making her the first African-American woman to win the award), but I think it’s safe to say that she’s one talented, thoughtful, brilliant, bad-ass woman/film director. Just look at her response to Selma’s Oscar snub (where most directors would talk about the injustice of them not being nominated, she couldn’t care less):

“The question is: Why was Selma the only film that was even in the running with people of color for the award? I mean, why are there not—not just black, brown people? You know what I mean? Asian people, indigenous people, representations that are more than just one voice, just one face, just one gaze? So, for me, it’s much less about the awards and the accolades, because, literally, next year no one cares. Right? I can’t even tell you who won the award for whatever three years ago. I don’t know.”

Considering recent racial tensions in USA and the rising of a Black Lives Matter movement, Selma is, although set in 1965, still very relevant today. Here’s my whole review of the film.

2. Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, directed by Susan Seildelman, written by Leora Barish)

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Rating: 6.5

Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) is an unfulfilled suburban housewife with a boring, cheating husband who takes her for granted. Deeply unhappy with her unexciting life, she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited woman named Susan (played by Madonna) and starts to follow her around, hoping to experience a bit of spontaneity and excitement in her otherwise dull and uneventful life. But things get complicated when she hits her head and gets amnesia. Wearing Susan’s old jacket and with people thinking she’s her, Roberta gets thrown into an Alice in Wonderland kind of rabbit hole, trying to find her way out of this dangerous adventure and getting back to her old life.

Arquette won a BAFTA Award for her role and was also nominated for a Golden Globe. This film was quite a hit at the time, especially because of Madonna’s performance (who was at the top of her career in 1985). What exactly happened that I’ve only now came across of it? This gem should be an 80’s classic together with Jon Hudges’ hit films like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink.

3. Ruby Sparks (2012, written by Zoe Kazan and co-directed by Valerie Faris)

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Rating: 6.5

Ruby Sparks is a romantic comedy/drama directed by a husband and wife duo, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (best known for their 2006 hit Little Miss Sunshine) and written by a well-known indie actress Zoe Kazan (Elia Kazan’s granddaughter). It stars Paul Dano as an introverted, anxious and depressed novelist, Calvin Weir-Fields, with a writer’s block. After his therapist gives him a writing assignment, hoping it would inspire him to start writing again, he finds himself writing about a fictional relationship between himself and Ruby Sparks – a perfect woman who’s a product of his imagination. After days of tireless writing, he finds himself falling in love with the woman he’s created – and it isn’t long before his creation stands in his kitchen, making him breakfast. Ruby (played by Zoe Kazan herself) has left the pages and came to life – which is quite similar to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, where Jeff Daniels walks out of the movie picture and enters the real world. But all the similarities aside – Ruby Sparks explores some interesting themes about how men idealize and objectify women. Like Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her, Ruby soon starts to form her own personality: she’s becoming a real, complex human being. Calvin, who wrote this perfect relationship where he could put a minimal amount of effort into it and his girlfriend would remain happy and satisfied, gets frustrated by the fact that she suddenly starts developing her own thoughts and opinions; that serving him isn’t the main priority in her life anymore. And he deals with this the only way he knows how: he writes some more pages, recreating her character in a way that suits him, changing her back into a happy, bouncy, ecstatic, clingy girlfriend, who follows him around like a lost puppy and who would never dare to question him, get bored of him, or – God forbid – leave him. As Kazan herself explained, the idea of Ruby Sparks was to “explore the idea of being gazed at but never seen, where a woman is reduced as a person to an idealized idea of a person. 

Other new-to-me woman-directed films I’ve seen in January:

  1. Enough Said (2013, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener)
  2. Little Accidents (2014, written and directed by Sara Colangelo)
  3. Laggies (2014, directed by Lynn Shelton, written by Andrea Seigel)
  4. Your Sister’s Sister (2011, written and directed by Lynn Shelton)
  5. Friends With Money (2006, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener)
  6. Bridesmaids (2011, written by Kristen Wiig)
  7. Lovely & Amazing (2011, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener)
  8. Touchy Feely (2013, written and directed by Lynn Shelton)
  9. The Pretty One (2013, written and directed by Jenée LaMarque)
  10. 27 Dresses (2008, directed by Anne Fletcher, written by Aline Brosh McKenna)
  11. Song One (2015, written and directed by Kate Barker-Froyland)

A Year of Female Filmmakers

Ever since a shocking and utterly disappointing percentage of last year’s woman directed films came out at Indiewire at the beginning of the year, I felt it was necessary for me to write a Female Filmmakers Appreciation Post. However, the fact that Hollywood’s even more gender-biased than I ever dared to assume, inspired me to start A Year of Female Filmmakers, where I’ll try to watch as many female directed and/or written films in 2015 as possible (I came to the realization that I actually haven’t seen many of them and I’m also pretty certain that at least 98% of the films I watch every year are written and directed by men). There’s a list of films created by women below that will be updated each month until the end of the year.

The fact that only 7% of highest grossing films from 2014 were directed by women is perplexing by itself (which means that only 7% of the films audiences paid to see were made by women; this, however, doesn’t mean that women don’t make good films, but that most of their films don’t get promoted enough to get a wider audience. If more people would be aware of their options, it’s quite possible the percentage would be a lot different) – but when I looked deeper into the statistics I realized the percentage actually went down from 1998, when women directed 9% of the highest grossing films. How is it possible that there’s an even bigger gender gap in contemporary Hollywood than there was in the late 90’s? And why aren’t the numbers almost no better when we look at independent films (in 2014, only 10% of indie films were directed by women)?

Here are the numbers from the annual study of women’s behind the scenes employment by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film:

In 2014, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films. Women fared best as producers (23%), followed by executive producers (19%), editors (18%), writers (11%), directors (7%), and cinematographers (5%).

And if we look at the percentages of women’s racial representations on screen, we get an even more outraging result:

In 2014, 73% of all female characters were Caucasian, followed by African American (14%), Latina (5%), Asian (3%), other worldly (3%), and other (2%).

The fact that there’s the exact same chance of seeing a female Alien on screen as it is of seeing a female Asian character is more than worrisome. It would also be interesting to see how many of those 5% female Latina played some rich Caucasian family’s housemaid and how many of female African-Americans played a slave in a historical drama.

While trying to come to the conclusion of why there’s still so few women writers and directors in the industry, I came across so many articles addressing the issue (and citing some lame excuses for it at the same time), that my head almost exploded: men supposedly make better films than women, women don’t have the right education (a look at the number of women enrolled in film universities immediately rebuts this claim; but sadly most of them never make it into the movie business; TV on the other hand, is much less gender-biased), they can’t write characters the male audience would like and care about (but men can write their Manic Pixie Dream Girl-type of characters and women are supposed to be okay with it?), they’re not tough enough to survive in the movie business (they’re supposedly not so good at negotiating with producers. I have a feeling that there’s a whole different reason behind this claim though: most of the producers are men and they prefer to finance films written or directed by men. It’s not so much that women are bad at negotiating as it is that men are unwilling to negotiate with them), they don’t have time to travel and direct films on location because they’re wives and mothers (sexist much? Film directors are husbands and fathers as well – why should women’s personal life be any more important than men’s?). I could go on with the stupid excuses that the media (and male-dominated Hollywood studios) make about why the movie business employs so few women. They’re all bullshit. Women make great films (there’s a list below where you can pick a female written or directed film and judge for yourself). As Jill Soloway (creator of the groundbreaking Amazon TV series Transparent) perfectly summed it up in her interview for The Hollywood Reporter:

We’re not trying to be as good as men. We’re trying to create something that is specifically influenced by our femaleness. And that has a feeling that can’t be replicated by anybody except for us. There are so many things that are cool about not just women but the feminine or the feminine energy — feminine energy as collaboration instead of competition. (Soloway 2015)

I will try to review as many of the films I’ll see over the year as possible –  and I will write a more conclusive review of my Female Filmmakers Year at the beginning of 2016. Meanwhile; feel free to drop by every few months to see how my list is expanding or to recommend me a woman written/directed film that you like.

 

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