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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