Nearing the mid-year point in my 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new, or new to you) every day, May is the second month in my sub-challenge to watch more than 50% films directed by women (as it’s a month with a woman’s name… please keep up). Again, I’m still posting notes on all of them over at Letterboxd, but a round-up is required. Turns out that as the sun and warmth has returned slowly to Britain, I’ve been watching fewer films, so closer to 30 than 50 this month, and far more short films.
Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)
The Breadwinner (2017, dir. Nora Twomey) The Dreamed Path (2016, dir. Angela Schanelec) Waru (2017, dir. various Maori woman directors) Raazi (2018, dir. Meghna Gulzar) Tully (2017, dir. Jason Reitman)
Three of these films were given a release at cinemas; some other films that came out in May that I’d already seen include Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, which I’d probably have put on this list if it were new to me, although it took my second viewing to get into it fully, so perhaps it’s a grower. The Indian film turned out to much stronger than I usually expect of Bollywood features.
The German film was given a premiere at Genesis Cinema but otherwise was just on streaming service Mubi. However, after seeing a number of other Angela Schanelec films this past few months thanks to Mubi, I found it to be an enigmatic and mysterious film with what I perceived to be hidden depths that may reveal themselves if I were to watch it again.
Finally, there’s Waru which (as yet) has had no UK release in any form, but my mum sent me the DVD. It’s a series of short films all based around the same fictional premise (the death of a young child) on a marae. Given the format, some are better than others, but on the whole it’s a strong piece.
Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)
A Tale of the Wind (1988, dir. Joris Ivens/Marceline Loridan) The World (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke) As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000, dir. Jonas Mekas) 24 City (2008, dir. Jia Zhangke) The Holy Girl (2004, dir. Lucrecia Martel) Urban Rashomon (2013, dir. Khalik Allah) Peppermint Soda (1977, dir. Diane Kurys) The East Wind (El Chergui) (1975, dir. Moumen Smihi) There’s Always Tomorrow (1956, dir. Douglas Sirk) Together (1956, dir. Lorenza Mazzetti)
None of these are Criterion films. Instead, there are a few shorter pieces I caught up on to fill my daily gap (the Allah film is on YouTube, as is the Mazzetti, although it was on the BFI’s “Free Cinema” set of British new wave films and documentaries of the 1950s). As Lucrecia Martel’s latest was out, I thought I should go see a retrospective screening of one of her earlier films, the wonderful (and possibly underrated by me) The Holy Girl. Another celluloid screening was the rare Moumen Smihi film, a Moroccan filmmaker whose work isn’t much shown or available.
Two of the others were on Mubi (the almost-5hr long Jonas Mekas assemblage and the Sirk film, as part of a season of his work). Finally there were some I rented, including the Ivens film I put up the top, several Jia films (of which I think The World is my favourite, dealing with alienation in the modern world), and the Diane Kurys period film, a slightly sentimental but lovely coming of age set in 60s Paris.
My 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day proceeds apace, and April sees the first of three months in which I’ve dedicated myself to watching at least 50% films directed by women (for these are all months with women’s names, or at least that’s my tenuous thematic connection). I watched 50 films this month, not counting short films, and I managed 27 directed (or co-directed) by women, although I am (perhaps cheekily) including a trans filmmaker who as far as I know doesn’t identify as either.
Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)
Western (2017, dir. Valeska Grisebach) Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017, dir. Mouly Surya) Wonderstruck (2017, dir. Todd Haynes) Even When I Fall (2017, dir. Kate McLarnon/Sky Neal) Isle of Dogs (2018, dir. Wes Anderson)
In a rare top five for me so far, all of these films were given a cinema release during April, even if Marlina was a very small and targeted release, which in London meant only a handful of screenings. One of them was at the East End Film Festival, at the wonderful Genesis Cinema, and it was great both to see the film — a western in form, albeit set in Indonesia, with a woman seeking vengeance — and to hear the young woman director talking about its making afterwards.
My top place is another pseudo-western, one that even has that as its title, although it’s set in Bulgaria amongst a group of German workers. It’s another in a long lineage of films about masculinity and about codes of manly behaviour as seen by a woman (think Chevalier or Beau travail, the latter of which I caught up with a few days ago for about the fifth time, and which I still esteem as one of the best films ever).
The documentary in fourth place is about young Nepali women more or less abducted from their poor families at childhood into rural Indian travelling circuses, and for a film about human child trafficking, it has charismatic central performers, it depicts an arc of lived experience which moves towards a more hopeful resolution, and it has a keen cinematic eye for a good shot.
The other two films are relatively big budget and given plenty of fanfare, even if the Todd Haynes piece was (in my opinion) rather unjustly neglected as a minor work, but I suppose that was always likely to be the case with any follow-up to Carol.
Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)
Repast (1951, dir. Mikio Naruse) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960, dir. Karel Reisz) Twenty-Four Eyes (1954, dir. Keisuke Kinoshita) Marseille (2004, dir. Angela Schanelec) Winter Light (1963, dir. Ingmar Bergman) Something Must Break (2014, dir. Ester Martin Bergsmark) Battles (2015, dir. Isabel Tollenaere) All I Desire (1953, dir. Douglas Sirk) Canyon Passage (1946, dir. Jacques Tourneur) Documenteur (1981, dir. Agnes Varda)
Rarely, only one of these films comes from the Criterion Sunday project (that’s the Bergman film), for we’ve had quite a run of films I’d either seen before (by Fassbinder) or films that are just too attenuated to hold my interest (which accounts for the rest of the Bergmans, an extensive documentary about him, and a rather wacky Shohei Imamura). Of course, my top place is a Naruse film that, like all his work, should feature in that collection but somehow doesn’t, but it’s wonderful as ever, with a nimble touch in dealing with an unhappy marriage as lived in a society very rigid in its etiquette and codes of public conduct.
Two more come from cinema screenings: the Reisz was part of a ‘Woodfall Films’ season at the BFI to which a friend took me along, a wonderful slice of working-class Northern life in which Albert Finney plays a rather annoying lad; while the Kinoshita film was presented by the Japan Foundation, and while it may have been projected from a DVD, it was still affecting to see it (and I will be returning to it again in many years for the Criterion project).
Several others come from the Mubi streaming service, not least a season of Angela Schanelec films, of which Marseille is my clear favourite, though they all share a particular interest in narratives which seem to come across their subjects rather by chance, and elliptical editing strategies. Another of their seasons (of women filmmakers), provided Battles, a haunting, poetic documentary about the legacies of 20th century warfare in the European built environment, while there were also a number of Varda films (even if I caught up with Documenteur on DVD after it had left Mubi; it’s another of her LA-set films, a light blend of documentary and fiction modes). Finally, Mubi provided a number of mid-century period films: the high melodrama of the Sirk film, and the glorious Western beauty of the Tourneur.
Rounding out my list is a film about trans and gender non-conforming identities via the Swedish film Something Must Break written and directed by a trans artist, which I ordered on DVD because it was cheap and I’d seen some good notices for it. It shares some DNA with A Fantastic Woman, but seems somehow less exploitative, and has another fantastic performance at its heart.
Three months have passed in my 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day, with the bonus proviso that it’s ‘March Around the World’ month (a Letterboxd-based film-viewing challenge) so there’s an international flavour to my watching (more than usual), with a specific reference to Africa. Expect African films! Again, I’m still posting notes on all of them over at Letterboxd, but a round-up is required.
Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)
Sweet Country (2017, dir. Warwick Thornton)
Annihilation (2018, dir. Alex Garland)
Malila: The Farewell Flower (2017, dir. Anucha Boonyawatana)
Untitled (2017, dir. Michael Glawogger/Monika Willi)
Close-Knit (2017, dir. Naoko Ogigami)
Only one of these films was actually given a release at cinemas (the first one), although I should note that I also caught up with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here for a second time (I originally saw it at last year’s London Film Festival), and it’s surely my favourite film that was given a cinema release in March, a bleak anti-genre film pulling apart the mythology of the lone hitman.
There are two films from streaming services, with the poetic documentary about nothing in particular, Untitled (the last film by documentarian Michael Glawogger) on Mubi, while Annihilation was of course only given a Netflix release in the UK (aside from a few measly one-off screenings at Everyman cinemas).
My final two films above, Malila and Close-Knit, were screened at the BFI Flare film festival (which deals with LGBTQI+ themes), though I daresay they won’t get a ‘proper’ release. The first is by a trans woman filmmaker although it doesn’t explicitly deal with transgender people (it’s sort of a gay love story set in the Thai jungles, but more than that it’s a Buddhist-inflected meditation on what it means to be alive), while the Japanese film is a more commercially-orientated film about a family unit featuring a trans woman (played by a cis male, as it’s early days for Japan I suppose).
Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)
Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) and Lovesong (2001, dir. Stan Brakhage) Daratt (aka Dry Season) (2006, dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun) Happy Hour (2015, dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi) Umberto D. (1952, dir. Vittoria de Sica) Faat Kiné (2001, dir. Ousmane Sembène) The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Samba Traoré (1992, dir. Idrissa Ouédraogo) Yeelen (1987, dir. Souleymane Cissé) XXY (2007, dir. Lucía Puenzo) Melancholia (2008, dir. Lav Diaz)
The Criterion Sunday project of watching Criterion Collection films provides my joint number 1, two short films by Stan Brakhage, which is a bit of a cheat I suppose but as they’re both under 10 minutes, it seems fair. Brakhage has a number of these painted-directly-on-the-celluloid works, and Untitled is perhaps my favourite, dedicated to his wife. Almost every image is like an individual painting, overwhelming in its cumulative beauty, though you do need to put on a good soundtrack (they’re both silent). Criterion is also responsible for Umberto D., a sensitive and nuanced De Sica film, very beautiful and very sad. The Lodger was also projected off a Criterion disc, but this wasn’t part of my project (not yet), as the night I saw it was more dedicated to the musical trio providing accompaniment (hence the rather patchy film projection).
There’s a number of African films, as trailed in my intro above, because of the ‘March Around the World’ focus on African cinema this year. My favourite was the Chadian film Daratt, which has a beautiful simplicity to it. Indeed, uncluttered narratives are a bit of a feature of my favourite films, including Samba Traoré (Burkina Faso), Yeelen (Mali) and Faat Kiné (Senegal).
At the rather more epic end of the scale are the 5½ hour Happy Hour (a recent Japanese film about four women) and the 7½ hour Melancholia (another of Lav Diaz’s customary overlong meditations on Filipino history and society). Finally, bringing things back to the LGBTQI themes mentioned above was XXY, a beautiful Argentine film about a gender non-conforming person.
So I’m back again this month with the second episode of my 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day. February is a shorter month but I still packed plenty in (including two visits to see Lady Bird at the cinema). Plus, as anyone in Europe knows, it’s been getting quite cold the last few days, so sitting inside watching films seems like a particularly fine pastime; when it gets to the summer months, I feel my challenge will be more stretched. Anyway, I’m still posting notes on all of them over at Letterboxd, but a round-up is required.
Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)
The Nothing Factory (2017, dir. Pedro Pinho) Phantom Thread (2017, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) Princess Cyd (2017, dir. Stephen Cone) Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler) Lady Bird (2017, dir. Greta Gerwig)
Continuing last month’s theme of poetic documentaries screened at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), my favourite film of the month was another slightly leftfield experimental work released by them, a three-hour-long Portuguese documentary-like fiction feature set amongst the workers at a factory, who’ve been laid off and want to wrest back control. It’s thoughtful and artful, covering a range of genres and formal discourse while reflecting carefully on the state of the worker under capitalism: it can be boring at times, but it’s also compelling and beautiful.
Netflix was also responsible, finally, for releasing a good film in the form of Princess Cyd, which had a screening last year at London Film Festival, but slipped under the radar and got the modern equivalent of the straight-to-DVD. Well, it’s exquisitely made, and deals beautifully with its middle-class characters. (Although I’m being a bit mean about Netflix, since they also had a film on my last list, My Happy Family, another fine drama.)
There were also several ‘big’ releases that stood out too. As I mentioned, I went to Lady Bird twice, probably because that was the most straightforwardly enjoyable: small town, closely-studied characters, the beauty of which is in their interactions (so, not entirely unlike Princess Cyd). However, I loved P.T. Anderson’s newest film, finding it less about an awful man, as about the subtle warping of traditional power dynamics of the controlling mercurial artist (a great performance from Vicky Krieps). And of course Black Panther was a phenomenon which I was happy to get on board with, world creation in a way that seemed fresh and new after all the tiresome bombast of some previous superhero films (although still with, well, plenty of bombast).
Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)
Il posto (1961, dir. Ermanno Olmi) The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971, dir. Stan Brakhage) Thelma (2017, dir. Joachim Trier) Boy (2010, dir. Taika Waititi) I fidanzati (1963, dir. Ermanno Olmi) The Blood of Jesus (1941, dir. Spencer Williams) Initiation Love (2015, dir. Yukihiko Tsutsumi) Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946, dir. Spencer Williams) Black Panthers (1968, dir. Agnès Varda) Bad Moms (2016, dir. Scott Moore/Jon Lucas)
Streaming services again offered up a few interesting recent films I’d somehow missed, and while only Thelma makes it onto this list (via Mubi), it stands up to the other Joachim Trier film they screened last month (his 2006 Reprise) — this one may indeed be better, but it’s mysterious enough that I think I need to let it sit with me a while. Still, it has a fantastic control of atmosphere.
Continued Criterion watching threw up the wonderful Ermanno Olmi films listed there, as well as the challenging Brakhage, all of which I will give fuller write-ups in time, when their entries show up on my Criterion Sunday feature.
The two Spencer Williams movies were from the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set that I helped to Kickstart, and because it’s Black History Month, it seemed like a good idea to crack on through (I also watched some slightly sub-par Oscar Micheaux features from the early sound era). The Williams ones, though, are fascinating in the way they are pulled between overt moralising and also the thrill of sinfulness: the acting can be amateurish, but the period detail is wonderful. Black Panthers, too (a short Varda documentary from the late-60s), seemed a propos not just in relation to black history but also the feature film of (almost) the same name — well, it at least contextualised Oakland, CA’s symbolic importance through its footage of the activist group.
There was a short season of Japanese cinema at the ICA by the Japan Foundation which threw up a few intriguing films, best of all for me being Initiation Love, which I believe was a made-for-TV movie but with a bold time-looping premise and a big twist that makes it all retrospectively even more interesting (although the film is enjoyable enough as a relationship drama). Plus, I finally got around to watching Taika Waititi’s early feature Boy, which is as charming and delightful as most of his work has been, and almost entirely set amongst a poor, working, rural Maori community in New Zealand. Incredibly, it’s only just had a DVD release in this country.
I rarely post here nowadays except for the weekly Criterion Sunday films (some day, some day, I’ll get round to posting more once again)… But I’ve still been watching films! My friend Pete has been doing a 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day, so that’s quite a few films. I’m posting notes on them over at Letterboxd, but hey why not have a round-up here!
Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)
Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog (2017, dir. Julian Radlmeier) Tempestad (2016, dir. Tatiana Huezo) Field N—-s (2015, dir. Khalik Attah) The Post (2017, dir. Steven Spielberg) Journey’s End (2017, dir. Saul Dibb)
Signing up to the Mubi streaming service has introduced me to a wide range of new films, including some new releases that never came out in the cinema. The films of Julian Radlmeier are notable amongst these, and while his first two shorter works were interesting, it’s his first full-length feature which had me hooked on his particularly deadpan satirical style (a little bit reminiscent of Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou, by way of Jarmusch).
Then again, a couple of these favourites are poetic and somewhat experimental documentaries screened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (the two pre-2017 films above), so perhaps my tastes are taking me a little way from the multiplex these days. Rey (2017, dir. Niles Atallah), which I caught in the cinema but was also on Mubi during January, was another rather interesting film, a staged fiction but which intersected with documentary in surprising ways.
Of the big releases I saw, The Post was probably my favourite, but I found plenty to like in Journey’s End (a rendering of WWI via a stage play), and — just missing out on my top 5 — The Commuter (2018, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), wherein Liam Neeson punches people on a train, albeit in an efficient and entertaining way.
Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)
Street Without End (1934, dir. Mikio Naruse) Snow Canon (2011, dir. Mani Diop) My Happy Family (2017, dir. Nana Ekvtimishvili/Simon Groß) Reprise (2006, dir. Joachim Trier) Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972, dir. Jonas Mekas) Mur Murs (1981, dir. Agnes Varda) The Hitch-Hiker (1953, dir. Ida Lupino) Dead Slow Ahead (2015, dir. Mauro Herce) Funeral Parade of Roses (1969, dir. Toshio Matsumoto) Jubilee (1978, dir. Derek Jarman)
My old film watching takes in one film first released on Netflix last December, which for my purposes counts as ‘old’ but isn’t really (My Happy Family, a wonderful Georgian film). Elsewhere, a screening of Mati Diop’s early short and medium-length works opened my eyes to a bright new talent I’d been missing this decade, and makes me excited for her upcoming feature-length debut.
As for older works, I’ve been trying to catch up on the classics of Japanese cinema, which brought me to Mikio Naruse’s silent works (most of which I watched towards the tail end of last year) and also Funeral Parade of Roses, a sort of unclassifiable piece of drama which seems to throw everything into the mix.
Several of the rest of my list above screened on Mubi, so they’re a blend of films I’ve long meant to get round to watching (Varda and Mekas) peppered with others by directors largely unknown to me, but whose films I was surprised by (Trier and Herce). I know Joachim Trier in particular has a profile, but like Diop, I’ve somehow missed his films. I shall have to do some catching up.
In 2015, I made a New Year’s resolution to watch all films directed by or written by women which were released in UK cinemas, which it turns out was just a little too much of a project to achieve (I came pretty close though!).
The following year, the American group Women In Film came up with a similar idea (I’m no kind of innovator; it’s hardly original) and got #52 Films By Women trending on various social media sites, and so I just sort of allowed 2015’s resolution to continue, albeit with a somewhat less strenuous target. That said, in the end I saw 189 feature films directed (or co-directed) by women in 2016, which ended up being 53 more films by women than I saw in 2015.
This year, I thought I’d be a little more targeted. I keep spreadsheets of my viewing (because of course I do), and I noted that 43% of my total feature films seen in 2016 were directed by women. At the same time, 26% of the total feature films I saw in 2016 were directed by people of colour (being the currently-accepted phrase in the US to designate non-white people), up by 10% on the previous year. For the first time, too, the total number of feature films I saw which were directed by white men dropped to under 50% of the total (45%) in 2016.
So my 2017 New Year’s Resolution is to focus on diversifying my film viewing — not just films made by marginalised communities within anglo-dominated countries, but films from parts of the world which aren’t Europe (I do love French films, it’s true). I want to try to up those percentages to 50% for films directed by women, and 50% for films directed by people of colour. Whether I’ll achieve this remains to be seen. It’ll probably be very difficult unless I watch a lot of films by women of colour, so of course the other side of my resolution is that I go to every film given a release in the UK which is directed by a non-white woman (though that’s admittedly not going to be a huge number).
I have also — and I more or less started doing this a few months ago — but, aside from Criterion Sunday, I’ve stopped posting reviews on this site of films directed by white men, because why should I bother? I still watch them, but they get plenty of awards and media coverage. #sorrynotsorry
I was reading online about the #FavWomanFilmmaker hashtag campaign, to highlight awareness of film directors who are women — still statistically unfavoured by various movie industries, as I’ve certainly been discovering this year. Anyway, as this seems like something everyone should get behind, and as I do love lists (I have a page dedicated to listing all the films by women I’ve seen since I started this blog), I wanted to contribute.
First, though, there are so many women directing excellent films right now, I don’t even know where to begin, and choosing one favourite seems impossible. So in the absence of any better criterion, I’ll start autobiographically.
I grew up in New Zealand, so it’s fair to say that Jane Campion has been pretty inspiring. Her early feature films Sweetie (1990) and An Angel at My Table (1990) are both fantastic, and she has taken up the long-form TV format of the latter recently with Top of the Lake (2013) to quite a bit of success. I’m perhaps less enamoured of The Piano (1993) than most people, but I’ll rep for The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), In the Cut (2003) or Bright Star (2009) at a moment’s notice. She has a fantastic and consistently excellent body of work.
Still, I can’t leave this at just one, so — using from here a strictly alphabetical ordering system — the other key directors who were putting out films in my early filmgoing years (the 1990s), and who are still active, include:
Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: an Iranian director too little of whose output I have seen, but whose Nargess (1992) I adored as much as her recent film Ghesse-ha (Tales, 2014);
Catherine Breillat: she has a series of tough-minded explorations of female sexuality, most notably À ma sœur! (Fat Girl, 2001), but I also have fond memories of that same year’s Brève traversée (Brief Crossing), which I must revisit;
Claire Denis: seriously guys, Beau travail (1999) is one of the greatest films ever, full stop;
Sally Potter: you’ll know many of her more famous works, but I want to highlight the underrated The Tango Lesson (1997).
Looking back to earlier decades, trailblazers in many ways:
Chantal Akerman: sadly died just this year, but has a peerless body of work dating particularly to the 1970s with such films as Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna, 1978) and Jeanne Dielman (1975);
Dorothy Arzner: had a strong Hollywood career in the 1930s and 1940s with such key works as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940);
Vĕra Chytilová: for Sedmíkrásky (Daisies, 1966) if for nothing else (that I’ve seen, and that’s my failing);
Danièle Huillet: directed and edited a series of bold and perennially-divisive structuralist works with her husband Jean-Marie Straub, like Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968);
Larissa Shepitko: a career cut tragically short, but Voskhozdenie (The Ascent, 1977) should live forever at the top of best-ever lists;
Agnès Varda: a key figure in the French nouvelle vague whatever the auteurist male critics may try and suggest.
More recent directors to have caught my attention in a big way have been:
Andrea Arnold, a bold stylist of the cinema;
Sofia Coppola for her deceptively gaudy Marie Antoinette (2006) and above all The Bling Ring (2013);
Josephine Decker, who has a far more delicate touch in many ways, making these weird, evanescent but harshly uncompromising stories about women;
Mia Hansen-Løve, who can even make self-involved dudes seems interesting, as in Eden (2014);
Kim Longinotto, whose films (like this year’s Dreamcatcher) intersect unapologetically with social justice issues in communities around the world;
Sarah Polley, a Canadian actor more recently turned director, with a great feeling for compelling narratives;
Kelly Reichardt, whose attention to landscapes and a sense of place has been particularly peerless;
Céline Sciamma for her stories of fluid gender identities, particularly Tomboy (2011).
A few directors who urgently need to be making more films:
And finally, some whose names I look back on and wonder whatever happened to their feature film directing careers. I don’t daresay there may have been reasons that extend beyond the contours of industry sexism, and I know some are still active in other media, but it’s still a pity. Unless of course it turns out they’re still going strong in which case, hey distributors, WTF?
Carine AdlerUnder the Skin (1997)
Allison AndersGrace of My Heart (1996)
Sadie Benning some fine short films in the 1990s like Flat Is Beautiful (1999)
Lidia BobrovaV toy strane… (In That Country, 1998)
Émilie DeleuzePeau neuve (New Dawn, 1999)
Marleen GorrisAntonia (Antonia’s Line, 1995)
Alison MacleanJesus’ Son (1999)
Moufida TlatliSaimt el Qusur (The Silences of the Palace, 1994)
Those are just some names that come to mind. There are directors I’ve missed off, and there are directors whose works I haven’t yet caught up with. In short, there is, I believe, a bold and inspiring future for films directed by women.
When a big awards ceremony happens, or nominations for a big awards ceremony are released, I read the articles about it. Of course I do. And I feel righteous indignation on reading these articles. But my ‘policy’ on this blog is not to write posts on the subject, on what was nominated and what egregiously omitted, on what won and what “should have” won — primarily because, to put it simply, I shouldn’t care (I’ve banged on about this before). After all, it’s not as if awards exist in some perfect vacuum of taste and correct opinion, and aren’t swayed by interest groups, lobbying and money. The only voices that would persuade me to take an interest in a film are individual ones, of people whose words and opinions I respect, not a group of old white guys picking from a more-or-less commercially sanctioned list of mainstream titles, however many offbeatchoices show up, and however much the resulting lists may overlap with my own picks.
However, in the light of a certain Hollywood-centric awards ceremony‘s nominations, I thought now would be a good time to mention my New Year’s resolution. I have decided to try and see every film which gains a proper cinema release in 2015, which is either directed by or written by a woman. This is not because I think films written or directed by women are necessarily better than any other films (friends, I am not particularly looking forward to 50 Shades of Grey), but for other reasons which, in my opinion, are equally valid.
1. In most industrialised modes of cinematic production, women are systematically excluded from the key creative positions (indeed most positions aside from costumes and casting). Now this may not mean studio bosses are overtly basing all their hiring decisions on gender, but I would argue that they are doing so covertly at least. There are plenty of ingrained factors that result in women not gaining equal traction to their male counterparts at every rung on the ladder towards creative control, meaning that only one woman directed a film in the top 100 grossing films of 2014. As just one example, there’s certainly an ideology of the domineering macho director, which must affect not just decisions on who would be the right fit for a directing or writing gig, but probably trickles right down to affect the number of women who apply to film schools in the first place, or think they might be able to direct a film.
On the relatively rare occasions when women are allowed responsibility for the creative control over a film, they have to work much harder to maintain this. Just look at how many films directors like Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen have made (none of whom are particularly slapdash or half-assed in their working methods), compared to say Kathryn Bigelow or Jane Campion or… who? Name another major studio director who’s a woman and has made more than a couple of films. Maybe Sofia Coppola, but otherwise I’m coming up blank. When was the last time you saw a film by Amy Heckerling? Penny Marshall? Penelope Spheeris?
2. The films created by anyone who is in a minority within their own production system (and I’ve chosen films by women primarily because they surely represent a minority within every country’s filmmaking industry) are de facto of more interest, at least to me.
3. It can be useful to create arbitrary limitations that shape your choice, as it helps you to break out of unconscious patterns of behaviour. I almost certainly select what films I see based on matters of auteurism (I do have my favourite directors), positive critical reaction, the opinions and tastes of my friends, and frankly, positive marketing and hype must also play a role. So, making this resolution means I will exposed to films I’d otherwise overlook, or let slip by.
To this end, I’ve compiled a list of all the upcoming UK releases through to the end of February based on their creative personnel, and frankly, there are only 10 films on there (ten!, out of about 80). A couple are documentaries that I’m not even sure are securing much of an official release (maybe a token London screening prior to being shunted to DVD), one is an Australian compilation of short films, and, as far as I can tell, only four are gaining a national release (of which only Jupiter Ascending and Selma are actually directed by a woman or co-directed in the case of the Wachowskis, whereas the others just have at least one female writer credited).
So yes, sad to say, I think this resolution is not only worthwhile, but just a little bit necessary as a corrective. I shall hope to report back at the end of the year about what I’ve seen as a result!
UPDATE 2016: My post looking back at the progress of my 2015’s New Year’s Resolution can be found here.
As ever, I’ve let my month of focusing on films about filmmaking peter out somewhat, but hello! Still here! I promised you a list and so a list I shall provide. (Thankfully, Wikipedia has its own useful list to jog my ever ineffectual memory.)
Of course, I should say a few words about the category. First off, these aren’t just films set in the world of filmmaking, of which there are plenty. In fact, at least one of the below isn’t even set in that world. No, these are films that engage with the issues around filmmaking, whether at the technical level or at a deeper more inchoate level of what it is to create a work of art, and all the moral and ethical issues this may involve, when you’re collaborating with and manipulating characters and lives (whether real or fictional).
What are your favourites? Do feel free to let me know!
In any case, here are mine:
Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990) There’s a strong strain of reflexivity about filmmaking that runs through a lot of the films to have come out of Iran since the 1980s. I might here mention Jafar Panahi’s Ayneh (The Mirror, 1997), which ostensibly begins like his big break-out arthouse hit of a few years before, Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon, 1995), with a young girl on a quest, before the child actor throws a strop and walks away from the filming, and it swiftly becomes about Panahi’s own practice. There’s also Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Nun va Goldoon (A Moment of Innocence, 1995), in which he revisits a pivotal event from his youth but in such a way as to cast a light on the nature of representation on film. However, arguably the greatest of all Iranian films and — as its appearance here may suggest — one of the great self-reflexive films, is this pseudo-documentary by renowned auteur Abbas Kiarostami, made with his colleague Makhmalbaf. It’s starts off with a young man impersonating Makhmalbaf (though looking at the screenshots in retrospect, he could as well be an Ahmadinejad impersonator) to gain access to a rich family’s home, but again deals with the way that events become manipulated and changed by the presence of the camera in all kinds of fascinating and subtle ways.
Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) Taking a different approach is this film of Godard’s (which I’ve already reviewed). It’s a beautifully shimmering modernist fantasia set in Italy, in which various different modes of film production come up against one another, and in which a couple’s relationship is refracted through the politics of filmmaking, in a typically sly and allusive way by Godard.
Showgirls (1995) I know this film has come in for a lot of derision over the years, and that it’s not even set in the film world, but it must surely count as one of the most caustic portrayals of showbusiness put down on film — and by extension, the kind of Hollywood filmmaking director Paul Verhoeven had been involved in for the past decade or so. It’s about young ingenues who come to the big city with a big dream, and the way in which that dream is brutally crushed and degraded into something ugly and exploitative. The acting is of course hammy in the extreme, but I’m not convinced that it was ever intended to be otherwise. Like the director’s subsequent Starship Troopers (1997), it takes the form of an Aaron Spelling TV soap opera of the era, with all the glossy production values you might expect (and some gloriously baroque widescreen cinematography), but filters it through industrial levels of toxic nastiness, including plenty of unsettling misogyny (which may partly derive from the Joe Eszterhas script, though it’s no less than you’d expect given the setting). However, I don’t think it’s excessive to see all that as part of the moribund culture the film is getting at, where everything and everyone is just an object to be manipulated. It is, needless to say, no feel-good movie, however it may have been repackaged since.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Another film I recently reviewed, but I’m pretty sure everyone knows this Hollywood classic. It does song and it does dance, and beneath it all it gives us a hint at how a film is put together, albeit in a glitzy and twinkly-toed way that effaces every bit as much as it enlightens.
Irma Vep (1996) This French film by director and former film critic Olivier Assayas sets itself in the rarefied milieu of French arthouse filmmaking, with a grumpy, reclusive auteur (the iconic Jean-Pierre Léaud) putting together a remake of a silent film serial, Les Vampires (1915), with a Hong Kong film star. This may all make it sound like the most airless bit of tedium, but by focusing on the role of Irma Vep and the actor Maggie Cheung, wrapping into the story her own baggage as a leading lady of Hong Kong action filmmaking, it becomes (for me at least) a delightful love letter to the cinema, to the kineticism of Hong Kong’s 1990s film industry, and to the dreams they inspire. It’s also got a great soundtrack.
And here also are a few honourable mentions, because I have the feeling they’re underappreciated:
A Cock and Bull Story (2005) Director Michael Winterbottom has collaborated with actor Steve Coogan many times, but this one is many ways the most delightful, being both a literary adaptation and a film about putting a literary adaptation on film, with Coogan being as amusingly self-deprecatory as he’s ever been.
Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) Documentaries about filmmakers that reveal their practice may show up as a bonus feature on every DVD of the past 10 years, but most are filler and fodder of the most disposable kind. However, there are a few films that deserve to rank up here, and many of them were made as part of the French TV series Cinéstes de notre temps, many of them strong works that stand up to viewing in a cinema. I reviewed this one about Pedro Costa recently, but one could also look to Chris Marker’s film about Andrei Tarkovsky Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch (One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, 1999), or to Claire Denis’s Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990), amongst others. These are just some of the ones I’ve seen, and all are excellent. Speaking of Marker, and although not made for this series, his film about Russian silent filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik, 1992) is also a fantastic documentary, with Marker’s lightly allusive and playful touch all over it.
Stories We Tell (2012) One of my favourite films I saw last year, actor/director Sarah Polley’s film about her family is ostensibly a personal memoir film (another subgenre of filmmaking), but as her family are actors, it has a lot of thoughtful ideas about the way personal history can be represented on screen. As a result it moves far beyond being ‘merely’ a documentary to a sort of meta-text about what it means to make a documentary. Or something like that. In any case, I can recommend it.
Gods and Monsters (1998) Finally, this story of the making of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) has Ian McKellen as the gay filmmaker, and Brendan Fraser as his muse, and it’s all very enjoyably put together.
I started this blog in March last year, so just missed out on all the discussion that naturally revolves around the annual ritual of film industry awards ceremonies. Most prominent among these is of course the Hollywood-centric Academy Awards, but there are plenty of others that also naturally want to look back at this time of year — for example, the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards, the list goes on almost interminably. Just to be clear right upfront, it is everyone’s right to enjoy and even be inspired by awards ceremonies should they wish; what I’ve written below is merely my own (grumpy) opinion.