Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A parade of female directors

I've seen seven films since Friday night. Six of them were directed by women.

I couldn't have planned that if I tried. Okay, I could have, but I'm telling you that I didn't. For people who watch a lot of movies, the movies they watch are a combination of choice, circumstance and randomness -- although circumstance and randomness are sort of related to each other. And so I'm telling you, I had no plan to go on a run of female-directed movies -- it just happened. And since it did, I thought I'd write about it.

The other thing the movies had in common is that they were all released in 2010. I'm watching pretty much exclusively 2010 movies at the moment, as I try to build my rankings ahead of the January 25th deadline to reveal them to the world. (That's the morning the Oscar nominations are announced.)

It's obviously too soon to say that the best director Oscar won by Kathryn Bigelow has opened doors for female directors, since all six of these movies were near completion at the time of last year's Oscars, if not already out there in the world. But I do like the trend I'm seeing, that I could choose a half-dozen significant movies from the previous year, movies I wanted to see before my deadline, and they would all be directed by women.

Shall we take a look?

Tiny Furniture
Watched: Friday night
How I watched it: IFC in Theaters on OnDemand (for $5.99)
Directed by: Lena Dunham
Who is she? Dunham made headlines this year for the critical response to Furniture, which immediately opened up a number of doors for her in Hollywood. (I heard her interviewed on NPR, in which she discussed this.) She grew up in Brooklyn and graduated Oberlin College in 2008. This is her first feature after a number of shorts.
What did I think? Tiny Furniture left me cold. I hate to say that, because I was really looking forward to it. The film is a very quirky independent comedy with a generous helping of sadness, and it clearly demonstrates that Dunham has her own voice. In fact, I found the speech patterns and dialogue to have a unique quality that was mostly believable. The tone and attitude is all there, but the narrative itself is lacking. It's one of those slices of life where not much is supposed to happen, but in situations like that, I always like one moment before the credits roll that seems like catharsis, even if it can only be defined as catharsis within the agenda of this particular filmmaker. Tiny Furniture needed that catharsis, badly. I also found it more self-indulgent and cynical than I would have liked.
Impact of her gender on the film: Significant. The three main characters are played by Dunham, Dunham's real-life mother (Laurie Simmons) and Dunham's real-life sister (Grace Dunham). They have the same familial dynamics in the film as in real life. Dunham does not make any overt gender commentary, but it's clearly told from a woman's point of view, and some of the things that happen seem to spring from the experiences of women mistreated by men.

Watched: Saturday morning
How I watched it: Netflix streaming
Directed by: Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo
Who is she? Wojtowciz-Vosloo (and yes, I look up the spelling of her name every time) is a Polish-American filmmaker who studied film at Tisch School for the Arts, graduating in 2003. Like Dunham, Wojtowicz-Vosloo is also a first-time feature filmmaker. She had a short called Pate (I can't be bothered to find the accent for the e right now) that played at Sundance, and she has also collaborated with Laurie Anderson (of all people).
What did I think? I like After.Life a lot. I came in thinking it would be horror schlock, but ended up really liking the concept of a mortician who can talk to the corpses on his slabs, ushering them into the afterlife ... or torturing them as they try to hang on to the last threads of their lives. Liam Neeson gives a sinister performance, and I felt real sympathy for Christina Ricci, who certainly does not always come across as sympathetic. Also thought Justin Long demonstrated real range. But the real star was the writer-director, who comes up with some eerie images and has submitted a strong and nuanced script that doesn't always go where you expect. It was shot well and edited crisply. A tight little horror-thriller.
Impact of her gender on the film: Minimal. The protagonist is female, but that's not particularly uncommon in a horror-thriller. However, she does get inside the head of Ricci's character pretty well, toying with certain issues that seem uniquely feminine.

Watched: Saturday afternoon
How I watched it: In the theater at the Century City mall. My wife went to the very next screening, after meeting me at the theater to hand my son off to me. It must have blown his mind when he woke up, and Mummy had mysteriously morphed into Daddy.
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Who is she? Hollywood royalty, Coppola is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola and the director of such excellent films as The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. She received a best director nomination, the first American woman to do so, for Lost in Translation, and won best screenplay as well as the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy. It's a film I absolutely cherish. The less said about her acting career (The Godfather Part III), the better.
What did I think? Although Somewhere won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that it's her worst film. That could be because the others are such superlative films -- I love Marie Antoinette, even though some critics were unkind to it -- but I think there are real problems with this film. In an interview, I heard her prepare people for the film's minimal plot by referring to it as a "tone poem." But in a way, Marie Antoinette was also a tone poem, and that one worked, big time. This one doesn't work that well -- it grows tedious to watch all the underwhelming happenings in the life of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), which unspool with about as much (or as little) importance as each other over the course of 100 minutes. My wife later tried to convince me that the film was empty the same way Johnny's life was empty -- that it was a conscious choice for the film to have so little momentum and seem more-than-boring at times. That may be, but it left me distracted and checking my watch. Also, how the hell did Chris Pontius of Jackass fame get cast in the third most prominent role in the film?? Not that he was bad, but ... I hate to deliver this kind of indictment, because I worship at the altar of Sofia Coppola, but I gots to be honest with ya. I will say that everything looks quite beautiful.
Impact of her gender on the film: Minimal, unless you want to say that Coppola's lyrical filmmaking style is feminine. Throughout her career, Coppola has shown slightly more fascination with female characters than male, but I'm saying that primarily because Marie Antoinette would have tipped the scales in one direction. This film is mostly about a man, with his daughter getting only half the screen time.

Countdown to Zero
Watched: Saturday early evening
How I watched it: Netflix streaming
Directed by: Lucy Walker
Who is she? Walker is a British documentary filmmaker, and Countdown to Zero is her fourth directing credit. She's also directed Devil's Playground (2002), Blindsight (2006) and Waste Land (2010), none of which I had heard of. In fact, both Countdown to Zero and Waste Land premiered at last year's Sundance. It's the first time a documentary filmmaker has had two features at Sundance.
What did I think? Countdown to Zero joins a fraternity of documentaries about social issues that follow a particular format: Introduce you to the subject, scare the pants off you, and then tell you what you can do to help. See An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc., etc. That said, I found it extremely effective in every regard, particularly the "scare the pants off you" part. I have long been certain that it's just a matter of time before a nuclear weapon is set off in our world, due either to "accident, miscalculation or madness" -- the three conditions quoted in a famous speech by John F. Kennedy that is referenced repeatedly throughout. Countdown to Zero spells out those scenarios in exact terms -- you could almost say it could function as a handbook for terrorists, if terrorists didn't already know these things themselves. (The fact that highly enriched uranium is stored in basically unguarded shacks in the former Soviet Union is among the scariest ways we are vulnerable.) It was riveting and important.
Impact of her gender on the film: None that I can tell.

Just Wright
Watched: Sunday afternoon
How I watched it: Rented from Redbox
Directed by: Sanaa Hamri
Who is she? Hamri is a Moroccan-American music video director who graduated to feature films. She grew up in Morocco and got a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, where she dreamed of becoming an actress. She eventually taught herself how to use an Avid editing machine and became a music video director, first getting the attention of Mariah Carey. Her films include Something New (starring Sanaa Lathan, wondering if there was a bias there?), Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and the Lifetime movie Acceptance.
What did I think? Another blogger (who shall remain nameless but may be reading this) has heaped praise on Just Wright, so I was eager to check it out. Plus, I like basketball, and am always eager to see if it gets portrayed realistically on film. Unfortunately, I didn't like much about Just Wright. It's one of those films where you really like the main characters, so you feel bad saying bad things about it. But it was very standard and predictable, and I found there to be almost no spark to it. I also thought that Paula Patton's portrayal of a gold digger was a bit one-dimensional, especially for a character who is supposed to hoodwink the otherwise sensible NBA player at the center of the story (Common's Scott McKnight). A lot of the movie's timelines were screwy as well -- near the end of the film (spoiler alert), McKnight's New Jersey Nets win the eastern conference championship, but no mention is ever made of them playing in the NBA Finals even though numerous other events still lie ahead in the plot. Plus, the script was really lazy about showing the things Queen Latifah's physical therapist does to get McKnight back in shape -- which is fine for a romance, but not fine for what's trying to be a crossover sports movie. Latifah is charming as usual, but the movie is forgettable.
Impact of her gender on the film: Significant. The film has a lot to say about what women try to do to win a husband, whether it's fooling the man they're targeting (Patton's character says you aren't supposed to reveal your real self until you've been married for five years) or just being themselves (Latifah proudly says she's not one of those "salad-eating chicks"). The movie also has a bit of a feminine feel in its execution -- and that's all I'll say without getting myself into trouble.

Winter's Bone
Watched: Monday night
How I watched it: Netflix DVD rental through the mail
Directed by: Debra Granik
Who is she? Granik is one of the directors involved in the current neo-neorealist movement in independent film. She grew up in Washington D.C. and graduated from Brandeis University. Like Wojtowicz-Vosloo, she studied film at Tisch. She is a Sundance darling, having won awards for her 1998 short Snake Feed, her 2004 feature debut Down to the Bone (which introduced us to Vera Farmiga), and for Winter's Bone.
What did I think? What can be said about Winter's Bone that hasn't already been said? It's a masterpiece. However, I wasn't 100% sure I would feel this way about it coming in. It has been hyped through the roof since the summer, when it was released in theaters (and what a strange time to release this film -- counter-programming for sure), and when you come to a movie like that six months later, you are frequently underwhelmed. Well, I was the opposite of underwhelmed. The movie is shot beautifully, a big step up from Down to the Bone, and the story is wonderful, as a 17-year-old girl (Jennifer Lawrence) tries to track down her father to avoid being evicted from the house where she takes care of her younger brother and sister and her mentally sick mother. What unfolds is a virtual Homer's Odyssey of broken-down waystations in the Ozarks, filled with drug-addicted hicks who spit venom, but almost all have a flicker of goodness buried somewhere inside of them. There have been numerous eloquent reviews of Winter's Bone written on the web, and my job today is not to submit another one. Let's just repeat: It's a masterpiece. One funny observation to add, though: I wonder what Granik's connection is to Greg Garcia, who created My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope? Two of the actors in this film have appeared in Garcia shows, which also tend to explore hick characters: Dale Dickey from Earl and Garret Dillahunt from Hope.
Impact of her gender on the film: Moderate. The protagonist in both of Granik's films has been a woman -- or in this case, a 17-year-old girl who is more adult than most adults -- so it's clear that she is bringing a female sensibility to her work. However, her films also contain an uncompromising starkness that would not stereotypically be associated with a female perspective.

So there we have it. A quick and dirty study of the state of female directors, made possible by a random four-day stretch in which I saw six of their films from the year 2010.

And what a variety of films: A quirky independent comedy, a horror-thriller, an indie tone poem, a documentary about an important social issue, a romantic comedy in the sports world and an independent drama. And in a sign of the fairness and balance that all these directors would want, so perfect it tickles me, I felt very favorably toward three of the films, and not so favorably toward the other three. (Even stranger, they alternated good and bad in terms of the sequence in which I watched them.)

However, not everything is rosy for female directors. You still aren't seeing women direct films with gargantuan budgets -- in fact, maybe not since Mimi Leder directed Deep Impact in 1998 has there really been a huge FX movie directed by a woman. And the talented Penny Marshall hasn't directed a film in ten years now, while her hack brother Garry is still going strong.

But I like where things are headed for women in the director's chair. And if I'd prioritized better, I also would have seen Julie Taymor's latest, The Tempest, before its brief theatrical run was over.

Can't wait to see what 2011 has in store ...


Mike Lippert said...

Funny story. I have After Life on my wish list at the place I get used DVDs and so I ordered it thinking I would be getting the wonderful Japanese movie of the same name and they sent that one instead. Needless to say I left it at the store.

I still defend Just Wright. Sure it's predictable but the director (can't remember her name) has a way of putting characters at the centre of her films which make their content forgivable although this one certainly isn't as good as Something New or Sisterhood 2.

Vancetastic said...

Although it's probably not as good as the Afterlife you mention, and your decision to leave it at the store was probably a good one (if only because you own too many movies already!), this After.Life is worth looking at. It's shot really well and has some really good bits.

Have always been meaning to see Something New. Sisterhood 2 was no Sisterhood, which is one of my favorite modern teen movies. Then again, I'll watch Blake Lively in anything.