Inspired by this amazingly comprehensive website and this interesting thread at Shakesville, I've been mulling over some of my favorite movies directed by women. After Nora Ephron's death, a lot of people were quoting her list of things she wouldn't miss which included "panels on women in film," and it's easy to see how such discussions (and perhaps lists like this one) can be wearying. But it is interesting to think about the way that, despite all the auteur theory and fan-crushing on the next hot indie whatever, most people don't really internalize the sense of a film as having a voice or something that could be filtered through gender along with so many other factors. So we don't really think of the missing stories that an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry gives us they way we would if 90% of novels and memoirs were by men. And we don't really think of movies directed by women as a "canon" the way people think about classics of women's literature. This may well be for the best, given how the canon construction, even in its alternative modes, tends towards a reification that prevents people from forming their own individualized, subjective, complex relationships to texts. And god knows The Hurt Locker is like the Maggie Thatcher of films, existing to keep feminists honest. No, women don't have to make films about women, but they should probably come close to passing the Bechtel test. Yes, it was well done. But Thatcher was also a good politician. And the fact that it wasn't some kind of fire-breathing wignuttery made it all the more insidious as pro-war propaganda. Oh, and she's got one coming out this year about killing Bin Laden. So yeah.
But still, it's good to know that despite all the obstacles this stuff is out there. So in that spirit, this is in no ways definitive, and there are tons of candidates I want and need to see, especially non-American stuff, and it's not necessarily "the best," just great, interesting or important to me for different reasons. Also in no particular order:
- Winter's Bone, Debra Granik
Best movie I saw the year I saw it. Tight, perfectly shot and paced, with a great and classic story. It does a wonderful job depicting a young woman being tough and courageous and not in some ridiculous "kick ass" cartoonish way.
- Boys Don't Cry, Kimberly Pierce
Like Brokeback Mountain, it works because it's a classic tragic love story, told in a classic and straightforward way. I didn't want to see it for a long time because I'd heard the rape scene was hard to watch. It was, but here's the thing: a "hard to watch" rape scene is ultimately less upsetting to me than one that's actually tittilating, which is to say, most of them. Of course, it was threatened with an X rating not because of that but because of the great love scenes between Hilary Swank's Brandon and Chloe Sevigny's Lana. Fun fact: in This Film is Not Yet Rated, Pierce recalls that the complaint from the ratings board was that Brandon goes down on Lana for too long. Ladies, isn't it that just the worst?
- Julie and Julia, Nora Ephron
My grandmother, an undying optimist, who kept asking me why so many "great" books were so depressing, called this the best thing she'd seen since Singing in the Rain. She had a point: it's really hard to show someone finding the thing they love and just doing it, and to make this dramatic. Yes, the Julie side is kind of hum, but Meryl and Stanley and Paris and the food more than make up for it. As Sady Doyle pointed out, Nora Ephron was underestimated by a lot of sophisticated types for a lot of reasons, but at least in part because people really, really underestimate how hard it is to make funny, strong, popular entertainment. It kind of should be obvious, given how few people do it. As Sady said, we should have listened to Mom, or to Baubie.
- Sans Toit ni Loi (Vagabond), Agnes Varda
In the spirit of a lot of French New Wave with its young outcast heroine, but with a tight formal twist that resists psychological probing of its heroine. She's not letting us in anymore than anyone else. Tight, haunting, all that jazz.
- Laurel Canyon, Lisa Cholodenko
Not as well know as The Kids are All Right, but more interesting to me in its fluid approach to family, sex and creativity, with less contrived conflict as well as the sublime Frances McDormand getting a too-rare opportunity to cut loose. And not to get all essentialist but the wonderful sex scenes definitely feel like they're directed by a woman, or "queer" even the straight ones, which is probably not really an essentialist claim so much as a commentary on the sad predictability of sex scenes in most movies, at least in the U.S., which seems to have another ratings board rule that sex must be super super romantic or super super violent and that humor is in no cases allowed.
Friends with Money, Nicole Holofcener
Not to be confused with those friends who have kids or benefits. Holofcener seems to be pretty polarizing, and this film especially, mostly for her willingness to show her characters' self-pity. Viewers are funny people. We'll accept murderers and sociopaths as quirky and compelling looks at the human condition and congratulate ourselves for the ruthless self-examination we're putting ourselves through. Then, the minute a character gets in a funk about a gray hair we're all, BEGONE! Your humanity has not to do with mine!! When people say, it makes you uncomfortable, but in a good way, I usually run, but here it's really true. Plus, more Frances McDormand.
Harlan County, Barbara Kopple
A classic for a reason. Straightforward great documentary storytelling, without grandstanding but without pseudo-objectivity.
Orlando, Sally Potter
A suitably weird take on Woolf's weirdest book (ok, except maybe Flush). The weirdness of being born one thing at one time wrapped up in Woolf's ultimate topic, the weirdness of being alive.
Clueless, Amy Heckerling
Really. So much closer to the subversive spirit of Jane Austen than a dozen bloodless period pieces put together. "You're a virgin who can't drive." RIP, Tai.
I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron
What happens if you're a misfit and you run away to be with the other misfits, but they're the new cool kids and you're still a misfit and just as much of an outsider as ever? Lily Taylor's Valerie Solanas is a rare complex but legitimately totally fucked up female anti-hero. Also, "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex" is a totally awesome first sentence. Especially the "at best." (As a piece of writing!)
Some honorable mentions: Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud), Wild Man Blues (Kopple again), Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt), Humpday (Lynn Shelton), 2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy), Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair), The Piano (Jane Campion)
A list of all the episodes of current TV shows directed by women on this list would also be fascinating.