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2018 Recap - Best Films by Female Directors (pre-2018)

The best lesson I learned from last year’s resolution to watch works from more women filmmakers (half of all movies watched to be exact) was that women filmmakers and their works are hardly monolithic. There are certainly patterns that could distinguish women filmmakers: women are better, more complex characters, stories often revolve around women’s status in society, etc. However, I could name exceptions to any sort of rule one could lay down, and that is what made this resolution so rewarding, to witness the diversity of work and the new viewpoints that they opened me up to. I have listed ten of what I thought were some of the most striking works that I encountered last year. I have tried to pick as many as I could from different decades, though finding works by female filmmakers before the 1970’s can be quite challenging unfortunately.

The House is Black (1963) dir. Forough Farrokhzad

Unfortunately, this would be the only film that Farrokhzad would make in her short but promising life. This visual (and spoken) poem about a leper colony not only inspires compassion for the people picture, but also serves as a meditation on profound subjects such as mortality and finding beauty in the unconventional. Despite its brevity, the film is rich with striking images and compositions, which showed an excellent eye for the cinematic, especially for a subject that few would have bothered to portray in any way.

Je Tu Il Elle (1974) dir. Chantal Akerman

Perhaps this is a widely known fact in the film scholar community, but I certainly could not have imagined how profound an impact Chantal Akerman has had on modern cinema. Sofia Coppola, Michael Haneke, Hong Sang-Soo, Tsai Ming-Liang, etc. all owe a debt to her, not just in terms of her deliberate style with its long takes and stationary frames, but her sharp observations on alienation and the effects that modern life has on an individual’s psyche. Akerman made Je Tu Il Elle when she was in her early 20’s, and yet she had made a film that embraced the rebellious, experiment spirit of the French New Wave, yet broke with its patriarchy and self-consciousness in a bold way that few films do.

Losing Ground (1982) dir. Kathleen Collins

Films predominantly about Black intellectuals are few and far between. Like many female directors, Collins only made one feature-length film though she was prolific in other ways, mainly writing. It is of course a shame that this would be her only movie, which has gotten a bit of a revival in recent years, since it is such a lovingly observed, well-written, sophisticated dramedy about artistry and relationships. The difficult relationship between Seret Scott’s philosophy professor and Bill Gunn’s artist is one that seems exclusively reserved for White couples even today, but the way these two pull and push on each other, forcing them to act out in outlandish ways is always fascinating, even as the film flirts with the abstract and metaphorical.

Working Girls (1986) dir. Lizzie Borden

I’ll confess that I didn’t love this movie right away. It is plainly shot and mundane, even though the subject matter, about New York call girls, would have been highly sensationalized material in male hands. Instead, Lizzie Borden chooses to make these women’s work like any other job - tiring, unpleasant with occasional glimpses of humor and a lot of gossip in between sessions. It’s a sly commentary on the Reagan era, when consumerism seemed to penetrate every aspect of society, even something as personal and sensual and sex, which could not be more transactional in this movie.

Antonia’s Line (1995) dir. Marleen Gorris

A vivid fantasy of a matriarchal utopia, where women are the ones in power in a small Dutch village. Marleen Gorris is a lesbian filmmaker who has made a large variety of films, so it may be difficult to pin her down as an auteur but her most famous ones, this and A Question of Silence, are about women empowering themselves in ways that seem shocking and senseless to the ones in power, but are powerful statements of unapologetic rage, even when no explicit emotion is displayed.

Eve’s Bayou (1997) dir. Kasi Lemons

The rich, Southern Gothic epic that needs to be told more often. I love the Southern Gothic genre with all its brimming emotion and outsized characters and the mythos that so many characters ascribe to (in this movie it’s a mixture of voodoo and Christianity). It is a shame Kasi Lemons doesn’t get to work more because I would have easily watched ten more movies like Eve’s Bayou. There are definitely enough about the antebellum South that glorify the regime built upon on the blood of slaves, so there need to be a lot more films reckoning with and even pointedly ignoring that legacy as Eve’s Bayou does.

Innocence (2004) dir. Lucile Hadžihalilović

This mysterious film about girlhood transitioning into womanhood does not seek to satisfy its viewers’ curiosity, but rather to unsettle us and make us think about the implications of this world. Are the seemingly arbitrary rules about who gets to wear what ribbons and having to do ballet just a stand in for the arbitrary and unfair rules that we as a society make young women undergo for no other reason than tradition? Probably yes, but even that simple an explanation doesn’t go far in unpacking the appeal of this beautifully shot and sharply observed film.

Day Night Day Night (2006) dir. Julia Loktev

This drama about a young woman who is preparing for a suicide mission for an unnamed extremist group is connected directly to the works of Chantal Akerman. Loktev is much more concerned with making the experience of preparing for the mission seem as mundane and ordinary as possible, stripping the main character of any sort of identity and, tellingly, any sort of ideology. For such a seemingly mundane, stripped-down film, it captures our attention and despite no real help from the director, we seek to humanize and understand this person that would have been demonized if we had heard about her in the news.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) dir. Marielle Heller

This film snuck up on me since I thought it was a fairly ordinary tale of a young woman and the awakening of her sexuality and her identity as an individual and artist. I eventually realized that this movie was unique in that it lacked the male gaze that these stories tend to be subjected to and that her awakening is on her own terms rather than some man’s initiation, though it seems like that is what is happening in a superficial reading of this story.

Faces Places (2017) dir. Agnes Varda

So many people Varda’s age are so set in their ways and closed off to the world, yet Varda is just as adventurous as she was in the earlier stages of her career. I believe she was and is the most humane of the French New Wave directors, and her work with her younger compatriot JR is evidence of this humanity. She finds beauty in ordinary people in a non-condescending way, and if more people watched her work, we could do away with so much ignorance and engender empathy in even the most unlikely people.

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