Tuesday, May 30, 2017

My Five Favourite Films Directed By Women

If you are a serious movie fan, then chances are good that you have already heard that Sofia Coppola won the Best Director's Award at the Cannes Film Festival this past week. She was only the second woman ever to do so (the first was Yuliya Solntseva for The Story of the Flaming Years in 1961). It is a sad fact that women are given very few opportunities to direct, not just in Hollywood, but worldwide. According to a report from Directors UK in 2016, only 13.6% of all directors in the United Kingdom were women. Hollywood did even worse when it comes to letting women direct. Out of the top 250 films released in 2016, only 7% were directed by women.

As I see it, there is no reason that women should not occupy the director's chair. In fact, French director Alice Guy-Blaché is credited with directing the first narrative film ever, La Fée aux Choux in 1896. She was only 23 at the time. Alice Guy-Blaché would be followed by such women as Lois Weber in the Silent Era, and then Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Not only were women directing fairly early in the history of film, but women have directed some truly great films over the years.

Below I've listed my five favourite films directed by women. Here I want to stress that I am not saying these are necessarily the greatest films ever made by women (well, except for The Hitch-Hiker...). These are simply the five films made by women that I enjoy the most, and can watch over and over again. I'm listing them in chronological order because it is difficult enough for me to decide on an absolute favourite, let alone rank the films.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953): Ida Lupino may be unique among actresses in that she not only starred in films noirs, but she directed one as well. What is more, The Hitch-Hiker is one of the finer films noirs to emerge from the early Fifties. Miss Lupino eschewed the claustrophobic confines of big cities found in most films noirs and instead utilised the desert Southwest. The end result is that the characters seem even more isolated than if they had been in New York City or Los Angeles, California. What is more, the film is beautifully shot, so that the landscape becomes as much of a character in the film as its protagonists. As to the film's plot, The Hitch-Hiker is one of the harder edged films noirs out there. Given its source material this should not be surprising. The Hitch-Hiker was based on an actual case, namely the murder spree of psychopath Billy Cook. Miss Lupino even interviewed two prospectors held hostage by Cook, and got releases from both them and Cook himself so she could integrate aspects of the case into the film. The end result is one of the darkest, most violent noirs out there.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982): Today Amy Heckerling may be best known for Clueless (1995), but as much as I love that film, I think I prefer her feature film debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It was based on the 1981 book by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote the screenplay. Speaking as someone who actually attended high school during that era, Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling captured the minutiae of attending school and being a teenager in the late Seventies and early Eighties. For me, at least, there seemed to be so much that was true about Fast Times at Ridgemont High, much more so than other films about teenagers from other directors during the era. Indeed, I actually knew people like Jeff Spicoli. Fortunately, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is not some dry treatise on high school in the late Seventies and early Eighties, but also a very funny comedy.

Near Dark (1987): Kathryn Bigelow is one of my favourite modern day directors. She has directed so many films that I love: Strange Days (1995),  K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and The Hurt Locker (2009). While Hurt Locker would win Miss Bigelow the Oscar for Best Director (making her the only woman to ever win the Best Director Award), my favourite film ever directed by her remains Near Dark. Near Dark is essentially a fusion of the Western with the vampire movie, centring on a young man who is turned by a band of vampires who roam the modern day West. Unlike other vampire movies from the era (Fright Night and The Lost Boys), Near Dark is played entirely seriously. Indeed, it is a movie that is both violent and frightening. What is more, it works as both a vampire movie and a Western. Some of Kathryn Bigelow's other films might be better known, but for me it was with Near Dark that she first truly utilised her talent to its fullest.

Ravenous (1999): I have seen the occasional internet troll claim that women can't direct comedies or action films. With Ravenous the late Antonia Bird proved them wrong on both accounts. Like Near Dark before it, Ravenous blends horror movies with Westerns. Unlike Near Dark it adds a dose of dark comedy and is set in California in the 1840s. As to the horror of the film, it is not the undead, but instead living men who have taken up cannibalism. Ravenous can be very funny one moment, only to become very frightening a few moments later. What is more, it is a very violent film (reportedly they ran out of fake blood for the climax of the film). Sadly, Ravenous would be the last feature film directed by Antonia Bird. She would do a good deal of work in television before dying of anaplastic thyroid cancer at age 62 in 2013.

Across the Universe (2007): Movies inspired by the music of The Beatles don't have a particularly good track record. The Beatles themselves starred in two truly great classics (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), and Yellow Submarine (1968) remains one of the greatest animated films ever made. Unfortunately, after The Beatles' breakup in 1970 we would see such atrocities as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and Beatlemania (1981). Fortunately, there have been a few good movies inspired by the music of The Beatles made since. Across the Universe numbers among them. The plot of Across the Universe is paper thin, following of the lives of young Brits and Americans in the Sixties. That having been said, it more than makes up for its meagre plot with some incredible visuals and some of the best covers of The Beatles' songs ever recorded. Indeed, the sequence for "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" has to be seen to be believed. Across the Universe was directed by Julie Taymor, who is well known for her work on stage as both a director and a costume designer. With Across the Universe she accomplished something few others have done---a good Beatles movie without The Beatles.


KC said...

I love that you included Across the Universe! Definitely a film that should be better known. Even Paul McCartney loves it!

Terence Towles Canote said...

I adore Across the Universe. As I said, the plot is a bit flimsy, but the visuals and the music are incredible. And I love the in-jokes in the film, like the appearance of Blue Meanies (or what looks like Blue Meanies) in Eddie Issard's version of "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite".

Now that I think about it, I should have made this post "My Six Favourite Films...", as I left out A New Leaf. That is odd given the crush I have had on Elaine May all these years!

Hal said...

A great list. A few that I might have to find room for:

WHATEVER (1998) Susan Skoog
EVE'S BAYOU (1997) Kasi Lemmons
LOVE AND BASKETBALL (2000) Gina Prince-Bythewood

I also have a lot of love for Lupino's THE BIGAMIST.