At the start of 2018, I took the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, vowing to watch one movie directed by a woman per week throughout 2018 — both female-directed flicks that have now become classics in the canon and amongst critics, and new entries that sparked onto the scene with vivacity and a lightning determination. I wanted in the newness of January what I want now, in the crest of the year, and what I have always wanted: to spotlight female voices, celebrate their talents.
We’re currently 28 weeks into the year, and I’ve stuck by my promise — far better than I stayed glued to my self-professed insistence on cutting down on Diet Coke, my commitment to not eating UnReal brand peanut butter cups seven days a week, my oath to be kinder to myself, save a certain amount of money, plan a move overseas, “give it a year.”
A number of hurdles materialized on the track of my life — like some unknown, omniscient being plopped them down while I was sprinting hard and not looking at the Earth in front of me, shuttering my eyes and scrunching up all my muscles, even the forgotten ones, as if a puckered face would in any way help me tear through the finish line tape. The first one came on a late night in March, in the witching hour, but I didn’t know it then. The second sprang in early April, early morning on the cusp of a new opportunity. (My shins splinter from time to time with the residual sting caused by that massive trip-and-fall.) One moment: beaming. In an instant: broken. A final one, a less intense one, came in June. It was easier than the others to clear; physical pain is more simply treated than emotional turmoil, I’ve found.
Thanks to whatever asshole of an all-knowing entity who granted me my troubles (that I’ve since resolved to view as gifts, learning lessons) this year, writing took a toll on me. Being a full-time journalist, still, I wrote each day. Thousands of words. Some made me soar, served as a floatation device above the sadness and made me feel like, quoth the Gina Linetti, like the human form of the 100 emoji. Others punctured that very life raft. Others had me looking in the mirror, quoting another of my favorite television ladies, Eleanor Shellstrop: “Ya basic!”
For a long while, writing was hard. But film — film was easy. Reliable and comfortable and warm, a pair of worn-in jeans or that One Perfect Spot on the couch meant for your body to occupy, film embraced me in the dark moments. Film poured words into me so effortlessly that I began to feel myself again: light, relatively carefree, dare I say bubbly.
I’ve watched a lot of films — the vast majority female-directed, those are their own form of therapy to me — in these 28 weeks of 2018, but haven’t written nearly as much as I’d like to have about them. Now, I venture to remedy that.
Of the likely hundred-or-so movies that have crackled across my television screen, illumined my laptop to light an otherwise pitch-black room, here are 10 of the best* ones — made by women, of course.
*Listed in alphabetical order rather than by an actual ranking because I, unlike our brilliant film editor Allyson Johnson, start to nervous sweat when I have to make top picks lists.
Gas Food Lodging (1992), directed by Allison Anders.
Allison Anders’ directorial debut Gas Food Lodging has everything a woman like me, the woman in me, would admire in a film: drama, romance, a coming-of-age story that plants its feet firmly on the ground and stays there, a female-dominated cast. (Just as people on the road need the gas, food, and lodging of the film’s title, I need — or crave, at least — these elements in a movie.) Brooke Adams, Ione Skye, and Fairuza Balk give astounding performances as waitress and mother Nora and her two daughters Trudi and Shade, the trio who struggle through life and call a hazy trailer park home.
Though unmistakably feminist and feminine, putting rightfully deserved and appreciated emphasis on women characters and bringing to light the anxieties and traumas unique to them, Gas Food Lodging is never anti-male, allowing for an even more true-to-life experience. Tense and truthful all at the same time, this is a film I wish I’d seen much earlier, and one I implore everyone — women especially — to sit down with.
In Between Days (2006), directed by So Yong Kim.
Led by Jiseon Kim as Korean immigrant Aimie and Taegu Andy Kang as her best friend Tran, So Yong Kim’s breakout film In Between Days brought me to my proverbial knees.
In Between Days — a Sundance darling and the pic that sparked Kim’s feature filmography, which would later include one of my favorite female-directed flicks ever, the brilliant Lovesong — doesn’t so much replicate the fumbly romance and feelings of ostracization that arise in one’s teenage years as it does genuinely capture it. Much of the film was improvised by its stars, teenagers themselves at the time of shooting, which was just one of Kim’s many directorial choices that elevated its rawness; the choice to keep chatter to a minimum created an artful silence, and the move to make the movie a stitched-together quilt of vignettes resulted in one of the most personal, humanist pieces of art in recent memory.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), directed by Maya Deren (co-directed by Alexander Hammid).
Though not a feature-length or even substantial short film by any means, Maya Deren’s wildly experimental Meshes of the Afternoon packs more into its 18 minutes than most modern offerings have in their 90, 120, 150. From its story and motifs that cycle around themselves to the distinct, daring direction Deren implements, Meshes of the Afternoon is far bigger and bolder than one might assume from the periphery. A definition of visual poetry if I’ve ever seen one, this work stuck with me for days after my first viewing, spurred second and third watches from which I gleaned new meanings, and led me down a rabbit hole of research on surrealist films and women who make them.
Morvern Callar (2002), directed by Lynne Ramsay.
Lynne Ramsay is a powerhouse. Her Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin are films I’ll likely never stop thinking about for a few minutes at least once every couple of months. Her most recent effort, You Were Never Really Here, moved me so greatly, my body had thought my brain in the Gulf of Mexico. Her Morvern Callar, a 2002 mood piece draped as a drama, is no exception to these bits of praise.
The pic, which adapts Alan Warner’s 1995 novel of the same name, is as quirky and bizarre as it is grotesque and morally unsound — and that what makes it a masterpiece.
Beyond the obvious — the force Samantha Morton and Kathleen McDermott bring as Morvern and Lanna, the twisty story that starts with a suicide and ends with a packed suitcase and a plan to board a train — Morvern Callar succeeds in its shocking moments, its ability to suspend one woman and her emotions in an ever-bustling world, its decisiveness, and its insane use of the Mammas & the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love,” a song-set scene only rivaled in wonder by Girlhood’s “Diamonds” sequence.
Novitiate (2017), directed by Maggie Betts.
I could easily write a dissertation-length piece on Maggie Betts’ Novitiate, an underrated -by-the-mainstream drama explores the ways in which faith conflicts with female sexuality through the eyes of Margaret Qualley’s Sister Cathleen Harris and Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair, but I’ll leave you with this: No one answer to the countless questions the film raises is correct, no one right meaning can be pulled away, no one viewing experience is the same as another, despite its globally relatable themes. Novitiate is, as all groundbreaking cinema seems to be, as challenging as it is tender, an absolute feat of a film.
Orlando (1993), directed by Sally Potter.
That I’ve gone nearly 24 years without having seen indie filmmaker Sally Potter’s Orlando is an outright travesty. I should be charged with a crime, publicly shamed for going this long — almost two and a half decades — having not experienced her ravishing epic that defies gender, adroitly leaps through time to serve its audience stories of sex through its sex-flip-flopping central character, the faint Orlando, whose spirit actress Tilda Swinton lets float as if it were gossamer-thin.
Based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography, Potter’s film is special for reasons too multitudinous to spew here. But the point that tops the list each time I roll through it in my mind is this: Potter handles Woolf’s playful work with a care I haven’t seen matched in any other text-to-film translation, bringing to the screen a biting joy and a dazzling visual and narrative commentary on the dynamic of the sexes meant to contrast one another but here, complement.
Seven Beauties, also known as Pasqualino Settebellezze (1976), directed by Lina Wertmüller.
Bleak, weirdly beautiful, funny, and, excuse my language, truly fucked-up at times, Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s black comedy Seven Beauties is female cinema in its most potent form: it begs us to learn truths and face humor that would otherwise remain buried — beneath violence, beneath war, beneath demoralization.
The World War II-set film follows soldier Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini), who, after renouncing the Nazi force, is set to a concentration camp. There, we learn of Pasqualino’s past in a reel of flashbacks — rattled-off tales of his seven sisters (the titular seven beauties who aren’t actually all that beautiful), admissions to gruesome crimes, details of his imprisonment in an insane asylum and later of his attempts at a seduction-and-warfare based escape.
Seven Beauties racked up four Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Wertmüller, and it’s easy to see why: the film is shocking and horrific, yet compelling (largely due to Giannini’s lead performance) and gorgeously shot. This is Wertmüller at both her most provocative and her most picturesque.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), directed by Chloé Zhao.
Have the Badlands of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation ever looked as striking as they do in writer-director Chloé Zhao’s directorial debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me? Lead by a band of fresh faces, most non-professional actors, this intimate, nuanced drama tells the story of Johnny (John Reddy) and Jashaun Winters (Jashaun St. John) and their desire to earn a better life, and does it with a deft hand, a keen and sophisticated eye, and a kind, gentle heart. Where Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone was unflinching and direct, so too is Zhao’s Songs — only in the latter’s case, it’s that much more authentic in its depiction of poverty and addiction, and the despair that comes with them.
The Love Witch (2016), directed by Anna Biller.
There are only three words to describe Anna Biller’s ‘60s-inspired horror-comedy The Love Witch: sexy, suspenseful, and so-damn-smart. Cut on 35mm film, a tasty tribute to the thrillers of the era it sucks inspiration from, The Love Witch doesn’t simply chronicle its eponymous character’s magical experiments and evenings spent potion-concocting, accidentally and sometimes purposely killing the men she lures to bed — it’s a fascinating exploration into female sexuality and fantasy, an aesthetic goldmine lush with visual references that draw you in nearer and nearer, a stimulating meditation on what it means to be a woman (and, too, what it means to be a woman living in a man’s world), and an absolute must-see.
Toni Erdmann (2016), directed by Maren Ade.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how deeply I appreciate films that take ostensible risks in toeing genre lines and expanding their stories to the far corners of their believed allotted space in the world. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann — a German-Austrian farce-slash-fierce-drama film — is just that. In equal measure, the pic that places its father and daughter duo (Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller as Winfried and Ines Conradi) in its heart speaks about feminism, anger, relationships, and ambition and demonstrates the funniness, the dirtiness, and the unpredictability of family and of life.