52 Films by Women – Week 4

This week, as planned, I did some digging into my Agnès Varda box set.  I had previously only seen Cleo from 5 to 7, which I loved, so I was excited to see more.  While now my Varda count is only up to 4, I feel confidant saying I’m hooked.  Varda’s feminist take on film is refreshing.  Her films show a simple but realistic female view in contrast to her male peers.  I look forward to watching her entire filmography.

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La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, 1955)

For as much as I now love Agnès Varda, this film alone would not have been enough to get me there.  While there’s nothing wrong with film, it very much feels like a first film from someone with no prior experience.  I enjoyed the premise, a study of a small town and the people who lived there, and the fish out of water story of a Paris socialite being introduced to the small town was also intriguing.

What I found lacking was the discipline and voice that a director should bring to a project.  The plot had potential to be brilliant, but the inexperience outweighs the potential.  After this film, Varda’s second outing was Cleo from 5 to 7, so it obviously didn’t take her long to find her groove.

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Le Bonheur (Agnès Varda, 1965)

After La Pointe Courte and Cleo from 5 to 7, I would not have expected this.  I think this film is absolutely brilliant.  We’re presented with a perfect family of 4 on an idyllic summer day.  We then follow the husband as he meets and starts an affair with another woman.  In his mind, he is doing nothing wrong as he has so much love to give, but his wife despite initially feigning understanding can’t handle the betrayal.  After a short period of mourning, he ends up continuing his idyllic family life with the mistress as a replacement wife.

Le Bonheur possesses a level of satyr and metaphor that the other films in this set lack.  Her other pieces show us the thoughts and experiences of their characters, and each character has a depth that we get to explore.  I feel a connection to each character.  With Le Bonheur, in contrast, no one stands out.  Instead of focusing on character, it examines familial roles, specifically that of a wife.

While never outright funny, a strong level of satire permeates the entire piece.  Between the over-the-top, but appropriate, score to the interactions between each character, nothing is quite life like.  This artificiality is used to attack the stories portrayal of a woman’s role in life as an interchangeable wife.  Varda quite obviously did not believe in that idea, and created a memorable piece of satire to that extent.

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Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985)

Vagabond, the final film in the set, comes 20 years after Le Bonheur, and is a return to the character driven narrative.  Bookmarked by her death, Vagabond follows the last few weeks of a Mona’s, a drifter, life.  Mona is a lone soul traveling with no home and no direction, but is perfectly fine with that decision.  It’s the people whom she meets that project insecurities and weakness on her.

Despite the lack of ambition and judgement of those around her, the film doesn’t judge her.  We get to follow her, and if not understand her at least see how she chooses to live her life despite the opportunities given by others.  We learn nothing more about why she chose this life, but I feel for her, and the emotional and physical abuse she had to endure during her last few weeks, let alone what she must have gone through before.  With Vagabond, I feel that Varda has returned to where she started, and what she set out to do.  To be a female voice telling the stories of women in a world dominated by men.

Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

This post is probably a week late, but I didn’t think to write about the Oscar nominations until recently.  I know that my personal tastes are not in line with the Oscar’s intended audience, but I’ve seen the majority of the films in most of the major categories and can do my best to look through the lens of a traditional Oscar viewer.

While I was genuinely surprised by a snub from picture and director (more about that below), I was extremely happy to see Room make both of those categories.  The emotional ride that it took me on was one of the best of the year, and I enjoyed it making some major categories.  I especially think it serves as an important contrast to the emotionally hallow experience that was The Revenant which walked away with an excessive 12 nominations.

Most of the other major categories played out as I expected given the target audience, but I’ve found in recent years that when looking at some of the minor categories, the real gems come through.  For animated film, I was happy to see Anomalisa and When Marnie Was There sharing time with Inside Out (I’ve heard that Boy and The World is also impressive, but I haven’t had a chance to view it yet).  The best foreign feature delivered like it does most years with a stellar class that could be the best picture race in a more honest evaluation of quality.  The academy has the chance to right the wrong from two years ago when they didn’t give Joshua Oppenheimer the Oscar for The Act of Killing by awarding its equally important companion piece The Look of Silence.  But of all of the awards, the one that I got audibly excited for was The World of Tomorrow getting a nomination for best animated short.  I maintain that it is the best piece of cinema of last year, and cannot recommend it enough (by the way it’s on Netflix, anyone who reads this should totally watch it)

With the good though comes the bad, and it unfortunately comes as no surprise that women driven and directed films were relegated almost entirely to just the best actress categories.  The female driven Carol was assumed to be a serious contender, but was ignored for the best picture and director awards.  The Diary of a Teenage Girl was the only English female directed film that had awards potential, but it was completely shut out of the nominations including the unacceptable but unsurprising snub of Bel Powley for lead actress. At least Deniz Gamze Ergüven got recognition for her film Mustang as the only female directed narrative feature to receive any acknowledgement.

The lack of respect towards female driven and created films can’t be fixed just by changing the academy voters.  While I genuinely believe that a diversification of voters would have extended the major awards to Carol, and more recognition to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, these small additions still would only represent tokenism, not equality.  In order for women to receive an equal standing in the world of film, we need to be given an equal opportunity to be involved as the creative heads of films.  That’s why I’ve started my Friday series of watching films directed by women.  We need to prove that the market exists for women created film.

52 Films by Women – Week 3

My original plan for this week was to catch up on all of the Agnès Varda that I have sitting on my shelf unwatched.  I did watch her first film, La Pointe Courte, but I’m going to wait to discuss that film until next week when I can do a fuller picture of Varda’s work.  I did thankfully watch a second film by a woman this week.  I do a monthly film club with a group of coworkers that jumps through different themes, and this month the chosen film happened to be directed by a woman.

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Now and Then (Lesli Linka Glatter, 1995)

While I was around the appropriate age for this film when it came out, I never saw or heard of it.  The early to mid-90s were filled Stand by Me clones, and this one did not reach any screens I watched.  I’ll admit that having been socialized male may have had something to do with that, but the film does blend in well with the glut of similar films.  Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the female presence that does leave it an outlier.

Every other pre-teen adventure movie that came out in the decade following Stand by Me tried to replicate the feeling exactly, to the extent of keeping the all-male cast.  Now and Then while falling into many of the pit traps of the other clones, choses to focus on a group of girls instead of boys.  This decision allows the characters to develop more emotionally than many of the similar pictures.  Glatter didn’t need to worry about isolating her audience with these emotions because she was targeting a female audience instead of a male one.

Unfortunately, the refreshing focus on girls instead of boys wasn’t accompanied by a good script nor exquisite direction.  Between the stilted dialogue and disjoint plot, Now and Then failed to deliver as the female answer to Stand by Me.  Lesli Linka Glatter only went on to make one more film, but she does have director credits on many highly acclaimed TV shows to her name.  I choose to assume that she was just the victim of a poor screenplay in tired genre.  While it was a pleasure to see a female twist on a familiar film, the stumble in execution leaves Now and Then’s legacy as a misfire.

Tangerine

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Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015)

Christmas was almost a month ago, but I want to talk about the movie that I anticipate being my movie tradition for the rest of my life.  Tangerine is this beautiful story of a pair of friends, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who travel around Las Angeles on Christmas Eve in search of Sin-Dee‘s boyfriend and the woman (Mickey O’Hagan) he’s cheating with. As the day goes on, and Sin-Dee’s rage increases, Alexandra leaves Sin-Dee in order to prepare for her evening singing at a bar, not as another job but as her passion.  When it’s Alexandra’s time to perform, Sin-Dee is able to put her drive for vengeance on hold to support her best friend.  In parallel to Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s journey we also get to follow a cab driver, and frequent customer of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Razmik (Karren Karagulian) as he travels the city looking for fares and eventually Sin-Dee as an escape from his overbearing mother-in-law.

Technically, the movie is beautiful.  A lot has been made of the fact that the film was shot iPhones.  I actually worry that that statement undersells the impressive nature of the film.  Tangerine is not beautiful for a film shot on an I phone, Tangerine is beautiful for a film.  It has a distinctive look, with high saturation and sweeping camera movements across the streets of LA.  Baker’s vision is no more pronounced than in the best scene of the film.  Razmik meets up with Alexandra and they drive through the car wash while having sex.  We sit in the back seat and watch as Alexandra does her job and Razmik gets his reprieve.  The scene contains one small jump to Sin-Dee beating up on O’Hagan’s character but otherwise focuses uncut on the scene, and the sound of the carwash is never interrupted.

What’s most important to me about Tangerine is how it portrays its characters.  Sin-Dee and Alexandra aren’t played for laughs and they don’t exist merely for the audience to view in an exploitive value.  They are real people, and Baker respects them as such.  This isn’t the movie about transgender people like The Danish Girl was.  This is a movie about friends who just happen to be transgender.  I hope that the rest of the film world will learn from Baker and continue treating transgender people with respect.

52 Films by Women – Week 2

I only managed to see one woman directed film this week, but in all fairness with Out 1 taking over my weekend and then being sick a lot of the week I didn’t get to see many films at all this week.  I will try to get these numbers up in future weeks, but this one film has given me plenty to write about.

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The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)

2011 was when my complete dedication to film began, so I ended up missing this one when it came out.  In fact I had heard nothing about it and was surprised to look up its critical acclaim.  I eagerly fired it up on Netflix in hopes of finding a gem.

I have mixed feelings about this film.  I thought the premise was interesting: two children wanting to reach out to their biological father having been raised by their lesbian mothers.  I thought that the majority of character interactions seemed genuine and the emotions real.  I, however, can’t get over the fact that the major conflict in the film did not sit well with me.  Needless to say, spoilers to follow.

Jules’s (Julianne Moore) affair with the sperm donner Paul (Mark Ruffalo) struck me as pure male fantasy from this woman written and directed film.  The idea of a lesbian being enthralled with a man to the extent of having a physical affair with him is something that I would expect from and look down upon a male director.  Now, Cholodenko did handle pieces of the affair well.  Using it as a symptom of more personal relationship struggles was a welcome reasoning for the affair, but I still found myself having troubles accepting it.

Immediately after watching the film, I was confused as to what I was going to write about this film as a female directed film.  I struggled to see what set this film apart from any of the other Sundancesque family dramedies.  I think that my issues with the conflict may have blinded me to some of the female driven aspects.  The movie’s actual purpose was to show the struggles of a marriage decades in, and in that it succeeds.  I genuinely feel for Jules and Nic (Annette Bening).  The struggles on their relationship feel like the outcome of years of living together.  Using the affair as a metaphor for these problems instead of the actual issue was welcome, and really shows an understanding of the character’s feelings.  I do think that this film has the potential to exist as a strong look into the personal lives of an under portrayed group, but I personally can’t get past the male fantasy of the major conflict.

Marathoning Out 1

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Last weekend the Seattle International Film Festival showed Out 1.  The 13 hour opus had been on my list for a long time and the opportunity to see it on the big screen was the incentive I needed.  I had no idea what the film was about before going into it, only that it was listed on many best films of all-time lists and that it was 13 hours long.

This film does not go out of its way to be inviting.  Our Friday night screening for episodes 1 and 2 had about 30 viewers, but we were down to about a dozen dedicated fans when we episodes 7 and 8 began on Sunday afternoon.  Episode 1 specifically acts as a weeding out process that less committed cinephiles will not survive.  The first few hours focuses primarily on two experimental theater groups, and then two additional initially unconnected individuals (Colin and Frédérique).  We seldom to never see pieces that theater groups are preparing, but instead watch hour after hour of warmups and exercises.

While it would be easy to see these extended sequences as off putting, they serve as a trance like introduction into the world that exists in Out 1.  Everyone is always putting on an act; whether it be the literal acts of the theater troupes or the swindling of money by Colin portraying deaf and dumb or Frédérique faking affection towards susceptible men, each of the major characters’ lives revolve around deception.  The constant artifice lets the mysterious events surrounding The Thirteen exist in a state of purgatory for the viewer, never actually sure if it is something that exists or merely a continued ruse.

The extended running time amazingly doesn’t feel bloated or extended for gimmick, but instead serves a purpose much as any of Jacques Rivette’s other directory decisions. The interconnecting relationships between characters feels organic as time feels substantive enough for them to actually interact, not a series of convenient coincidences.  Likewise, as the sanity of characters begins to erode, we understand as viewers watching hour after hour without the waters clearing.

Through the first 6 parts of the film, I found at multiple times my mind making an instinctual connection to David Lynch.  The Out 1’s world and the people inhabiting it exist just enough outside the real world that the viewer is unaware of any specific incongruities, but something feels a little surreal.  The comparisons to Lynch rise to the surface in the later episodes as people communicate in trance like states, and dialogue is muted or spoken in reverse.  It became very clear to me that David Lynch visited this film many times when creating Twin Peaks.

After 13 hours of living with these characters in their world, I could give more of a plot synopsis, but I feel it would be a disservice to the piece.  The plot, while not without its convolutions, is straight forward.  What’s important are the themes and moods that the film evokes.  The journey is essential for experiencing Out 1.  A mere synopsis will always be lacking.

As I’ve had a few days to let Out 1 simmer, my impression of it keeps increasing.  The world building is phenomenal, and as I spend more time thinking about, I’m sure that it will continue raising in my personal rankings.  I do sincerely look forward to revisiting this in the future, but maybe not for a while.  13 hours is a long time.

52 Films by Women – Week 1

I recently found an inspiring movement online for female representation in film.  #52FilmsByWomen is a commitment to watch at least one film directed by a woman each week of the year.  I’ve taken the pledge and am excited to hold myself to this agreement.  I’m also going to chronicle my journey here.  Every Friday from now until the end of the year, I’ll be writing an entry about 1 of more films by a female director.  If you’d like to commit as well, you can pledge here.

There are many women directors that have been on my list to view their filmography, but I’m going to make it my goal to do more than just that for this commitment.  I don’t want to resort to watching nothing but Varda and Ackerman and calling it good enough, though do expect their names to come up quite a bit over the next year.  I also want to make sure I’m watching at least 1 new movie a week.  No getting lazy and putting in Lost in Translation for the 100th time.

This week’s film selections highlight the range that is possible for this project.  Starting with an avant-garde, silent, surrealist short from the 1940s and then moving to a Prestige picture from 2014.  The only thing that these films have in common (aside from the gender of the director) is the level of respect garnered from the critical community.  This disparity in everything except for quality should serve as a starting point to prove that women are just as qualified as their male counterparts when it comes to the creation of film, but for some reason are criminally underrepresented.

 

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Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

While only 14 minutes long and being more of an avant-garde experiment than a narrative feature, this is one of the most canonical pieces of women’s film.  It’s one of very few films directed by a woman to make the Sight and Sound top 250 films of all-time list that was published in 2012.  I had only heard of this film a few days ago before realizing that it was on a box set that I had somewhat recently purchased, and after figuring that out eagerly put it in.  Maya Deren was definitely inspired by Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, but Meshes of the Afternoon takes on a more personal meaning.  The household imagery grounds the film more than its purely surrealist counterpart, and the circular repetition that shows Deren viewing and meeting herself hints at serious self-discovery, not all of which proves to be positive.

 

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Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

Selma was the prestige film the slipped through my to-watch list in 2014.  When the time comes, if I have to miss out on one, I always tend to choose the year’s prestige biopic as the one to miss.  While there were other films from 2014 I did end up liking more, writing this one off as a basic biopic would be doing it a great disservice.  DuVernay brings a special touch to this story.  While a simpler director would focus on the marches and the violence that they were met with, DuVernay juxtaposes those scenes with ones of King at home with his wife.  She shows King emotionally struggling with consequences of his actions and weighing the pros and cons of continuing the uphill battle.  It’s this sense of personal emotion instead of purely playing off of the audience’s reaction to violence that elevates Selma as a film.

The Best Films of 2015

I know that top lists are cheap posts and it’s only my second entry, but this is the time of year that I think it’s permissible.  I won’t make a habit out of this kind of post, but this one should be able to double as an introduction to my taste in film.

2015 was my personal most prolific film viewing year.  I managed to see 66 2015 films this year (though some of them probably count as 2016 films), and it was the best year in film since I’ve started putting a lot of effort into film.  I maintain that my number 1 film of this year isn’t as strong as in years past, but this year’s number 20 would make my top 10 in previous years, and that is why this year I’m listing my top 20.

Before I get to the list, I do have a few regrets that I was unable to find.  Son of Saul, 45 Years, and Heart of a Dog all have not had any kind of release locally but I look forward to catching them as soon as possible.  I also have one film not on my list, but should be my number 1 film of the year.  The World of Tomorrow is the best film of the year, but I’m excluding it from the list as it’s a short.

This year’s list was reasonable in its depiction of women, with 12 of my top 20 passing the Bechdel Test, and a few others having strong female leads despite failing.  Only 1 film on my list was directed by a woman unfortunately, though that one, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Tangerine specifically struck me as extremely strong feminist pieces that I hope will find their places in greater film culture.  Now without further ado, my top 20.

20. Brooklyn – Saoirse Ronan put in an amazing performance as a homesick Irish immigrant who finds and struggles with love.

19. Ex Machina – Such a brilliant piece of science fiction. All three actors put in seamless layered performances.

18. When Marnie Was There – Another beautiful film by Ghibli shows the story of distant adolescent girl as she makes a friend with all of the whimsy of most Ghibli films.

17. Heaven Knows What – A brutal depiction of the life of an addict in New York. Written by and starring a former addict.

16. Tangerine – Where The Danish Girl failed to humanize Lili, Sean Baker’s film depicting transgender prostitutes Sin-Dee and Alexandra does so with brilliance and compassion. Expect a full post on this one soon.

15. Love and Mercy – The best biopic of the year, Paul Dano and John Cusack do an amazing job portraying a haunted Brian Wilson.

14. The Forbidden Room – My first Guy Maddin film was an adventure. The nested storylines composed of plots from lost films was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

13. Buzzard – This film snuck up on me. The transition from a run of the mill office comedy into a delve into the consequences of those actions and the psyche of one who makes them was seamless.

12. Inside Out – I have no idea how this didn’t make my top 10. My 3rd favorite Pixar film (behind Ratatouille and the masterpiece Wall-E) was a risk in story telling that paid off in spades. I fell in love with Riley and wish I could have spent more time with her.

11. Clouds of Sils Maria – Juliette Binoche puts in a great performance, but Kristen Stewart runs away with the film proving that she is an actress much stronger than the Twilight films would make one assume.

10. Phoenix – The slow burn of Phoenix as Nelly (Nina Hoss) reintroduces herself to her husband cumulating in the greatest final scene of the year, and potentially decade, solidifies phoenix in my top 10 for the year. As an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Phoenix delivers a similar story from the viewpoint of the female character, and dwells on the emotional trauma as Nelly accepts the fact that the one she loves may have also been to one responsible for her time in Auschwitz.

9. Room – Brie Larson is the Oscar front runner for lead actress for a reason with this film. Her portrayal of a mother who is still very much a child is believable and emotionally devastating. Her acceptance of her fate, and then inability to reintegrate with the real world once she escapes combines to show the acute emotional trauma that her character went through.

8. The Diary of a Teenage Girl – I love the underrepresented subgenre of coming of age films dedicated to female sexual awakening. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, despite the awful title, is one of the stronger entries into the genre than we’ve seen in quite a few years. Bel Powley is phenomenal as Minnie, and Marielle Heller’s decision to explore the sexual awakening of a teenage girl without coming across as condemning is refreshing in a world that still is more comfortable slut shaming women than acknowledging that they are people too.

7. Krisha – This isn’t being release until March of next year, but I saw it at SXSW in 2015 so it’s making this list. First time director Trey Shults shows a lot of promise on a minimal budget. From the opening long take to the unflinching close-ups of Krisha Fairchild as she unravels during the course of a few days, Krisha was a great discovery that I highly recommend.

6. Spotlight – The entire cast puts in Oscar worthy performances in this investigative journalism drama. Ruffalo, Keaton, and McAdams should all of nominations incoming. While there’s nothing overly showy about the execution of film, it has a very crisp feel and feels perfectly executed in its simplicity.

5. Youth – In contrast, Youth is a showy film, and in the best way. If The Great Beauty was Sorrentino attempting to make his version of La Dolce Vita, Youth is his 8 ½. Caine and Keitel both thrive as aging artists.  Dano is intriguing as the misunderstood actor Jimmy Tree, and Jane Fonda has the best cameo of the year.  While it doesn’t quite hold up to 2013’s The Great Beauty, Youth is another brilliant entry from Sorrentino.

4. Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman’s foray into stop motion cinema alone was enough to grab my interest. What I found when exploring the film was a film that perfectly blended humor and melancholy with the surrealism that can only come from a Kaufman script. I’ve read that the crew was extremely uncomfortable while shooting the sex scene, but it’s completely worth it as the most memorable moment in the film.

3. Carol – As my most anticipated film of the year, I guess Carol is technically under performing at the number 3 slot. Rooney Mara puts in a career best performance as a somewhat naïve Therese Belivet. Mara captures the growth that her character experiences throughout the course of the film.  Back that up with a superb supporting performance from Cat Blanchett (as always), beautiful cinematography from Edward Lachman, and the best score of the year from Carter Burnwell, and Todd Haynes created an amazing film about a subject that unfortunately seems almost as taboo now as it did when the film takes place.

2. The Look of Silence – The companion piece to Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing from 2013 is just as hard to watch, but also just as important. Instead of following the still in power culprits, this film focuses on the family of a victim as a man interviews the men responsible for the death of his brother. The Look of Silence follows a more traditional documentary structure than The Act of Killing did, which makes the message hit more clearly and immediately.

1. Victoria – I’m not sure if I’m alone in thinking that this film was worthy of this recognition, or if it was just that little see. Victoria is the most impressive film of the year, and I don’t think that it’s close. The 2-and-a-half-hour single take film had me on the edge of my seat and unable to breathe for the entirety of its run.  The camera seldom leaves Laia Costa’s face for the entire run making her performance all the more impressive.  While the film takes place in real time, Sebastian Schipper’s use of non-diegetic sound to fill otherwise tedious portions of time (like waiting in an elevator) show an amazing understanding of how the film flows.  While the film may be strongly reliant on its gimmick, the gimmick pays off tenfold.  Do yourself a favor and commit your distraction free time to this film.