Friday, October 30, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Female Directors Working Right Now

Filmmaking is mainly seen as a man’s job. Most films are still directed by men, even movies that concentrate of female characters amazingly enough. But while men are still predominant, there are still lots of great female directors who are starting – or in some cases already have – made a name for themselves over the years. These are my ten favorites. The only rule is that they had to have directed more than one feature film. So as good as the likes of Sarah Polley, Miranda July and Lone Scherfig are, they’ll have to wait. What shocked me was how many great female filmmakers there are out there right now. I could have easily included Lexi Alexander, Gillian Armstrong, Catherine Briellant, Nanette Burstein, Nora Ephron, Catherine Hardwicke, Nicole Holofcener, Kasi Lemmons, Deepa Metha, Nancy Meyers, Rebecca Miller, Mira Nair, Kimberly Pierce, Lea Pool, Sally Potter or Gina Prince-Blythewood. With directors like this around, I hope that more and more women get into filmmaking.

10. Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay’s debut film as a director was the brilliant Ratcatcher (1999). It is a truly haunting, and brilliant visual movie, about a 12 year old boy in Glasgow whose friend accidentally drowns. With this film, Ramsay previous known for directing shorts, announced herself as a major director. Unlike many female directors, where the criticism is often that they are not interested in visuals, Ramsay’s film shows a command of cinematic grammar with the best of them. Her follow-up film Movern Callar (2002) features a brilliant performance by Samantha Morton, as a woman who wakes up on Christmas morning to discover her boyfriend has committed suicide. She takes his unpublished novel and passes it off as her own. In the years since then, she has yet to return to directing, but has an adaptation of the brilliant novel We Need to Talk About Kevin in the works (starring Tilda Swinton!) for next year. Ramsay is a great director, with hopefully a bright future in front of her.

9. Jane Campion
A decade ago, Campion would have probably been the number one female director in the world. She was directing great movies far before most of the other women on this list. Her two short films, A Girl’s Own Story (1984) and Two Friends (1986) (both unseen by me) were critically acclaimed and won prizes at the Cannes film festival. Her debut feature film Sweetie (1989) was a brilliant exploration of mental illness. An Angel at My Table (1991), also explored mental illness, but in a much different way in the biopic of Janet Frame. Again, it was brilliant. Campion’s next film is her masterpiece – The Piano (1993). Winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, Campion became only the second female director in history to get nominated for a Best Director Oscar. The film, a sexual exploration of a mute woman who marries a cruel man, then starts an affair with another. Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin both won well deserved Oscars for this film (Campion herself won the Original Screenplay Oscar) and it is masterful. She followed up with The Portrait of a Lady (1996), one of the best adaptations of a Henry James novel ever, with a great performance by Nicole Kidman, and masterful supporting work by Martin Donovan, John Malkovich and Babarba Hershey. It’s here though that things kind of fell off the rails. Her next film was Holy Smoke (1999) with Kate Winslet as a woman in a cult who is kidnapped by a “deprogrammer”, Harvey Keitel, and the two essentially go to war with each other. Winslet is amazing, but the movie doesn’t make any sense at all. Worse still was her next film, In the Cut (2003), a modern tale about sex with Meg Ryan, which may have looked great, but was incomprehensible. It took her six long years before she made another feature, but earlier this fall saw the release of Bright Star, which is something of a return to form for her. This soft love story between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fannie Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is masterfully directed. It is a fine film, yet not quite up to par with her best work. Campion deserves a spot on this list because of her great filmography. I just hope we see more films like The Piano in her future, and fewer like In the Cut.

8. Kelly Reichardt
Reichardt only has three features under her belt – only two of which I have seen – but she has already become one of my favorite directors. She made her debut film, River of Grass in 1994, and then spent the next 12 years doing shorts and other things. But in 2006 she made the wonderful film Old Joy. This film about two old college friends (Daniel London and William Oldham) getting together to go on a camping trip into the woods to find a “hot spring” is bittersweet and melancholy, with some homoerotic tension bubbling beneath the surface. The film is quiet and brilliantly well observed. Despite the fact that almost no one saw the film, it became a critical hit. She followed that film up with last year’s Wendy and Lucy with Michelle Williams as a woman who is travelling across country with her dog, when her car breaks down. Despite the presence of a “star” in Williams, Reichardt did not change her style, and Wendy and Lucy has the same low key realism as Old Joy did. If you do not tear up at the end of that movie, you have no heart. She has another film coming out next year – Meek’s Cutoff – with Williams again alongside Paul Dano, Will Patton, Shirley Henderson and Bruce Greenwood. I for one, cannot wait to see what she does next.

7. Susanne Bier
Danish filmmaker Bier has been working steadily since the early 1990s, but it has only been her last three films where she made a major breakthrough in the international market (and have been seen by me). First there was Brothers (2004) (which has a Hollywood remake coming out in December with Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire), about a soldier supposedly killed in Afghanistan, and the relationship that develops between his formerly no good brother and his wife (Connie Nielson) as well as his kids. Things get complicated when it is revealed that he wasn’t really killed, only taken prisoner, and now he cannot deal with life back home. This was a masterfully directed movie, full of great performances and raw emotions. Her follow-up film, After the Wedding (2006), was nominated for the foreign film Oscar, and was another family drama, about the Danish head of an orphanage in India (Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelsen), who comes home for a family wedding and discovers a dark secret about his family. Again, this was a powerfully made and acted film. After that, Bier moved to Hollywood and directed the underrated Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), featuring an amazing performance by Benicio Del Toro as a recovering drug addict. Halle Berry is also strong as the recently widowed wife of Del Toro’s best friend, who reluctantly puts up with him. This was one of those movies that got lost in the awards season shuffle, and is crying out to be rediscovered on DVD. Bier has at least two films in the works coming up, and I hope she continues her strong streak.

6. Claire Denis
I suspect that many serious film buffs would put Denis much higher on their list. After all, she has been directing great films for more than 20 years now, starting with her debut Chocolat (1988 – not the terrible Juliette Binoche/Johnny Depp movie). She has moved effortlessly between features and documentaries, making such great films as Beau Travail (1999), about a man recalling his life leading the foreign legion in Africa, Friday Night (2002), which takes place almost entirely in a car, but is wonderful nonetheless, The Intruder (2004) about an elderly man who dreams of violence and needs a heart transplant. Her two most recent films, 35 Shots of Rum (2008) is currently in release right now (where I have not had a chance to see it) and White Material (2009), which just played the Toronto Film Festival have also received great reviews. So if Denis is such a masterful filmmaker (and she is, totally eschewing the idea that women cannot be brilliant visual stylists), why is she only number 6? It’s because I no matter how much I admire her films, I am still waiting for one to come along that I completely and totally fall in love with – and the five directors above her all have at least one of those films on their resume.

5. Mary Haron
Mary Haron spends more time directing TV shows – like Homicide, Oz, Six Feet Under, Big Love, The L Word then on her features – like many directors she has to pay her bills this way instead of with movies. But her three features show a director of supreme intelligence and style. Her debut film was the wonderfully weird I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), starring Lili Taylor Valerie Jean Solanas, a woman who becomes a hanger on of Warhol’s, and eventually cracks and shots him (but doesn’t kill him). The film was thoroughly researched, and provides a scarily accurate portrayal of Solanas, giving Taylor her best role to date. Jared Harris is also excellent as Warhol (in fact, he’s probably the definitive screen version of the legend). After that, Haron took a on surprising project with American Psycho (2000), based on Brett Easton Ellis’ controversial novel about a sexist serial killer in the 1980s. Haron played up the satirical nature of the novel, and put a feminist twist on it, delivering a masterwork. It remains the best film she has ever done. Her last film was The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), a brilliant biographical portrait of the famed pin-up model (played with gusto by Gretchen Mol) before her conversion to Christianity. The film is a wonderful portrait of a woman who became a symbol of pornography, as well as sexual liberation, without ever really being conscience of it. The film, shot in brilliant black and white, is also a stylistic breakthrough for Haron. Mary Haron is a talented filmmaker, and one I hope to see more films from in the future.

4. Andrea Arnold
With only one short film, and two features, Arnold has already won an Oscar (for her 2004 short Wasp, a brilliant little movie about a mother who leaves her baby outside as she goes into a bar to get drunk), and two Jury Prizes at the Cannes film festivals for her features. With Red Road (2006), Arnold established she was a brilliant filmmaker with style and storytelling flair. The movie follows a woman who works as a security guard who becomes obsessed with a man she sees on her video monitor and starts following him – for reasons that only become clear late in the movie. Although I have to admit I was let down by the end of the movie – when the resolve of the movie becomes apparent and clichéd – up until then it was an extremely well directed, written and acted movie. Her most recent film, Fish Tank, is a definite step up. It concentrates on a young girl (Katie Jarvis in an amazing performance) living in the housing projects who dreams of becoming a dancer. But this is no romantic rags to riches story, but a grim story about her, and how she becomes close (too close) to her mother’s most recent boyfriend (the great Michael Fassbender). Arnold is a gifted visual stylist, and gets great performances out of her stars. She is a director who is only going to get stronger.

3. Julie Taymor
Before Taymor starting directing movies, she made a name for herself directing musicals such as The Lion King. Her debut feature film was 1999’s brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, simply entitled Titus. The film is a brilliant visual masterwork, which takes one of the Bard’s lesser plays and turns into a both a grand folly, a true tragedy and a statement on modern society. It remains far and away her best film. Her follow-up film was the colorful biopic Frida (2002), about the famed painter Frida Kahlo. The film was more popular than Titus, garnering six Oscar nominations (including one for Taymor who co-wrote a song for the movie), but it was also a safer movie than Titus was. Still, visually masterful though. Her latest film was 2007’s Across the Universe, her uneven, yet still visually stunning musical based on the songs of The Beatles – which she used in new and exciting ways. Yes, the film was somewhat stylistically excessive, but it was also bold and exciting. Next up for Taymor is her Broadway musical version of Spider-Man, and her film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – both due in 2010. I cannot wait.

2. Kathryn Bigelow
Since her directing debut in 1982, with the strange motorcycle film The Loveless starring Willem Dafoe, Kathryn Bigelow has carved out a strange, yet brilliant, directing career for herself. Strange because for a woman, she seems to concentrate on male characters, and is strongly drawn to their masculinity. Yet perhaps because Bigelow is a woman, she is able to view it all critically, and with more honesty, than most male directors. Her big breakthrough films was 1987’s Near Dark, a brilliant mixture of the vampire and Western genres, that Bigelow twisted to meet her own outlook. Her next film ranks as one of her disappointments. Blue Steel (1990) stars Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie cop who becomes the object of a serial killer’s obsession. The film is well made, but too preposterous, and not quite entertaining enough to overlook it. An okay film to be sure, but I expect more for Bigelow. She followed that film up the next year with the immensely entertaining, guilty pleasure Point Break, with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze – a film that has become a staple for action fans, and has been endlessly parodied ever since (most memorably in Hot Fuzz). In 1995, she made the memorable, and underrated science fiction thriller Strange Days, set in late 1999, where Ralph Fiennes plays a man who uncovers a police conspiracy, and tries to stop it. This was a brilliant blend of thriller, science fiction and action movie that most critics didn’t know what to make of. Her next two films were somewhat disappointing though. The Weight of Water (2000), takes a talented cast including Sean Penn and Sarah Polley, and turns it into a bore. The film remains visually interesting throughout, but I couldn’t much care about the story itself. In K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), Harrison Ford and Liam Neesom play Russian submarine officers who disagree on how to handle a malfunction. A fine film, but it plays in comparison to the superior The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide. Her most recent film, The Hurt Locker (2009), is her masterpiece however. The best movie to date about the current war in Iraq, The Hurt Locker drains the situation of the politics and simply concentrates on the day to day lives of the soldiers. Jeremy Renner gives a brilliant performance as a man who becomes addicted to the rush, the danger of defusing bombs, and puts his fellow soldiers in jeopardy. Almost unbearably intense, brilliantly well made, this is one of the great war films of recent years. I look forward to Bigelow doing more great work in the future.

1. Sofia Coppola
I’m sure that just about as many people will love as hate my top choice here. Coppola has become one of those filmmakers that some people love, and some people love to beat up on. I’ll admit that when I heard she was directing her first feature, I assumed that it was little more than nepotism. But that film turned out to be The Virgin Suicides (2000), a brilliant cinematic achievement that tells the story of its sisters in peril from the point of view of the boys across the road. It established Coppola as a real filmmaker, gifted visually, and also at storytelling, and introduced her favorite theme of beautiful young women under glass. Her next film was Lost in Translation (2003), which became the most critically acclaimed film of the year (which is, I believe, what led to the backlash). It remains a funny, thoughtful, brilliant movie about an aging movie star (Bill Murray), and his friendship with Scarlett Johansson’s young, kept wife of a celebrity photographer. The film is subtle and touching, and I still believe, wonderful. Her most recent film, 2006’s Marie Antoinette, took quite a critical drubbing, but no matter what the films undeniable shortcomings are (Coppola had pretty much gone as far as she could in the beautiful women under glass theme in her first two films), it is still a brilliant stylistic exercise, with a great Kirsten Dunst performance at its core. Yes, it could have been better, but I still prefer it to the other cinematic Antoinette’s. Next up, should be Somewhere with Stephen Dorff (hopefully finally living up to his potential) and Elle Fanning sometime in 2010. The reason why Coppola is in the number one slot is simple – out of all of the great filmmakers on this list, a new film from her would make me more excited than anyone else.

No comments:

Post a Comment