Not too long ago I asked the Sound On Sight staff to choose their ten favourite films of all time. The result led to mixed reactions (both by staff and readers), and some angry feedback. But how could any of us select only ten films from the thousands we’ve seen and walk away happy with the results. The fact is, of all the films which received a vote, it was those more widely available who made the cut. In other words, films such as The Godfather and Pulp Fiction stood a greater chance of receiving more ballots than say, obscure foreign gems.
My biggest disappointment with the picks, although only ten films were spotlighted, was the lack of votes for films directed by women. Could it be that none of us here at Sound On Sight valued great directors such as Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman or Lina Wertmüller? Well no, there was those of us who voted for films directed by women, just not enough of us. So I decided to go back and ask our staff to send in a list of their ten favourite films directed by women. Here they are in alphabetical order.
There were three films tied in first place for most votes. Which films? It doesn’t really matter. What is important is to know that every single one of these films comes highly recommended by us. Hopefully it will inspire some of you to seek out those movies you are not yet already familiar with.
Honourable mentions: There were a few films mentioned that were co-directed by a woman including The Turin Horse and Werckmeister Harmonies (both co-directed by Ágnes Hranitzky) – Persepolis (co-directed by Marjane Satrapi) and Little Miss Sunshine (co-directed by Valerie Faris). There are another two co-directed by women which received enough votes to appear down below.
Two short films mentioned by yours truly: Skyscraper by Shirley Clarke and Wasp by Andrea Arnold.
There was some back-and-forth discussion on who exactly directed the 1952 Film Noir On Dangerous Ground. Nicholas Ray is credited as director but Ida Lupino was said to have taken over the production midway through. She remains uncredited but we figured we’d mention it.
Finally, some voted for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse assuming Eleanor Coppola directed the documentary. However the film is credited as directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper using footage filmed by Eleanor Coppola, thus excluding the pic from our list.
(In Alphabetical order)
35 Rhum (35 Shots of Rum)
Directed by Claire Denis
Blending poeticism and realism has been part of Denis’ repertoire for some time but it has never been quite as soulful and seductive as it is with 35 Shots of Rum. Denis, who has called the film a tribute to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, delicately explores the relationship between a widowed Parisian train driver and his university student daughter. Impressively directed, beautifully acted, and with a terrific soundtrack, the painfully slow pacing and relative lack of dialogue may prove off putting to some but 35 Shots of Rum is supremely confident film-making at its very best.
A League of Their Own
Directed by Penny Marshall
“Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard” -Edmund Gwenn
Penny Marshall gets a lot of credit – and deservedly so – for being the first female director to crack the $100 million dollar barrier at the box office, doing it once with Big and a second time with A League of Their Own. (In today’s dollars each film grossed over 200 million.) But her more important and impressive achievement is A League of Their Own, an historical film about a forgotten piece of women’s history that Marshall turned into a mainstream hit. Possibly the first sports film to pass the Bechdel Test, Marshall took a story that could have been turgid and strident and made into a comedic souffle , using the comedic timing she developed first as an actress on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, before becoming a comedy director for Laverne and Shirley and ultimately feature films.
Coming out 20 years after the passage of Title IX – a law that forced colleges and universities funded with federal money to give equal opportunities to female athletes, A League of Their Own, reminded us of what female baseball players accomplished during WWII when given an opportunity and (in a way) predicted a future where women athletes would take the opportunity given to them by Title IX to vault to levels of popularity that rivalled male athletes. It is a hall-mark of great films that before they are made they seem impossible, and afterwards they are much imitated. Without A League of Their Own is it possible to imagine Bend it Like Beckham, Girl Fight, Million Dollar Baby, or the immense popularity of the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team?
Delivering a message without ever preaching, A League of Their Own is one of the best sports films of all time and one of the most fondly remembered. There may be no crying in baseball, but I am delighted this film made our list.
Directed by Mary Harron
Imagery of feeding ATM machines stray cats, violent threesomes with prostitutes and chucking chainsaws down a spiral staircase may seem like the psychotic narcissism of an over-testosterone filled male, but in fact comes from the twisted yet creative mind of female Canadian director and writer Mary Harron in American Psycho. Following a wealthy New York investment banking executive (Christian Bale), Patrick Bateman hides his alternate schizoid ego from his business partners and loved ones, as he escalates deeper into his irregular, gratuitous fantasies. Tossed between actors and directors, first with Johnny Depp and David Cronenberg (Videodrome) and later with Leonardo DiCaprio and Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers), the psychological thriller was certainly not a far stretch in bringing this 2000 cult satire based on Bret Easton Ellis’s novel to unfathomable grotesque heights. The genre-defying director wasn’t an amateur prior to American Psycho to controversial topics. She conquered I Shot Andy Warhol, about the controversial feminist and author of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, Valerie Solanas, in 1996. Blurring the lines between professional realities and personal prisons, American Psycho surely plays as a horror but goes deeper into the torment of the human psyche and sexual conundrums. Why would a woman dive so deep into the dark crevasses of the mental psychosis, especially one that disregards women? Why not? Take the famous business card scene, where Bateman compares business cards with his fellow colleagues. The scene plays anxiously as we hear the nervousness and jealousy in Bateman’s monologue. The audience suffocates with him, as we hear the faintness of a heart beat pulsating alongside the conference table. It’s even quite satirical and funny as we see the blunt similarity between cards and the chauvinistic pride each man exudes of their own. Why, you may ask? Perhaps we need a female touch to make violence come across as art, and Harron certainly does it right.
Directed by Lone Scherfig
While coming-of-age drama and starch collar oppression of newly found sense of freedom can hardly be described as an original subject for British drama, indeed every film between hard knocks urban melancholy seems to be this particular story, rarely has it been done so expertly, and successfully, as with Lone Scherfig’s An Education.
Gorgeously shot in London’s swinging 60’s, providing a wonderful juxtaposition of jazzy fun loving and conservative restraint, this adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir follows 16 year old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a bright and witty school girl on the cusp of a seemingly inevitable trail to Oxford and through it life long boredom. Then she meets the charming and cultured David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man twice her age who immediately earns her affections with his intelligence and wry attitude towards each day, leading her on a romantic adventure showing the best, and eventually worst, the world has to offer.
Though sadness and dishonesty may only be hidden thinly behind the veneer of wish fulfillment and up in arms joy at the better things, An Education retains a positive smile even when the grin fade, positing the value of broken hearts and shattered dreams, and that ever coveted happiness can be drawn from self-care and strength, not blind luck and random chance that should be scrutinized if not dismissed. Led by a superb (and star making) central turn from the uniquely expressive Mulligan and backed by a uniformly outstanding supporting cast, Scherfig paints a bedazzling, seductive and highly memorable picture out of Nick Hornby’s screenplay that navigates the dreamy and the rocky and emerges as a triumphant and deeply endearing tale of discovery, both of life and self.
A New Leaf
Directed by Elaine May
Thirty years ago, May made this darkly savage romantic comedy that really turns the genre on its head and that remains unmatched to date both for its laugh-out-loud humor an its completely unromanticized take on a love story. Matthau plays an aging, unemployable, trust-fund millionaire who, having managed to run through his inheritance, sees no way out but to marry a rich woman. Fate has him grazing shoulders with Henrietta (played by Elaine May herself), a shy, somewhat clumsy heiress lacking in social grace and perhaps a little too interested in botany to make for interesting dinner company. The version that’s available to watch is the watered-down, “palatable” version, and arguably May’s 3-hour original cut of this film is darker and more disturbing to watch. But even this version avoids all the common pitfalls of being either too sentimental or too cynical and whereas one character is perhaps more sympathetic, the other is clearly more attractive. May’s genius lies in finding amidst all this darkness, Renoir’s humanism without succumbing to easy happy-ever-after endings or on the other hand, simple shock-value bitterness. The savagery only adds to the intensity of its romantic center.
Directed by Claire Denis
At once a literate piece of pop music-fuelled psychology and a feminist fetish picture on the curiosity of the male routine, Beau Travail realigns the modern military man with his homoerotic ancestors. Like Greeks glistening in the sun, Claire Denis’ soldiers don’t fight for love or for honour but for the built-in structure of performing tasks dutifully and teasing their physical superiority. Loosely adapted from Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Denis’ evocative ode to repression and regimentation re imagines the classic tale of mutiny in contemporary Djibuti, where a platoon of French foreign legion officers trains for a war that never comes. Gregorie Colin is model recruit Galoup, whose perfection is balanced by his superior’s (Denis Lavant) seething jealousy (or lust). The mysterious and timeless landscape of Africa is the ideal grounds for a masculine rivalry, where the victor comes out on top not through force of strength but by strength of will in suppressing and sublimating the weakness of all men: desire.
Directed by Jane Campion
Perhaps one of the most startling things about Campion’s film is that Keats isn’t necessarily the centerpiece. Nor is his poetry, necessarily. When Campion inserts his poetry into the film, which she does rather frugally, it’s to punctuate and illustrate the film’s themes. One of Campion’s biggest triumphs is to not even attempt to film the poetry or for that matter, to try and explain the process through which poetry is created. Instead, the gorgeous sun-dappled cinematography accomplishes the near-impossible task of having us experience the world through our senses the way Keats seems to have. The film is just as concerned with painstakingly recreating the delicate daily rhythms of domestic life in pre-industrial England as it is in capturing the arduous passion underlying a relationship that’s constantly besieged by sickness and death. Campion and her film are less interested in Keats the genius and the legend and more in the poet too poor to marry and the spunky seamstress that captured his imagination.
Cleo 5 a 7
Varda’s French New Wave masterpiece Cleo 5 a 7 is very different than those of her contemporaries. Among the very few films of the movement about women, Varda also offers a new perspective on youth: namely, the fear of having it slip away. The movement is one that has always been characterized by the youthful rambunctiousness of the male spirit, but through the fragile physical beauty of her character, suggests the painful mortality of the flesh. Set in more or less real time, the time frame, which involves a lot of waiting and nothing, leaves a lot of room for uncomfortable reflection. It allows us to enter into Cleo’s mindset, which could easy to dismiss for its vapidness, except that as much as we aspire to value freedom, love and justice, beauty means a whole lot to us.
Directed by Amy Heckerling
Amy Heckerling has an uncanny talent to make socially-relevant teen films. Her debut film Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) is still considered a significant teen film in popular culture 30 years on from its initial release. In 1995, she wrote and directed one of the more successful adaptations of a Jane Austen novel. Revitalising Austen’s Emma, Clueless stars a then-unknown Alicia Silverstone as the spoilt yet good-natured Cher, who acts as matchmaker amongst the Beverly Hills social elite.
Funny, sweet and imaginative, Clueless was an unexpected success, raising its stars – including Donald Faison, Paul Rudd and the late Brittany Murphy – to international fame. Now, 17 years later, Clueless is one of the very few teen films that has survived the dangers of being dated due to the cultural impact of ‘Valspeak’, its timeless but totally relatable social situations and most importantly, how it just shows how tough life can be for a rich and popular 16-year-old girl from the Hills.
The Decline of Western Civilization
Directed by Penelope Spheeri
It’s a cliché, but it has resonances here and there: we begin our lives in rebellion but end up as much more sedate creatures. Penelope Spheeris broke through with this stellar document of early-80s LA punk; you might not have guessed at the time that she’d wind up as a serial director of safe studio comedies (Black Sheep, Little Rascals, Beverly Hillbillies, etc.). Maybe that’s because Decline is such a seedy blast, replete with candid and sometimes distressing interviews (no one should have been surprised when Darby Crash of The Germs kicked it shortly after the film was released), not to mention plenty of agreeably loose concert footage. Anyone with even a passing interest in punk owes it a watch, whether they’ve moved onto the mortgage or not.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Directed by Amy Heckerling
We’ve got the precocious inexperienced heroine, the cool older brother, the beautiful girl next door, the slacker stoner and the stammering nerd. Sound like almost every high school comedy you’ve ever seen? Well, Fast Times at Ridgemont High did it first. The film manages to rise far above the character tropes to show us the human side of the stereotype and it manages to do it in a way that the film that is most lauded for doing this, John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, never does. In The Breakfast Club, the weird girl still has to put on make up so the jock will like her and the nerd ends up without a girl and having to do everyone’s homework. What’s more, no one in their right mind believes that these five people will even so much as look at each other when Monday comes around. In Fast Times, each character gets their moment in the sun and when characters interact with each other it seems genuine and not just for the sake of subverting stereotypes.
Take Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), your average stoner and slacker. He has his fair share of hilarious mishaps but we also get to see the consequences of his constant slacking off. That this involves one of the best screen teachers in high school comedy history, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), is just a bonus. Or take Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh); she has just started high school and it’s obvious she’s unaware of her effect on guys. Naturally, she’s flattered by the attention she suddenly gets and gets into more than one situation she’s not prepared for. This, too, has some real life consequences for her that we would not find in your average teenage rom-com.
Though the screenplay for Fast Times was written by Cameron Crowe based on his experiences shadowing some real students at a high school, Amy Heckerling’s assured direction makes this film the perfect blend of comedy and pathos, of hilarious moments and heartfelt, emotional ones. Clearly Heckerling knows the ins and outs of the high school crowd (which she would later demonstrate again with the cult classic Clueless). She also manages to get some amazing performances out of some very young actors, many of whom have Heckerling and this movie to thank for their career and stardom.
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold burst into the independent filmmaking world with Red Road and gave the world the latest and most difficult adaptation of Wuthering Heights in 2011. In between those two films she did her best work (to date) in Fish Tank, in which 15 year old Mia’s world is rocked when her mother brings home a new boyfriend, played by the persistently reliable Michael Fassbender. With this and to a less refined extent Red Road, Arnold is the closest a British female director has come to perfecting the social realism ideal in over a decade. In the modern era, Fish Tank is solitary in that it uses the female experience to paint something which has been shied away from in both the classic era of social issues cinema and in modern cinema in general and that is the experience of teenagers in dead-end small time towns, told with a searing honesty and an approach which is never anything less than difficult – an approach that only comes with understanding. Women don’t often get the chance to present their experiences through the medium of cinema; Fish Tank is the answer to that famine. Although clearly set in the modern day with hip-hop and gang culture, this is a film that will last, not because of its rarity, but because of the way the director employs documentarian levels of story and character in an uncompromising look at the real England. Outside of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, who are much more interested in masculinity, nobody makes films like this.
Friday Night (Vendredi Soir)
Directed by Claire Denis
Rarely has a film been so concerned with and attuned to little apart from the accumulation of simple sensory pleasures. The most pared down of all of Denis’s films, it’s also one of her sweetest, warmed and almost certainly the sexiest. The first half of the film is set almost entirely in a traffic jam, a simple sequence that Denis imbues with whimsical playful touches. Denis emphasizes the beauty and poetry to be found in the most quotidian of details – in the rain-soaked cars bumping up against each other, in the glow of the city lights at night, the curling of cigarette smoke. Denis observes her two protagonists in much the same way shooting their encounter almost entirely in abstract close-ups – feet rubbing together, fingers tracing patterns on bare skin, tangling of limbs. The film is a celebration of the simplest of the pleasures, of giving in to the heady pleasures of a night without worrying about what the imminent day might bring.
The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)
Directed by Lucrecia Martel
Lucrecia Martel’s third and most accomplished feature film is a widely framed, delicately composed hallucination. Featuring a tangible, feverish soundscape, this is a film that you could close your eyes and watch. Ostensibly about a possibly-dead dog, The Headless Woman recalls the paranoia of early Polanski and the personal drama of some of Rowlands and Casavettes best collaborations. Murder mystery, senility/psychological drama, and class commentary all wrapped into one.
Directed by Ida Lupino
Longtime friends Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) are driving into Mexico for some respite and escape from their ordinary lives. Roy is the seemingly optimistic one, anticipating their upcoming vacation, whereas Gilbert is a more subdued fellow, experiencing something of a midlife crisis, at least judging by the few lines that help describe his life and thoughts on the past. One evening they pick up Emmett (William Talman), unaware he is an infamous hitch-hiking serial killer who roams the more desolate, rural America. The killer rapidly turns their joyride into a hellish one-way road into danger.
The Hitch-Hiker is a gloriously low budgeted film noir (as so many noirs were) that has never really earned the respect and reputation it deserves. The most probable factor behind its lack of recognition is that, unlike many of the more prominent noirs, seemingly take on an aspect of gritty, pessimistic, paranoid, post-war America, at least not overtly. Lupino makes tremendous use of the rural Mexican setting to highlight just how uncomfortably and desperately alone the two protagonists are with the titular villain holding them hostage. There is so much space to run away, and yet nowhere to really hide and because of that they will have to outwit Emmett is clever fashion if they are to survive the ordeal. William Talman gives a bracing, almost hammy performance which somehow fits perfectly with the story. Tense, well filmed, with some unforgettable scenes (the target practice scene is cringe-worthy in the best way possible), The Hitch-Hiker is a taut thriller and an overlooked gem.
The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Who’d have thought that the director of surfing-action epic Point Break would be responsible for the most visceral and grounded piece of Iraq-related filmmaking to come out of America since the conflict began? The Hurt Locker follows a crack team of US soldiers whose specialty lies in dispatching IEDs – a job that routinely places them in unpredictable and precarious places, as we see in a remarkable opening sequence that depicts the minute effects of a deadly bomb blast. Bigelow makes a number of idiosyncratic choices to ramp the tensions – from counting down the number of days left in the squad’s tour of duty, to an almost complete lack of music in tense scenes. Most intriguingly, she casts relatively obscure players in the lead roles of the three soldiers while relegating A-listers to one-scene bit parts, a sign that on a battlefield this unforgiving and alien, there is no room for heroes. The characters stay focused on survival rather than on heavy-handed moralizing or speechmaking – as they should. The film’s attack-lull-attack-lull structure, while endearingly reminiscent of a modern horror film, does make the 130-minute running time a bit taxing – but it’s nothing compared to a tour of duty.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Even if gender roles and sexuality are foremost and forefront in Chantal Akerman’s provocatively patient 3-hour-plus domestic epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the movie’s reach is not just social and political; it’s psychological and spiritual in the deepest most unnerving way. Delphine Seyrig (queen of experimental cinema) is cryptically sympathetic as the titular Jeanne, a Belgian house-widow, single mother and casual incall escort whose repetitious existence over three days is chronicled in exhaustive detail. Akerman has the eye of a deeply compassionate researcher – sensitive, meticulous, dispassionate – and in so doing drives you to wonder: is Jeanne’s routine a source of relief for her, or a form of repression? Is this a woman who is content with life, or one on the verge of a nervous breakdown? As one hour becomes two become three, tedium morphs into gut-level dread and Jeanne’s modest apartment – initially a place of order and sanity – seems to harbour the seeds of mental disintegration, even violence, in every room and every neatly kept corner. By tight-roping between extremes, in implying much by saying little and using the excessively commonplace to suggest the deeply specific, Akerman and friends manage to exemplify cinema as raw experience. Jeanne Dielman is a movie which you can spend three hours trying to access only to realise that it’s actually you who has been accessed, right to the very core.
Lost In Translation
Directed by Sophia Coppola
After making her directorial debut with her screen adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola returned with a quiet romance between two Americans stranded in Tokyo. The film is a smartly written, well directed mood piece and a study in emotional and geographical alienation. Intimate, thoughtful, touching and more importantly honest, Lost In Translation reassured us that Coppola is a director to be taken seriously.
Directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski
When putting together a list of the top films directed by a woman, we asked what directed meant (co-direction counts) but did not ask what woman meant. There are a number of transgender directors working and making films but by far the highest profile is Lana Wachowski. More so than other films co-directed by a woman, The Matrix, a film whose status in the film community needs little defence, seems to have fallen through the cracks as being considered for the list. Some might reject the film’s inclusion as Lana was still publicly identified as male at the time, and this may have helped avoid certain barriers within the industry that a woman could face, especially working on a big action film. However, gender identity is generally established early so The Matrix, and all other films directed by the Wachowskis, can reasonably be counted as directed by a woman.