With the upcoming DVD/Blu-ray release of Sarah Polley’s second directorial feature, Take This Waltz, the Canadian-born writer/director builds upon the promising foundation of her filmmaking career.
Polley follows up her acclaimed and Oscar-nominated debut, Away from Her (2006), with a simply honest portrayal of a woman’s struggle to fill the gaps in her seemingly happy marriage. Boasting crisp cinematography, good writing, and believable character depictions, the effort mostly succeeds in coming across as composed and genuine. While Michelle Williams predictably delivers a solid performance, it’s difficult at times to understand or empathize with her predicament and decisions, due to their impulsive and somewhat erratic nature. Seth Rogen as the naively loving, slightly disconnected husband and Sarah Silverman as the strangely wise alcoholic sister-in-law both fill their supporting roles effectively. It’s worth a look if you’re curious.
As female-directed films slowly, but steadily, trickle into the circulation of independent and mainstream features, it’s a worthwhile exercise to celebrate the trailblazers as well as acknowledge those emergent forces following in their path. After the jump are ten of the greatest films directed by women along with some honorable mentions.
10. Big (1988) – Penny Marshall
As one of the quintessential desires of little kids, Penny Marshall’s light-hearted family comedy plays on the expectations and surprises that come with growing up. Tom Hanks embodies the man-child’s navigation through the adult world in a fun and endearing meditation on accepting the natural timing of life. The choreography of the piano playing scene is delightfully memorable and I’m tempted to try cashing a check at the bank requesting “three dimes, one hundred, and eighty-seven ones.” Hanks was nominated for an Oscar for Best Lead Actor and the original screenplay also received a nomination.
9. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
A dysfunctional family’s misadventures in getting their young daughter to a beauty pageant result in an offbeat comedy with reflections on uniting people in the face of adversity. The unlikely ensemble cast accentuates all the quirks of their respective characters, each eliciting empathy in their own way. Paul Dano’s dramatic outburst after taking a lengthy vow of silence, Steve Carrell as the poetically insecure gay uncle, and Alan Arkin as the wry, drug-addicted grandfather account for much of the hilarity of the story. Arkin went on to secure the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, his first, and writer Michael Arndt also won for Best Original Screenplay.
8. An Education (2009) – Lone Scherfig
Though based on a true memoir of a bright young girl seduced by an older man in 1960s London, the open nature and ease with which such a tabooed relationship actually transpires is somewhat unbelievable. The convincing, performances, however, make the absurdity of the situation more readily approachable. Peter Sarsgaard, as David, makes his first impression as a suave, sophisticated playboy but upon further inspection, he’s shady and insecure, creepy even. Carey Mulligan, in an Oscar-nominated role, effortlessly blends childlike gullibility with traces of mature realization to portray Jenny’s nuanced development and predicament. Once the initial luster wears off, you never end up wanting them to be together and frustration builds at Jenny’s delusion. The lesson she finally comes to accept at the end is handled a bit obtusely, but effective nonetheless.
7. Across the Universe (2007) – Julie Taymor
With a background in stage design, it’s no wonder Julie Taymor’s Beatles-inspired musical is a visually stunning work of craftsmanship. The art direction and production design capture the essence of the beloved Rock legends throughout the many phases of their storied career together. Featuring more than a handful of the greatest songs from their extensive catalog sang by the film’s cast, including Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachael Wood, Joe Anderson and even Bono, the film is a tantalizing experience for Beatles fans. Granted, the storyline is a bit generic, but there’s more than enough pageantry to offer distraction.
6. Julie & Julia (2009) – Nora Ephron
This unique blend of a biopic paralleling a modern-day true story makes for a charming homage to Julia Child. With its great production design, costuming, and writing the film deftly portrays the lively cook’s persona and contagious spirit. Meryl Streep pulls off another vibrant and uncanny performance to reacquaint old fans with the legendary foodie and bring her to life for new ones. Even with some of the more questionable recipes recreated (it’s probably impossible to make meat jello look appetizing), the movie makes classic French food look delicious.
5. The Hurt Locker (2008) – Katheryn Bigelow
Full of suspense at every turn and adrenaline flowing like life-support, Katheryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner of 2010 examines the psychology behind a reckless, bomb-diffusing soldier. Jeremey Renner’s Sgt. William James encounters the thrills and dangers of modern warfare with a simultaneously heroic and disturbing zeal. It’s a surprising relief that there’s no overt political message, other than the potentially addictive nature of war, which makes the thriller easy to immerse in. It also went on to make history at the Oscars, with Bigelow becoming the first woman to ever win an achievement in directing.
4. The Beaver (2011) – Jodie Foster
Jodie Foster, with the help of Mel Gibson’s seemingly boundless aptitude for intensity, takes on a heavy topic in one man’s unconventional method of coping with a progressively worsening case of depression. Spiraling into a destructively diminished enthusiasm for life Walter, Gibson, detaches himself from reality by adopting a beaver hand-puppet as his mouthpiece. It tugs at the heart-strings to see Walter as he fluctuates between recovery and relapse, and how his struggle affects his concerned family, who humor and support him. Gibson delivers a powerful and hauntingly dark performance which borders on being more real than act, easily worthy of a nomination.
3. American Psycho (2000) – Mary Harron
In this deliciously visceral adaptation of the Brett Easton Ellis satire on American materialism and status obsession, Christian Bale is the disturbed Patrick Bateman, who hides his sociopathic impulses behind his immaculately tailored corporate facade. Driven to lunacy by the irony of his bottled misanthropic sentiments coupled with his desire to fit in, he leads a double life–investment banker by day, psychotic deviant by night. Featuring great writing (The Phil Collins speech is a classic), acting, Reese Witherspoon as the shallow nagging fiance and Willem Defoe as the pesky detective are fabulous supports, and directing, Mary Harron delivers a morbidly clever effort. If you were ever curious to see the deranged precursor to Bruce Wayne, something which very well may be considered heresy, American Psycho comes close. Now every time someone hands me a business card, I can’t help but hear the sound of metal unsheathing to signal the imminent duel of egos and I have to conceal my inappropriate smirk.
2. The Piano (1993) – Jane Campion
The tale of a voiceless woman who relies on the music of her piano to communicate and develop emotional connections is told with subtle and warm sensitivity. And you know the acting has to be pretty darn good if you’re playing a mute and end up with the golden statue anyways. Such is the feat Holly Hunter pulled off with her role in Jane Campion’s romantic drama set in 17th century New Zealand. Along with Anna Paquin, the second youngest Oscar winner ever, the duo swept the Best Actress categories and Campion won for Best Original screenplay.
1. Lost in Translation (2003) – Sofia Coppola
Having a penchant for melancholic characters, Sofia Coppola creates the perfectly endearing, yet unlikely duo when she subjects the aging, washed-up actor, Bob Harris, and snobby, educated young cynic, Charlotte, to the culture shock of Tokyo. The quiet, subdued performances by the eternally deadpan Bill Murray and unsuspectingly versatile Scarlett Johansson make for convincing chemistry between the two as they explore an indefinable friendship . The film, speculatively autobiographical in some of its components, earned Coppola the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2004. The screenplay is undoubtedly one of the featured charms, but it still drives many wild wondering what Bob whispers in Charlotte’s ear at the end. Might it have been “for relaxed times, make it Santory times?”
Awakenings (1990) – Penny Marshall
The Virgin Suicides (1999) – Sofia Coppola
Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – Kimberly Peirce
Frida (2002) – Julie Taymor
Monster (2003) – Patty Jenkins
Fish Tank (2009) – Andrea Arnold
Winter’s Bone (2010) – Debra Granik
The Kids Are All Right (2010) – Lisa Cholodenko
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – Lynne Ramsey
Brave (2012) – Brenda Chapman
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) – Lorene Scafaria
The list is up for debate of course, so by all means, have at it.
Comment and discuss!