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While it’s terrific to see films like Lady Bird, Wonder Woman and to a lesser extent, Raw, get the acclaim they deserve, many other great films from female directors came out in 2017 to little or no fanfare. Is this due to sexism in the film industry? That’s for readers to decide. However, to mark International Women’s Day, we here at HeadStuff selected five of our favourite under appreciated works from stellar female filmmakers to celebrate.
The Bad Batch – Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily Amirpour made a stir back in 2014 with her debut, black and white Iran-set feminist vampire flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. However, while her follow up The Bad Batch proved divisive, it may be her strongest work – unpredictable, darkly comic and completely idiosyncratic.
Set in a near-future United States, Suki Waterhouse plays Arlene, one of many kicked out of the country because she doesn’t meet the nation’s new criteria to be a citizen. Left to fend for herself in a desert outside Texas, she is kidnapped by a cannibal gang who amputate an arm and a leg from her body. Escaping, she stumbles into a makeshift town run by an enigmatic leader named The Dream (Keanu Reeves). However, her path keeps crossing with Miami Man (Jason Momoa), a more sensitive member of the cannibal tribe.
Described by Amirpour as ‘Mad Max meets Gummo meets Pretty in Pink’, The Bad Batch is an eccentric art-house film that’s social commentary feels even more timely now than it did upon release. Displaying a sympathy for the outsiders of society, it is hard not to read the writer-director’s vision of the future as a Trumpian nightmare, particularly when it is revealed Miami Man was kicked out of the US for being an illegal immigrant. Meanwhile, with its emphasis on gorgeous visuals over story and odd but winning creative choices (Jim Carrey as a mute hermit), The Bad Batch is the type of singular vision artistic film that critics complain they do not see enough of. Stephen Porzio
Berlin Syndrome – Dir. Cate Shortland
Berlin Syndrome was Aussie director Cate Shortland’s first foray into genre filmmaking, following her dramas Somersault and Lore. However, her background in more subtle character-focused pictures played a big part in how successful her 2017 thriller ended-up being, particularly in helping her navigate her tricky subject matter with aplomb.
Teresa Palmer plays Claire, an Australian backpacking across Germany. Lonely, things seem to be looking up when she meets Andi (Max Riemelt, Sense8), a handsome German schoolteacher. However, all is not as it seems. It’s not long until Claire’s one-night stand has trapped her in his apartment and is determined to never to let her go.
Berlin Syndrome benefits from a distinct lack of sexualised violence against women, a stigma which tends to stain thrillers of this sort. Instead, Shortland and writer Shaun Grant (working from a novel by Melanie Joosten) mine creepiness from the trivial everyday details of Claire’s circumstances, things which clash jarringly with the craziness of her situation. For instance, Andi trying to maintain the notion their relationship is a standard one, even playing the put-upon boyfriend stereotype when asking his captive why she can’t ‘be normal’. Maintaining white-knuckle tension throughout, Shortland builds to an excitingly and immensely satisfying final act that delivers all the requisite thrills. Stephen Porzio
The Farthest – Dir. Emer Reynolds
Documentary cinema was not historically a genre of film populated by many female directors. As the medium grew, especially in the 60s and 70s with the emergence of the direct cinema documentary movement, the vast majority of the still niche genre was dominated by male directors. Some women made some wonderful films, such as double Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, who made Harlan County U.S.A. in 1976 and American Dream in 1990, but unfortunately these were few and far between. However, in the past 10-15 years, there has been a notable shift in the balance of this fascinating form with the emergence of a range of diverse and hugely talented female film makers making simply wonderful films. It should be noted that in the past 5 years, 7 female directors have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature Oscars; Lucy Walker with Waste Land, Ava DuVernay with 13th, Liz Garbus with What Happened, Miss Simone?, Laura Poitras with Citizenfour, Rory Kennedy with Last Days in Vietnam, Agnes Varda with Faces Places, and Jehane Noujaim with The Square.
Adding to this list of great films is Emer Reynolds with her science inspired multi-award winning documentary The Farthest, released last year. The film follows the creation, design, launch and subsequent overwhelming success of the Voyager Space Probes shot into space by NASA in 1977, and still going. The film serves as a timely reminder of the abilities of great minds that if given the opportunity, can achieve truly great things.
Reynold’s film is bursting with super visuals, endearing interviews and a passion and love for science – not in an academic way – but in a way that celebrates the idea of attempting something so preposterously difficult and then absolutely smashing it. Reynolds makes this feeling brim throughout, a feeling of pride and wonder about this little piece of metal over 21 billion kilometers away. Peter Morris
First They Killed My Father – Dir. Angelina Jolie
Directed by Angelina Jolie, First They killed My Father is based on a memoir by Cambodian writer Loung Ung. It tells the tale of the Khmer Rouge coup and genocide in Cambodia during the early 1970s. While the film makes for harrowing often brutal viewing, it also bears witness to female strength and resilience during conflict and genocide. The story is told through the eyes of a young Loung (played by nine-year-old Sareum Srey Moch). She is the daughter of a military police officer (Phoeung Kompheak) whose role in the deposed authoritarian government has made him a target for the Khmer Rouge.
Viewers follow Loung and her family in their journey out of Phnom Penh as the cities’ inhabitants traverse rural Cambodia encountering violence at military checkpoints and enforced slavery in the Khmer Rouge’s labour camps. Through Loung’s eyes we experience the death of her father, the slow but steady dismantling of her family, and her training as one of the Khmer Rouge’s child soldiers. The violence and horror of the Khmer Rouge is evoked through the aesthetic brilliance of Jolie and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, Antichrist). It tells a story that should not be forgotten, particularly with respect to the gendered experiences of conflict, genocide and forced displacement. On International Women’s Day, it is a film to be celebrated – anchored by the passion, spirit and creativity of Angelina Jolie as a director and Loung Ung as a writer. Fiona Murphy
Maudie – Dir. Aisling Walsh
Sally Hawkins’ flawless turn in The Shape of Water earned her a deserved Oscar nomination. However, it’s also important to highlight her other terrific performance of 2017, her role as Nova Scotian folk painter Maud Lewis in Maudie, directed by Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh.
Suffering from severe arthritis, Maud is denied any agency from her family who believe her disease prevents her from living independently. Running away, she finds work as a live-in housemaid for Everett (Ethan Hawke, channelling latter day Nick Nolte), a rough inarticulate local fisherman. Initially her employer treats her no differently to her relatives. However, the two gradually form a bond as Maud paints animals on the walls of Everett’s house.
Ireland’s most acclaimed female director, Walsh’s work often focuses on the difficulties of living for people who do not conform to their society’s rules. This can be seen in Song for a Raggy Boy, her TV movie Sinners and her two-part adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (also starring Hawkins and the basis for Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden). Maudie may be her most successful work to date, capturing the brutality of such an existence but also a sense of hope as Maud’s circumstances are no match for her resilience and talent. It’s this balance of dark and light, coupled with two terrific turns and a gorgeous Canadian countryside setting, that makes Walsh’s latest worth seeking out. Stephen Porzio