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To mark International Women’s Day, HeadStuff’s Film Writers selected some of their favourite female directed movies from the last two years.
Atlantics, Dir Mati Diop
Just as you thought no more could be done with the ghost story, debut-director Mati Diop uses phantoms to tell a deceptively simple, surprisingly romantic tale. Set along the coast of Dakar in Senegal, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is to be married to a wealthy man. Yet she’s really in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). When he goes missing – believed to have emigrated by boat – strange occurrences plague the place he left behind.
Exploring gender and wealth inequality, the plight of migrants and what happens to those left behind when the latter leave in search of a better life, Atlantics is a heady cocktail of contemporary themes. However, one could watch it and just let cinematographer Claire Mathon’s intoxicating woozy imagery soak over them like Atlantic Ocean mist or simply be taken by the simultaneously unpredictable yet easily understood story. Stephen Porzio
Destroyer, Dir Karyn Kusama
Karyn Kusama is a director to not only love but respect. She broke onto the scene in 2000 with Girlfight starring a then unknown Michelle Rodriguez. This was before working with the bigger studios on Aeon Flux, a film taken away from her in the edit becoming a massive critical failure and a financial flop. And yet, she clawed her way back from what her industry connections called ‘director jail’. This was by helming the smaller scale class cult horrors Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation and last year’s Destroyer, a crime drama which merged a heist thriller with an undercover cop movie, bringing new life to both sub-genres.
An unrecognisble Nicole Kidman stars as a washed-up LAPD detective who decides to take out members of a bank robbing gang of which she has history. This is after she is alerted the leader (a snake-like Toby Kebbell) has resurfaced. Thanks to stellar work by its lead actress, typically confident and muscular direction by Kusama and a twisty time-shuffling screenplay by her frequent scribes Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the bold and brutal Destroyer made HeadStuff’s Top 20 Movies of 2019 list. Between it and Kusama’s recent work on HBO’s The Outsider, directing arguably its season’s most pivotal episode, we cannot wait to see what she does next. Stephen Porzio
Kissing Candice, Dir Aoife McArdle
Irish cinema has really blossomed in the last few years. One of the reasons is greater opportunities for aspiring filmmakers, resulting in more diverse movies being made. That said, none have been as ambitious, memorable and downright unusual as music video helmer Aoife McArdle’s debut feature.
Ann Skelly (who landed a role in Joss Whedon’s upcoming HBO show on the strength of Kissing Candice) stars as the title character, a teenager living in a one-horse-town somewhere in the border counties with her troubled policeman father, Donal (The Fall’s John Lynch). Suffering from severe seizures, she retreats into fantasies where she becomes intimate with a mysterious male. Things get complicated, however, when Candice meets literally the man from her dreams, Jacob (Ryan Lincoln), a former member of a ruthless local gang who Donal wants to put behind bars. Having turned on his partners in crime, the criminals want revenge – targeting Candice.
There is a narrative at Kissing Candice’s core though it’s not what the viewer takes away. Instead, its McArdle’s gorgeous visuals that wash over viewers – a burning toy house in the middle of a road, a man walking stoically as his arm is on fire, a partier’s creepy mask at a neon-drenched nightmare rave. Through these and many other sensorial images, McArdle touches upon many themes – loss of innocence, disenfranchised youth, the knock-on effects of The Troubles. For those wishing Irish directors produced more arthouse and adventurous work, Kissing Candice hits the spot. Stephen Porzio
Little Women, Dir Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig is a phenomenon. For a few years it was always Noah Baumbach and Gerwig (not a bad thing at all), but now she is truly standing on her own. Her two solo directorial efforts have proved that beyond doubt. The first was an original Californian coming-of-age story that is already a classic in its genre. The follow-up though was a potentially risky venture, a remake of a much adored and remade tale.
Gerwig was handed the chalice and the challenge of making this generation’s defining Little Women. She showed in spades that she was the right person for the task. In arguably the strongest film year of the 21st century, this movie held its own. It builds upon previous Little Women adaptations, adding its own layers with its non-linear story line and an even more colourful and imaginative depiction of 1860’s Concord, Massachusetts. The casting is near perfect, and Gerwig draws the very best out of her actors – as if she is a loving mother and they her own little women. Colman Stanley
Madeline’s Madeline, Dir Josephine Decker
First thing: don’t be put off by the film’s dreadful poster where it looks like a cutesy comedy about a theatre kid. This is 90 minutes of pure nerve shredding arthouse drama. Leaving the cinema, I heard one guy say: “Wow, it’s nice to be able to breathe again.” You really wouldn’t expect a film about a young black girl’s immersion in a physical theatre group to deliver Polanski level anxiety, but Josephine Decker pulls it off in this stunning piece of work.
When women make films there’s often an onus on them to create ‘strong female characters’. Helena Howard puts in a rich, deep and brave performance. What’s just as interesting though, are the complex female villains we’re starting to see. Molly Parker’s Evangeline is a smiling, upper-middle class artsy woman who becomes genuinely terrifying as her passive aggressive, appropriating, controlling nature is revealed. Madeline’s Madeline is a film that demands several viewings. Tom Rowley
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Dir Céline Sciamma
“Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” – Heloise (Adele Haenel) asks her partner Marianne (Noemie Merlant) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of many moments of wisdom in Celine Sciamma’s latest which flawlessly captures the highs and lows of a turbulent first true love. Set in 18th century France, the film details the blossoming if ultimately doomed romance between a female artist and her muse who is set to become the wife of a Milanese nobleman.
Portrait is akin to the orchestral sounds of Vivaldi that close the film. It’s so perfect that it is hard to pick apart. Every element just feels right. What’s easier is pointing out the pratfalls of the gothic romantic sub-genre Sciamma avoids. While she keeps the terrifically heightened backdrop – a mansion surrounded by crashing waves housing a trapped maiden – there’s no superfluous male characters, hammy villains or artificial deceptions driving the central pair apart. The real tragedy in Portrait is left unsaid, that these two women – stunningly played by Haenel and Merlant – were born in the wrong time, their union forbidden because of the repression and social norms of the era they live in.
It’s to Sciamma’s great credit, however, that Portrait ends in a way which captures the weight of this tragedy while still retaining a beauty and hope. Shakespeare said: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ Sciamma seems to feel the same way. Stephen Porzio
Revenge, Dir Coralie Fargeat
Is a rape-revenge movie more feminist if it’s directed by a woman? The jury is still out on that because, well, there are very few rape-revenge movies directed by women. But it’s a question we should ask because like every other ideology and movement, feminism is something that evolves through social, political and cultural conversations. Revenge may or may not be feminist but it kicks an unholy amount of ass regardless of its gender and power politics. After the flirty Jen (Matilda Lutz) is raped, impaled and left for dead by her boyfriend and his buddies, she crawls away, cauterises her wound with a phoenix emblazoned beer can and goes on the warpath.
Revenge is as stylish as it is brutal. Blood red, sulphurous yellow and hot pink contrast against writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s scrubland setting. The first-time feature filmmaker minimises the violence inflicted on her main character while maximising that which is inflicted on her attackers. Eyes are gouged out; heads are blown up and hands are pushed into open wounds in a film whose beauty and brutality exist side by side. Revenge might not be the ultimate feminist takedown but it doesn’t need to be. The act of having Fargeat in the director’s chair for this kind of film is radical enough. Andrew Carroll
The Souvenir, Dir Joanna Hogg
There’s an aching throughout Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical drama which never really goes away. Following the exploits of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student struggling with a relationship while trying to find her voice in a masculine-dominated field, every time she appears to make a breakthrough – whether in university or in her personal relationship with her parasitic boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) – a rebuke is just around the corner which sends her back into herself.
Through beautiful, languid camera shots and delicate understated performances, The Souvenir tells a story of the struggle of a young woman to find her voice that will leave the viewer with much to mull over. I suspect that, despite its seemingly straight-forward narrative, there are many hidden meanings in the sumptuous sets and subtle interactions that require multiple viewings to fully appreciate. Sarah Cullen
You Were Never Really Here, Dir Lynne Ramsay
You Were Never Really Here often feels like having your hand plunged into broken glass. It takes real skill and talent for a movie to feel like it’s shredding your nerves with a potato peeler. Lynne Ramsay’s evocative, thoughtful and sliced to the bone thriller is an empathetic evisceration of a film. Over a woozy 90 minutes she introduces us to Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) a trauma riddled ex-soldier and FBI agent who moonlights as an enforcer whose specialty is rescuing girls from sex traffickers. When he is called to help Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a Senator’s daughter, Joe blows open a conspiracy that will push him right to the edge.
You Were Never Really Here is a film that holds up over multiple viewings. It is at once a deeply satisfying thriller and a complex examination of abuse and the connections survivors forge. Phoenix’s hulking performance as Joe is given real vulnerability by the slicing cuts Ramsey uses to link his childhood, wartime traumas and his current existence on the brink of suicide. As good as Phoenix is, Samsonov is just as good disguising Nina’s survival instincts as an empty hollowness. For much of its runtime You Were Never Really Here offers no hope, no chance of survival. That is until the barest hints of smiles appear on Joe and Nina’s faces in the last shot. Their bodies might bear scars and their minds may be full of sharp shards of memory but hope remains. Andrew Carroll
Zama, Dir Lucrecia Martel
What a delightful queer fish of a movie. It’s surreal, but never in a showy way, more quietly barmy. The tale of Zama, a colonial administrator in Paraguay trying to maneuver a transfer, it’s a film where things nearly make sense, and then the feeling of near-sense grows and envelops the viewer. Just as the hero is befuddled by bureaucracy, we too are immersed in a sleepy chaos.
Partly it’s the shooting style. Many scenes occur in one elegantly framed shot where tiny surprises will puncture the frame – a llama will wander into the background or a new character will be revealed to have been in a room all along unseen. Most provocatively, we see slaves – just as Zama would – as background. Mid-scene we’ll suddenly realise several are present but he has barely noticed. Or a conversation will take place while one party calmly paints white stripes onto a sitting slave as though he’s a canvas. The movie’s strength is never allowing the past to feel natural, alerting viewers constantly to its peculiarity. Tom Rowley