The dA-Zed guide to cult female filmmakers

After only watching movies made by female directors for six months, film buff Marya E Gates cherrypicks her favourites

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A-Z of Girl Films 5

Having spent my entire life obsessively consuming movies (including that one post-college year I lived in the back of my parent’s house and watched 1,117 new-to-me films), I realised a few years back that although I’d seen quite a few films directed by women, I hadn’t really sought them out. This thought came about around the same time I started to really get sick of all the men in movies (I swear I’m not misandrist. Well, most of the time.) So I decided to start writing about one film a week directed by women. This eventually evolved into the idea of spending an entire year watching nothing but films directed by women. I’m almost six months into "A Year With Women", and it has been just as refreshing and educational as I could have hoped. But this isn’t just about me and my love of films, I want this project to help others discover films by women as well. As Dazed announces its Female Firsts director’s initiative, we run through an ABCs of films by 26 different women, all of which are worth your time. Think of this as a jumping off point in your own journey with women directors, past and present.

A IS FOR APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR (DESIREE AKHAVAN) 

Writer-director-actress Desiree Akhavan’s debut feature Appropriate Behavior is like Annie Hall, if Woody Allen were a bisexual Persian-American woman. In the film Akhavan plays Shirin, a twenty-something Brooklynite who’s going through a break up from hell. We see her relationship with ex, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), in flashbacks, which run concurrently with her grieving process – which includes a new lingerie, a Craigslist hook-up and a three-way. Add in millennial job search angst and very traditional parents who don’t quite know their daughter’s sexual orientation and what you’ve got is a delightful take on the post-college life crisis film.

B IS FOR BRIGHT STAR (JANE CAMPION)  

In Bright Star, Jane Campion uses her poetic style to tell the doomed love affair of Romantic Era poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). The two leads have strong chemistry and the film’s sexual tension balanced within the period-specific atmosphere is pure Campion. Not only is this film a stirring love story, it’s also a Romantic-era style poem in and of itself, as Campion creates tableaux from fields filled with purple flowers and close-ups of butterflies flexing their wings. Add to this Whishaw’s sumptuous voice reciting Keats’ poems and love letters, and the result is pure cinematic poetry.

C IS FOR CLUELESS (AMY HECKERLING)   

After setting the tone for the American teen movie in the 1980s with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling did the same for the 1990s with her now cult classic Clueless. Heckerling’s loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma (the Beverly Hills version), launched the careers of Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy, Donald Faison and Paul Rudd. Taking a satirical look at both the Beverly Hills glitterati and teen movies themselves, it also introduced into the lexicon important phrases like, “As if!” Every girl in the 90s wanted Cher’s computerized closet, massive wardrobe and posh lifestyle. Well received when it was first released, the film has now become of a staple of summertime outdoor film screenings and midnight shows.

D IS FOR DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (SUSAN SEIDELMAN) 

After making a splash with indie debut Smithereens, Susan Seidelman took a Hollywood budget and married it with her DIY spirit and punk aesthetic. Starring Rosanna Arquette as a bored New Jersey housewife and Madonna as the free spirit she become obsessed with, Desperately Seeking Susan is a gonzo female fairytale come to life. Mostly set in grimy pre-gentrified Manhattan, the film is stuffed full of vintage clothes, funky apartments, outdated magicians, cigarette girls, and killer music. Plus, you’ve got Aidan Quinn, and his bluer-than-blue eyes, as a film projector love interest. This movie has everything.

E IS FOR EVE'S BAYOU (KASI LEMMONS)    

After working as an actress for nearly 20 years, writer-director Kasi Lemmons broke out as an essential voice with her debut feature film Eve’s Bayou. Creating a classic tale akin to the likes of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury but in a world all its own, Eve’s Bayou is a coming-of-age tale that could only come from a Black American voice. Lemmons takes on issues of race, class, sexuality and family with insight and grace. Although the film didn’t receive any Academy Award nominations, it was widely considered one of the best films of 1997, winning Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

F IS FOR FISH TANK (ANDREA ARNOLD)    

A distinctly female take on the traditional Kitchen Sink Realism films from the 1950s and 1960s (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar etc.), Fish Tank stars Katie Jarvis as Mia, an angst-ridden 15-year-old girl living with her mother and younger sister on an east London council estate. When her mother brings home a new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), who encourages her love for hip hop dance, Mia finds herself uncontrollably drawn to him. The film’s frank exploration of female desire, masculine predatory behavior and mother-daughter family dynamics is refreshing and its use of the female gaze is a wonderful subversion of typical filmic language, especially when that gaze is mostly focused on shirtless Fassy.

G IS FOR GIRLFRIENDS (CLAUDIA WEILL)   

Lena Dunham has cited Claudia Weill’s independent dramedy from 1979 as one the biggest influences for Girls and in 1980 Stanley Kubrick called the film “one of the most interesting Hollywood films” he’d seen. Shot on weekends over the course of a year, Girlfriends stars Melanie Mayron as Susan, a twenty-something photographer whose life is upended when her roommate/best friend gets married and moves out of the New York City apartment the two share. What’s so great about this film is its honest portrayal of how unstable your twenties can really be. Susan loses friends, gains friends, deals with weird roommates, goes on bad dates, has good sex, has bad sex, has career highs and lows. We’ve all been where Susan is and hopefully, like Susan, we all came out on the other end the better for it.

H IS FOR HESTER STREET (JOAN MICKLIN SILVER)    

Set in the late 1890s, Hester Street tells the story of Jewish immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side. Fans of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might get a kick as Carol Kane is Kimmy’s landlord, Lillian. In this film, Kane plays Gitl whose husband Yankle, who now goes by Jake, has finally earned enough to bring her over from the old country. Gitl and their son have a tough time assimilating to American life, which causes marital strife. Kane received an Oscar nomination for her subtle, sympathetic performance as a woman who finds her own freedom and sense of self while fighting for her right to maintain her traditional identity in a distinctly modern environment.

I IS FOR I WILL FOLLOW (AVA DUVERNAY)     

Superstar director Ava DuVernay’s first narrative feature, I Will Follow was shot in just 15 days in one location in Topanga Canyon, California. It stars Salli Richardson-Whitfield as Maye, a woman who looks back on her life as she packs up her late-Aunt’s home. What it lacks in plot, it makes up in complex character development. We see Maye’s whole life as it is reflected in her relationships with her others, from her aunt (Beverly Todd) who was a badass drummer, to her cousin who resents her, and the men in her life (Omari Hardwick, Blair Underwood). Eventually, Maye realizes that sometimes the most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself.

J IS FOR JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE I.R.T. (LESLIE HARRIS)      

Just Another Girl On The I.R.T. isn’t just another coming-of-age film. It’s got a unique voice and a unique narrator in Chantel Mitchell (Ariyan A. Johnson), a smart and sassy African-American girl growing up in the Brooklyn projects. Chantel is book-smart and determined, arguing with her teachers and ready to graduate early and go on to college to become a doctor. However, after an unplanned pregnancy upsets her agenda, her confidence deflates and a lack of real-world knowledge threatens her dreams. This is the kind of movie that makes you glad movies exist, because it shines light on a world and a kind of girl that often doesn’t get her story told. She’s rough, but she’s fun and we’re should be grateful Leslie Harris managed to get this film made so we can hang out with Chantel whenever we want.

K IS FOR KRYLYA (WINGS) (LARISA SHEPITKO)       

After studying with Alexander Dovzhenko, Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko went on to make eight feature films before dying in a car accident while location scouting for her next film. Her second feature, Krylya (Wings) is a contemplative, soulful look at the life of a once heroic Soviet fighter pilot, Nadezhda (Maya Bulgakovа), who now works as a principal, but longs for her glory days in the sky. What Nadezhda doesn’t see is that her life is still heroic, just in a way that isn’t lauded in the way it should be.

L IS FOR LITTLE WOMEN (GILLIAN ARMSTRONG)        

Based on the beloved children’s classic of the same name by Louisa May Alcott, this is the ultimate adaption of Little Women. Made during the height of 90s girl power and Wino Forever fever, Winona Ryder stars as Jo March, the spunky tomboy and would-be writer every little girl in the 90s wanted to be. One of five sisters growing up in Civil War-era Connecticut, Jo wants to be a writer so badly she turns down a perfectly good marriage proposal by her rich neighbour and best friend Laurie (a baby-faced Christian Bale) and heads off to New York to find her place in the world, which just happens to be by the side of super-hot Prof. Bhaer, played by peak Gabriel Bryne. Ryder received an Oscar nomination for her spirited performance and the film’s cast is rounded out by Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes and Susan Sarandon.

M IS FOR ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (MIRANDA JULY)         

Miranda July's debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know rests somewhere between comedy and drama, but firmly in romance. A rom-com for the art film set, July plays Christine a video artist desperate for her own show who meets recently separated shoe salesman Richard (John Hawkes) and falls head over heels. Their chemistry is undeniable and the film's closing scenes are as romantic as any that have ever graced the silver screen. “We have a whole life to live together you fucker, but it can't start until you call,” Christine laments alone in her room waiting for Richard to call her. You have your whole life to love this movie, but it can’t start until you watch it.

N IS FOR NIGHT CATCHES US (TANYA HAMILTON)          

Set in 1976, Night Catches Us stars Anthony Mackie as Marcus, a former Black Panther who returns to his Philadelphia neighbourhood for his father’s funeral. Most of his former acquaintances (including his brother) shun him, but he is welcomed by Patricia (Kerry Washington), the widow of the man Marcus supposed snitched on. The film is worth a watch for Mackie and Washington’s chemistry alone, but it’s Hamilton’s creative use of historical photographs and footage of the real Black Panther Party that really elevates this film above a run-of-the-mill redemption drama.

O IS FOR OBVIOUS CHILD (GILLIAN ROBESPIERRE)           

While Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature film will probably always be remembered as that “abortion rom-com,” it is so much more than that. Jenny Slate stars as Donna, a Brooklynite stand-up comic who, after her boyfriend breaks up with her and she loses her job, gets drunk and has a one-night stand. After discovering that she is pregnant and deciding to get an abortion, she also begins to have feelings for the guy from the one-night stand, Max (Jake Lacy). This isn’t a movie filled with movie characters, but rather women who feel like someone you would actually know IRL. Gaby Hoffmann and Polly Draper give stand-out performances as Donna’s BFF and mom, respectively, both sharing their own experiences with abortion. What’s so groundbreaking about this film is that not only does this film seek to de-stigmatize abortion, it’s also is a winning romantic comedy by women for women about women, possibly reigniting a genre that seems to be dying.

P IS FOR PARIAH (DEE REES)            

As emotionally resonant as it is visually stunning, Pariah stars Adepero Oduye as Alike, an African-American teenager whose relationship with her family becomes strained as she embraces her lesbian identity. Punctuated with Alike’s poetry, the film explores the turbulence of sexual discovery and the strength it takes to forge your own place in the world when you’ve outgrown the one your parents have made for you. Oduye’s fearless performance earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination and writer/director Dee Rees went on to further explore society-defying sexual expression in the recent HBO biopic Bessie.

Q IS FOR THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (LAUREN GREENFIELD)             

Filming on Lauren Greenfield’s documentary started before the recession of 2008 and was meant to focus on the Siegel family, owners of the largest timeshare company in the world, as they build what was the largest private residence in America – Versailles. However, after the recession hit, Greenfield got an inside look as Siegel’s company flounders and the family tries to reassess their spending habits. This beautifully shot documentary is a searing look at the American Dream, the lifestyles of the rich and biting social commentary all rolled into one.

R IS FOR RESPIRE (MÉLANIE LAURENT)            

Anyone who has ever been a teenage girl knows that the worst time you’ll ever have in life is being a teenage girl. Hollywood has rarely portrayed teenage girls as deep, complex creatures. Luckily, we have films like Respire that aren’t afraid to go there. The film stars Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge as new-found friends whose close friendship takes a dark turn. This is the rare film that shows the extremities of adolescent friendships, from the highs of finding someone just like you, to the lows of jealously and even rage that that person can make you feel. It’s both refreshingly honest and utterly chilling.

S IS FOR SOMEWHERE (SOFIA COPPOLA)             

After winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (by a jury that was headed by Quentin Tarantino, who insisted the win was not because Coppola is a friend, but rather because it’s “a great fucking movie”), Sofia Coppola’s fourth feature film received a love-it or hate-it reception from most critics. Told in a very minimalist style, most of the action in Somewhere takes place at Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont, where actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is recovering from an injury. The heart and soul of the film comes from Marco’s interactions with his pre-teen daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). Their relationship is awkward, not yet strained, but Marco knows that’s where it’s headed and isn’t quite sure how to balance his re-ignited fatherly feelings and his bourgeoning career. The film is enhanced by Coppola’s unique visual style and a killer score by French band Phoenix.

T IS FOR TANK GIRL (RACHEL TALALAY)             

Based on the comic books of the same name by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, there really isn’t anything quite like Tank Girl. A mishmash of animation, live action, VXF and animatronics, essentially the film is about a sexually adventurous alt-girl named Rebecca aka Tank Girl (Lori Petty, in the role of a lifetime), living in a drought-ridden post-apocalyptic Australian outback circa 2033. Somehow, all her references are firmly from the late-80s/early-90s, but that just adds to the film’s bizarre charm. The cast is also a hoot: brunette Naomi Watts as Jet Girl, devious Malcolm McDowell as the corrupt head of Water & Power and Ice-T as a mutant half-human half-kangaroo who may or may not be reincarnated from a cop. Did I say there’s nothing quite like Tank Girl already?

U IS FOR UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (AUDREY WELLS)              

Inspired by Frances Mayes’ memoir of the same name about buying and renovating a ramshackle villa in Tuscany, Under the Tuscan Sun is like a big, warm hug. Diane Lane shines as Frances, a recently divorced writer who, while on a “Gay and Away” trip to Tuscany gifted to her by her friends, falls in love with a house and buys it before she has time to think. Lindsay Duncan adds flavour as a local British ex-pat who seems to have fallen out of a Fellini film. Marketed as a romantic comedy, this is more about a woman finding her own sense of self far away from all the things she thought she knew. It’s also filled with so much good food and luscious Tuscan landscapes that you’ll want to visit it over and over again.

V IS FOR VALLEY GIRL (MARTHA COOLIDGE)               

Unrelated to the Frank and Moon Unit Zappa song, Valley Girl is a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. Julie (Deborah Foreman), is a popular girl who lives in the San Fernando Valley part of Los Angeles with her hippie parents (who just got married). After breaking up with her obnoxious boyfriend, she meets Randy (Nicolas Cage), a punk rocker who lives in Hollywood. Can these two crazy kids make it work, despite their socio-economic differences? Since this is a romantic comedy and not Shakespeare, odds are yes. But even though you know what’s gonna happen, the ride is peppered with one of the greatest soundtracks from the 80s (including the best date montage ever, as set to Modern English’s “I Melt With You”.)

W IS FOR WANDA (BARBARA LODEN)                

Although writer/director/star Barbara Loden was married to acclaimed director Elia Kazan during filming, Wanda is firmly her film. Inspired by a newspaper article about a woman who thanked a judge for sending her to prison, Loden also used autobiographical elements to the tell the story of a woman adrift in coal country, USA. Shot on 16mm with a crew of four people, the story follows the titular Wanda as she walks out on her husband and kids, only to find herself, as Loden put it, without the proper equipment to deal with life. Eventually, taking up with a bank robber, Wanda slowly loses her sense of self – that is, if she ever had it to begin with. It’s a brutal film, but also one so raw and personal that it stays with you long after the screen fades to black.

X IS FOR XXY (LUCÍA PUENZO)                 

Set on the Uruguay coast, Lucía Puenzo’s debut drama XXY tells the story of 15-year-old intersex Alex (Inés Efron), who has been raised a girl. Alex is 15 and exploring sexuality for the first time, unsure if she’s more attracted to boys or girls. Unbeknownst to Alex and her supportive father, her mother has invited a noted Argentine plastic surgeon to consult on transitioning her fully to physically resembling a woman. Puenzo tackles Alex’s search for identity and her struggle for the acceptance of her parents and those around her with a deft, compassionate hand.

Y IS FOR YOU'VE GOT MAIL (NORA EPHRON)               

With You’ve Got Mail, the third (and so far last) on-screen pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, Nora Ephron gives the 1940 classic The Shop Around The Corner her genius rom-com touch. Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly who runs a children’s bookstore called “The Shop Around the Corner,” which she inherited from her mother. Her idyllic life gets up-ended when a mega-bookstore Fox Books (modeled off of Barnes & Noble) announces it’s opening a new store nearby. Kathleen turns to her AOL pen-pal for advice, but little does she know that he is actually Joe Fox, owner of Fox Books. Things work out just as you think they will, but book nerds will get a kick out of all the books mentioned and 90s nostalgia lovers will have a hoot reminiscing the days of dial-up and email that greeted you every time you logged on.

Z IS FOR ZERO MOTIVATION (TALYA LAVIE)                

Based on her own experiences serving in Israel Defense Forces, Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation is a dramedy about three very different young women serving in the Israeli army. The film is in three parts, each part focusing on one of the young women and her unique take on military life. The film has lots to say about women’s friendship, sexism, sexual liberation, job dissatisfaction, upward mobility and ambition. Also, if you ever wanted to see a staple gun fight over a game of minesweeper, this is the film for you.

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