Yes, the sad fact remains: Men still make the vast bulk of American feature films. And while more and more women are indeed finding their voices in the cinematic firmament all the time, we still frequently have to pick carefully through a small sliver of major releases to find the female directors. This is all common knowledge, sadly, and a lament frequently howled by feminists and aspiring female directors from the halls of film schools the world over.
It was announced this year that a high-profile, big budget Wonder Woman film would finally be made by a major studio, currently set for release in June of 2017. Michelle MacLaren, a producer on “Braking Bad” and “The X-Files,” was selected to direct. While it’s nice to see a woman at the helm of what promises to be an enormous summer tentpole movie, and it’s a relief to see that Wonder Woman can finally play alongside the Supermen and Batmen of the world, I can’t help but feel a pang of dismay. It appears to me that MacLaren was selected not for her voice or her talent, but because of her gender. It’s feminist affirmative action. Had she been selected to make a major release about a male character, then we could see the marketplace kind of evening out. We will see about MacLaren’s cinematic voice when that film comes out; perhaps she has a striking and original aesthetic, and will make an excellent film.
Until that moment, we should take time to reflect. Let us consider the women who did make movies this year, and who brought their own unique voices to cinema, pointing out to audiences that – oh yeah – women have a perspective too. Women, these filmmakers have breezily declared, can be just as strong, just as complex, just as interesting as their male counterparts. There were some excellent films by women in 2014, and we should celebrate the feminist films they made.
As such, here is a list of the best feminist icons of 2014.
Ana Lily Amirpour
One of the best films of the year was an obscure Iranian vampire thriller called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. That more critics aren’t talking about this one is something of a pity. Amirpour imagines an imaginary Bad City somewhere in Iran that contains criminals, drug addicts, pimps and hookers. Oh yes, and a single vampire woman (Sheila Vand) who quietly stalks the streets eating the pimps and protecting the hookers.
This is not a revenge fantasy, though, and while it does deal with vampires and murder, it doesn’t play like an exploitation film. If anything, it’s a Jarmuschian jazz-like riff on exploitation movies. There is something ineffably thoughtful, odd, and philosophically aggressive about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s black-and-white smoothness and eerie, nightmarish tone are unlike anything I have seen in a film before. And it deals with a woman’s concerns, even if that woman is an ancient creature who drinks blood at night.
There is a moment when our heroine is stalking a young boy, maybe 7 or 8, down an alleyway. He is clearly terrified, but dares not run. In an instant, the woman is upon him. He seems to instinctively know she is a monster. She hisses at him. He recoils. She demands that he be a good boy, or else she will sneak into his window at night and murder him, an act she seems capable and willing to execute. The boy agrees that he’ll be good, and runs away in a fearful panic. The woman stands up and smiles quietly to herself. A young boy – she seems to think to herself – who won’t grow up into a woman-abusing asshole. We should all have that power.
I have to admit that I haven’t seen Gillian Robespierre’s comedy film Obvious Child, starring Saturday Night Live alumna Jenny Slate, but just its premise – and its open willingness to tackle a touchy woman’s issue – still warrants some sort of discussion in feminist circles. Slate plays a young and aspiring comedienne, still mired in the second childhood of her 20s, who finds herself staring down an unplanned pregnancy. It’s time to grow up, lady, and make some decisions.
But, by all reports, this is not a slapstick farce about wacky pregnancy antics, but a thoughtful comedy that uses wry humor to ask questions about a woman’s right to choose. Some people are calling it The Abortion Movie. By its premise alone, I call it a voice in an important conversation.
Although 2014’s Belle may seem, on paper, like a typical costume BBC-ish melodrama history lesson for progressives – it tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a half-black woman being raised in half-secret by a wealthy white family – it’s actually an impeccably-made lesson on acknowledging the strength of the legitimately talented women around you. Which must have, of course, been of primary interest to director Assante.
Assante has the visual flair and the impeccable filmmaking talent to make Belle into something striking, but a lot of credit belongs to lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who infuses Dido with a natural and unaffected confidence. Dido is not an avatar for a modern audience, tut-tutting the dumb and backward historical figures, nor is she a pretty shrinking violet with no personality. She is a whole and interesting human being. I have seen far too many films that are ostensibly about strong women, but which can only assure us that their lead characters are smart through dialogue and not through performance or, y’know, actual smarts. Belle features a rich and dynamic young woman who doesn’t seem to have much of a choice when faced with sexism and racism: honest-to-goodness steeltoed outrage.
Hailed as one of the best horror films of the year, the Australian import The Babadook is a film about a widowed mother (Essie Davis) who must do battle with her young son’s fear of an imaginary closet monster. It turns out, of course, that the monster may be very real, lurking in the shadows of her house, terrorizing her just as intensely as her son.
There are many horror films about put-upon women, most of them usually reducing their female leads to bland screeching martyrs with oft-exposed breasts. See awful horror dreck like The Pyramid or Annabelle for examples. The Babadook looks to have more on its mind. This is a film, critics say, about the pressures of domesticity, and fears related to single parenthood. What is the Babadook itself other than the lingering fear of a dead husband, and the resulting anxiety of being a good mom? Every year has at least one good feminist horror film, and The Babadook looks to be it this year.
Well that, and All Cheerleaders Die.
Ava DuVernay is a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Her film Selma, about the final days of Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the best-reviewed films of the year; it currently holds a coveted 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has appeared on many a top-10 list. Indeed, this Academy season has given us two “prestige” pictures from female directors, as Angelina Jolie also presented us with Unbroken. Unbroken, however, is bland and straightforward. Selma has a lot more going on.
DuVernay started her career as a publicist, of all things, before eventually moving into making shorts, and eventually features. Selma is only her third scripted feature, but it comes from a woman who has been deep in the industry for over 15 years. DuVernay is that most wonderful of clichés: The overnight success that took forever. The first woman to win Best Director came as late as 2009. She doesn’t have to be an aberration.
I adore the Step Up movies. I admit this without a hint of irony, and not a whit of shame. I feel that Step Up 3D is one of the most entertaining films of the decade, and I hope that the series continues indefinitely. The series was conceived by one Duane Adler, and it has continued into five chapter at this point, chapters that are only tenuously connected.
2014 saw the fifth film in the Step Up series, Step Up All In (no colon), directed by first-time feature director Trish Sie. One can dismiss dance films as meaningless fluff, and one might even argue that directing one takes little skill. I will agree that dance films are mostly meaningless fluff, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be stirring entertainments as well. And it takes a good deal of skill to choreograph, stage, and shoot a convincing dance number. Trish Sie knows what to do, as she was a dancer/choreographer herself.
Did she make a feminist movie? Perhaps not. Step Up All In is about the usual hooey. But she did make a fun and energetic film, and that’s not nothing.
David Fincher’s Gone Girl is perhaps the most cynical film of the year. When you get to the end, you’ll find that Gillian Flynn’s wicked screenplay (based on her hit novel) is less about crime and backstabbing as it is a dark condemnation of marriage as an institution. The Gone Girl of the title is Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne, a kidnapping victim who might have been in on her own kidnapping, and who might be the victim of domestic abuse.
The marriage in Gone Girl is one of the least healthy since Revolutionary Road. Only it’s based largely on resentment, suspicion, and outright hatred. Amy Dunne finds that her marriage is becoming a humiliating burden, and that her philandering husband is just a buffoon. But this is not a movie about domestic bliss gone awry. This is a movie that not-so-subtly argues that marriage is a shackle for womankind, and Any Dunne is the evil, evil avenging angel for all unhappily married women. Amy is certainly not as aspirational figure; indeed she’s a sociopath that does some downright evil things in Gone Girl. But however dark the film, one can see a wicked sense of glorious satisfaction coming through her evil deeds. Gone Girl is a slick power fantasy for any woman who ever dreamed about killing her boyfriend.
Gia Coppola knows how kids think. In her debut feature, Palo Alto – based on a series of short stories by James Franco – a scattered group of high school kids wander listlessly from party to party, from large house to large house, wondering quietly how they should cope with love and sex. There is a crazy at-risk kid, a quiet dreamer, a cheerleader who has a definitely sexual crush on her coach, and the poor little slut girl. Coppola, however, does not reduce any of these kids into mere types, however, letting them breathe and move and take their own sweet time coming up with the right thing to say and failing to say anything. Palo Alto is a strong mood piece, which is what we have come to expect from the Coppola clan.
The best feminist moment comes, however, in a speech from the school slut. In a scene constructed from voice-overs and winsome backyard comfort, this young woman exposes her heart, openly expressing her confusion about sex, and how her sexuality is the one thing she seems to know how to master. It is not a titillating scene, nor is it an excuse. It is the moment when we realize that the school slut is actually just as well-rounded, wonderful, and complex as anyone else. This is a scene that turns slut-shaming back on itself. Just because someone is a slut doesn’t mean they’re not a perfectly decent person. Later in the film, when a horny boy makes advances on her, she rebuffs him, disgusted with the way he treats her. He is the villain in this scenario.