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The Ten Best Women-Directed Films of 2016

The Ten Best Women-Directed Films of 2016

With the beginning of 2017, we have to stay positive about the changes, however slow, that are happening in the film community for women in film.  Parity won’t ever happen without agitating for equality and consideration in terms of women film directors and all production artists working below the line.  Thank goddess for the work of great groups like Women in Film LA, and the many insiders, both male and female, who believe balance will only benefit the film industry as a whole.  In 2016, the issue was put into tighter focus by the press and actors who called attention to the problem.  A-listers like Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Aniston, and Amy Schumer called Hollywood on their nonsense and the public and press listened.  There are some new programs and events that are making a difference as well. The Horizon Award, enables the winners, all young female filmmakers at the start of their careers, to attend Sundance.  We Can Do It Together, a new nonprofit production company that aims to produce films and TV that empowers women, has Jessica Chastain, Queen Latifah, Catherine Hardwicke, and Juliette Binoche on their team.  Array, which was started by piping hot director Ava DuVernay in 2010, focuses on creating and promoting films created and featuring people of color and women.  Those are just a few companies that got attention last year.   

Cinema Siren contributed our own small part by instituting and moderating a panel at San Diego Comic-Con called Women Rocking Hollywood.  It was a great success at the time, and continues to get attention with the recording, which anyone can see on YouTube.  We hope to get a great panel together this year as well, to build momentum.  It’s very important to keep interest and concern high, since we are entering into a political climate not at all conducive to women’s equality.

Although it’s true that there weren’t a lot of blockbuster tentpole movies directed by women, there were some great female-helmed films released in 2016.   Here is a list of my favorites, and those interested in supporting the future of women in film should seek them out.

10:

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THE INVITATION directed by Karyn Kusama

Kusama has a great ability to work in a variety of genres with insight and skill.  Here she crafts a taut psychological thriller about dinner guests at a party in the Hollywood Hills that gets creepier and creepier as paranoia and threats both real and imagined slowly permeate and implode on themselves.  It stars Michiel Huisman (of Game of Thrones)  and is both incredibly tense and engrossing.

9.

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ALWAYS SHINE directed by Sophia Takal

Two actresses with varying degrees of success in the film industry go on vacation together, only to pretty much lose themselves and their sanity.  It’s beautifully filmed and takes place around Big Sur.  It’s also a telling tale about the fragility of self worth and societal expectations of women.  Ironically, co-stars Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald climb higher in the hierarchy of Hollywood by showing their considerable talents in their roles.

8.

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THE MEDDLER written and directed by Lorene Scafaria

Two women that bring much charisma to the screen, Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne, star as mother and daughter in what appears to be a fluffy drama with blend of charm and a surprising poignancy that will appeal to and entertain a wide audience.  There’s nothing wrong with a little sweetness, and Scafaria delivers that as well as a story about grief, commitment, understanding, and the complicated nature of the parent/child relationship.   

7.

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CERTAIN WOMEN written and directed by Kelly Reichardt

Don’t mess with this cast, which includes heavyweights Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern,  Jared Harris, and James Le Gros.  The lives of three small-town women intersect in this stripped-down, subtle, quiet film.  The authenticity and truth of it is stunning, with loneliness and loss taking center stage.  The photography is gorgeous, but this movie requires patience and an appreciation of the slow reveal. It’s pretty much the antithesis of those tentpole action-heavy superhero movies. Go for the fine acting and subtlety, which is rare in most things, especially film.

6.

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QUEEN OF KATWE directed by Mira Nair

Wonderful performances by Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo add to that of newcomber Madina Nalwanga, who was a new discovery.  Mira Nair is known for the beauty of her films, and this one is no exception.  About a young girl who goes from selling corn on the streets of Uganda to being an international chess champion, and it’s based on a true story!  It also stars many women and men of color, and was filmed in a part of the world that benefitted significantly from the filming.  Nair has lived in Uganda for over 16 years and has a film school there, so she was the perfect person to bring the story to life!

5.

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THE LOVE WITCH written and directed by Anna Biller

The best and coolest thing about this movie is how it pays homage to the technicolor thrillers and horror films of the 1960s.  Don’t be lulled into thinking that’s all to enjoy, though!  Its powerful feminism and fun, it’s celebration of our universal desire to be loved, and highly stylized visuals makes this movie not just a keeper, but a movie you’ll watch for years to come.

4.

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THINGS TO COME written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love

Anything with Isabelle Huppert is worth seeing, but THINGS TO COME, or in French, ‘L’AVENIR’, is a particularly strong representation of her talent and magnetism onscreen.  Huppert plays a philosophy teacher in Paris who has to weather a marriage falling apart, a demanding narcissistic mother, and an uncertain career.  She chooses confrontation and reinvention, and she does so in excruciating and fascinating ways, complete with awkward encounters, blowups, and forced introspection.  It’s good precisely because every adult can somehow relate.

3.

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TONI ERDMANN written and directed by Maren Ade

Ade’s ode to a decidedly off-kilter father/daughter relationship makes for a strange and endearing little movie.  Winfred has seen his work-obsessed adult daughter Ines less and less.  He decides to insinuate himself into her life by doing practical jokes and repeatedly showing up where she doesn’t want him.  Ultimately he pushes his practical joker personality to the hilt and invents the alto ego of Toni Erdmann, a tacky, bucktoothed life coach. Things get weirder and quirkier from there.  It’s about disconnection and coming together, letting go, and opening your heart.  It’s weird and wonderful.

2.

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THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig

Do you sense a theme?  That female writer-directors are creating beautiful work worthy of recognition? If someone else isn’t giving you a chance, you create it for yourself.  This is a theme to which most women can relate. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is a coming-of-age movie starring the wonderful Hailee Steinfeld as about how unpleasant high school still is and the pain and fear of losing your best friend to her becoming your brother’s girlfriend.  There’s plenty of moments of finger-splaying embarrassment wherein you’ll scream at the screen, but you’ll be laughing the whole time, too.  There are lots of moments of bittersweet poignancy, and a super-sweet super-hot guy she more or less ignores that makes you want to poke her in the eye, but you’ll fall in love with her and wish her well.  Kyra Sedgwick and Woody Harrelson co-star and add, as usual, to the greatness of this flick.  It’s a SIXTEEN CANDLES for the new millennium, and it’s from a first time feature film director. GIVE THIS DIRECTOR A HUGE-BUDGETED MOVIE, FOR GODDESS’ SAKE!

1.

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13TH co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay

As enlightening and motivating as it is depressing, DuVernay’s documentary about the connection between the prison system and the history of racial inequality and oppression in this country is entirely engrossing.  For all those who yearn to be informed about life and experience in the US, it is both eye-opening and horrifying.  One in three young black men are expected to go to jail or prison in their lifetime.  Is that statistic representative of the behaviors in our society or is there something more going on?  DuVernay lays out evidence and facts that will change the way you see the justice and prison systems.  You must see this movie.

There are lots of other great movies that just didn’t make my cut, but are wonderful, like Rebecca Miller’s MAGGIE’S PLAN and Meera Manon’s EQUITY, both of which should be lauded at the very least for featuring  women over 40 in complicated, well developed major roles.  Also, Barbara Kopple’s documentary MISS SHARON JONES is a lovely, well-crafted valentine to an inspiring musician who broke all sorts of barriers for women of color over 40.

Honorable Mentions go to two great TV shows:

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QUEEN SUGAR created by Ava DuVernay and directed by eight different female directors

You wouldn’t think we would still need to announce all the episodes of a show would be directed by women, but, indeed, DuVernay made a big press splash by doing so.  Rightly so, she believes we have to right the skewed numbers of men vs women directors, so she had some very talented women work on the show, which stars TRUE BLOOD’s Rutina Wesley heading a cast made up nearly completely by people of color.  The fact that it’s really good, the acting is superb, and the storylines are compelling, suggests (as we all already know) that gender has nothing to do with the quality of a show or film.  Delightful in the wake of the release of this first season, that the makers of JESSICA JONES announced all episodes in the second season of that show would be directed by women as well.

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THE NIGHT MANAGER directed by Susanne Bier

Based on writing by John le Carre, THE NIGHT MANAGER is an exciting spy story about an ex-soldier played by Tom Hiddleston who infiltrates a dangerous crime ring headed by a terrifying kingpin as portrayed by actor Hugh Laurie.  Who says a woman couldn’t direct the next outing for James Bond?  Actually, no one has even considered it, but this great work by Susanne Bier has thrown her hat in the ring.  You’d never know it was a female at the helm, and you know why?  Yes, of course you know why.

Hey, Hollywood: Start hiring more women to direct mainstream, studio movies, just like you’ve done with men who have only made one $100,000 budgeted movie (Gareth Edwards before GODZILLA) or have never even directed, but only written films (Seth Grahame-Smith, who was slated to direct THE FLASH and subsequently replaced)…In the meantime, we’ll celebrate, talk about, and promote the movies being created by the incredibly talented filmmakers out there who just happen to be women.  Let’s hope 2017 sees some great deals made for women in film, and let’s get behind them in support!

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SELMA: Movie Review and Exclusive Interview with Ava DuVernay & David Oyelowo


Why Selma is Cinema Siren’s #1 film of 2014Selma Movie (2)

What makes Selma, the new release by producer/director Ava DuVernay, truly spectacular as a film, is the balance it finds between expansive traditional biography and a more intimate independent-minded personal film.   In some ways that’s what Martin Luther King, the subject of this movie, grappled with; being true to himself as a black man and married pastor making his way in the 60s, as well as being true to the great orator the movement necessitated, one who could move hundreds to action with his speeches, and millions to change with his leadership.

Selma captures a specific time of turmoil, and follows the story of King’s work to change discriminatory practices in the South against blacks attempting to vote.  The whole film takes place during three months in 1965, when he led his followers into marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, against violent opposition, and for which he was required to navigate politics and aggression from all corners.  Screenwriter Paul Web did a great job of weaving together what brought the US and King himself to this moment in the movement.  He allows us to see Martin the man and the orator, while revealing the story of how the historic march from Selma to Montgomery came to take place, with all the dangers, complications, and sacrifices that were a part of it.   He does this without veering into the preachy, in a cohesive way that keeps us entertained.

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As director, DuVernay employs a style of storytelling that is straightforward, honors events without being overly sentimental, and shows a delicacy with the subject matter that makes it possible for audiences to find the film engrossing, entertaining, and educational, whether they know their civil rights history by heart, or know nothing of it.  She presents a respectful, realistic portrait of a man sans idolatry, beset by challenges and dangers, someone who realizes he has weaknesses and feels guilt.  The representation of events is so tightly edited and beautifully filmed, viewers are swept up into the myriad of emotions these tumultuous times evoke.  As an audience member, one feels in perfect step with the cadence of the action, whether it be an intimate moment between Martin and his wife Coretta (actress Carmen Ejogo, who looks startlingly like the real woman) or the terrifying police brutality at a demonstration, the sequences flow perfectly one to the next.

With expert aid from cinematographer Bradford Young, DuVernay finds ways to bring the time period to life and use light and color in authentic and emotional ways.  For example, early in the film, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a tragedy important to civil rights movement history, is portrayed.  Young girls Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair lost their lives.  DuVernay has the camera follow the girls talking and walking down the stairs, and instead of manipulating the viewer by showing them being killed, she shows debris and shoes in slow motion flying through the air, almost as we were about to see Alice in Wonderland falling through the rabbit hole.   It is a brilliant bit of visual drama that draws out much more emotion, as if we in the audience are each experiencing our own lives flashing before us.   The scene becomes visceral and seared itself inside your eyelids.

Selma succeeds most by how the filmmakers chose to frame the proceedings.  We get glimpses or short scenes with some historical figures, while others play a bigger part in this particular subjective narrative, and yet it all serves the film as a whole, in terms of creating an arc, as well as giving the audience a clear understanding of who Martin Luther King was and the importance of Selma in the Civil Rights movement.  The best aspect of the film, beyond its ability to place the audience within the experiences represented, is the juxtapositioning of King as the public figure we have seen and the private man who struggled to be at his best and make good choices within in his own personal life.

English actor David Oyelowo, as Martin Luther King, embodies the man in such a way as to make him believably approachable, and less a historical figure than someone finding the most effective ways of working to alter a defacto inequality at the voting booths for Americans of color.   He masterfully juggles the two sides of the man, the one who found transcendence in his public speaking and leadership, and the one who lived life, however much he had the National spotlight, as a Southern married black man with children in the 60s.   Lovers of great acting can be grateful that Oyelowo, who has a theater company with his actress wife, and has been a well known working actor in the UK for many years, is breaking into the highest level of the elite Hollywood A-list, such as it exists for people of color.  May the Academy not only take note, but laud his splendid work in fearlessly channeling a very important American public figure with both grace and subtlety.

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There are other standouts in the cast.  Particularly Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson do well not turning their roles as George Wallace and President Johnson, respectively, into caricatures.  They both build on the well-crafted script with their portrayals, and we lose the actors in their scenes, even as famous as they are.   Henry G. Sanders, the actor who plays Cager Lee, grandfather of Jimmy Lee Jackson, who died after being shot by a policeman during a demonstration, takes the few minutes he has onscreen to break your heart.

No doubt intentional is the timeliness of a story that tells of only part of the movement, leaving much to be done.  Such is how it is today.   Current events point up how much more change is needed, and that we are a people and a country with plenty more to learn about acceptance and tolerance.  As both a reminder of that, and a remembrance of an essential part of our history, Selma couldn’t be more perfect.

5 out of 5 stars