In her excellent history entitled Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, film scholar Karen Ward Mahar presents a startling fact, unknown to many of even the most avid cinephiles today: in the 1910s and early 1920s, close to half of the people working in the film industry were women. Women worked not just in the capacities that one might expect—as actresses, assistants, makeup artists, and wardrobe designers—but also as writers, producers, editors, and, crucially, directors. Once movies became what Mahar calls a “Wall-Street defined, vertically integrated big business,” however, directing opportunities for women swiftly began to vanish, leaving only a tiny number of American women working as directors from the late 1920s through the 1960s. (Even now, the Directors Guild of America estimates that only 15% of the directors working in Hollywood today are women.) The prospects for women filmmakers by the end of the 1920s were so bleak, in fact, that one of the most prolific and influential directors of her time, Lois Weber, advised young women seeking to break into directing, “Don’t try it; you’ll never get away with it.”
Though some women did “get away with it,” none enjoyed as much popular success as Weber until our own century. Weber is best known for her high-minded social problem films during the “uplift” period of film history. Her projects considered such topics as birth control (Where Are My Children?), capital punishment (The People vs. John Doe), and income inequality (The Blot). Uplift films, however, were far from her only métier; she also directed white-knuckle thrillers (Suspense), comedies (Discontent), and quasi-historical epics. The last category is represented gorgeously in the recently restored The Dumb Girl of Portici. Based on an opera, the film stars the great ballerina Anna Pavlova as Fenella, a young mute girl tragically swept up in a violent revolution. Pavlova’s extraordinarily expressive performance is the centerpiece of this lavish adaptation, but there’s quite a bit more to commend. Opulent sets, stunning costumes, lively ensemble performances, and inventive special effects make this film a genuine pleasure to watch.
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The first narrative feature film by documentarian Crystal Moselle (The Wolf Pack, 2015) opens with a black screen and the sounds of the city: A train rattles and screeches by, people shout, children play, and a skateboard hits the pavement. Even before we see the film’s protagonist perform her first onscreen skateboard trick, the feeling is already somehow both electric and familiar, much like the story that follows. The film tracks its young heroine as she joins an all-girl skate crew in New York City. (In a move that blurs the line between documentary and narrative film, the fictional crew is made up of members of the real-life crew known as Skate Kitchen.) All the usual elements of outsider stories, sports movies, and teen dramas abound: A young upstart joins a team of mavericks, tests her skills against those of her teammates and those of her opponents, and clashes with members of both as she grows and finds out more about herself. But this film invests the familiar sports-movie and coming-of-age-drama tropes with a raw energy, honesty, frank physicality, and genuine feeling that elevate it from a mere genre film into something precise and visceral.
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As the opening credits come up on Kimberly Reed’s powerful new documentary, we see shots of the remarkable beauty of the natural landscape of Montana juxtaposed with startling images of the human and environmental devastation produced by mining and petroleum companies’ aggressive and essentially unregulated extraction practices. Reed here shows us in microcosm what we stand to lose as a nation if corporate and industrial power is left unchecked. Juxtapositions like this form the structure of the film that ensues, which alternates between the hopeful and the deeply discouraging as Reed pursues her thesis: Untraceable “dark money” political campaign contributions and the corruption that they foster constitute a grave threat to American democracy. A documentary on this subject, while essential, could easily become a tedious screed, of interest only to policy wonks and activists. Reed, however, finds the humanity and the drama in her subject, creating a clear, compelling, and surprisingly even-handed case that citizen vigilance is more important now than it has been in decades.
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Lynn Shelton’s Outside In is a luminous masterwork. Long the keen-eyed documenter of ordinary life in the uppermost corners of the Pacific Northwest, Shelton achieves nothing less than brilliance with this achingly beautiful story of lonely, vulnerable people and their tentative but open-hearted reaching for connection.
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This movie has the best of intentions. As a message-delivery device, it could hardly be timelier, dealing as it does with misogyny and sexism in the film industry and beyond in the #MeToo era. Deep into America’s third wave of feminism (or at the dawn of its fourth, depending on who you ask), the film’s larger messages are praiseworthy and, sadly, still deeply relevant: In the public sphere, women’s personal freedoms and access to professional opportunities continue to be unfairly curtailed; in the private sphere, women’s dignity and senses of self-worth are still continually eroded; and in the sexual sphere, women’s pleasure in heterosexual relationships is still too often disregarded as too many men still prioritize their own satisfaction over that of their partners. Heather Graham, in her debut as writer and director of a feature film, is right to try to deliver these messages by whatever means she can.
Perhaps unfortunately for Graham, however, movies are (or should be) much more than message-delivery devices. Graham aims for comedy as her spoonful-of-sugar to help the medicine go down, but her movie’s uneven tone, dated gags, and strained performances cause the whole thing to feel so bogged down that the movie ultimately lands well short of success as either commentary or comedy.
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Bombshell begins with an arresting and hilariously pointed epigraph from the film’s subject: “Any girl can look glamorous; all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” The black-and-white still shots that follow show Lamarr looking terribly glamorous and not at all stupid. As image after image of her startlingly beautiful face appears onscreen, ghostly renderings of her own hand-written scientific notations fade in and out of view in the black field framing each photograph. Without a word of dialogue, in its opening seconds the film has already powerfully established one of its key themes: that Lamarr’s role in developing history-changing technologies has, over the decades, faded from view, having unjustly—even shamefully—taken a back seat in the public’s imagination to her beauty and glamour, as well as the numerous scandals that pocked her life. The story that follows is rendered with narrative and cinematic artistry and intelligence; director Alexandra Dean creates a fitting tribute to a figure whose true accomplishments have been too long obscured by history.
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Lake Bell’s comedy I Do . . . Until I Don’t opens with a God’s eye view of a funeral. Mourners hold oddly colorful umbrellas while a drizzle falls and, in voice-over, a woman with an English accent intones a jeremiad against the “‘til death do us part” prison of marriage. There are several visual and thematic cinematic nods here, from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Four Weddings and a Funeral to, winkingly, Bell’s own In a World . . . (2013), a film about a woman breaking into the male-dominated world of voice-over narration. The tone of I Do . . ., however, is different from any of these—at least at first. Among the funeral-goers are Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), a married couple who spend most of their time sniping at each other about petty grievances. They are soon to be among the subjects of a documentary by filmmaker Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), whose voice we heard over the opening shot. Prudeck is determined to expose what she sees as the bankruptcy of the institution of marriage by filming unhappy married couples and contrasting them with one happy unmarried couple in an open relationship. And so, as the film gets underway, we watch married people take potshots at each other, make brittle wisecracks at each other’s expense, lie to each other, and generally prove Prudeck’s thesis. We will have to wait for anything like the joy, warmth, or melancholy of Cherbourg or Four Weddings—or even the oddball wit of In a World . . .—until after Vivian’s monomania has nearly wrecked several relationships. Fortunately, the payoff is worth the wait.
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Equal parts love story, social satire, and broad teen sex comedy, But I’m a Cheerleader has had an enthusiastic following among the LGBTQ+ set (and others) for almost two decades. It’s easy to see why: the actors are full of sweetly winning charm, the satire (of “reparative therapy” camps) is pointed and richly earned, and the story arc is mercifully non-tragic—a rarity for the longest time in queer cinema. For those of us who came of age with mopey, lugubrious lesbian love stories like Desert Hearts (1985), Claire of the Moon (1992), and High Art (1998), it’s impossible to overstate what a blast of fresh air this film was when it first arrived in theaters. (Even today, in fact, a quick Google search of “lesbian movies” gets you hits like “Why are all lesbian movies sad?” and “17 Awesome Lesbian Movies Where No One Dies at the End.”) As we revisit But I’m a Cheerleader well into the new millennium, the film feels every bit as fresh, funny, fun, and necessary as it did when it first came out.
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Before Ava DuVernay, before Dee Rees, before Gina Prince-Bythewood, before Kasi Lemmons, there was Julie Dash. Dash’s Daughters of the Dust earned its place in the history of film by becoming the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to gain general theatrical release and distribution—and it earned that place in the shockingly recent year of 1991. It is a remarkable piece of work not only for its place in cultural history but also for its distinctive aesthetics and for the story it tells: a story of hope, grief, and transition set among the Gullah people, a group of African Americans living on the islands off the South Carolina and Georgia coast. Somewhat isolated from the continental United States, as the film’s prologue tells us, the Gullah retained elements of their original African languages, values, and ways of life long after African culture was violently suppressed in the lives of mainland African Americans. Dash tells a graceful, dreamlike story of one Gullah family reuniting in 1902 before departing for life on the mainland—and for a nation on the brink of modernity.
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Now that Tom Hiddleston is (thank you, Jesus!) single again, it’s as good a time as any to gaze at him, the thinking cinephile’s dreamboat, in Jim Jarmusch’s excellent 2013 vampire dramedy. Hiddleston emotes broodily as a depressed Detroit musician named Adam, opposite the always-brilliant Tilda Swinton as Eve, his beloved who lives across the globe from him yet is still profoundly connected to him. When Adam plunges into suicidal despair in the film’s early scenes, Eve rushes to his rescue. The two lovers are a gorgeous, if possibly doomed, pair who complement one another in virtually every way. Though the film leaves much unspoken about the exact nature of their relationship (how did they meet? why were they living separately? are they even the same sort of creature?), it nevertheless makes us feel the intensity of their bond and the inevitability of their mutual entanglement in every shot. This is partly due to the deft performances of the leads, and partly due to Jarmusch’s famous attentiveness to evocative detail. Low on incident but high on atmospherics, the film creates a slyly seductive mood with exactly the right music, the right images, and the right words.
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