Here is my continuation of my pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year. Given the fact that next month I officially close the book on 2017 (if my deadline to file 2017 taxes is April, then I figure that’s as good a time to also wrap up 2017 in film) this month focuses on 2017 releases. Hopefully next month I’ll be able to dive into the great films directed by women in the past.
LOVING VINCENT (2017) dirs. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
It is impossible to discuss this movie without talking about its central conceit, namely that it is the first fully painted animated feature. Featuring 125 artists painting over 65,000 frames of oil on canvas, the movie is nothing if not an awesome spectacle. Telling the story of the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, the artists do their best to imitate his distinctive style and as such there is just the simple pleasure of seeing iconic paintings come to life and being immersed by the undeniable aesthetic beauty on display. However once you take your focus away from what your eyes are seeing and instead turn your attention to the storytelling it becomes immediately apparent that something is lacking. The plot is a twisty and convoluted mess involving a piece of undeliverable mail from Van Gogh that shows up a year after his death, and the quest to get it delivered to the right person. If it feels like a flimsy excuse to string together a series of his most famous paintings as scene settings it’s because it probably is. If you can look past that glaring weakness, the movie can be a wonderful excursion of pure visual delight, albeit a pale imitation of the master’s work himself.
PROFESSOR MARTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN (2017) dir. Angela Robinson
The common flaw of most biopics is in trying to fit all the complexity of a person’s life into a meaningful narrative. This is made all the more complicated when the subjects of the movie are especially unique individuals. The best biopics understand this and try to focus on a sliver of their subject’s life in order to offer a glimpse into the psyche of that person. Unfortunately director Angela Robinson goes for the more conventional and inferior route of trying to highlight all the important contributions of Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans), who develop the DISC theory of sexuality, invents the lie-detector machine with the aid of his psychologist wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and creates the iconic comic book character Wonder Woman while engaging in an unconventional love affair with his wife and their research assistant Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). The end result is a movie that rushes through their lives in a highlight reel. It cannot decide if William is the main character of this story of if the trio should be the focus as the movie flits between being a biopic and an examination of a genuine but unconventional love affair. The complex eroticism of this story is easily the most compelling part of the movie and as a result the first half of the movie where that occupies most of the focus in storytelling. Meanwhile the actual creating of the Wonder Woman comic book character is run-of-the-mill conventional and nowhere near as interesting to explore yet remains the focus of the much weaker second half. This is a pity because all the performances, especially by Hall and Heathcote, are exemplary. In the end the movie only hints at greatness, but remains firmly ordinary.
THE BREADWINNER (2017) dir. Nora Twomey
Nora Twomey burst onto the scene with her delightful The Secret of Kells (2009) with Tomm Moore which was the perfect realization of a storybook come to life as she explored a corner of the rich history of Celtic Christianity. For her follow up, Twomey has taken on a more contemporary subject namely looking at the life of Parvana, a girl who tries to help her family survive in the shadow of the Taliban in Afghanistan by dressing like a boy. Much like The Secret of Kells, The Breadwinner is very much about the stories we tell ourselves to find our identity and meaning as Parvana tells elaborate stories both to herself and her little brother as a way both to escape the harsh realities of their world as well as to steel herself for it. But The Breadwinner is also a kindred spirit to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies in that it tries to tell the story of life in the Taliban not by giving us a bird’s eye view of the proceedings but rather by keeping our eyes, and our understanding of the transpiring events, firmly on the level of the children. It does this honestly, by neither shying away from the horrors of being a woman under the Taliban nor by turning the Taliban into feckless villains either. Instead what we are left with is a story of one girl’s incredible bravery, ingenuity, and kindness framed by an absolutely gorgeous tapestry of animation. It is a movie that demands to be seen.
FACES PLACES (2017) dir. Agnes Varda & JR
The mere fact that Agnes Varda is close to 90 and still making movies is astonishing and a cause to make even the most ambitious individual feel slightly slothful. That the living legend is also at the point that she has nothing left to prove and in Faces Places it is clear that she is using that knowledge as free license to explore new avenues of storytelling and that is nothing but exciting for anyone who loves movies. In Faces Places she teams up with the hipster-cool environmental artist JR as they traverse the French countryside, visiting small towns and putting up giant photos on the walls of houses, barns, factories, and city blocks that symbolize the stories of the places they visit. JR, who is a third of Varda’s age, reminds her of her dear friend and contemporary Jean-Luc Godard, which in itself is a wonderful throwback for the woman who virtually invented the French New Wave. Together their work together bears much fruit as each of their encounters with the people they meet unearths old stories and narratives of the towns and its people, inspiring nostalgia for the past, melancholy about their prospects in the present, and almost paradoxically trepidation and hope for the future. The saddest revelations in the film are intensely personal – a visit to see Godard in Switzerland ends up being less than fruitful while Varda’s own eyesight begins to fade. It is clear that we are quickly approaching the terminus of Varda’s career, and with it the end of a truly remarkable body of work made by a truly remarkable woman. But of course Varda has little time to indulge in feelings of nostalgia herself. She is too busy trying to do new things and for that we can all be grateful.
MR. ROOSEVELT (2017) dir. Noel Wells
Seeing as Noel Wells savagely chastises a man for using a particular term to describe her, I will not describe this movie’s vibe as “quirky”. What it is however is the latest addition to a new subcategory of comedy that was made popular by Lena Dunham and her show Girls, that being the intensely personal female cringe-comedy. Mr. Roosevelt finds Emily (Noel Wells), a Los Angeles transplant comedian failing to break into the entertainment business, flying back to her hometown Austin to bury her dead cat with her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) and his new live-in girlfriend Celeste (Britt Lower). In the intervening years since her abrupt break with Eric, he has seemingly been tamed and neutered from wild Austin hipster into Instagram and Pinterest worthy boyfriend material with picturesque abode to boot. As can be expected this trauma-based reunion of the two former lovers provides a ripe canvas for uncomfortable revelations about each other, deep periods of existential self-reflection, and more than a hint of the spark of the former relationship that they had. Fortunately Wells does have a unique enough voice to help distinguish her amidst the proliferation of this new sub-genre, even if the story is neither focused enough nor the ultimate revelations notable enough to be remembered well after the credits rolled. Still there is enough here to hope that this represents the beginning of a great career behind the lens for Wells.