Movies directed by women, unfortunately, are a rarity in Hollywood. Lina Wertmuller was the first woman nominated for an Oscar for her powerful film Seven Beauties (1976) which found favour with the Academy after rave reviews from the nations major critics. It would seventeen years before Jane Campion was nominated for her stunning visual epic The Piano (1993), and then ten more before the first American female director Sofia Coppola was nominated for Lost in Translation (2003). And then of course Kathryn Bigelow won the academy Award for her tension filled war film The Hurt Locker (2009) ending a standing sore spot within the Academy.
Though much has been made of the fact Barbra Streisand was not nominated for either Yentl (1983) or The Prince of Tides (1991), the real victim in snubs has been Penny Marshall, best known still as one half of televisions Laverne and Shirley, but a superb director in her own right. Her first major hit was Big (1988), but two years later her film Awakenings (1990) was a Best Picture nominee though Marshall was not a Best Director candidate. Two years after that she made one of the years very best films, the baseball film A League of Their Own (1992), possibly the best baseball film ever, was snubbed for film and director.
More recently Kathryn Bigelow was passed over for Zero Dark Thirty (2012) an absolute masterpiece of direction, a film that exists almost entirely BECAUSE of its direction and Sarah Polley for the haunting love story Away from Her (2007), a more subtle brand of direction, but equally deserving. Polley further proved her mettle directing the startling documentary Stories We Tell (2012), a penetrating, brutally honest doc about her search for her birth father. The film won countless awards for Best Documentary Feature but was snubbed by the Academy. Here is the list of top movies directed by women ever, in my opinion, and again there are many left off the list to whom I apologize.
1. THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (LENI REIFENSTAHL; 1935) — Arguably the greatest propaganda film ever made, easily among the finest documentaries ever made, this extraordinary film was commissioned by Adolf Hitler to celebrate Germany’s rise from its worst depression ever to a world super power, all of course under the leadership of Hitler himself. He is shown descending on a plane from the heavens, God-like, being marched and celebrated through the streets, and hailed as a man just short of a deity. What is frightening is that watching him speak, you cannot take your eyes off of him and we gain an understanding of why they followed him. Riefenstahl uses bold camera angles, startling close-ups and long shots to suggest size and scope, and presents Hitler as a Messiah and extraordinary man. Unique in every way and terrifying in what the under tone truly was. Fir this generation it is difficult to explain how important the film is, how a documentary can be as important as this, but the film gave great insight into Hitler, into the state of Germany at the time and to later generations would make clear that blind faith in anyone is dangerous…especially a man setting himself up to be short of a God.
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2. ZERO DARK THIRTY (KATHRYN BIGELOW; 2012) — Yes she won the only Oscar given to a woman for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2009), but this is her best film. A stunning, fast paced study of how the CIA found and executed Osama Bin Laden, Bigelow displays staggering confidence as a director. Pulling no punches in her depiction of torture and terror, she places the audience front and center in the action and demands we look at it all. Jessica Chastain is superb as Maya, the young agent who work tirelessly for more than a decade finding Bin Laden, believing in herself as the USA set up the execution raid. Shot and edited superbly, the film was the finest of its year and it is to the shame of the Academy they didn’t nominate her for her work on the picture. Bigelow recreates the attack that would see Bin Laden killed with accuracy and tension, allowing the audience to see what the Navy Seals saw through their night goggles. The euphoria that is felt when they kill Bin Laden is a bizarre feeling, and we ask ourselves should we feel such a way about the killing of another human being? Further the film does not hold back in depicting the forms of torture used by the Americans to gain intelligence from those they capture. I admire that Bigelow had the courage to include that in the film…it is the truth, it is real. A masterpiece.
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3. THE PIANO (JANE CAMPION; 1993) — A stunning visual achievement, set in the 1800’s, that is also bolstered with astonishing performances from Holly Hunter, giving one of the greatest performances of the 20th century cinema and Anna Paquin, The Piano is a superb picture that in any other year would have won Oscars for Best Picture and Director. Sadly, Schindler’s List came out the same year and was the runaway film at the Oscars. That said Campion won Best Director prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle, was nominated for DGA and Oscar, and once again displayed that women are genuine artists when given the chance. As a Scottish bride mail ordered to New Zealand, Hunter does not speak, mute from an incident long ago though we hear her voice on the narration. She dislikes her husband, but enters into an affair with a hard living woodsman, and in doing so finds herself and her voice. For everyone else they communicate through her child, portrayed with energy and brilliance by Paquin. Both Hunter and Paquin won Oscars for their work, with Campion winning for her original screenplay. A magnificent epic with Hunter recalling the great silent performances with her sublime performance.
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3. LOST IN TRANSLATION (SOFIA COPPOLA; 2003) — A lovely love story about two people adrift in Tokyo, lost in the culture, lost in their lives, and lost to their spouses. They connect, possibly deeper than they have ever connected with anyone in their lives before, and becomes friends, hanging out together and going to karoke bars. Bob (Bill Murray) is a movie star in Tokyo to shoot a commercial, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent bride tagging along with her insensitive husband on a photo shoot. They meet and the bond between them grows, yet is never sexually consummated. It could be so easily, yet this is deeper than that. I am sure what he whispers goodbye to her is something like, “we are the loves of each others lives, and if you want this to continue find me back in the States…I will be there waiting.” What else could he say? What else is there to say after what they have shared? This is deeper than sex….far deeper, this is love on a level few experience. Murray was never better, before or since and Johansson is a miracle.
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4. AWAY FROM HER (SARAH POLLEY; 2007) — A haunting love story adapted from the short story by Alice Munroe, Polley explores the experience of an elderly couple, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) not over eighty, and what happens to them when she struggles with Alzheimers. Not wanting to be a burden to her husband, she checks herself into a long-term care facility which demands he not visit for thirty days, nothing, no contact. When he goes back after thirty days she barely knows him, and has become more than good friends with another man. Stunned, reeling with grief he does not know what to do. The wife of the other man becomes his friend, and eventually his lover, though she knows he does not love her, his heart is forever with Fiona. Yet the love transcends Alzheimers and she realizes that he is something to her, someone important and that he could not bear to away from her. To her he gives the greatest gift, he lets her go, and to him she gives it back, she returns, at least for a while. Perfectly acted by Pinsent and Christie, perfectly directed and written by the gifted Polley.
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6. AWAKENINGS (PENNY MARSHALL; 1990) — Though nominated for Best Picture, Awakenings (1990) was not given a nod for Best Director, one of the more shameful events in recent Academy history given the work Penny Marshall did on the film. Best known for her TV performance as one half of Laverne and Shirley, she directed the Tom Hanks film Big (1988) before landing this gig. Telling the true story of Dr. Oliver Saks, who working with long-term coma patients woke them for a time in the sixties, allowing them to live again for a short time before the side effects hit them forcing him to let them go back to sleep. The horror that registers on the good doctors face, portrayed with gentle warmth y the great Robin Williams is genuine, realizing the people in those frozen bodies are aware of everything around them is heartbreaking. Robert De Niro is outstanding as one of the patients who reacts best to the medication before the side effects ruin him, but the film belongs to Williams, who should have won the Oscar for Best Actor. How Marshall was NOT nominated is beyond me, a crime.
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7. THE HURT LOCKER (KATHRYN BIGELOW; 2009) — For this taut, tension filled war film, Bigelow became the first and only woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, taking the DGA and several critics awards as well. She plunges her audience into the war-torn Middle East where we follow a group of IED experts who make the rounds defusing bombs meant to harm the population and the American soldier patrolling protecting the area. James (Jeremy Renner) loves the rush of defusing the bombs, but takes chances and foolish risks that place his squad in peril, terrifying them. For him there is no greater thrill than finding something that is going to challenge him to take it apart before a cell phone call ignites it and blows he and his crew to pieces. Renner is superb as James, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, Anthony Mackie his partner equally deserving of such accolades. Yet this is a directors film, and Bigelow is equal to the task, building unbearable tension at times, working closely with her cinematographer and editor to do so. One of the great war films.
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8. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (PENNY MARSHALL; 1992) — A lovely nostalgic film that takes us back to the forties when a professional baseball league for women was created when the men went off to war. No one expect it to be any great success, yet it was because the women loved the game as much as the men, and caught the imagination of the fans seeking entertainment on the field. Geena Davis is terrific as Dotty, the best player in the league who claims that it is just a game until it gets into her pores and she cannot stay away. Tom Hanks is superb as Jimmy Duggan, the former star player, drunk and now reduced (he believed) to coaching women. He comes to love them as much as they love them though there is bump along the way (“There’s n crying in baseball!!”). The film is made with affection and love by Penny Marshall who again deserved Oscar consideration that did not come. Might be the finest film ever made about the game.
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9. STORIES WE TELL (SARAH POLLEY; 2012) — Imagine the courage it took to turn the cameras on yourself and your family for a deep penetrating film that explores ones search for their birth father? Suspecting she was produced from an affair her mother had before cancer claimed her, Sarah Polley embarks on a brave journey to find her birth father, plunging herself into very private matters between her mother and father, growing to understand her mother’s party girl reputation, and the fact she was not beyond cheating on her husband, sharing this with the audience. Interviews are shown with her siblings, who have memories of their mother, and share them openly, memories of private phone conversations overheard, arguments between mother and father. She does find her birth father, and her own father is not terribly surprised by the revelation he is NOT her father, though Polley makes clear the man who raised her is indeed her father. It is a tough journey but brilliantly conceived, the narration by her father, with interviews with artists who knew her mother, and of course her two fathers.
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10. MARIE ANTOINETTE (SOFIA COPPOLA; 2006) — Once again sheer courage places a film on the list, and though the critical response was not what was hoped, nor was box office, Coppola crafted a beautiful, daring film that is better liked now than when first released. She places the celebrity of being Queen with that of being a celebrity today, the entitlement, the ridiculous aspects to their lives that we can only imagine, and explores what it is to be a bird in a gilded cage, a ruler, though with no real life of their own. Antoinette is portrayed with an almost ethereal glow by Kirsten Dunst, who at first delights the French people, only to become more and more despised because of her wealth. The filmmaker makes some daring choices, placing a Converse sneaker amidst the shoes the Queen is choosing, and using a punk pop score on the soundtrack. The supporting cast is fine but this is Dunst hour to shine, and shine she does.
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