I love filmmaking that’s unique. It’d be great to have more access to short films by women, especially when the format isn’t quite so barred from them as feature filmmaking is. HBO’s generally been good about this when it comes to international short films and documentary shorts. This week, Ovid TV added a huge number of contemporary dance short films. Look for their New Inspiration and L’Amour series. Both include a mix of shorts directed by women and men, but there are a number of women directors represented there.
If I could encourage you to do one thing in your viewing, it’d be to check out films by Indian women on streaming services. CNN’s Diksha Madhok reported this week that services like Netflix and Amazon have offered women filmmakers in India a platform that they were often denied in their industry – but that India’s increasingly autocratic government has begun threatening many filmmakers on these services with imprisonment and fines.
Much of this is due to Indian women filmmakers focusing on films that criticize rape culture. Many are based on rapes and murders of women that have become high-profile news stories, and depict the failure of government and police to respond properly or with accountability.
Other criticisms that have resulted in women filmmakers being threatened include presentations of Hindu-Muslim romances. Political firestorms have also resulted from how religious imagery is used, or the inclusion of nudity. The article discusses women and men filmmakers, but highlights the particular plight and threat involved in topics that women filmmakers have very actively pursued.
India is hardly the only country where women filmmakers face issues like these, but right now it presents a huge number of potential viewers for streaming services. Those streaming services often decide that it’s in their immediate financial interests to simply adhere to what a government requires in order to have access to those viewers. Streaming services will very often choose market access over equality.
Remind them that people are interested in seeing movies and series made by Indian women. I’ll get to work on an article to highlight them, and link it here when it’s done.
Let’s dive into this week’s new shows and movies by women:
Made for Love (HBO Max) showrunner Christina Lee directed by women
Hazel (Cristin Milioti) is in an overbearing marriage to a tech billionaire. She realizes he’s implanted her with a new invention: a monitoring device that allows him to track her and control every aspect of her life. She decides to go on the run.
Showrunner Christina Lee wrote and produced on “Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later” and “Search Party”. Directors include “Dexter” and “Jessica Jones” director S.J. Clarkson, and “Dollface” directors Stephanie Laing and Alethea Jones.
You can watch “Made for Love” on HBO Max. Three episodes premiere every Thursday starting on April 1.
Law and Order: Organized Crime (NBC) showrunner Ilene Chaiken
This “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” spin-off sees that show’s Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) return to the NYPD as part of an organized crime task force. It looks to feature a much more involved story arc, with less focus on the ‘case of the week’ element featured in previous “Law and Order” series.
Showrunner Ilene Chaiken has been a producer on “The L Word”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and “Empire”.
New episodes of “Law and Order: Organized Crime” premiere on NBC every Thursday starting on April 1, and will arrive on streaming service Peacock the next day.
Yellow Rose (Starz) directed by Diane Paragas
An undocumented Filipina girl dreams of becoming a country music star. When her mother is torn from her by ICE, she flees to Austin, Texas – on the verge of pursuing her dream or being ripped away from it.
Diane Paragas is a Filipino-American writer-director. She’s handled both documentary and narrative work, as well as being a documentary cinematographer and editor.
You can watch “Yellow Rose” on Starz, or see where to rent it.
Misbehaviour (Starz) directed by Philippa Lowthorpe
A group of women plan how to derail the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant. The plot is based on the real protest event, organized in part by Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a professor of history and an early organizer of the Women’s Liberation Movement in London.
Philippa Lowthorpe has been a director on “Call the Midwife” and “The Crown”.
You can watch “Misbehavior” on Starz, or see where to rent it.
Madame Claude (Netflix) directed by Sylvie Verheyde
This French film follows Madame Claude, who runs a prostitution business that offers her considerable influence. It also involves the government, which means international blackmail and threats to both her and her empire.
Sylvie Verheyde is a noted director in France. Her films often examine subject matter such as high society, prostitution, and adultery.
WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.
Last week saw this feature take a break due to some technical issues. That means we’re covering two weeks of new shows and movies by women today. That’s a lot for one article, so I’ll just say one thing before diving in. It looks like an astonishing moment for horror movies and thrillers directed by women.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+) directed by Kari Skogland
Marvel heroes Falcon and Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) get their own buddy action miniseries. From initial appearances, this looks like a more traditional MCU actioner than “WandaVision”. There are six episodes, though they’ll run a nice, long 45-55 minutes apiece.
While Malcolm Spellman is the showrunner, all six episodes are directed by Kari Skogland. She’s directed several episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “The Loudest Voice”, and “The Borgias”, as well as the two-part premiere of “The Rook”. Her directing career runs back to 1994, and she’s touched on countless other high-profile series.
The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers (Disney+) co-showrunner Cathy Yuspa
The year is 2021. The Mighty Ducks have become an evil hockey empire. Who will take them on? Is it Gen X’s older brother Emilio Estevez? Is it Millennials’ TV mom Lauren Graham? Is it a bunch of Zoomers they coach to take on the evil Mighty Ducks? Yes. It is all these things. I should be jaded, but you give me a scruffy-looking Emilio Estevez, a one-lining Lauren Graham, and the promise of countless pratfalls on ice, and I’m already in.
Cathy Yuspa showruns with her husband Josh Goldsmith. The two have written together for a long time, going back to “What Women Want” and “13 Going on 30”.
Country Comfort (Netflix) showrunner Caryn Lucas mostly directed by women
A hopeful country singer is missing one thing – a band to back her up. She accepts a job as a nanny to make ends meet. It turns out the family she helps care for is full of musical prodigies.
Creator and showrunner Caryn Lucas has described the show as comfort food. Eight of the 10 episodes in the first season are directed by women. This includes six by Kelly Park (“Call Me Kat”) and two by Leslie Kolins Small (“The First Wives Club”).
A grandmother may have dementia, may be seeing horrors, or could be facing both. She goes missing. Her daughter and granddaughter turn up to look for her. The film’s been compared to recent horror surprises like “Hereditary” and “The Babadook” in its slow-burn approach to psychological horror.
Director Natalie Erika James chose to make the film look as natural as possible, opting for animatronics, less cinematic lighting, and keeping to a single location.
This is James’s first feature. The Japanese-Australian director grew up in Japan, China, and Australia, and she’s discussed the influence that Asian horror has had on her filmmaking – that horror often comes from restraint and suggestion.
This was previously featured when it hit VOD. You can now watch “Relic” on Showtime, or see where to rent it.
Quo vadis, Aida? (VOD) Directed by Jasmila Zbanic
This historical drama takes place during the Serbian occupation of Srebrenica. Aida is a translator for the UN who seeks shelter for her family with thousands of others in their camp. The film from Bosnia and Herzegovina is nominated at the Oscars for Best International Feature Film this year.
Writer-director Jasmila Zbanic has directed both documentary and narrative features that often mirror the complex cultural legacy of the Bosnian war.
Ayse comes home to care for her terminally ill mother. They don’t get much time before her mother passes, leaving Ayse to care for her beehives. She faces issues with their beekeeper and a local bear.
Eylem Kaftan is a Turkish director who’s mostly worked in documentaries up to this point. “Kovan” was one of Turkey’s two submissions for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes this year.
You can watch “Kovan” on Netflix. That link works, but if you search for it on your own, “Kovan” and “Keeping the Bees” both work.
The Fever (virtual theatrical) directed by Maya Da-Rin
Justino is a member of the Desana people. He now works as a port security guard in a Brazilian city. He feels like his life is oppressive, and he misses living in the forest. He is soon beset with fever, and stalked by a strange creature.
Director and co-writer Maya Da-Rin is a Brazilian filmmaker and documentarian. This is her second narrative feature.
A Colony (MUBI) directed by Genevieve Dulude-De Celles
Set in Quebec, this coming-of-age tale centers on a girl who starts re-defining herself as she enters high school and starts meeting new people. When school serves as an escape from family conflict, and family serves as an escape from social pressures at school, it can start to feel like there’s very little space left for herself.
Genevieve Dulude-De Celles has chiefly worked as a documentary producer. “A Colony” is her first narrative feature as director.
The Good Traitor (VOD) directed by Christina Rosendahl
Henrik Kauffmann was the Danish ambassador to the U.S. during World War II. When Germany occupied Denmark, Kauffman began acting for a free Denmark. As part of this, he worked with Greenland colonial officials to arrange a treaty that authorized the United States to defend Greenland. Kauffmann was immediately declared a traitor by a now-puppet government in Denmark, but he would effectively lead a free Danish government-in-exile throughout the war.
In the 1960s, he became one of the higher-profile cases of assisted dying, when the pain of his prostate cancer became too much. His wife Charlotte took his life before taking her own – such was the stigma against providing aid in dying at the time.
Christina Rosendahl directs and co-writes, as she’s done in both narrative and documentary films the past two decades. She also sometimes takes up the camera as cinematographer for documentaries.
The Craft: Legacy (Starz) directed by Zoe Lister-Jones
“The Craft” was a rare crossover that was both cult movie and pop sensation in 1996. It followed a group of high school students who became a coven of witches. Some of them use their powers productively, others less so. “The Craft: Legacy” is a sequel, albeit one that follows a new group of high schoolers discovering similar powers.
Director Zoe Lister-Jones worked her way from guest appearances to series regular on shows like “Whitney” and leads in indie films like “Lola Versus” (which she also wrote). As a director, this is her second feature after the well received “Band Aid”.
A pair of possessed, homicidal jeans go on a rampage. It’s always up to the underpaid staff to figure it out, and it’s not like they’ll get overtime for it. “Slaxx” is a satire of the fashion industry from ‘fair trade’ sweatshops to marketing campaigns.
Director and co-writer Elza Kephart has been directing indie horror comedy since 2003’s “Graveyard Alive”.
The second article I ever wrote on this site was called “Giant Monsters Gently Pluck My Heartstrings”. It was about Guillermo Del Toro’s most misunderstood film: “Pacific Rim”. It’s just giant robots and monsters beating each other up, right? Pretty colors, fun explosions, Idris Elba monologues. It’s like a “Transformers” movie where you can actually see what’s happening and leave without a headache. That doesn’t mean it has any real depth, yeah?
“Pacific Rim” as a franchise isn’t about the robots or the monsters, though. They’re incidental – a very fun incidental – but they’re a means to an end. Every Guillermo Del Toro monster is a metaphor for something far more consequential, and every means to fight it or understand it speaks to us about human nature. Yet every time, without fail – the one film we forget this about is “Pacific Rim”.
At its very best moments, “Pacific Rim” is about the Drift: the process where two people share memories in order to pilot the giant robots known as jaegers. “Pacific Rim” is about one thing before all others: two people coping with trauma and loss who find themselves in a sudden relationship to each other where neither can hide. To function, to do all that battling, to rise up and help others, they need to find a way to understand and communicate their trauma to each other. And let me tell you, these days this franchise and that idea feel fresher than they did when the film came out in 2013.
In the original movie, this loss is even explored across cultures – how people from different cultures and with different expectations respond to that loss. An approach to coping might be seen as brave in one culture, but is viewed as unhealthy in another. When someone crosses a boundary to help someone who doesn’t want that help, it can be seen as standing up for someone in one culture, and as a gross violation of trust in another. That is the entire push-and-pull dynamic shaped between Rinko Kikuchi’s, Idris Elba’s, and Charlie Hunnam’s characters in that film.
When you get it down to Kikucho and Hunnam, this is what I wrote “Pacific Rim” was about in August 2013: “two people abandoned suddenly and violently, for reasons they can’t understand, who – because they chance to meet – finally surpass the paralyzing effect that loss has on their lives.”
I am awed by how wildly “Pacific Rim” is overlooked. The 2018 sequel “Pacific Rim: Uprising” didn’t help matters. It killed off a fan favorite for no reason, its plot was wild, and it made the mistake of thinking the franchise is about robots fighting monsters – not about the traumatized people fixing and breaking themselves all over again just to get to that fight in the first place. I still enjoy it for what it is, but “Pacific Rim” needed its heart back again.
Enter “Pacific Rim: The Black”. And good god, it understands. The Japanese-American animation has a seven-episode first season on Netflix, with a second already ordered. Using an anime style means it can make those jaeger vs. kaiju battles look beautiful, but understanding “Pacific Rim” means they know that not many of them are needed. This show is about character.
The war against the invading giant monsters known as kaiju is now lost. Australia has been abandoned. Hayley and Taylor are saved by their parents – pilots of a jaeger. They’re left to hide with survivors in a desert oasis near a now-buried jaeger base. Their parents promise they’ll come back with rescuers in a few weeks time. Five years pass.
The oasis community is doing well for themselves, until one day Hayley finds a way into that old base and discovers a dilapidated, weaponless jaeger. I won’t ruin what happens, but one of the throughlines of “Pacific Rim: The Black” is that joy is often paired with loss. The show does not give anyone an easy time. Don’t make assumptions about the sci-fi anime wrapping – it is easily the most mature entry in the franchise, and it doesn’t shy away from violence.
I ache for shows that put their characters into impossible corners, with no easy outs, where they have to make decisions where there’s no right answer. I yearn for shows that engage trauma to tackle that it can’t be waved away, that it doesn’t only crop up when doing so keys an interesting plot – that trauma is interruptive, that it is what takes your plot and shatters it so now your characters have to find their way around or through it. That is dealing with trauma as a responsible storyteller, and if there’s a franchise that needs that same approach, it is “Pacific Rim”. They get it beyond right.
The show incorporates some familiar anime tropes. To give a fairly spoiler-free example…a character they meet mid-series, Mei, is the prototypical hard-boiled survivor trained to be a killer since she was a girl. I wouldn’t call my knowledge of anime exceptionally deep, but I’ve seen the broad character type before. I’ve rarely seen it done this well, though. Her characterization is efficient, and her moral struggle in relation to Hayley and Taylor feels complex and earned.
It’s like this across the board – you’ll note plot elements you’ve seen before, but rarely done this well. Furthermore, if you’re a fan of the franchise as a whole, they use these elements to tie in the lore of the previous installments. “Pacific Rim: The Black” does the nearly impossible – it makes “Uprising” better. It takes elements from the sequel that felt unneeded or misguided, and it gives them reason, attaches emotion, illustrates consequence.
This isn’t some cash-in on a franchise that wasn’t being used. This is an absolutely felt and studied continuation on the themes and details of “Pacific Rim”. The Drift – that process where two pilots have to share memories in order to make a jaeger work? It’s explored far more heavily as a sci-fi and moral concept than before. It still offers characters perspectives on each others’ trauma, but we also see how it can be abused when the wrong person gets hold of it.
There are exceptional details shown in these memories, too. For instance, Hayley finding the body of a friend is shown three times. The first is reality. The second two are memories in the drift. Each time it takes place, her movements are staged differently, the body is revealed in a slightly different way. As she views herself worse and worse, certain details of her memory change to paint her actions in that moment as less human, the encounter more horrific, her connection more distant. It’s a detailed example of survivor’s guilt, and the show doesn’t spotlight it to show off what it’s doing. It’s just there, an emotional reality that becomes a fact of the character.
Taylor reads as maybe around 18 or 20, and Hayley’s still a kid, maybe around 14 or 15. They’ve both been thrown into leadership positions over the last few years without guidance. Over the course of the series, they encounter horrible situations. They don’t act like resolute heroes; they act like inexperienced kids in over their heads – they screw up, they need time to process emotions, they forgive quickly, they linger in a dangerous situation because it’s the only one that’s solidly defined for them. It’s a minor note only seen a few times, but as a former jaeger cadet who trained in his youth, Taylor has anxiety over making quick decisions. There are small moments where he projects this on someone who’s no longer around to defend themselves. He makes a quick judgment on someone else’s decision-making, assigning them fault because he’s so apprehensive about his own.
“Pacific Rim: The Black” speeds along and its writing is efficient, but it’s filled with these little nuances and details that breathe immense life into its characters.
The voice actors are phenomenal. I watched in English and you get the sense that everyone was reading their lines within context, with superb direction and a defined sense of how these characters are perceiving each other. The music is good, and it brings back those strong orchestral cues for jaegers, kaiju, and hero moments.
One great decision they’ve made is that the human characters are animated with fewer frames per second. It’s a similar effect (though vastly different style) to “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse”, which animated at 12 frames per second instead of 24. This conveys motions as being a little faster or unexpected. It’s a more conscious style, but your eyes adapt quickly and it can often make movement feel more natural because it’s just that much less predictable.
By contrast, the jaeger vs. kaiju battles are always shown in much smoother animation, with higher frame rates. After your eyes have adjusted to 12 frames per second, where you’re filling in information between movements, this shift to a smoother, 24 fps rate can make things feel more deliberate. They aren’t happening more slowly, but your brain is translating the movement differently. It’s a brilliant choice that conveys the sheer scale and weight of the jaeger and kaiju. It mirrors that slower, deliberate fight choreography from the films and it takes advantage of how we perceive quality of movement in animation. It’s a mind-blowingly good decision.
If there’s a major issue, the character designs on Hayley and Mei should have been less sexualized. In a medium that’s seen Faye Valentine and Revy, you can often just be glad someone’s finally discovered the technology of buttoning their pants, but that becomes a low bar. The two characters are fully clothed the whole time, but some of their clothes are very form-fitting. (So are Taylor’s, but not in a way that sexualizes him.) This becomes more of an issue when we recognize that any read on Hayley still presents her as a child. Thankfully, they start throwing a loose jacket on her a few episodes in.
I don’t always know how far to criticize a series on decisions like this. We have countless shows that do far more to sexualize underage characters – the orgies in “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, Darren Barnet’s character in “Never Have I Ever”, George Sear’s character in “Love, Victor”. The actors are adults, but the characters aren’t. That’s not a defense for “Pacific Rim: The Black” or an attempt at whataboutism. It points out a double-standard that we need to stop exercising when we excuse our own culture’s media for it.
Right now, as a critic, it would be normal for me to lay into this series for a form-fitting costume design, while nobody would blink twice if I said the orgies from “Sabrina” were sexy. “Pacific Rim: The Black” should be criticized for that costume design decision. How much should it be criticized for it? My point is that I don’t fully know, because I live in a culture where it’s normalized to give our own media a pass on worse. It bothers me, I know it’s a problematic element, I know to call it out and notify readers it’s there. Beyond that, I’m not sure how much that does or doesn’t set the series back. How much do we isolate it as a problematic element on its own, or weigh it against the show as a whole?
Aside from that major issue, I have very momentary complaints, but that’s ultimately what they are – a detail in a fight that could’ve been done differently or a musical cue that could’ve been a notch more subdued. The plot gets wild at later points, but…well, welcome to “Pacific Rim”.
It’s rare for a show to have an intense, complex, winding plot that isn’t taken over by a writer’s ego – where it really feels like the characters themselves are the ones making decisions and feeling their way through it all.
“Pacific Rim: The Black” is lovely, wrenching, shocking, endearing, ridiculous, tense. It is everything I wanted. It takes that initial metaphor about people learning to communicate about loss and trauma, and it runs with it to talk about how we learn our way through it, how we sit with those demons, the terror of someone knowing how to manipulate them when we haven’t figured them out. The plot points are sometimes out there, but the storytelling around them is brilliant.
I love weeks that feature so many projects from different places. There are Chilean and U.S. series, as well as films from Chile, France, India, and the U.S. When we’re all still largely stuck at home due to the pandemic, there’s a temptation to only watch shows and movies from our own culture. That makes sense; we’re disconnected from it and seeing familiar parts of it comforts us. Please remember there are still ways you can connect with the larger world and see it through other people’s eyes. That helps make sure that we don’t draw into ourselves or start to limit our perspectives. That temptation to limit is a habit that can become painful and regressive. Challenging it can be just as much a comfort.
This intro section is useful for mentioning short films by women that are premiering. MUBI has two of them new this week:
“Vever (for Barbara)” is a film that saw progress by women experimental filmmakers of three generations. Each sought to learn about power structures different from the ones they were familiar with – avant-garde filmmaker and dancer Maya Deren wrote what became the screenplay after reflecting on a documentary she made about dance and religion in Haiti in the 1950s. Experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer shot footage of an abandoned project in Guatemala in 1975. Finally, Deborah Stratman brings it all together by incorporating their unfinished projects into her own.
MUBI also has Lynne Sachs’s short “A Month of Single Frames”. It edits together images, sounds, and journal pieces that experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer recorded in 1998.
Let’s get to the new series and movies:
Isabel: The Intimate Story of Isabel Allende (HBO Max) showrunner Isabel Miquel
Isabel Allende is the world’s most widely read author in the Spanish language. This series is a three-part drama that covers the first 50 years of her life. Of course, there’s a particular focus on her escape from Chile. In 1973, the nation’s highest-ranking general, Augusto Pinochet, led a coup against the president. Allende’s father was first cousin to that president. Allende was a journalist for a feminist magazine, and helped those who were targeted for abduction, torture, and assassination escape Chile. She would flee to Venezuela after attempts were made on the lives of her immediate family.
“Genera+ion” is a coming-of-age series about high school students figuring out their sexuality and how it shapes who they are. There’s a focus on including queer characters, and – rare for any type of show – one of the showrunners is actually a teenager.
Zelda Barnz is 19, but she’s been developing the show with her two fathers for four years now. Daniel is a writer-director, and Ben is a writer, so they envisioned the family project as a way to teach her about TV development. Ben had worked with Lena Dunham before, and arranged for Zelda to shadow her on HBO’s “Industry”. As the idea for “Genera+ion” grew from family project into more of a pitch, Dunham came on as a producer and helped garner HBO’s interest.
You’ll also find the stylized “Genera+ion” listed as “Generation”. You can watch it on HBO Max.
Farewell Amor (Hulu) directed by Ekwa Msangi
A man from Angola has been separated from his family for 17 years. He can finally bring his wife and daughter to the U.S. They share a one bedroom apartment, but haven’t been together for nearly two decades. There’s a wide disconnect between them now. They begin to connect again through a shared love of dance, but it may not be enough to help them through.
This is the first feature from writer-director Ekwa Msangi. She’s previously helmed South African series “The Agency”.
This was featured previously when it came to VOD. This is the first time it’s on a subscription service.
A deaf orphan boy loses his job. A group of workers whisper about unionizing. An English teacher sets the table for her late husband every night. A Muslim man falls for a Hindu woman, each struggling to make ends meet. A single rose connects a city full of characters in a hand-painted animation that took 60 artists a year-and-a-half to make.
The absolutely awe-inspiring feat was helmed by writer, director, and editor Gitanjali Rao. This is her first feature animation, but her previous shorts “Printed Rainbow” and “TrueLoveStory” have earned praise and awards at Cannes and other festivals.
This was originally listed to come out in December – I’m not sure why it was delayed.
“Proxima” tells the story of a woman preparing for a year aboard the International Space Station. Sarah is played by Eva Green, and she has to deal with doubtful colleagues and being away from her daughter for an entire year. The film centers around the concept that forcing women to choose between career and family is a false choice (and one that’s rarely asked of men). Green’s performance in particular has been lauded.
French writer-director Alice Winocour has built a pretty remarkable career in only a few films. “Mustang”, which she co-wrote with Deniz Gamze Erguven, was France’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film for 2015. As a director, “Proxima” is her third film after “Augustine” and “Disorder”.
This was featured previously when it came to VOD. This is the first time it’s on a subscription service.
This time last year was the last time I saw a film in the theater. It was “Emma”. I went to a coffee shop afterward to work on the review and a little bit of novel writing. It quickly became apparent that the pandemic was spreading in our state the next week.
Weekends before “Emma”, I’d seen “The Invisible Man” with Elisabeth Moss, before that “Birds of Prey”. Earlier during the Trump administration, I’d put a lot of time into working with writers and artists who had received threats. You can burn out on that quickly, and I put about two years in. It took me a lot to get back out to theaters regularly after that, and then I got my own serious threat, and then stalked by two other people. That was another two years. The threat was to shoot me and others in the head. It was viable; I knew the person and I knew they owned guns.
Movie theaters have always felt like something of a safe place for me. I realize they aren’t; I adopted recognizing the exits before the movie started same as a lot of other people. It took a long time when I was getting back into feeling comfortable stepping outside – on the rare occasion a man walked in with a backpack or duffel bag, I’d be on edge. I’d observe their behavior; I’d be relieved when they were joined by a woman or friends who laughed with them (simply because acts of violence usually aren’t perpetrated by women or casual social groups).
But they still felt like a safe space the minute the film started; it still felt like this place where everyone could give themselves up to artists and what they had made shoulder to shoulder, an ad hoc community that existed for two hours before dissipating, like a temporary art installation that’s meant to erode without record.
Reviewing films has always felt like more than just talking about that movie. It’s felt like recording what it is to be a witness to that moment of art, to that momentary community existing then and there, some sort of evidence that we were here despite so much overwhelming bullshit.
I don’t miss theaters. I miss what they enabled: being a witness to those pieces of art we can’t create anymore. Not the art on the screen – I can still watch that at home just fine. I miss that temporary human installation that would set everything aside for two or so hours just to participate together in a fantasy, or introspection, or wonder, or laughter, or whatever that film in particular brought to us.
In a weird way, I feel like I pre-gamed for the pandemic due to threats and stalkers. I was finally reclaiming the major things the social anxiety I’d dealt with had taken away when the pandemic hit. I already knew what it was to stay inside and bide my time, to busy myself in the face of a larger horror. It felt like I’d practiced, and as hellish as those two years of anxiety were, I was lucky, privileged, and supported enough to develop the skills to sustain another year or two of a different type of patience during this pandemic.
The most beautiful thing people do, the thing that rails against entropy the most, that gives us meaning when we’re all specks to the universe, is to be able to join together and form communities with their own momentary meaning, to understand our own participation in something artistic. To feel removed from that, unable to create that on a regular basis – it feels dehumanizing. It feels lonely. It’s OK to recognize that. I think it’s necessary and healthy to recognize that. It sucks. It sucks that we have to fight for the common sense to be patient for it to come again, for it to be available to us again. It sucks that we have to practice patience with ourselves and prolong a desire to participate like that again, and balance it directly against a fight with those who want to worsen the pandemic now and stick us in this dehumanizing state indefinitely, who are invested in that chaos and profit from it.
People who won’t wear masks, who oppose vaccines, it’s not just that they’re still gathering. It’s that they’re taking those moments we don’t get to have, that we’re responsible enough not to have, and they’re perverting them. They’re taking that ability to join together and create meaning in a moment, and they’re using it to feed conspiracy theories and cause harm. It’s personal because they put us and our loved ones at risk, because they feed the continuation of a pandemic hurting people. And it’s also personal because they’re taking something that for us is key to being human, feeling human, being affirmed as human, empathizing with others, they’re taking it and they’re making the only version that takes place an inversion of what that creative, communal act is. They’re making it an act of harm. If a communal event takes place right now, it is one that at best dismisses and at worst prioritizes that it will cause harm to others.
Please know that they won’t keep those spaces. They won’t redefine what those communal activities mean. They can only repurpose them that way because there’s a vacuum that responsible communities have intentionally created to keep people safe. That creation, that lack of events, that’s a communal creation, too. It’s a difficult moment to witness and take part in, but everyone setting aside their lives for a year-plus to protect people they love and people they don’t even know…that’s beautiful, too, as difficult and traumatic as it is to see.
Just please be patient with yourselves. Please know that if you feel an aspect of yourself is missing in all this, that’s normal, it’s to be expected. It won’t stay missing, it’s just informed by something that’s key to being human missing. When something that’s key to being human is missing, the most human reaction possible is to recognize that part of you is missing, too. It’s evidence that we haven’t been changed by the circumstance, that our norms haven’t been taken from us, that we still yearn for and feel incomplete without the ability to experience what we create for each other shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers alike. They can’t take your kindness if it’s still what makes you whole.
“Moxie” is a lot of things, including a generational letter of outrage from Gen X to Gen Z. It centers on 16 year-old Vivian. She’s shy and stays out of the limelight. Lucy is a new transfer to her school. She refuses to simply look the other way when boys at the school harass, abuse, and assault. Vivian is also increasingly aware of her mother’s history of 90s riot grrrl feminism. She decides to start anonymously publishing a zine that calls out the double-standards, hypocrisy, and very real danger posed to women at her school.
I’ll get the typical review stuff out of the way because I think “Moxie” is doing something complex that’s worth getting to – yes, it’s good. It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s pointed and poignant. It’s just about everything you want from the experience of watching a movie like this. It immediately fits right into any list of classic teen movies, and it’s more important than a good chunk of them.
I don’t think comparisons are all that useful, because what made films like “The Breakfast Club”, “Pump Up the Volume”, “10 Things I Hate About You”, “Mean Girls”, and “Lady Bird” so good is that they were all breaking new ground. Each of them was a film that wasn’t very comparable to what came before because they set the groundwork for what came after. Some are more recognizable as products of their time now, but each was incisive and confrontational to a set of norms at the time it came out.
You’ll notice that list is awfully white, because the films that also belong here – “Girlhood”, “The Half of It”, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, “Pariah” – they usually get compartmentalized into subgenres or considered as the B-team on Greatest-Of lists so that they don’t take up the same space. I think “Moxie” recognizes that history and its responsibility not to repeat it to some extent. How it does so informs a lot of what the film’s trying to do.
Truly Intersectional or Just Diverse?
First off, I’m a guy. There are some boundaries I should recognize when it comes to assessing “Moxie”. Mine is not the most important voice when it comes to declaring whether it’s doing something well when it comes to feminism. Director Amy Poehler hardly needs my approval. I do think the film is successful in most things across the board, so understand that’s a bias I’m writing with. I’m going to focus on the intersectional aspect, and how I think “Moxie” acknowledges and backfills a significant gap in the 2000s when it comes to mainstream feminist and anti-racist teen movies.
I can discuss intersectionality to a good extent – “Moxie” is inclusive. I am beyond pleased that Alycia Pascual-Peña continues to find success after the surprisingly good 2020 “Saved by the Bell” continuation. There aren’t a lot of major roles where an Afro-Latina gets to play an Afro-Latina. Just witness all the different roles in major franchises where Zoe Saldana gets painted blue or green.
Josie Totah is another actress shared with “Saved by the Bell” (technically, “Moxie” filmed first). Her role here is significantly smaller than it is there, but she’s an exceptional comic actress. There aren’t a lot of Palestinian or Lebanese performers in the industry who get offered anything but the most deeply stereotypical roles. Totah is also trans and she continues spearheading roles in projects that embody the reality that she’s a woman without bullshit, equivocation, or a need to justify or explain it. I hope she never stops.
Lauren Tsai plays a larger role as Vivian’s no-nonsense foil Claudia. Nico Haraga is the skaterly love interest Seth who doubles as an example of a solid male ally. Sydney Park and Anjelika Washington enjoy supporting roles as Kiera and Amaya – members of the school’s overlooked women’s soccer team.
If there’s one piece of representation that deserved more focus, there’s a disabled character who I would have liked to have seen involved more. Meg, played by Emily Hopper, really has no story agency. It would have been so good to see her fit into the film as a whole. While there are cutaways where she’s shown enjoying time with the group, she always seems to be on the outside of it, or somewhat silent within it. Her role feels somewhat tokenized. Everyone else seems to get a moment or makes a major decision except her, and at the very least this feels like a missed opportunity.
A lot of what “Moxie” contends with in talking about how feminism steps forward is its past history as specifically white feminism. Hadley Robinson plays Vivian and Amy Poehler plays her mother Lisa – there’s a frank conversation between the two where Lisa describes the 90s riot grrrl movement as making mistakes when it came to inclusion. Vivian also makes her own oversight borne from privilege, and is called out for it later in the film.
“Moxie” gives a lot of focus to Lucy and Amaya as leaders of the school club that forms around Vivian’s anonymous zine. Vivian may be creating and publishing the magazine, but she doesn’t try to claim leadership. That works in some ways because it lets others lead. It doesn’t work in other ways because when the school and peers look to hold someone accountable, it’s the girls of color they punish first. There’s also an undercurrent where Lucy and Amaya push Kiera into a role she doesn’t want to take.
These elements breathed a lot of subtlety, texture, and reality into the film. They give it more complexity and acknowledge that activism is a messy process that constantly needs to look inward as well as out. At the same time, I wanted the film to do more with these aspects. They sometimes give flavor to the film’s story about Vivian, without becoming an equal focus. I’ve seen an ongoing conversation about whether the film is truly intersectional, or simply diverse. Both are good, both are steps forward on progress, both push the genre, but when you get a landmark film like “Moxie”, this is a conversation that needs to be had because it clarifies the next landmark that pushes further.
I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It tackles intersectional concepts as a movie about activism, but it’s also a coming-of-age story that’s determined to keep its runtime under 2 hours. It’s a meld: one part intersectional film, one part coming-of-age film that’s diverse but doesn’t focus fully on those intersectional concepts. The crux of the matter is that the film is confrontational, celebratory, and critical when it comes to Vivian and her journey – it’s a three-dimensional portrayal. The intersectional elements don’t get the same dimensionality because it’s still ultimately a film about Vivian. They get more than a lot of films give them, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more room for them to get the focus. It’s one part representing these fights themselves and discussing them on their own terms, and it’s one part these fights being repurposed to texture what is ultimately Vivian’s story.
The film’s wildly successful and moving, and I don’t think it’s a massive criticism to say this is how far it goes, and this is how much further we can go. “Moxie” deserves both praise at its inclusive elements and its consideration and criticism of white privilege and racism, and at the same time it’s such a fully realized film that I think it could have successfully explored other elements it brings up in greater depth.
Gen X to Gen Z and the Millennial Gap
I started this article by mentioning the film is something of a letter from Gen X to Gen Z. Why would there need to be a generational letter from Gen X to Gen Z? Because the 2000s dropped the ball. I’m a Millennial – look back at what was made for our consumption: shows like “Scrubs”, “That 70s Show”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “The IT Crowd”, the list goes on…they all feature horrendous levels of misogyny. I’m not saying we can’t like those shows, but there’s a reason the term “problematic fave” exists – so that we can still talk about where they fell so short.
Of course, they all utilized the trick of making us laugh at a misogynist or harasser instead of with them. They all utilized it so much that they lost what the difference was. It disarmed harassment – in the hands of Dr. Kelso on “Scrubs” it was framed as endearing, in the hands of Matt Berry’s Denholm Reynholm on “The IT Crowd”, it was posed as ultimately harmless. The Todd’s handsiness on “Scrubs” was chastised; J.D.’s handsiness on the same show was a constant running joke that every woman he was interested in laughed off. The message was that so long as you were a sad, sensitive manchild about it, groping was OK. There were no consequences; it was just a quirk. In 2000s comedy, harassment was consistently posed as something to laugh off. Since it was an antiquated norm we could be sure was evaporating, shows decided it was OK for it to continue ad nauseam.
The popular media we consumed in the 2000s was in many ways a step back from cultural progress that had been made in the 1990s. As a Millennial interested in screenwriting, the regular casual harassment on “Scrubs” and shows like it was positioned as a shining city on a hill of comedy writing. It wasn’t. It was shitty.
What happened on TV doesn’t even begin to tackle the treatment of women in other mediums, such as in music or film. Sirin Kale wrote “’I was worried Lindsay, Paris or Britney would die’: why the 00s were so toxic for women” just this Saturday in The Guardian. I highly recommend the article. It goes into detail on how the early internet transformed media coverage into an instrument to project abuse onto women. It’s not something the internet changed into; it’s a foundational element of it. Moreover, it influenced and licensed media both old and new to follow suit.
No generation makes the content that’s being fed to it as they become adults. These shows and this coverage wasn’t being produced and written by 18 year-olds; they were being produced and written by older generations. They still have an impact on that generation; they still do damage to it. The shit we got fed as we became adults did not make talking to us men about it any easier for women. Your job – hell, something that shouldn’t have been only your job in the first place – became much more difficult because of the obsessive cruelty of the 2000s.
Whatever progress we could make got delayed. Millennials eventually shifted content made for us toward intersectional feminism, but that was making up a huge amount of ground that had been lost rather than building on top of the foundations of 90s feminism, and a lot of it is due to Gen X taking over some media production from the Boomer generation.
Insofar as a single film can, “Moxie” makes a bridge where there wasn’t one in the mainstream. Gen X had access to popular culture that made advancements on this, and they were doing it uphill against some really Stone Age concepts. Gen Z is lighting the whole place on fire, thank whatever god got sacked with reality this week. Gen Y – Millennials – the mainstream that was introduced to us only advanced on this after taking a huge step back. Something like 2004’s “Mean Girls” wasn’t the norm in coming-of-age storytelling, it was the distant exception. Today, it would be much more of a norm. I think there’s an argument that feminism in our media and storytelling got delayed a decade because of the 2000s. How much more difficult has that made everything since?
“Moxie” makes that bridge we never got to have, initially between Vivian and her mother, but also as a theme of the film as a whole. That’s needed now and it was needed in a place and time where Millennials really didn’t get it. And to say Gen X is bridging to Gen Z, firstly that’s a generational translation that’s difficult to make. Screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, Jennifer Mathieu who wrote the original novel, director Amy Poehler – they’re all translating something across multiple generations and I don’t know that they’re going to get the credit for just how tough a job that is.
Secondly, that doesn’t mean Millennials aren’t part of that translation. We can’t have access to that mainstream bridge if it doesn’t exist in the first place. We’re a generation that was often baited into fighting against itself to make up that ground rather than build something on it. Though “Moxie” might primarily center on Gen X and Gen Z realizations of feminism, the generation that might be most in need of seeing that bridge – of having access to it – is Millennials. At least when it comes to Millennial men and the mainstream dismantling of feminism that we were fed in media, there’s a developmental step that as a generation we skipped and have had to go back and make up, even as we take new steps forward.
Is “Moxie” too Idealized?
That brings us to one of the bigger criticisms about “Moxie”. I wouldn’t say any direct plot spoilers follow, but I will refer to the general tone of how the film concludes.
Reviews are generally positive, but many also highlight that the film is too neatly wrapped up. They have a point. They’re not wrong. It’s way too neatly wrapped up for a depiction of activism. I’m just not sure “Moxie” is only a depiction of activism. I think it’s also a fantasy representation of that – not a fantasy as in something that’s inaccurate, but the kind of cinematic fantasy that embodies the ideal of something, that lends the power of storytelling, of heroes overcoming something and celebrating that act, having things work out because they acted like heroes.
“Hero’s journey” is a term that’s problematic in and of itself. It’s too often applied reductively to a global history of indigenous stories that can’t be boiled down so simply. At the same time, there’s no denying that the concept is a major component of modern Western storytelling. There aren’t many heroes’ journeys when it comes to portrayals of feminism or activism. Conclusions often show protagonists suffering or hopelessly witnessing that the change they made is a drop in a wider sea. Those are absolutely necessary and real and legitimate presentations. They speak to a long history of women sacrificing to make any step of progress.
Yet no one complains when Han and Luke get medals around their neck while Vader and the Empire are still out there and more powerful. Why? They sacrificed, changed for the better, and completed one lap of the hero’s journey. They have a new community now, and they lead within it. As a culture, we reward that and want to see it rewarded. It’s an element of power fantasy.
Yet if a woman is successful at one step of activism – if she has a moment of progress, change for the better, is accepted by those she loves, forms a community, yet still faces a range of repercussions and even potential prosecution, that’s too saccharine for our norms? Really?
I could be missing something coming to it as a man, but I think that sort of mythic power of the heroes marking a space of progress and being acknowledged that it should be recognized and valued by society? We need that in some of these films, too. We’re fine with it when men engage in any kind of power fantasy in a movie, no matter how fantastical, and they’re rewarded. But when women reach that point as they’re fighting for their own agency, suddenly it’s a flaw in a movie?
Furthermore, not every movie about activism should end in everybody being broken and demoralized, because movies are supposed to be about aspirations sometimes. And certainly there are moments in activism where you celebrate, where you breathe a sigh of relief and recognize a community has coalesced where there wasn’t one before. It doesn’t mean that the job’s done or you’ve reached the end goal, or that you deserve a proverbial cookie. It doesn’t mean that activism has reached its apex and is no longer needed. But it absolutely means you take a breath and celebrate and inhabit that moment as one success – because otherwise, the next one is that much harder to reach.
As a guy who came of age in the 2000s, I needed to see this movie. We needed to see it in the form of multiple mainstream movies and shows every year. We didn’t get it. It’s important that it’s there. It’s important that it recognizes that gap and seeks to bridge it. It’s important that representations of activism can be realistic and messy and tragic and unfinished because the work obviously is, and that’s what activism is. And it’s important that representations of activism also get their heroes’ journeys and idealistic moments and cinematic stories where a success gets to be – even in that moment – a success.
“Moxie” is part of a larger movement that got delayed. “Moxie”, “Never Have I Ever”, “The Half of It”, the new “Saved by the Bell”, “Love, Victor”, the list goes on – the last few years have been revolutionary when it comes to mainstream teen and coming-of-age projects that focus on feminism, anti-racism, and LGBTQ equality, works that call out and educate about bigotry and even discuss how it can be disarmed.
That doesn’t mean this moment is perfect or that it’s come close to any kind of apex or what’s needed. What we needed was the moment that’s currently happening in coming-of-age film and TV to have happened 15 years ago. Part of me wonders how the U.S. as a whole might be different if we were getting these projects regularly in the mainstream then. I’m just happy that moment is finally here for the genre, and that there’s one more immediate, funny, and moving classic in it.
Last week featured two new series and no movies. This week, it’s seven new films and no series. That’s a weird back and forth. Part of me wonders if we’re getting to a point in the pandemic slowdown in production where streaming services can’t saturate every week. The other part of me recognizes that as I go through titles every week, that doesn’t seem to be a major problem for titles overall.
The truth is, projects by women still make up only a small portion of the number of overall shows and movies. A momentary shift that would be imperceptible in a larger sample size – such as the number of movies men get to platforms – suddenly becomes noteworthy in a smaller sample size.
If I was doing this series for new shows and movies made by men, there wouldn’t be a single week that even approached fewer than 40 titles. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it on a weekly basis. Centering it around women filmmakers means that I’m relieved there are seven films after a week with zero.
It’s a strange signifier of just how much the goalposts are moved. I realize saying that is pretty privileged. Women see that every day, in every aspect of their lives. I see it when I’m putting focus into, well, actually seeing it – and even then I’m just observing, I’m not experiencing it. If I feel deflated at that realization, I have no comprehension of what it must feel like to live it every day.
I’ve worked in politics, as a journalist, as a critic – you can see double-standards for miles in what those jobs cover, and in the industries doing the coverage. Yet even covering it, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt betrayed by the feeling of relief like I was when there were seven films this week after zero the last – as if that was some sort of victory instead of staring down an ongoing disaster. I guess it’s rare to step outside a moment of damaging normalization and realize how you’re trained to feel relieved about it.
If men had only 7 films come out in a week, it would be an unprecedented drop. Women have seven films coming out this week, and it’s a relief that it’s that many. That feeling of relief is such a lie. What that says about how inured men are – what we’re normalized to treat as equal when it’s only just a fraction of the space…. That normalization and rationalization can often convince us fixing it all is simple steps, and even then the fight is over just being able to do those. We barely understand that that fight is just a first layer, that it’s not a fix, that it’s just holding down the symptoms enough to start getting at the root causes.
So much of what men debate over in allying is just forcing harmful normalizations to fall back from Plan A to Plan B – so much of what we fight over accepting isn’t even a fix, it’s just levels of survival patriarchy is prepared to accept. I realize none of this is news to women, but I know some men read this, too. So many of the frameworks we work with on this fight come pre-negotiated for our comfort. So many of the new norms that we’d feel successful about are only the barest half-measures. We often frame this work as feeling good about what we do, rather than as recognizing a change has been accomplished and secured. Our best allyship is often what we’re trained to feel is a noteworthy accomplishment, a success we’ve taken as far as we can, a plateau of allyship rather than a first step on which other steps now have to be built.
Moxie (Netflix) directed by Amy Poehler
A girl comes across her mother’s records of high school protest. In the face of the boys’ annual rankings of who’s “most bangable” and her school’s double-standards and plausible deniability, she’s inspired to follow suit by publishing a feminist magazine. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu.
One thing I’ll note is the proven comedic pairing of Alycia Pascual-Pena and Josie Totah in supporting roles. The two were superb as leads in the genuinely surprising “Saved by the Bell” continuation last year.
Director Amy Poehler is co-creator of “Russian Doll” and “Upright Citizens Brigade”. She also starred in “Saturday Night Live”. Most famously, she was the star of, as well as writing and directing on, “Parks and Rec”. She also directed 2019 comedy “Wine Country”.
You can watch “Moxie” on Netflix with a subscription.
The World to Come (VOD) directed by Mona Fastvold
Two neighboring families run struggling farmsteads. Things are rough – it’s the 1800s and the living is difficult. To stave off isolation, the two wives keep each other company. As they do, they gradually fall in love.
Director Mona Fastvold is primarily known as a Norwegian writer and actress. This is her second film as a director.
Note that this does feature Casey Affleck, who also produced on the film. He has been sued twice for repeated sexual harassment and disparagement. (I’m not able to track the major names and their histories on all projects, but when an obvious one comes up like this, I will try to mention it. )
May is a self-help author who finds herself being stalked. A man comes to kill her every night, no matter how many times she kills him. People around her recognize it, understand what’s happening, and treat it as completely normal.
Natasha Kermani has directed the surreal “Imitation Girl” before this. “Lucky” is written by Brea Grant (who also stars). Grant recently directed horror comedy “12 Hour Shift”.
You can watch “Lucky” on Shudder with a subscription.
Summerland (Showtime) directed by Jessica Swale
Gemma Arterton’s made a name for herself in a few franchises, but it’s always been the under-the-radar work where she’s shown an incredibly complex range. “Summerland” tackles the story of a novelist during World War 2. She unexpectedly has to take in an evacuee from London. His father’s at war, and London became untenable for children during the London Blitz bombing campaign. Many rural families were asked to take children in and care for them during this time. Arterton’s Alice hides the secret that she couldn’t be with her great romance – another woman.
This is writer-director Jessica Swale’s feature debut.
Sophie is in high school and struggling with depression and aimlessness after her mother’s death.
“Sophie Jones” is directed by Jessie Barr, not to be confused with her co-writer Jessica Barr (a cousin). Both are coming at the project from personal experience, as both lost their mothers to cancer when they were just 16. This is the first feature for either one. Both have worked as actresses before this.
This month saw the end of a legendary pairing, and a music video that got both our lowest and highest rating. Neither made the list, but that’s why the intro gets to cheat and talk about them anyway.
Daft Punk said goodbye in “Epilogue”, which doesn’t even count as a music video because it’s a scene from their 2006 movie “Electroma”. It’s pretty final, though – it’s hard to reform your band when one of you blows the other up. I mean, I haven’t been in a band since high school, but I assume that hasn’t changed.
The house and electronic duo formed in 1993. I liked them well enough, but I was never a huge fan – until their score for “Tron: Legacy” in 2010, which I thought deserved the Oscar that year. It was the year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won for “The Social Network”, so hard to argue, but a nomination for something as creative and encompassing as “Tron: Legacy” would’ve been nice.
Personally, I’m hoping this is all a guerilla marketing campaign for “Tron 3” and it’ll be revealed they have to dive back in to rescue the Daft Punk characters for reasons, but um…not holding my breath.
This is the second month we’re doing this incarnation of a music video countdown, but we’ve done variations of it in the past. We do it by scouring music videos – this month, that job fell to Cleopatra Parnell and me. We whittled upwards of 200 music videos down to about 70. Those 70 then go to six voters who rate each on a scale of one through 10. We each have a single 12 to give to the video we think is the best of the month. Then we argue a lot, and the tiebreaker system we have is done away with because the Chelsea Wolfe fans and the Bryson Tiller fans go at each other for the last spot. Who wins that? K-pop. K-pop always wins.
I’m telling you this because we’ve used this system in the past and we use it now. Never before has a music video scored both a one and a 10. We’ve never seen something so divisive. Yet never before has Rebecca Black remixed “Friday” in a video that’s a giant troll. Is it really a giant troll, though? It’s sung in an Alvin and the Chipmunks hyperpop style and she’s literally driving in the car with trollface memes. I mean, not literally literally. It’s just CGI. I think. I hope. Bear witness:
Vanessa Tottle gave it a one. Cleopatra gave it a 10. The rest of us: somewhere in the middle, confused, alone, reaching out and wondering if this was collapse or singularity. Personally, I think they’re both right right, and few people have earned the right to troll the internet as much as she has. How do we factor that into deciding the best videos of the month? We don’t. There are some things humanity was never meant to measure. Rebecca Black has broken math.
Math historian Morris Kline tells us that complex mathematics was first recorded around 3,000 B.C. in Babylon and Egypt, so this month, we say goodbye to both Daft Punk, blown up by Daft Punk, and math, run over by Rebecca Black. They both had a good run.
In all seriousness, Black’s been putting out good music when she’s not trolling; “Girlfriend” is some quality synthpop.
S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, and Vanessa Tottle joined me in figuring out the chaos that is the top 10 music videos of the month:
10. Don’t Call Me – SHINee
It’s been a banner month for K-Pop music videos, with “Bicycle” by CHUNG HA, “Wings” by PIXY, and “Breaking Dawn” by The Boyz all landing. These dance videos each have unique strengths, but K-pop MVs usually incorporate specific core elements.
“Don’t Call Me” excels at each of these. The hip-hop choreography is absolutely tight, with hard hits and smooth lyrical bridges. The sets are a blend of lavish and surreal, centered on a theme of what’s been abandoned and broken down. The costume design is full of character. The constantly moving camera never loses its focal point.
It helps that the song has hooks in each section and packs a ridiculous amount into just four minutes. There’s a reason American listeners are so drawn to K-pop – don’t underestimate its complexity or the sheer range of genres it draws on from around the world.
9. Tell Me You Love Me – Sufjan Stevens directed by Luca Guadagnino
Ask me to describe how this video does what it does and…I really can’t tell you. It feels cleansing, connective, whole. I just don’t know how or why. Four of us found it that way, two others thought it was threatening and carried an undercurrent of violence.
Read the comments and some are reading despair into the video, some are haunted by it, some are calling it healing. It’s almost like it’s a Rohrshach inkblot for what you place onto it. When I watch it now, I get the sense of threat that I didn’t see the first few times, but it’s still healing. Who the hell knows what that says?
If you’re someone who stopped listening to Sufjan Stevens for a few years, he’s worth revisiting. He never finished his 50 states project. He only got through Michigan and Illinois, which is about when I’d stop, too. He did release two superb albums last year – The Ascension as a solo project, and Aporia with his stepfather, electronic musician Lowell Brams.
If you recognize Luca Guadagnino’s name as director, he’s the one who remade “Suspiria”. Take from that what you will.
8. Bed Head – Manchester Orchestra directed by Andrew Donoho
If you ask me the best music video director who’s ever graced the medium, it’s Emily Kai Bock. She only directed about 15 music videos over five years – barely a drop in the bucket compared to those who’ve directed hundreds. But in a handful of videos for Grimes, Grizzly Bear, Solange, and Lorde, she completely changed the approach to what shots and parts of a story are desirable. Her magnum opus was Arcade Fire’s first video for “Afterlife”, a contemplation on dreams and mortality that reflected its song by just taking one or two ideas from it and running with those into the dreams of a family.
“Bed Head” gets so close to that territory. The style is different; Andrew Donoho came into the medium about when Bock was leaving it to pursue narrative filmmaking. He’s had his own persuasive hand in the new directions music videos are taking. But the sentiment, the identification with someone who may as well be halfway around the world, the yearning for things to work out for someone you’ve known for four minutes, it gets so close to that same need. No other medium does that the way music videos do.
7. We’re Good – Dua Lipa directed by Vania Heymann, Gal Muggia
Obviously, we’re playing with the term lobster now – the notion of a soulmate you’re supposed to belong with. It’s a romantic idea, but becoming convinced of it can also allow someone to abuse you. Seeing one lobster after the other plucked out and devoured – if you’ve been in a relationship like that, I think the video carries added significance.
I love the shallow depth-of-field the video plays with. Combined with the MV’s muted color palette, it makes it feel like it was filmed in the 70s. It’s hard to take something understated and make it feel so compelling, but when you do it feels utterly unique.
6. Sucker – Ellie Dixon directed by Ellie Dixon
As I noted with Number One Pop Star and Noga Erez last month, a music video can become an immediate classic on the strength of a single performance. It’s a risky route to take, and one that sees a lot of MVs fall flat on their faces. Very few strike with the wit and commitment of Ellie Dixon’s “Sucker”.
As she notes, it was entirely filmed late at night in her back garden with a minimal set. They could only shoot 90 minutes at a time before camera operator Sophie Winter’s hands got too cold to shoot any more. It is a superb example of zero-budget filmmaking.
Dixon also directed and edited – and the editing here is about as good as you’ll see. There are people who make a lot of money who don’t know when to stay on performance and when to cut on movement this well, and I can tell you from experience it’s even more difficult when you’re editing yourself. If you asked me to pick the best editing on this list, it’d be a tough choice between this and SHINee’s “Don’t Call Me”, which easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – and I’d probably choose this.
5. Wish You the Best – Jay Oladokun ft. Jensen McRae directed by Noah Tidmore
I love MVs that suggest a story without letting you know what it is. The usual pitfall is that the video gets too into the story it’s withholding from you, without connecting you to the characters. When you’re guarding a suggested story, it’s not the story that’s important. It’s the characters who are guarding it so well. That’s the part of it all that invests you, that makes you want to come back and watch again.
“Wish You the Best” is a beautiful and haunting duet, paired with a guarded story that we only get hints about. What makes it work is how deeply felt that story is by Jay Oladokun and Jensen McRae. If I connect with the story and you won’t tell me what the story is, that can make me bounce off an MV. If you connect me with the characters and how their story feels, the details of it are a mystery that can be appreciated. That creates an MV where you sense the shape of what’s missing but can’t fill it in, and I think that builds on the haunting quality of the music itself.
4. Grace. – breathe. Directed by breathe.
I usually hate music videos that are done entirely in slow-motion. If you’re not giving me a reason to be at that speed every moment, then it feels like you’re wasting my time. “Grace.” by breathe. gives us a reason for three-and-a-half minutes. It teaches us who a person is, and it lets us glimpse and share their joy for that brief moment in time.
There are beautifully choreographed technical elements here – performer, camera, lighting. The slow-motion helps us learn who Tommy is, see their tattoos, the look on their face. And then sometimes what’s already beautiful is lifted by moments of capturing lightning in a bottle.
I always think of that first shooting star in “Jaws”, when the terror is building, the boat is taking on water, and Roy Scheider loads the flare gun. A shooting star passes behind and that one, little moment of beauty burrowed in everything else lifts the film into the territory of a fable, into unreal and ultra-real all at the same time.
It might seem weird to bring up “Jaws”; lightning in a bottle doesn’t need to be those specific emotions or genres, but it does need to be a moment of chance in a scene that’s already as good as it can be. When Tommy turns and their cross earring flashes in the light at 1:51 in, that’s lightning in a bottle. That’s a moment already being so perfect that a chance of unexpected beauty on top of it elevates what we’re watching into the magical. I’m not religious; that’s not what I’m talking about. What matters is that it’s something important to who we’re watching, something that they value and like for whatever reason, something that describes them, that they chose to wear, a detail of who they are shared for just a second before we lose that opportunity to know it.
And yes, the shine might be enhanced – hell, Spielberg added a second meteor in post-production. That it was there to begin with, that there was already such a high plateau for it to stand on – that’s what makes it.
As Sean Walker of breathe. describes the reason for the video, “In Dec. 2018, my twin Tommy was found unconscious on the side of the road after a horrific motorcycle accident. As I sat in the intensive care unit that night, I was told that they might not wake up, and I had to contemplate the devastating possibility of losing my other half. This film is a celebration of Tommy’s survival and strength, their queerness and their community who loves and cares deeply for them.
The clip features Tommy dancing inside Sydney’s Red Rattler Theatre — a space where, growing up, Tommy felt safe and comfortable to be wholeheartedly and completely themselves, a place where they found their family, and their identity. After spending months in a wheelchair with a broken back, ribs and pelvis, nerve damage and brain injury, Tommy can once again move and express themselves freely, an incredible thing to watch as their brother. Forever my tomboy, Sean from breathe.”
CW: graphic violence, implied child trafficking
3. All About Love – Sierra directed by Parker Gayan
The best way to describe this is David Fincher-esque. Not just in style or presentation either – it’s difficult to tell what’s a literal story and what’s metaphor. Is it a video about a woman out to stop child traffickers? Is it about a woman literally killing the man who raised her? Is it a metaphor about closing a connection to your past, and gaining a level of control over abuse and trauma suffered in childhood?
All of those are potential reads, and they don’t necessarily disagree. It could be all of them, and that’s what elevates something that might otherwise come across as just a stylistic experiment. There’s a complexity in how we read this and what details we draw from to fill in the narrative.
2. Mate – Mobley directed by Mobley
There have been a lot of MVs about two people connecting but unable to meet or touch. The theme reflects people’s experiences during a pandemic that’s entered its second year. Many have centered around people being able to be together in virtual worlds like MMOs, paired with a mix of both joy and added frustration that this brings. Yet this can also backseat a focus on characters themselves.
What I love about “Mate” by Mobley is that it’s most focused on what connects these characters, what they teach each other, what they find in each other that’s beautiful and shared. A lot of these videos focus on longing, but few focus on what makes their characters such a good match, few speak to the audience that what they’re teaching each other includes things that we should be learning as well.
1. Fireworks – Purple Disco Machine ft. Moss Kena & The Knocks directed by Greg Barth
Nobody could have predicted the most perfect music video ever made would be a documentary beamed to us from the future.
Other videos we liked this month:
“Anhedonia” sees two of gothic rock’s most creative artists come together: Chelsea Wolfe & Emma Ruth Rundle. It’s a beautiful stop-motion video that creates a safe harbor for those in the midst of depression, that offers a space for patience that can sometimes seem very distant.
“Where the Time Went” is a return for Ex: Re, the solo project by Daughter frontwoman Elena Tonra. There are a lot of music videos documenting eerily empty spaces in the middle of a pandemic, but this one goes a little further by echoing the automation of a city still running, and of apartments that aren’t empty but that may as well be a thousand miles away to the passerby.
“Sorrows” by Bryson Tiller is a beautifully shot metaphor for coping badly with heartbreak. One of the most interesting discussions in this month’s email thread is whether or not it’s based on 1998 sci-fi noir “Dark City” – the billboard for a beach that doesn’t exist and the preponderance of clocks and figures using human faces is hard to overlook.
“The Princess and the Clock” is a painterly animation of a fairy tale, either hopeful or tragic depending on how you read it. Kero Kero Bonito have a habit for hiding thematic knives within bright, happy, synth-tickling dream pop.
“Client” by Waveshaper is a narrative about loss and the choices we make told with superb retro flourish.
“Man in Me” by Madi Diaz is an effective metaphor shot in a single take, but it’s impossible to describe without ruining the message it conveys.
“Blijven Slapen” by Snelle & Maan is a story about two people who – through the power of editing – keep falling into new places where more and more people dance with them. I don’t remember it all that well, but this is what life was like before the pandemic, right?
“Sunny in the Making” by Steady Holiday is a great single take video about anxiety, impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and that moment when you’re able to realize something artistic as passionately as you want.
I mentioned CHUNG HA’s “Bicycle” earlier when talking about K-pop, but the Korean-English-Spanish song and its superb dance video is absolutely worth highlighting on its own.
I’ll be blunt – this is the thinnest week for new shows and movies by women that I’ve covered. Both shows look good, but I think it’s the first week in about a year of doing this when I couldn’t dig up any new films. I go through more than 20 sources and look up any title from 2019 forward that’s newly available. This is about the swiftest it’s gone. It’s disappointing that there are still weeks like this; there are no such empty weeks for new content by men.
Since it’s a thin week, I’ll mention some of what I’ve really enjoyed from the past year. I just reviewed “Nomadland”, written and directed by Chloe Zhao. I was moved by its deliberate, understanding portrayal of a post-modern nomad. It’s available on Hulu.
With awards-season getting under way, it’s a superb time to start catching up on last year’s movies directed by women. I still hold Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” as the best American film in the past decade. It’s about an administrative assistant who learns over the course of a day that her boss is extorting actresses for sex. It’s out on Hulu, Kanopy, Hoopla, as well as for rent.
“Lingua Franca” joins it among last year’s best films. Isabel Sandoval wrote, directed, and starred in the film about an undocumented woman from the Philippines. A flourishing relationship is threatened both by her undocumented status and the fact that she’s trans, and it’s one of the most quietly overwhelming pieces of art I’ve seen for showing that acceptance of one marginalization doesn’t mean someone won’t use another against you. It’s available on Netflix.
I feel pretty set with “The Assistant” and “Lingua Franca” as my pick for the two best films of 2020.
Also check out Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, about a painter in the 1700s who falls for a woman who’s about to get married. I say it every time I mention her, but Sciamma has a strong argument as the best director working right now. It’s out on Hulu and for rent.
Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is about a pair of girls who have to go to New York City to get access to abortion options. It’s out on HBO Max and for rent.
Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey” is a subversive satire of double-standards and how women are portrayed in film. The action-comedy follows Batman villain Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as she gets involved in the search for a stolen diamond and meta-narrates her way through all the double-crosses. It’s available on HBO Max.
Annie Silverstein’s “Bull” is a beautiful film about an aging rodeo protection athlete who takes a young girl under his wing as a bullrider. It’s out on Hulu, Kanopy, Hoopla, and for rent.
Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” is one of the best designed films you’ll see. Her take on the Jane Austen regency romance treats art and costume design as a sort of winking narrator that lays bare everyone’s intentions if you’re paying close enough attention. It’s also the last film I saw in theaters, in the before-time. Sigh. It’s out on HBO Max.
Nora Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” is a stunning German film about a girl who is so disruptive she’s spent every foster and group home option available to her. It’s an extraordinarily empathetic film for people who our society isn’t well built to empathize with. Helena Zengel got a Golden Globe nomination for her work in “News of the World”, but it’s this film that I think offers one of the best performances by a child in film history. It’s out on Netflix.
Julia Hart’s “I’m Your Woman” is a deeply atmospheric 70s-styled on-the-run thriller. Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) tries to stay one step ahead of a mob war while protecting her baby. Hart excels at directing tension.
There are many great performances by women, in films directed by women, that are also worth checking out from 2020. I’ve already mentioned Sandoval in “Lingua Franca”, Zengel in “System Crasher”, Robbie in “Birds of Prey”, and Brosnahan in “I’m Your Woman”.
To them I’d add Alfre Woodard as a prison warden in “Clemency”, Magaly Solier as a migrant worker in “Lina from Lima”, Zoey Deutch as a ruthless con woman in “Buffaloed”, and Tripti Dimri in an Anthony Hopkins-esque performance in Indian horror drama “Bulbbul”.
That just scratches the surface. I don’t get to watch everything I’ve featured in this series, so take a look at entries from weeks past. See what jumps out at you as intriguing.
Let’s get to this week’s new series. As I said, there are no new entries for narrative films by women this week.
Vincenzo (Netflix) directed by Kim Hui-won
A Korean-Italian mafia consigliere decides to take a trip back to Korea. When he comes across a similar organization there, he decides to take them on to protect those he cares about.
This is the third series Kim Hui-won has directed, including “The Crowned Clown” and “Crash Landing on You”. Directors are essentially the showrunners in most South Korean series, as is the case here.
You can watch “Vincenzo” on Netflix with a subscription. As with many of their Korean series, new episodes will debut weekly.
Ginny & Georgia (Netflix) showrunner Sarah Lampert mostly directed by women
This show’s receiving some invited comparisons to “Gilmore Girls”, as it sees a mother and daughter move to a small town in New England from the South. With a criminal history and a more modern coming-of-age mystery, the similarities may end there.
Sarah Lampert is creator, showrunner, and one of the show’s writers. This appears to be her first time in those roles.
Eight of the 10 episodes are directed by women. This includes two apiece by Anya Adams, Catalina Aguilar Mastretta, Renuka Jeyapalan, and Aleysa Young.
“Nomadland” won’t be for everybody. For the people who enjoy films that act like witnesses, it can be beautiful. What do I mean by that?
“Nomadland” follows Fern, a woman in her 60s. Her husband has died. She’s lost her home and job in the Great Recession. She lives in her van, driving from place to place and job to job. She’s played by Frances McDormand in a cast that blends actors with real people who live this modern nomadic life.
It reflects on the collapse of empire we’re all living through, but only in a way that helps characters speak to other characters. Fern struggles, but her journey is never treated as a tragic or representative story. Instead, it’s simply her story, emotionally full, bittersweet at times, and eventful in the way anyone’s can be.
Let’s get back to the question. How does a movie act like a witness, or an observer? There are films that simply seem to watch what happens. What’s cinematic feels removed from them. That’s hard to accomplish when a film still includes everything that makes a movie: edits, dialogue shots, landscape, sets, music, acting, you name it. That’s all still there, but it fades as you watch until you’re just a witness along with it.
Go with me on a tangent here; it’ll wrap back around. Warren Spector is a video game designer. He once spoke about his dream game: “My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly”.
The idea is to replicate one city block in all its details, foibles, in all its random objects that may mean nothing or that may collect into describing a person. People would go about their lives with no particular heed to the player as special or unique or as anything else but another person going about their life.
Critic Jim Rossignol once compared this to a game called “Gone Home”. It simulates as deeply as possible returning to a family home. Games like this are associated with a genre called walking simulators. They can become controversial because they pursue a meticulous realization of a place instead of prioritizing gameplay. Being able to inhabit that place as a player is what’s important, even if everything that usually makes a game feels removed. Many argue that this makes the genre cease to be games, and start to be a different kind of interactive art.
The agency that we enjoy in most video games is instead centered around a place feeling, looking, and acting real. For the audience, you can invest in the feeling that it is real. What traditionally makes a game a game – running, jumping, dodging, shooting, solving puzzles – in these games those elements fade away. You’re just a witness there. You’re just moving through the house, seeing what’s there, rifling through closets and dressers and drawing conclusions that ultimately only matter to you. In many of these games, like “Firewatch”, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture”, or “Dear Esther”, there is a clear end-state for the player’s journey. In the most experimental forms of walking sim, such as those made by Connor Sherlock and Kitty Horrorshow, there’s often no win-state or conclusion. You just keep witnessing until you decide to stop playing.
This is what “Nomadland” is, and why it’s beautiful. What makes a film a film is deeply secondary to watching someone live. Whereas games are built around the agency of its audience, films are most often built around performance. So instead of gameplay being replaced by a location to explore, what’s cinematic is replaced by a life to learn.
In “Nomadland” there is no end-state or conclusion. There’s no wrap-up. Of course the film ends at some point, but what plot happens is secondary to feeling like you’re experiencing who Fern is. That doesn’t really conclude. As an audience, we move through, seeing what’s there, inhabiting these moments and places. We make inferences about these lives, and it all ultimately only matters to you.
It may seem strange to compare a film to a walking sim, but the internal space they both evoke is similar. There are things that move you, but again and again I found myself returning to thoughts about my own life and decisions. I’m three decades younger than Frances McDormand, but even in my 30s I have photos I enjoy remembering, a toy from my childhood I miss, loved ones who have passed, keepsakes, memories. I may be younger, but we all have our starter’s kits for nostalgia. “Nomadland” provides a uniquely safe space to think about those things, to evoke their memory in myself. And as sad as parts of the film may be, they never feel heartbreaking or aching. The sadness is simply there, alongside everything else.
Movies are very different from video games, but “Nomadland” accomplishes in the patient, seemingly undirected exploration of a character what walking sims often accomplish in the patient, seemingly undirected exploration of a space. Of course, both have to be directed near perfectly to obscure that sense of direction, but “Nomadland” is more similar to that experience than it is to most other films.
Obviously, cinema has a longer history as a medium – it’s more accepting of films like this. Yet the closest comparisons I might draw to it are still more consciously cinematic:
I think of the films of Byambasuren Davaa, Terrence Malick, Bela Tarr. These are movies that often rely on long takes. You inhabit their spaces through unbroken contact. It’s easier to feel like you inhabit a place alongside characters when edits are few and far between. It’s one way of removing something cinematic from the equation so that you feel more like a witness than a viewer.
For the most part, “Nomadland” edits quickly. This put me off at first. It’s much more difficult to feel close to characters, alongside them in that place, if we’re constantly changing shot and even locations. There’s something here that’s lyrical, though – sometimes visually, but that’s not what I mean. What’s remarkable about “Nomadland” is that it gets to a similar place without removing any of the obvious hallmarks of movie-ness.
In Davaa, Malick, and Tarr’s films, I can feel like I’m seated among the characters. I’m witnessing what’s happening as an unspoken character, as the proverbial fly on the wall. The magic of those films is that I become the camera, a kind of ghost observer who exists in the scene. It feels like I am in those rooms and landscapes, watching what’s happening.
In “Nomadland”, it feels like there is no camera. It’s much more akin to the feeling of watching a documentary, but without narration, questions, themed structure, or any of what typically forms a documentary. You don’t feel like you’re a fly on the wall in a place, you feel like a fly on the wall in a life. It doesn’t feel like you’ve become the camera here, it feels like you’ve become a memory seeing all the other memories alongside you. It feels like you’re one of the people Fern passingly meets, who shares some moment that they’ll both look back on as happy, or fraught, or interesting, but a moment you’ll remember.
It might not even be a special moment, but it becomes special because you remember it, because one day you’ll look back on it as a hallmark of that time, as an anchor point to feel what you did then, as a space with someone else that felt sheltered when so much else didn’t.
There are so many beautiful, meaningful films I want to one day re-watch and re-experience. I can sometimes know that a movie is one I’ll go back to again and again the moment the credits roll.
The highest compliment I can pay to “Nomadland” is that I might not ever revisit it – because it feels so completely a memory that I’d like to recall just as I recall memories – incomplete, fragmented, as much sensation as information, fading but still held onto.
It is a moment of witnessing before the moment’s gone again.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Nomadland” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Frances McDormand plays Fern. Melissa Smith plays Dolly. Linda May and Swankie play versions of themselves. A number of other women have one-scene speaking parts. Usually, I’d list these characters and their actors, but because so many are playing versions of themselves, names are often only mentioned once, and most aren’t professional actors with headshots or promo stills, it’s difficult to line up who was who in each scene.
Suffice to say that these are the major parts for women, but that many other feature and this is an incomplete list.
“Nomadland” is also written and directed by Chloe Zhao (as well as produced and edited by her). It’s based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Occasionally they discuss men – Fern clearly holds trauma because of the loss of her husband and her own father, and a fellow vandweller named Dave is a friend who’s interested in her.
More often, however, they discuss how to change a tire, job openings, where they’re traveling to next. They tell their stories to each other, repeat their favorite memories, share crafts, take care of each other, describe how their vans got their names.
You can watch “Nomadland” on Hulu with a subscription.