There’s an incredible number of new films and shows by women, so I’ll skip the preamble. Let’s just dive in:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Hulu)
directed by Celine Sciamma
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” did get a limited theatrical release, but coronavirus has scrambled what a lot of these categories (new vs. recent release) mean. It was still expanding in theaters when the pandemic started shutting them down, and it’s a film from arguably the world’s best active director, so it’s going up top.
Celine Sciamma delivers masterpieces. There’s no other way of putting it. I highlighted her film “Girlhood” as my third best film of the 2010s. Her films often address characters who are non-binary or gender-fluid. She’s a director who can deftly fold touches of magical realism into scenes in ways that feel so real and natural we don’t even think to question what just happened.
Her films have heightened senses, storytelling patience, and themes that constantly show themselves rather than being told to you.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix documentary)
co-directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham
Camp Jened was a summer camp for teens with disabilities. Many who attended the camp later took part in the disability rights movement that revolutionized accessibility laws. For many, the camp offered a space where everyone saw them as people. Society was essentially legislated to discourage this. When those who attended the camp returned, they didn’t shrink from the moment. They saw a need to change that legislation rather than fit back into it.
For films that are co-directed by women, I’ve been including their names in describing the film and not really worrying about the men. That is, after all, what this feature is about. James LeBrecht is a lifelong disability activist who’s fought for his own and others’ rights as someone with spina bifida. Representation matters and a core part of why I’m writing this is that people telling their stories through their perspective – and widening our own – matters. It seems unthinkable in this case to not include his name as well, and to do so in the order prescribed by the film.
“Crip Camp” is Lebrecht’s directorial debut. He’s worked for the past 30 years as a sound editor and mixer, often on PBS and independent documentaries. Nicole Newnham has been nominated for five Emmy Awards and won one on her documentary work. “Crip Camp” was the winner of the Documentary Audience Award at Sundance this year.
Clemency (digital rental)
directed by Chinonye Chukwu
“Clemency” won director Chinonye Chukwu the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. She was the first Black woman director to win it. It earned her film an extremely limited expansion into theaters in January, competing with almost no advertising against other Oscar hopefuls that had studio-backed awards campaigns. Needless to say, it disappeared. No one knew about it.
In the film, Alfre Woodard plays a prison warden wrestling over the execution of one more inmate. The film itself seems to examine the social and racial implications of what she does, while allowing Woodard the room to play a character losing her own humanity.
“Clemency” is available for rental through Amazon, GooglePlay, Vudu, and YouTube.
Birds of Prey (digital purchase)
directed by Cathy Yan
I’ve pretty solidly raved about “Birds of Prey” since it came out. The super-antihero story follows Batman villain Harley Quinn, but that doesn’t begin to describe it. “Birds of Prey” is easily the best film in the DC Extended Universe, and it stands toe-to-toe with the very best of Marvel. When I compiled a collection of criticism from women on the film, I wrote:
“This is a film with a generationally good action-comedy performance in Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. It has award-worthy design. The direction is wildly assured and draws from a shockingly large range of influences to create something unique and precise. Its scenes are often thickly layered with dueling perspectives even as Quinn’s own storytelling drives the plot. It’s subversive in a blunt, forward, and challenging way that’s needed.”
“Birds of Prey” is a movie I fully expect to include when talking about the best films, performances, and design at the end of the year. You can check out my spoiler-free review for “Birds of Prey” as well.
Currently, you can only buy the film digitally. The price will be $20 for the next two weeks until it becomes rentable (and it’ll probably be top of this run-down when that happens.) You can purchase it through Amazon, Comcast, Google Play, Vudu, or YouTube.
Unorthodox (Netflix miniseries)
directed by Maria Schrader
This four-episode series follows a Jewish woman who escapes an arranged marriage and her Orthodox lifestyle in Brooklyn. It’s based on the autobiography of Deborah Feldman, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots”. The show is told in multiple languages (with subtitles, of course), switching between English, Yiddish, and German.
Showrunner and director Maria Schrader started as an actress in Germany and shifted over to writing in the late 80s and directing starting in the late 90s. Between the German Film Critics Association and the German Film Awards, she’s been nominated as all three – actress, writer, and director.
Cunningham (digital rental documentary)
directed by Alla Kovgan
Merce Cunningham was a dancer and choreographer who changed the face of dance. He was known for a guarded artistic philosophy that entrusted interpretation to his audience. He worked with an unending number of avant garde and experimental musicians – perhaps most notably John Cage. The two were also lifelong romantic partners.
Cunningham had no single focus, but what might be most striking was his use of space. Dancers weren’t foregrounded, and his pieces often challenged the idea of a central performer. He removed focal points, encouraging the audience to choose where to look among multiple performers and to have various, sometimes disagreeing, perspectives. He pursued elements of the random in his work. True to his priorities, Alla Kovgan’s documentary of him seems more focused on Cunningham’s dance and choreography than it is on his own story.
Kovgan herself is a fascinating documentary director. She’s pursued stories of dance and music around the world. She’s been particularly focused on how myth survives cultural upheavals through art, and how that art enables an endurance through those upheavals. Her lens tends to focus on dance, but speaks to all art and what it provides us in terms of perseverance and persistence.
“Cunningham” is currently available for rent through Comcast, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube. Vudu is the least expensive at a $4 rental.
Shooting the Mafia (digital rental documentary)
directed by Kim Longinotto
CW: images of murder victims
Letizia Battaglia is a testament to the power of journalism. The photographer worked for L’Ora, a newspaper in Palermo that covered a brutal and bloody Mafia war that spilled into the streets. The result victimized and traumatized the residents, and Battaglia was there to record every moment of it despite the risk to her life. Her work was instrumental in the popular uprising against the violence that followed, and her photographic records contributed to the prosecution of seven-time Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. While that prosecution failed, the information it revealed contributed to a change in national politics.
Director Kim Longinotto is a British documentary filmmaker whose verite-centered approach often examines the blending of personal lives into larger, more socially encompassing stands. “Salma” follows a Muslim woman who smuggled poetry to the world while imprisoned by her family. “Divorce Iranian Style” follows three couples in Iran who navigate religious law in a court system, and pays particular attention to how differently women are treated from men. “Shinjuku Boys” follows the lives of three transgender men in 1990s Japan. “Dreamcatcher” explores women leaving the Chicago sex industry.
“Shooting the Mafia” is available to rent from Google Play and YouTube.
There’s Something in the Water (Netflix documentary)
co-directed by Ellen Page
Actress Ellen Page has been increasingly involved on the production side of filmmaking. “There’s Something in the Water” is her directorial debut. The film focuses on environmental racism in Canada and its impact on marginalized communities.
The documentary examines elevated rates of illness in Black Canadian and First Nations communities in Nova Scotia. Contaminated water there has been connected to elevated cancer rates in these communities, and water pollution impacts the health, economy, and quality of life for the Mi’kmaw. Various levels of the Canadian government have been slow to address or even recognize the situation.
Tape (digital rental)
directed by Deborah Kampmeier
“Tape” is a low-budget drama centered around the abusive power dynamic between an aspiring actress and the man who tells her he can make her into a star. There’s very little information on it, and early reviews are divisive – and perhaps not the way you’d expect. Several male reviewers have praised it as being a rallying cry for women against harassment, while women reviewers have given it its most negative reviews. The L.A. Times review by Kimber Myers calls it “disingenuous” and “clumsy”, and Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times criticizes the environment of harassment Kampmeier creates as “cliched”.
Catsoulis also calls to mind one of Kampmeier’s previous films in questioning the director’s portrayals of sexual abuse in “Tape”. Kampmeier directed “Hounddog”, a 2007 movie that included a rape scene of a character played by then-13 year old Dakota Fanning. The specific criticism centered not in a topic like that being portrayed, but instead on whether the way it was portrayed was exploitative. Similar criticisms seem to be meeting the subjects being engaged in “Tape”.
It’s not mine to make a judgment on as I haven’t seen either film. I do think it’s important in this case to convey what women film critics are saying in relation to “Tape”.
Blow the Man Down (Amazon Prime)
directed by Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy
“Blow the Man Down” looks like the kind of dark, quirky independent film I love. In a strange way, trailers and films like this bring me back to the best indie filmmaking of the 00s. There’s not a lot of information out about “Blow the Man Down” yet, but it boasts a quietly impressive cast that includes Margo Martindale (“Justified”), Annette O’Toole (“Smallville”), and Gayle Rankin (“GLOW”).
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (Netflix limited series)
directed by DeMane Davis and Kasi Lemmons
We learn all about the Rockefellers and Carnegies in school. We’re taught they built this country up, and this perspective reinforces ideas of capitalism and millionaires having our backs that just aren’t true. It also overlooks the countless people of color who did so much of the actual building.
There aren’t enough celebratory movies about the creativity, ambition, and success of Black people. There’s just as long and impressive a history, but our culture doesn’t value it. That in turn teaches us not to value it. I’m looking forward to this 4-episode limited series because these stories need to be told. Octavia Spencer stars as Madam C.J. Walker and frankly, I have no idea how she’s still so underrated at this point in her career. Tiffany Haddish and Carmen Ejogo join her. The film’s based on the biography of Walker written by A’Lelia Bundles.
Emma. (digital rental)
directed by Autumn de Wilde
Universal is making their new films available to rent digitally because of the coronavirus pandemic. This includes Amazon Video (as a separate rental, not included with the price of Amazon’s streaming service), iTunes, and Vudu, among others.
From my review for “Emma”: “The design in ‘Emma’ is a living, breathing thing. It’s constantly guiding the audience through the film. It doesn’t just accentuate the comedy, it often causes it. It subverts the characters even as they admire it. It undermines when it needs to and it gives support when no other element of the story – least of all its characters – will. This isn’t just a film that’s a successful exercise in design (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This is a film that tells a story through the participation of its design. The design isn’t only accentuating or shaping a moment, it’s not only elevating a mood, it’s not only there to elicit emotional reactions. It’s here to tell the story itself. That’s what makes ‘Emma’ so good and so unique.”
At $20 for a 48-hour rental, this is expensive if you’re living on your own. At the equivalent of two movie tickets, though, it makes some sense as the price for a new film that would’ve otherwise stayed solely in its theatrical run for weeks.
Feel Good (Netflix series)
showrunner Ally Pankiw
Charlotte Ritchie is the kind of actor who can make you a fan in one sitting. In my case, she acted as the core of a “Doctor Who” New Years episode called “Resolution”. Sometimes it’s lightning in a bottle and you never hear from that actor again. Sometimes, they turn up unexpectedly in something you’re already looking forward to.
Why was I already looking forward to this? Showrunner and director Ally Pankiw. She’s been an up-and-coming voice in music videos. Check out CYN’s “Holy Roller” to see the amount of visual confidence she brings as a director.
The core of the series is co-writer and lead Mae Martin, who is the voice in this that I know the least about. She’s had a good deal of success in Britain and has won two Canadian Screen Awards (the equivalent of Emmies in the U.S.) for writing on the “Baroness von Sketch Show”.
Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu miniseries)
showrunner Liz Tigelaar
This show is based on Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name. I don’t normally go in for big long lists of names but bear with me a moment. The script is adapted by Liz Tigelaar, who also acts as showrunner. Raamla Mohamed and Nancy Won also contribute episodes. It’s executive produced by Tigelaar, star Reese Witherspoon, star Kerry Washington, Lauren Neustadter, Pilar Savone, and Lynn Shelton – who also directs multiple episodes. In other words, the project is completely run by women.
It’s hard to get a grasp on exactly what the series will be like – how far it will shift between drama and melodrama, but the amount of talent from novel to crew to cast is considerable.
Frozen II (Disney+)
co-directed by Jennifer Lee
This was made available early, on Sunday, March 15. Disney collapsed the usual period between theatrical and home release because of coronavirus. It’s a boon for families who are learning how to navigate the social distancing that requires everyone stay home. It’s easy to start feeling underfoot of each other. The “Frozen” franchise is luckily one of those that children and adults can enjoy without rolling their eyes at the other one.
Lost Girls (Netflix)
directed by Liz Garbus
You may not have heard of Liz Garbus, but she’s been nominated for two Oscars as a director. This was for documentary films. “The Farm: Angola, USA” documented life in Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison. The second was “What Happened, Miss Simone?” It addressed the civil rights activism of singer Nina Simone. She also directed “Bobby Fischer Against the World” for HBO.
You may know some of her other films better. She executive produced “Street Fight”, about Cory Booker’s 2002 campaign for mayor of Newark, as well as “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”, which discussed the torture of prisoners and human rights violations conducted by U.S. Army and C.I.A. personnel at Abu Ghraib. Her list of documentaries both directed and produced makes her one of the most important filmmakers you probably haven’t heard about.
“Lost Girls” isn’t a documentary, but it is based on real events. That claim often gives me pause, as films tend to use this term to mislead and exaggerate more than present those real events. Such events aren’t always treated with respect. I do have hope that one of the most important documentary filmmakers we have can translate the story in an accurate manner.
Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse (Amazon Prime)
directed by Leonora Lonsdale
This is a two-part miniseries based on an Agatha Christie novel. It’s already aired in the UK, and received considerable praise. It’s one of those storytelling triumvirates which is rare in the film industry – a screenplay by a woman (Sarah Phelps), based off a woman’s novel, directed by a woman. This shouldn’t be notable – men are enabled to do it this way all the time – and yet it’s still seen seldom enough that it’s worth noting when it happens. The series itself looks stylish, moody, and tremendously well cast.
Sitara: Let Girls Dream (Netflix)
directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
I’d also like to mention this short animated film out of Pakistan. It centers on two girls who one day hope to become pilots. To say much more would be to disrupt or ruin the film’s message. It’s only 15 minutes, and it’s well worth watching.
A FEW NOTES
This section will be for older films and films that got a full release that are now available for home viewing.
“Little Women” is Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. It was nominated for six Oscars, including best film, screenplay, music, lead actress (Saoirse Ronan), and supporting actress (Florence Pugh). It won for costume design. Many felt Gerwig was in particular overlooked for best director.
“Little Women” is still at a purchase price point from Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube. Vudu appears to be the least expensive at $13.
“A Wrinkle in Time” (2018) is already rentable from other services, but it’s become available at no extra cost to Disney+ subscribers. Director Ava DuVernay followed up her searing civil rights history “Selma” with this adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 sci-fi novel.
“Brown Girl Begins” (2017) is directed by Sharon Lewis and is now available on Hulu. It’s an Afrofuturist film that serves as a prequel to author Nalo Hopkinson’s novel “Brown Girl in the Ring”.