In addition to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which is being screened and will be reviewed soon, many women already have taken center stage in the Oscar race. Instead of unveiling just a thirty-minute showreel of Selma at the AFI Fest, director Ava DuVernay decided to go for broke, acknowledging that moments like these don’t come around very often. Go big, or go home was the idea. It paid off big time as it seemed that everyone involved in the film, including DuVernay, either didn’t know what a great movie they had on their hands or they were just so used to the door closing on women each and every time they’ve come up to bat.
Either way, Selma turned out to be not only magnificent, receiving not one but two standing ovations so far, but also that rare creature in the Oscar race that has the ability to take the Best Picture race as a late entry. Selma is now considered a major frontrunner to win that prize, as Mike Hogan, Katey Rich and Richard Lawson over at VanityFair.com have written. But hey, no pressure. It’s only a black woman who made a career change over the age of 40, started her own releasing company to bring more black ticket-buyers to the arthouse, whose indie career has been ticking along steadily, who won Best Director at Sundance in 2012 but was overlooked in the original screenplay category. This auteur steps into the Oscar race and the film industry as an original – there has never been anyone like Ava DuVernay. That makes it quite possible she has the ability to change the Oscar race as we’ve known it for a while.
As things stand right now, Selma is (to my mind) in the number 2 spot right behind Boyhood. I still think Boyhood could catch the consensus as it plays right into the Academy’s wheelhouse. But Selma could start winning stuff and not stop. It could Slumdog Millionaire or Million Dollar Baby its way right through this race. What helped it? Lowered expectations. Any film benefits from lowered expectations. The higher those expectations go the harder it is for any film to meet them – that is why it is important to get your movie out as early as possible, have it seen and then talked about. That is also why building momentum for late entries is so hard. Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle are two that caught the wave of last minute momentum but both were derailed for various reasons.
Even the notion of Angelina Jolie stepping into the race as a high profile director along the lines of Kathryn Bigelow, David O. Russell or Clint Eastwood is exciting and adds mystery to this race while also helping to erase the line between powerful and not powerful women. The more powerful Jolie is as a director, the better for all women in film. Even if the movie is a nominee and not a winner (we have no way of knowing and I’ll never be that person who predicts a film to win no one has seen) that is still a major win for women in film, that a woman could be powerful enough to shake up the race without her film even being seen. In another post I chalked that up to her celebrity – but even still, she’s using her celebrity to change the power dynamics in Hollywood and that is nothing less than admirable.
DuVernay has a distinctive signature as a director and is far more of a visual storyteller than are many of her female contemporaries. Not many women come at directing from a visual standpoint. Most tend more toward the Richard Linklater vein of depth of story and character. DuVernay’s Selma is a mood piece on the one hand, about the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the players that worked with and against him leading up to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.
Though it depicts a pivotal moment in American history, and is about an American civil rights icon, it always feels like a personal story from the ground up rather than a stodgy history lesson. It is alive and vibrant filmmaking by a powerful new voice in American film.
Do we even need to ask the question of how many black women have been nominated for Best Director? How about how many black women have even gotten close to being nominated for Best Director? Ava DuVernay’s nomination, should it come to pass, would make history in so many different ways — but Selma is a good enough film that making history is really the least of it, though the excitement of that possibility is going to be hard to resist.
Gillian Flynn makes history in the adapted screenplay race as she stands to become the first female nominee to ever adapt her own novel. Plenty of men have done it. Only 2 women in all of Oscar history adapted their own material but they were plays already. Not only did David Fincher insist upon Flynn as the adapted screenplay writer (the studio wanted to go with a more well-known male writer) but his good instincts and Flynn’s talent as a writer have taken Gone Girl to #13 among the highest grossing films of 2014 — and still climbing. That level of success is extraordinarily rare and significant for any movie that isn’t a sequel or a family film. This hard R film is drawing both male a female audiences. Indisputable proof that women will show up if you give them something worth their time. Gone Girl not only gets credit for bringing women to theater, but it also dispels the tired notion, lazily floated by a defensive male demographic, that tries to dismiss the novel as “airport reading,” and claim that anything that appeals to women must be “chick lit” or “chick flicks.” That David Fincher is the director prevents them from totally disregarding Gone Girl, and its massive box-office haul makes further attempts to dismiss it sound flaccid.
Gone Girl comes wholly from Flynn’s imagination. Like DuVernay, she also made a mid-career change and at the age of 43 has achieved the kind of success most writers of any gender would kill for. Flynn bravely dives into the darker side of the female psyche. Amy Dunne in the book creates a necessary personal relationship with the reader. Women especially (although certainly not exclusively) recognize the various female tropes Dunne sends up in Gone Girl, the least of which is to harpoon at last the false notion that “cool girls” exist. This manifestation of every intelligent man’s dreams is a concoction by television and film to create a perfect woman – from the “manic pixie dream girl” to the hot chick who likes football and wears a size 2. Those women exist somewhere but they are usually a lot more flawed than they appear to be, as we all are. Flynn’s adaption of her own work is a collaboration with David Fincher, a director who always operates from his own vision, while allowing the writer their own “voice” within that collaboration. Compare The Social Network to Gone Girl to Zodiac. There are three various writer voices in three very different films. What unites them is what Fincher brings to cinema: a visual translation of the story on the page.
The same way that Stephen King’s The Shining is a wholly different experience from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, you don’t hire a director like David Fincher and expect the Gone Girl on film is going to be the Gone Girl on the page. Like Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson this year as well, a cinematic interpretation becomes an artist’s rendering of a familiar story. The Amy Dunne as filtered through Fincher is far more monstrous than the Amy Dunne in the book, who, though clearly sociopathic seems like the girl next door. She’s plucky and containable. The Amy onscreen, Rosamund Pike’s Amy, is a cinematic blonde that plays into the female tropes in the language of film. Pike’s portrayal doesn’t necessarily reflect girl culture or literature. It’s cinematic instead — specifically, film noir, Hitchcockian. Fincher goes right there and together with Flynn’s funny dialogue creates an interesting concoction that gnaws at you throughout.
With Jolie’s film still hanging in the balance, Selma and Gone Girl are two strong contenders heading into the race which put women filmmakers front and center.
The other area where female directors are flourishing to an unbelievable degree is in the documentary film race. Right now, there are three strong contenders for Doc Feature that were directed by women. First, what I consider to be the best one I’ve seen so far, Rory Kennedy’s The Last Days of Vietnam about the mess we left behind when our country decided to cut and run and leave South Vietnam to be overtaken by North Vietnam. That war of ideology did not pay off in the slightest. The film is a powerful lesson about our empire, where we choose to exercise our power and why. Mostly it’s about the unsung heroes who helped the refugees flee Vietnam in the last days, risking life and limb to do so. It’s an incredibly powerful, suspenseful documentary.
The one that is getting more publicity is Laura Poitras’ CitizenFour about the moment Edward Snowden contacted Glenn Greenwald to release the information he had on our government’s NSA surveillance of its citizens and other countries. Many see this film as an important message for Americans, and see Snowden as a patriot whose goal was to get the truth across no matter what harm he did to himself and his privacy. Poitras was also contacted by Snowden at the time and was able to capture the drama behind the scenes as it unfolded.
There is also Fed Up, currently showing on VOD, directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Fed Up is one of the most eye-opening documentaries I’ve seen this year. It is about the dominance of the special interest food corporations making Americans fat and unhealthy then exporting that deadly diet to other countries. Why is there soda in schools? Why is there only junk food by well-known fast food empires? That is really what America has become: a fast food empire (or nation, if you will). Interviews with Bill Clinton, Mark Bittman and others, Fed Up is a film they should show in schools to help kids realize the harm our government is inflicting upon its citizens by its unwillingness to face down powerful lobbies. What a shame.
CitizenKoch (to which I am a Kickstarter donor!) bravely exposes the all-powerful Koch brothers for making ordinary Republicans in the red states bow to their every whim all in the name of Capitalism. Elena is a brooding, beautiful look at depression and suicide.
Indiewire puts the number of docs directed by women at 37% – which is astonishing. Other than those named above, here’s the list of women-directed documentaries up for consideration:
“Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq” – Nancy Buirski
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” – Grace Lee
“Anita” – Frieda Mock
“Art and Craft”- Co-directed by Jennifer Grausman
“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” -Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman
“Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity” – Catherine Gund
“Cesar’s Last Fast” – Co-directed by Lorena Parlee
“Citizen Koch”- Co-directed by Tia Lessin
“Cyber-Seniors” – Saffron Cassaday
“Dancing in Jaffa”- Hilla Medilla
“The Decent One” – Vanessa Lapa
“The Dog”- Co-Directed by Allison Berg
“E-Team” – Co-directed by Katy Chevigny
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” – Chemi Karasawa
“Elena”- Petra Costa
“The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” – Co-directed by Dayna Goldfine
“Getting to the Nutcracker” – Serene Meshel-Dillman
“The Great Invisible” – Margaret Brown
“The Hacker Wars” – Vivien Weisman
“I Am Ali” – Clare Lewins
“Journey of a Female Comic” – Co-directed by Kiki Melendez
“Last Hijack” – Co-directed by Femke Wolting
“Little White Lie” – Lacey Schwartz
“Llyn Foulkes One Man Band” – Co-directed by Tamar Halpern
“Manakamana” – Co-directed by Stephanie Spray
“Monk with a Camera” – Co-directed by Tina Mascara
“The Only Real Game” – Mirra Bank
“Pelican Dreams” – Judy Irving
“Plot for Peace” – Co-directed by Mandy Jacobson
“Private Violence” – Cynthia Hill
“Pump” – Co-directed by Rebecca Harrell Tickell
“Remote Area Medical” – Co-directed by Farihah Zaman
“Rich Hill” – Co-directed by Tracy Droz Trago
“The Rule” – Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno
“Shadows from My Past” – Co-directed by Gita Kaufman
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” – Mary Dore
“A Small Section of the World” – Lesley Chilcott
“The Supreme Price” – Joanna Lipper
“Tanzania: A Journey Within” – Sylvia Caminer
“Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence” – Co-directed by Elena Mannes
“20,000 Days on Earth” – Co-directed by Jane Pollard
“Under the Electric Sky” – Co-directed by Jane Lipsitz
“Underwater Dreams” – Mary Mazzio
“Waiting for August” – Teodora Milhai
“Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” – Lydia Smith
“Watchers of the Sky” – Edet Wurmfeld
“Watermark” – Co-directed by Jennifer Baichwal
Here’s the bad news. Oscar will only accept five of these wonderful documentaries — which is an embarrassing low number that does not, in any way, reflect this flourishing branch of the industry.
The other bad news? There is only one writer in the entire Oscar race thus far who is a woman: Gillian Flynn. Every other writing contender is male.
Finally, most of the stories heading into the Oscar race are still about men. It is as though women do not matter anymore and that their stories have become so marginalized, so worthless, the film community has just decided they are expendable.
I am heartened by these women in the Best Director race, because I know that their universal stories about American heroes will resonate across the board. I also know that the majority of voters in the film critic community and the industry are male. They seem to be unwilling to respond to stories about women unless they have more options on a ten nominee ballot. With only five, their preferences will continue to lean toward male-driven stories.
But hey, you have to start somewhere.