You don’t expect a documentary about volcanos to begin in freezing temperatures, but in the first scenes of Sara Dosa’s enthralling new feature, Fire of Love, married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft struggle to free a jeep mired in icy slush. Farther down the road is a fiery pool of molten lava. Much later in the film, they trudge through the gray ash of a recently erupted Mount St. Helens, a setting that looks cold even though it is baking hot. Both landscapes seem unreal, even with Maurice and Katia in the frame. Their footage is so remarkable that I would have watched a 90-minute slide show of their photographs. Fire of Love is much more than that, but the film and photo archive is at the heart of the story, and it’s where Dosa looks for clues as she tells the story of the Kraffts’ career, one that was inseparable from their romantic partnership.
In recent years, female filmmakers have been carving out a space for themselves in the American West, redefining a genre and a place that is has historically been depicted as the terrain of lonely male cowboys and vigilantes. There have been period pieces like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and First Cow, as well as contemporary stories set in the west, such as Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Nomadland, and Reichardt’s Certain Women. These films bring a new realism to the western as they widen the lens to center female characters and to incorporate themes of friendship, romance, and community.
Three years ago, the world was captivated by the story of a Thai boys’ soccer team trapped deep in a cave. Their bizarre entrapment occurred when twelve boys and their coach went exploring the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system, a local spot they knew well. They planned to stay underground for an hour or so, but when the cave was unexpectedly flooded, they found themselves with no choice but to burrow farther. Eventually they found respite on a small stone ledge 2.5 miles into cavern. It took twelve days to even find their location, and another week-and-a-half to figure out how to get them out, with the clock ticking as oxygen levels in the cave began to deplete. Their rescue was a risky enterprise, involving thousands of people, hundreds of government agencies, and cave divers from all over the world. People around the globe cheered when the children were eventually saved, and even though viewers will know the happy ending going in, The Rescue is still a riveting story of cross-cultural collaboration and human ingenuity. I was surprised by how fascinated I was, considering how much of the story I already knew.
As Omicron descends, this is the documentary to watch–or avoid–depending on your temperament. Director Nanfu Wang takes viewers back to the earliest days of the pandemic, opening with eerie footage of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Wuhan, where thousands of revelers, some of them likely already infected with Covid-19, mingled in close quarters, sang, cheered, danced, and generally did everything we’ve been avoiding for the past two years. Wang herself was there, celebrating with her family. On New Year’s Day, a stray news item caught Wang’s attention: eight people were punished for “spreading rumors” about a new form of pneumonia that had emerged in local hospitals. The punishment was the headline, not the pneumonia, and it wasn’t a big story. No one gave it much thought, even Wang, who was preoccupied with her return to the U.S. where she is a naturalized citizen. It was only in retrospect that she realized she had witnessed the Chinese government’s early response to the threat of Covid-19. Her documentary takes a close look at the Chinese government’s failure to communicate the dangers of Covid-19 to its citizens and to the world, and compares it with America’s response, three months later, which was dispiritingly similar, with political leaders downplaying the virus until the very last minute.
I didn’t have much awareness of overnight childcare centers until I watched Through the Night, a documentary about a married couple, Deloris and Patrick Hogan, who run Dee’s Tots, a 24-hour daycare in New Rochelle, New York. Sadly, I don’t think my ignorance is unusual, and is likely shared by the many members of Congress who have consistently declined to fund public childcare, even after the pandemic revealed how necessary it is to working parents. Although not overtly political, Through the Night is quietly radical as it shines a light on the work of caregiving. It’s highly skilled labor that is essential to the health of children and families, yet childcare workers are often overworked and underpaid. To the extent that the government has childcare policies, they are designed to fit a model of a nuclear family with one stay-at-home parent. Director Loira Limbal shows the reality: many parents (usually mothers) are raising children on their own, and their jobs do not offer the pay, benefits, or flexibility to accommodate child-rearing.
Joyce at 34 (1972) Directed by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill
A friend recommended this documentary to me after I wrote about Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends in my monthly newsletter. Joyce at 34 is a short film, a little over a half-hour, about director Joyce Chopra’s transition to new motherhood as she tries to balance her professional and home life. She began filming when she was eight months pregnant at the suggestion of a friend, who said she was in a unique position to make a documentary about her life. Chopra at first thought the movie would be about her mother, and how her relationship with her mother might change after having a baby, but the documentary turned into an inter-generational story about how difficult it is for women to balance work and childcare. Chopra is about the same age as my parents, and her struggle to continue working after having a baby is all too familiar to women in my late Gen X/early millennial cohort. Even as Chopra is shown to have a supportive partner with a flexible work schedule, the burden of childcare falls on her and her mother. I left this movie feeling as if nothing has really changed for women, and nothing will until there is some kind of universal childcare in place, although this isn’t something that anyone in the documentary suggests. It’s not prescriptive or overtly political in its tone. Instead, its power comes in its straightforward depiction of a woman who continues to work after having a baby.
John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020) Director: Dawn Porter
My third-grader is writing a report on John Lewis for Black History Month, so Dawn Porter’s Good Trouble was an obvious choice for family movie night. This documentary came out over the summer, just a few weeks before Lewis passed away. Lewis served as a representative for Georgia’s fifth district from 1987-2020, and it was interesting to review his career in this political moment, after Georgia has elected two Democratic senators for the first time in decades. For much of the country, Georgia turning blue felt like a huge surprise, but for Lewis and his supporters, it was the obvious — if not quite inevitable — result of years of grass roots organization to grow the Democratic party and increase access to the polls. Although Lewis is probably best known for his extraordinary example of nonviolent resistance during the marches in Selma, when he and other activists were brutally attacked by state troopers, Porter’s documentary shows how much of his legacy comes from the work he did in the decades that followed the Civil Rights Era, both as a legislator and as a mentor to budding activists and Democratic leaders.
Beyond The Visible (2019) Director: Halina Dyrschka
In the winter of 2018, I was part of the record-breaking crowds that swarmed the Guggenheim Museum to see Hilma af Klint’s mystical and enigmatic paintings. Like most museum visitors, I had never heard of the Swedish artist before her retrospective at the Guggenheim. Although af Klint is one of modernism’s pioneers, with abstract works that predate Kandinsky and Mondrian, she barely exhibited her work in her lifetime. According to the instructions in her will, her artwork was to be kept out of the public eye until at least twenty year after her death. She also stipulated that they could never be sold. Af Klint died in 1944 at the age of 81, and when her paintings were finally examined in the 1960s, the art world didn’t know what to do with them. Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art turned them down, not understanding their value. Beyond The Visible argues that the blindness has to do with the fact that af Klint was a woman making explicitly spiritual works. Her genius couldn’t be seen because it wasn’t male.
This was a good year for female directors. The cynical part of me wants to say that’s because the studios were more likely to release movies made by women in a year of cutting losses. But it may also be the result of efforts to boost equity in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, which occurred in late 2017. If a lot of female-directed/produced movies picked up for distribution after premiering at 2018 and 2019 film festivals, the majority of those titles would start coming out in 2020.
When I was writing this list, I wasn’t sure what should count as a 2020 movie, since the Academy Awards have been pushed back to April. Ultimately, I decided only to include movies that were available via VOD in 2020, so this list doesn’t include some big titles like Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, although I plan to catch up with them when they are released later this month and in February. This list is a reflection of my year, and what I was able to watch on streaming platforms, “virtual” cinemas,” and via screening links. It’s probably a little quirkier than my previous best of lists in 2018 and 2019, but this was an odd year, and I’d guess that the next couple of years are going to continue to be unpredictable as Hollywood figures out what movie-going looks like in a post-COVID world.
I finished revising my novel a few weeks ago and since then I’ve been catching up on 2020 releases. There are so many 2020 female-directed movies that I want to still want to watch that I divided the remaining titles into three categories: Must See, Should See, and If Time. Theoretically I was going to start with the Must See list but I ended up watching two from the If Time category, including Summerland (pictured above) and The Glorias, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them both. Below, you’ll find reviews of those two, as well as five other recent movies . . .