E.T. (1982) Director: Steven Spielburg Writer: Melissa Mathieson
Last night I watched E.T. with my two children, aged 3 and 8, for family movie night. I watched this movie a lot as a kid, but I don’t think I ever saw it in the theater. Instead I had a VHS tape of it, recorded from when it was on TV. There are certain scenes from E.T. that are like my own childhood memories — like in the still above, when Gertie dresses E.T. in her clothes. And there’s another scene when E.T. hides in the closet full of stuffed animals, because he’s scared. I loved that. The set design in this movie is impressively detailed and gives the sense of what it’s like to be in a house full of kids. Everything is messy but the objects are also very beloved and special. The house also helps to tell the story: you get the sense that everything is a bit more chaotic than normal because the parents have just separated. The mother is barely holding it together as she works full time and parents three children, and her housekeeping is a place where she has decided to let things go. That’s how E.T. manages to live there without her noticing.
All the Light in the Sky (2013) Director: Joe Swanberg Writers: Jane Adams & Joe Swanberg
I watched this mellow movie a few weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a showcase for Jane Adams, an actor who often seems like the most fully realized character in any scene, even when she’s on for just a minute or two. I think she first caught my eye in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where she plays the beleaguered wife of the protagonist’s friend. She only has a couple lines but she suggests an entire life and marriage. She’s one of those character actors who, once you become aware of her, you begin to see everywhere. She’s been working steadily since the late 1980s, when she was a student at Juilliard. Looking at her IMDB, it looks like she supplemented a theater career with bit parts in film and TV, appearing in shows like Family Ties and Frasier. I associate her most with indie directors, especially Joe Swanberg, who directed this movie and is a frequent collaborator.
Test Pattern (2021) Writer & Director Shatara Michelle Ford
When a woman is the victim of rape, she is advised to act quickly in its aftermath, hurrying to a hospital to undergo a forensic examination. Instead of sleeping or showering, a woman who has been sexually assaulted should, ideally, go the emergency room and consult with a nurse, who will collect DNA samples from her body. Afterwards, she will meet with a police offer for questioning. It’s a psychologically harrowing experience in and of itself, and it’s easy to understand why many women choose not to report their rapes. Test Pattern tells the story one woman, Renesha, who does, and what it costs her and her boyfriend Evan, who accompanies her on her quest to obtain proper medical care. By focusing on the logistics of reporting a rape, rather than the assault itself, writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s powerful debut feature shows a healthcare system that ignores the reality of sexual violence, and in doing so, allows it to continue unchecked.
The Dig (2021) Director: Simon Stone Writer: Moira Buffini, based on a novel by John Preston
With its dramatic cinematography, starry cast, and subtle art direction, The Dig is so smooth and elegant that it sometimes feels lightweight, despite its heavy themes. Set in 1939 in the English countryside, it tells the story of a remarkable archeological discovery on private land. It’s also a portrait of a grieving widow and a country on the verge of war. While this isn’t the most suspenseful movie you’ll ever see, its themes deepen as the story unfolds. In the final act, there was some Malick-like camerawork that had me thinking about the desperate sadness of war, but in general, I was reminded of high-production television shows like The Crown. The truth is, I watched this over two nights, stopping it halfway through, as if it were a television show, and while I try to avoid doing that, I thought that viewing method suited this movie just fine, and maybe even enhanced it. If I’d seen The Dig on the big screen, I think it would have been a disappointment. As a Netflix movie, it’s a pleasant weeknight diversion.
I’ve yet to see Vanessa Kirby on a big screen, but I know she’s a movie star. Over the past year of pandemic home viewing, she is the actor who has jumped off my living room TV. Whether she’s playing a young Princess Margaret (The Crown), a grieving American woman in contemporary Boston (Pieces of a Woman), or a foreign correspondent in 1930s Moscow (Mr. Jones), she is the actor who captivates you most with her resonant voice and direct gaze. She has done it again in The World to Come, bringing a much-needed liveliness to a film that sometimes felt claustrophobic and glum.
Identifying Features (2020) Director: Fernanda Valadez Writers: Astrid Roundero & Fernanda Valdez
When two boys head out alone into the world, leaving their mothers behind, you know you’re in the realm of fairy tales. What makes Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s new drama so powerful is that she marries the stark emotions and visual imagery of myth with the harsh reality of illegal border crossings between Mexico and the United States. The story centers on Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), who searches for her teenage son, Jesús, who has gone missing after leaving his rural Mexican hometown with a friend to find work in the U.S. Within the film’s first five minutes, we learn a crucial piece of information that sets Magdalena on her journey. Normally I would feel fine about spoiling that plot development, but the opening scenes of Identifying Features were so immediately compelling that I don’t want to dilute their power.
Pieces of a Woman (2020) Director: Kornél Mundruczó Writer: Kata Wéber
For the first half-hour of Netflix’s “Pieces of a Woman,” my husband and I were nervous wrecks, sitting on the sofa in our living room. It was the opposite of “Netflix and chill,” more like “Netflix and re-live traumatic experiences.” During the movie’s extended prologue, Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf play Martha and Sean, a young couple in the midst of a home birth, with Kirby convincingly going through labor, not just the terrified/ecstatic screams we’re used to seeing dramatized on screen, but the uncertain and confusing middle stages of labor, when unexpected physical sensations and emotions begin to arise. The entire birth sequence is shot in one unbroken take, which heightens the feeling of intimacy and vulnerability, especially as things begin to go wrong.
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 . . .
Watching movies has been a welcome distraction over the past few weeks. I’m breathing a sigh of relief that Biden won but very distressed by the way Covid-19 is spiking all over the country. Looks like we’re all going to be inside for several more months. Here are some new movies to keep you company . . .