Review: Land

Land (2021)
Directed by Robin Wright
Written by Jesse Chatman and Erin Dignam

Robin Wright’s directorial debut, Land, is interesting for the way it seems to be in conversation with several recent films that explore the urge to isolate in the wake of trauma. Land follows Edee, played by Wright, a middle-aged professional-seeming woman who abandons civilization to live off the grid in Wyoming. She finds a spartan hunting cabin to rent, and stockpiles it with canned goods and survival gear. Her goal is to learn to live off the land by hunting, fishing, and growing her own food. It’s a lofty ambition for someone who appears to have very little experience in the wild, but she’s determined, going so far as to hire someone to drive her car away so that she doesn’t have the option to leave except by her own two feet.   

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Review: Joyce at 34

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.

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Review: Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby (2021)
Writer & Director: Emma Seligman

Shiva Baby looks and sounds like a comedy but it’s actually a horror movie about being in your twenties, with a surprising vein of emotion. The film centers on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college senior whose Gender Studies major makes her parents anxious as it doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific career. They also don’t like — or even totally believe — that Danielle is bisexual. When Danielle joins her parents for the shiva of a family friend, they coach her on what to say about her future prospects and to be on the lookout for potential job opportunities. It’s funny and awkward and soul-crushing for Danielle, who already feels guilty for her lack of ambition. Danielle also has a secret: she’s a sugar baby, a young woman who is paid for her sexual favors. She tells her parents, who support her financially, that she earns extra money by babysitting; she tells her sugar daddy that she needs the money to pay for college. When her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), turns out to be a guest at the shiva, Danielle realizes that the lies she’s been telling everyone are about to be exposed. To make things even more complicated, her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), is also in attendance.

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Review: Test Pattern

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. 

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Review: Little Joe

Little Joe (2019)
Writer & Director: Jessica Hausner

I was initially turned off of this movie –and maybe you were, too — when it first appeared in the U.S. in late 2019. It got mixed reviews, including a lot of pans, and I lost track of it in the rush of end-of-the-year releases. I was reminded of when it turned up on Pedro Almodovar’s list of the best movies of 2020 and then, when I saw that it was streaming on Hulu, I decided to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s an eerie story about the ways humans try to control the natural world, and at first it seems like it’s going to be a high-concept commentary on the danger of GMOS. But then it turns into a kind of meditation on the nature of perception and reality. I can see why a lot of viewers would find it frustrating, but I would have watched it for the color scheme alone.

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Review: The World To Come

The World To Come (2021)
Director: Mona Fastvold

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. 

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Review: Identifying Features

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.  

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Review: Pieces of a Woman

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. 

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Review: Beyond The Visible

The paintings of Hilma af Klint on display at the Guggenheim Museum

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.

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My Favorite 2020 Movies Made by Women

Director Kelly Reichardt. Her beautiful movie, First Cow, was one of the last movies I saw in the theaters.

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.

So, here’s my top ten, in descending order . . .

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