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 is just a short post to say that I’m getting rid of star ratings on my reviews. I tried them for a year, and I don’t like them. They annoy me and give me stress and end up feeling kind of meaningless because so many movies end up with 3 or 3.5 stars. And then there’s the problem of the five-star rating. I can’t decide what it means to me–masterwork? One of the best movies of a particular year? A personal favorite? Clearly I overthink the stars. I use them on letterboxd and they can be useful when sorting through a big group of movies. If you really want to know my star rating, you can check it there.
I’m starting a monthly newsletter. Every month you’ll get 4-5 short and sweet film recommendations sent to your inbox. My goal is to pick movies for a variety of moods, whether you need a low-stakes weeknight watch, an escape to a beautiful landscape, or if you’re ready to dig into a complex historical issue. Movies will be a mix of new and old, with an emphasis on female creators. The idea is to help you sort through the endless streaming content to find the movies that you might not have noticed.
Please give it a try, and let me know what you think. This first newsletter will be sent this week. You can sign up by following the link below:
For the past couple of years I’ve compiled an anuual list of movies that are directed or written by women. This year is hard to predict, but here’s a preliminary list to get 2021 off to a good start. I’ll be updating every few weeks. Judging from how much the dates have changed in just the past few weeks I’m guessing these will move around a lot over the course of the year.
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 . . .
It’s A Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie and possibly my favorite movie of all time. I never get tired of watching it. I love its weird structure, which has a big chunk of backstory at the beginning. I love the angel narrators, who are proxies for both the audience and the director. I love Jimmy Stewart. Once I went back and watched a bunch of Frank Capra movies and it was interesting to see elements of It’s A Wonderful Life in the other films –including Jimmy Stewart. It was as if he had all the ingredients but didn’t combine them in the right way until he made It’s A Wonderful Life.
I haven’t watched It’s A Wonderful Life yet this year, but earlier this month I checked out a few new Christmas movies and one old favorite . . .
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 . . .
Kiss the Ground (2020) Writer & Directors: Joshua and Rebecca Tickell
“We have 60 harvests left.” That’s one of many sobering quotes in Kiss The Ground, a new documentary about soil regeneration and the toxic legacy of industrial farming. Those 60 harvests refers to the U.N.’s forecast that that world’s topsoil will be gone in sixty years, and a vast majority of the Earth’s land will be a desert or in the process of becoming one. And yet, despite these horrific predictions, I didn’t feel depressed after watching this documentary. In fact, it left me feeling cautiously hopeful about the possibility of healing the planet — a rare occurrence for me, and I think for anyone who engages with the science of climate change.
After a summer of watching 90s movies and weeping over how young and beautiful Celine and Jesse were in 1994, I’m trying to catch up with new releases so that at the very least I can come up with a “best of 2020” list — though it seems that there is still a lot of debate in Hollywood about when the 2020 movie season will officially end.
I actually think it’s an interesting, volatile time for movies and streaming content and I’m curious to see how things shift over the next few months. Maybe I’ll even write about it . . . but right now I’m trying to finish a fourth revision of my novel and dealing with two little kids and a WFH husband. Like everyone, I’m pretty overwhelmed at the end of the day. I think that’s why I’ve gravitated toward movies I enjoyed as a teenager. One of my favorite retro watches this summer was Twister, a movie I remember seeing at the second-run theater with my sister and her boyfriend at the time. We threw popcorn at the screen, it was so ridiculous! But so much fun. Rewatching it, I was startled to see a young Philip Seymour Hoffman in a minor roll as one of the hurricane chasers. His character is so thinly drawn but you only realize that in retrospect because Hoffman seems to bring an entire unspoken backstory to every scene.
It wasn’t exactly a fun summer but I did start using my Criterion subscription, so that’s something. Before I move on, I wanted to catch up with the new movies that I managed to watch over the summer. . . Continue reading “Catching Up”→
Like everyone else, I was devastated last night by the news of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It gave me a lot of comfort to know that she was alive and fighting for our rights. It really feels like she stayed alive as long as she could for us, and I feel terrible that she never got a chance to rest at the end of her life. I am so grateful for everything she did for women.
I’m reposting my 2018 review of RBG, my small way of honoring her legacy:
RBG (2018) Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Last week I saw A Star Is Born, and I was told by many people to bring tissues. But I didn’t shed a tear watching that movie. Instead, it was a documentary about an 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice that brought the tears on. There were so many things I found moving, starting from Bader Ginsburg’s close relationship with her mother, who died when Ruth was 17, to her long marriage to Marty Ginsburg, a man who realized, from pretty much the first date, that he had met a person of unusual intelligence and strength.
She would need her strength in the early years of her marriage, when she was one of five women at Harvard Law. Her presence in class was suspicious, especially since she was married to a fellow classmate — why did she need to be a lawyer, too? The Dean hosted the female students for a special welcoming dinner, asking them: why did they think they deserved to take the spot of a man who was just as qualified? Ruth put her head down and made the Law Review. She also had a baby in her first year of law school. Oh, and Marty got cancer. Yes. He got cancer. Guess who cared for him, the baby, and graduated at the top of her class?
But this was before she was Notorious. Then, she was just a really good lawyer who no one in Manhattan would hire. Because none of the big firms hired women.
(At this point, the plot line of A Star Is Born doesn’t even compare. And we’re not even a third of the way through RBG.)
Ginsburg’s early experiences with gender discrimination were formative and she devoted her career as a lawyer to shining a light on the problem. She realized a couple of things: 1) a lot of men were not aware of gender discrimination and therefore did not believe it existed 2) it would be easier to convince men that gender discrimination existed if she could find cases in which men were being discriminated against because of their gender. Using strategies developed by Civil Rights-era lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, she argued for women’s liberation incrementally on a case-by-case basis. She said she saw her job as a teaching position, and that her role was to educate the male judiciary about gender-based discrimination.
In the first case Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, she was representing a female army pilot, Sharron Frontiero, who was denied the housing allowance that male pilots received. Initially, Frontiero thought it was an administrative error and sought to correct it. But she was told that she hadn’t received it because she was a woman, and that the housing benefit was for men who had to support their families. I guess the logic was, a working woman doesn’t have a family? Actually, there was no logic, and Ginsburg successfully made that point and Frontiero received the benefits. After the case was over, Frontiero said people asked her if she was happy and she was like, why would I be happy that I had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get paid fairly?
I liked Frontiero. She had a certain naivety that I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg also had as a young woman. Neither expected to be discriminated against, and when they were, their reaction was to correct the mistake. The causes and structures of gender-based discrimination are far from simple, of course, but both women were wise to stay calm and focus on the task in front of them. Ginsburg explicitly says that she learned from her mother not to show anger, because it wouldn’t help her get what she wanted.
RBG is also a portrait of Marty Ginsburg, who did something that men rarely do, which is to make a career sacrifice in order to help a wife’s career. The biggest on-paper sacrifice Marty made was the abandon his high-status law career in New York City in order to follow Ruth to Washington, D.C. But throughout the movie you see that it was the daily sacrifices that mattered most. He made dinner every night, allowing Ruth to work late on weeknights. On the weekends, he let her sleep. Ruth was a loving mother — and now grandmother — but she spent most of her time at home working, staying up until 2 a.m. at the kitchen table. Marty was the involved parent, the jokester, the one who got their mother to come home from the office. He did it, it seems, because he recognized her gifts, and would do what he needed to do to support her. It was also an opposites attract situation, where he was the gregarious, light-hearted one, while she was serious, reserved, and ambitious. It was Marty, everyone said, who got Ruth’s name on the short list for the Supreme Court. She was too busy working to put herself out there in that way.
At the end of this movie, I turned to my husband and was like, “What am I even doing with my life?” Which is the typical reaction of a self-involved writer, I guess. But I also felt grateful to Ruth for all the work she has done to break down gender barriers. And in the current political climate, in which the rights of women and minorities are being rolled back on what seems like a daily basis, it was helpful to be reminded of just what a struggle it’s been, and the strength that will be required to carry on.