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.
Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature-length film, following 2019’s critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a time travel story that reminded me of one of my favorite movies from childhood: Back to the Future. Aesthetically, the two have very little in common—one is an art house movie with unknown child actors, the other a somewhat goofy studio feature starring Michael J. Fox—but at the narrative core of both films is a deep psychological wish that many children harbor: to know their parents when they were younger. In Back to the Future, a teenage Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time to meet his parents at the beginning of their high school romance. In Petite Maman, eight-year-old Nelly stumbles into a kind of woodland passageway through which she can visit her mother’s childhood and play with her mother as an eight-year-old girl. In this alternate reality, Nelly also interacts with her maternal grandmother who, in Nelly’s present-day timeline, has recently passed away.
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.
I’d heard about this movie’s status as an under-seen classic but now, after seeing it, I have to believe it is one of the most influential movies of the 1970s. With its quirky, artsy, twenty-something female lead and documentary-style camerawork, it is strongly reminiscent of early-aughts mumblecore, even down to the set design. I can’t imagine Joe Swanberg’s films without Girlfriends, and I’m sure it informed TV shows like Sex & The City, Girls, and Fleabag. Its theme is female friendship, and it follows two roommates, Susan and Annie, whose lives go in different directions when Annie decides to get married and moves out to live with her husband. Meanwhile, Annie has to find a way to cover the rent while also pursuing a career in art photography. Frances Ha clearly borrows from its structure, so much so that I now see Frances Ha as something close to a remake of it, but that just goes to show how universal this story is. In an interview at filmmaker magazine, director Claudia Weill said she wrote it (with screenwriter Vicki Polon) because she didn’t see herself in movies, and apparently Weill had to carry around rolls of the film from studio to studio in order to sell it — just as Susan, a photographer, lugs around her portfolio from gallery to gallery.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) Written & Directed by Rahda Blank Streaming on Netflix
I finally caught up with Radha Blank’s debut feature after hearing good things about it all year long on Twitter and elsewhere. It premiered at Sundance and the buzz that followed it reminded me of the excitement that accompanied Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. As with Gerwig’s debut, I was rooting for it, but worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. But a great movie has a way of making you forget the chatter and even your own expectations. From the first scene of this joyful, layered story of self-creation, I found it hard to believe that it was Blank’s first film. It is so assured, and wears its influences so lightly, that it feels like the work of a much more seasoned filmmaker.
Hillary (2020) ★★★1/2
Director: Nanette Burstein Streaming on Hulu
Ever since Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with her, reading interviews and post-mortems, as well as Clinton’s own memoir about the 2016 campaign, What Happened? I also read Amy Chozick’s memoir, Chasing Hillary, about covering both of Clinton’s presidential runs for the New York Times. When I heard that Nanette Burstein had made a 4-hour documentary about Clinton’s life, I didn’t think I’d be interested in revisiting material that I already knew so well. At the beginning of the quarantine, I gave the first episode a try, but it didn’t grab me, especially when I saw how reliant it was on first-person interviews with Clinton, as well as Amy Chozick. I felt like I’d already heard from both of them and I wanted a new perspective.
I’m reposting this movie calendar, since a lot of the release dates have shifted over the past couple of months. The blockbusters and big-budget pictures have been delayed, but many independent films are having digital premieres. I’m hoping to catch with some of them over the next few weeks . . .
In the meantime, here’s my ongoing list of 2020 movies written or directed by women. These are mostly narrative films, but I’ve thrown in some documentaries, too. I’ve included specific dates when available, and some color-coding to help make sense of all the postponements and streaming changes due to quarantine.
BLACK= theatrical release/virtual theaters GREEN = originated in and/or intended for theaters, now available VOD PURPLE = originating on a specific streaming platform, i.e. Netflix, HBO, Disney +
Originally slated for SXSW, the New York Times is now streaming Hysterical Girl, a documentary short about Freud’s classic case study, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Writer and director Kate Novack argues that instead of being a case study of sexual repression, Freud’s Dora is actually a classic example of how men ignore, misinterpret, and cover up reports of abuse from girls and women.
I just watched it and was impressed by how many ideas it crammed into 13 minutes. The movie is anchored by a dramatic monologue that uses Freud’s own notes to give voice to Dora’s side of the story. The monologue is illustrated by a rapid collage of hand-drawn animations, images and clips from classic films and TV shows, and snippets of news coverage about Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford, and other women who have stood up to men in power.