Split Decision: Movies Directed by Women

Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!

This week’s question:

What is your favorite film directed by a woman?

I’m going to have to go with Penny Marshall on this one. Her films were a big part of my adolescence namely, A League of Their Own, Big, and Riding in Cars with Boys. If I had to choose one, I guess it’s Big. I’ve seen this movie so many times and yet when it used to play on repeat on TV I would stop whatever I was doing to watch it (ditto A League of Their Own). This is a controversial opinion I’m sure, but I do believe that this is Tom Hank’s best role. An adult playing a child is tough without going full on parody, and under Marshall’s careful eye, Hank’s nails it perfectly.

On of my favorite scenes takes place when Josh (Hanks) first goes to the city after becoming an adult. He’s staying in a seedy motel and after he barricades himself in his room he becomes frightened both at the loud yelling coming from the hallway in a language he can’t understand and the sounds of gunshots from the streets. It plays as comical at first, but we’re soon taken over with the same uncomfortable fear as Josh. The camera never leaves his face as the foreignness of his situation begins to hit. The camera stays with him as he slowly backs away from the door, fiddles with his shirt, lips quivering as the first of many tears for the night start to slowly come to the surface. The scene fades to black as Josh slowly whimpers under the weight of all that’s around him. I love it because of Marshall’s patience in capturing the slow progression of emotion from Hank’s performance. We’re 12 again, right there in that room, remembering a time we felt alone and scared. Also the ending, walking down the street when Josh turns back to a kid again. That sequence just tugs at your heartstrings.  – Jill Malcolm

Joan Micklin Silver’s 1979 film, Chilly Scenes of Winter (aka Head Over Heels) played endless on cable, when I was 12. It is not exaggerating to say that his film is responsible for my love of cinema, my career as a film writer, and my obsession with Ann Beattie (author of the source novel). It is a wryly comic and bittersweet romantic drama about a young man (John Heard) trying to win back the woman he loves (Mary Beth Hurt). There are ace supporting turns by Peter Riegert and Gloria Grahame, and dialogue I continue to quote to this day. The film was recut after its initial release as Head Over Heels and re-released later, under the original source novel’s title, with a different (and better) ending. Chilly Scenes of Winter made me appreciate smart, funny, sensitive character-driven films while everyone else was watching Star Wars and Superman. I love much of Silver’s work from that era, including Between the Lines (also starring Heard) and Hester Street. This film prompted me to seek out female filmmakers because there were far too few of them back in the late 1970s, and while the numbers have increased, we still need more women-directed movies.–Gary M. Kramer

A recent pick, I know, but Julia Ducournau’s cannibal coming of age thriller RAW is a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Not only is Ducournau’s feature length debut impressive as the work of a first-time filmmaker, but it stands out amongst a sea of genre films as one of the best. RAW will undoubtedly endure the test of time, and as more eyes fall upon this gruesome, hilarious piece of horror, its thematic groundwork — identity, physical maturity, the sacrifice of the individual to fit in with the group — will resonate. Despite combining cannibal violence with deeply effective body horror, there’s something about Ducournau’s style that makes RAW broadly appealing without feeling safe. And the way that the final shot redefines the entire film pretty much demands a second viewing. And a third. And then you’ll want to show it to people just to watch them watch it. 

Maybe eat beforehand. You won’t have an appetite after. And you may never eat chicken wings again.  Dan Scully

No other film directed by a woman has left as great an impact on myself as a cinephile (and a human being) than Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Clocking in at just shy of three-and-half hours and propelled by the eponymous figure’s daily routine, Akerman delivers a feminist tour-de-force of slow cinema which chronicles three days in the life of Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig, in a performance that, itself, explores/interrogates the virtues and limits of self-possession), a single mother living in Paris with her son, whose daily preoccupations consist primarily of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and prostitution — the latter seemingly Jeanne’s sole source of income. Here’s a movie that practically alters the viewer’s understanding of cinema, chiefly our preconceptions about narrative temporality. It isn’t devoid of ellipses, but the protracted depictions of Jeanne’s recurring activities — and how each cycle contrasts with the others — transfigures the ordinary into the monumental; this is that rare movie wherein the preparation of dinner, played out step-by-step and in mostly real-time, emanates more suspense and immediacy with each successive rendition.
Aesthetically, Akerman opts for a mode of expressive austerity, effectively recalling the asceticism and directness of Bresson. Her visual sense is rhythmic and cyclical, frequently blocking Jeanne within doorways and envisioning her domain as claustrophobic and theatrical, while the soundscape emphasizes — and aestheticizes — mundanities (dripping water, kneading of meat, etc) so as to generate a hypnotic aura of unease. No brief capsule can do this movie justice, as there’s much ink to spill over Dielman’s retooling-cum-reclamation of the “gaze”, as well as its portrayal of self-actualization and the imprisoning effects of habit, but, I think, any serious lover of the movies should sit with it at least once. It’s one of those movies for which the words “brilliant” and “innovative”, terms so regularly overused that their grand implications tend to be undermined, are not only pertinent but justified. At only 25, Akerman didn’t just conquer the medium, she reconfigured it.Dan Santelli

This is a particularly difficult category from which to choose just one, and my answer will likely change by the time I finish writing this, but here goes. My favorite film directed by a woman has to be Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), written and directed by the iconic Chantal Akerman. In this stunningly-filmed character study, we follow the despondent Anna (Aurore Clément) as she travels through Europe to promote her new film. Along the way she encounters a myriad of different people, all of whom express a profoundly personal revelation to her. Although Anna always listens, these brief meetings only highlight the deep detachment she has from the world, and the people, around her. She has encounters with men, women, old lovers, and family, though Anna seems to remain within the same emotional space regardless of these different relationships. This film is so poignant, so beautiful, and despite its isolated subject and atmosphere, Les rendez-vous d’Anna is filled with nuanced emotion–Catherine Haas

I have to go with1987’s Near Dark from Kathryn Bigelow. It’s a modern vampire western that fires on all cylinders. A perfect Tangerine Dream soundtrack, unforgettable action sequences, a mini reunion of the cast of Aliens, and an iconic Bill Paxton performance. It all comes together under Bigelow’s direction and her eye; she has a background as a painter, which explains the sumptuous visual feast that is the entire movie.    —Andy Elijah
Lore (2012) by Cate Shortland isn’t just my favorite work by a female filmmaker, it is one of my favorite films period. Lore presents a rich, distinct and hurtful vision. Lore‘s main characters are the children of wealthy devout Nazi parents at the collapse of the Third Reich, a timeframe made implicit rather than explicit through the bewildered lens of children caught unawares. It is a story of these siblings, abandoned by their war criminal parents, who must navigate their suddenly shattering realities. Together they cautiously and fearfully traverse a brooding near-mythical landscape to get somewhere safe in a Germany that doesn’t exist anymore. The music, urgent and fully present, helps to mythologize and emote while the visual language slowly generates a sensuous impression of dread and of lost innocence. In its war-torn wanderlust, Lore recalls the dredging final installment of Kobayashi’s The Human Condition with as much of a crush to the soul. Shortland wades deeply, poetically and fearlessly into an existential minefield of children waking up from a dream into a nightmare, and learning that the nightmare is the truth. (It is worth mentioning that the source novel is also written by a woman, Rachel Seiffert).–

Lost-in-Translation-2

I have to pick Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. Has there ever been a more relatable or moving depiction of loneliness? The most depressing kind of loneliness only comes when you are surrounded by other people who seem to be connecting in ways that you aren’t capable of, so stranding the two leads in Japan embeds these feeling deep within the fabric of the film. And in their isolation, the two lead characters are well contrasted. Bill Murray’s character wants to disengage with the world, remaining in the familiar decor of the hotel, while Scarlett Johansson’s character desperately wants to throw herself into busyness, running from her dying relationship. There’s layers and layers of depth to this film, and each time I see it I find new things to discover. —Ryan Silberstein

Peggy Jenkins’ Monster. Hands down. I’ve watched this movie more times than I can count and every time I do, I find more layers  in Charlize Theron’s brilliant performance as Aileen Wournos. Peggy Jenkins directed a performance than transcends mimicry and impersonation. It’s the performance I saw as a teenager that showed me it is ideal to play complicated (not glamorous) people and performances/product can be messy, but still expert in their execution. The wild tragedy of the events in the film are offset by small frames for Theron to fill with her heartbreak, hope, and rage. Jenkins also shows her talent as a screenwriter and gave us two complex women at the heart of this story and made everything else background noise. Yes, this is a story about a serial killer, but it is also a brutal love story about crumbling sanity and trying to make a way for yourself, even if the world spits in your face.
Stray thoughts: A lot of marketing for this movie consists of “glamour girl Charlize Theron gets ugly!” Because Theron’s worth as an actor was almost entirely based on her looks before this film, which is annoying.
It’s kind of mentioned in the film, but I always wonder if somebody would have given Wournos the help she needed if she was conventionally attractive. These are the questions.

Jenna Kuerzi

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *