AWFJ’s Movie of the Week focuses attention on excellent films directed by women and/or centered on the stories of complex and fully realized women characters who are grappling — directly or metaphorically — with the issues women face in daily life. From January 1 to November 23 of this year, we have designated 48 Movie of the Week films. All of these have had strong women characters and 36 of them have been directed by women. We heartily applaud the variety of style and story, we honor the moviemakers who’ve brought them to the screen. As year end holidays approach and the movie awards season heats up, Team #MOTW members revisit our selections to suggest their favorites for immediate viewing. For full coverage of each film, click on the title, listed in chronological order. Jennifer Merin
Team #MOTW’s favorite #MOTWs:
THE PARTY (#MOTW February 16, 2018) selected by Anne Brodie: Sally Potter’s scathing social satire The Party, shot in black and white in three claustrophobic rooms is a gem, and thankfully short given the compression of nerves and tears and emotion. What may be the most unpleasant dinner party of all time brings together a perfectly presentable group of middle class English friends – a politician, artists, a banker, a professor, a realist and a healer. They’re gathering to celebrate Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has been named Minster of Health. Her husband (Timothy Spall) announces he has a terminal disease, and he’s holding an explosive secret that has him take it out on his guests with loud, abrasive music. The writing, choreography and precision cinematography took a lot of planning to make everything seem natural, quite an accomplishment. Potter’s charged hour and ten minutes is bracing, highly entertaining, and deeply funny and sad. Read Anne Brodie’s full review.
OUTSIDE IN (#MOTW March 30, 2018) selected by Marilyn Ferdinand: Lynn Shelton is a screenwriter and director whose fine-tuned sensibility to the mysteries of the human heart is the gift that keeps on giving. Her latest effort, Outside In, is simplicity itself, yet so far-ranging in its exploration of what it means to be alive that it almost feels like a mission to an unknown world. The film takes place in the lumbering town of Granite City, Wash., where 37-year-old Chris (Jay DuPlass) tries to adjust to life after 20 years in prison for being part of a robbery in which a person was killed. He is in love with his former English teacher, Carol (Edie Falco), who helped win his release as part of a program aimed at ending mandatory minimum sentences. The connection between these two characters, the way they kept each other going, centers this film about what we want out of life and how we discover what we are truly capable of doing. The hardships both Chris and Carol face as they try to figure things out in unpromising circumstances for them both—Carol’s decaying marriage and Chris’s bleak prospects as an ex-con in a small, economically depressed town—are a lesson to us all that nobody who stays awake to their humanity should ever be written off. Outside In is a beautiful film, inside and out.
THE RIDER (#MOTW April 13, 2018) selected by Kristen Page Kirby: Those who are all hat and no cattle are the only cowboys who talk a lot; those with a more even hat-to-cattle ratio tend to be quiet. That’s why it makes sense that The Rider and star Brady Jandreau are always subdued and often silent. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot going on — Jandreau’s sad-eyed, seemingly placid face communicates the internal struggle of a man whose current life is incompatible with the one he lived and whose future has become something he doesn’t necessarily want. At its core, The Rider is a unique, deeply moving look at a prototypical kind of masculinity defined by two rules: “shake it off” and “what are you, some kind of sissy?” Writer and director Chloe Zhao neatly rejects the insipid trap of the “inspirational” movie, trading in a swelling soundtrack (in fact, the film has almost no music at all) and a neat arc for something that echoes and resonates much more profoundly — asking whether one man can find a new place underneath the sweeping South Dakota sky.
THE RIDER (#MOTW April 13, 2018) selected by Nikki Baughan: Bringing sensitivity and compassion to a decidedly masculine landscape, director Chloe Zhao’s second film, following 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, reshapes the traditional cowboy narrative in a way that both honours the traditions of the Western and brings it bang up to date. Working with real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau (here playing Brady Blackburn), who suffered a life-changing injury in a rodeo accident, Zhao has crafted a story that walks the line between fact and fiction to pack a powerful emotional punch. As Brady, who can no longer ride, attempts to adjust to a new way of life in the South Dakota Badlands, his family and friends (played by their real-life counterparts) are both a source of support and a constant reminder of everything he’s lost. Boasting terrific performances and evocative cinematography, The Rider is a triumph of human endeavour and tenacity of spirit.
RBG (#MOTW May 4, 2018) selected by Betsy Bozdech: As the saying goes, not all superheroes wear capes. In fact, some might even be clad in black robes and lace collars. That’s the emotional takeaway from Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s excellent documentary “RBG,” which tells the story of iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Tracing her life from childhood through the present, the film both humanizes Ginsburg and cements exactly why she’s so beloved by those who are passionate about women’s rights and gender equality. From a filmmaking perspective, RBG doesn’t reinvent the documentary form — it relies on a mix of archival videos and still images and interviews with family members, friends, and colleagues/fellow public figures to tell Ginsburg’s story. But there’s no need for tricks and gimmicks when you have a life and career this rich to document. There’s heartbreak — Ginsburg’s mother died on the eve of her high school graduation — but there’s also humor (watching Ginsburg chuckle at Kate McKinnon’s firecracker impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live is sublime), not to mention adversity and achievement.
LEAVE NO TRACE (#MOTW June 29, 2018) selected by Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Debra Granik’s third narrative feature is yet another powerful, intimate drama about the power of family bonds and of a young woman’s will to survive. Starring Ben Foster as Will, a traumatized veteran who lives off the grid, and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom, his 13-year-old daughter, the film follows the father and daughter in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon. Only those woods are actually a park, and the authorities inevitably step in to force Will and Tom into another living situation. Granik one again elicits a revelatory performance from a young actress: McKenzie, like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, is expressive and understands the poignancy of a pause, of silent communication, of a look that can say so much. Although the film might have benefited from a lesser known actor than Foster, he is still up to the challenge of subtlety that the role demands. Granik has proven herself a keen observer of people living in the grim fringes of America’s landscape. Despite the heartbreaking stories she tells, she gives them (particularly the young women in her films) a flicker of hope in the darkness.
DARK MONEY (#MOTW July 13, 2018) selected by Esther Iverem: Forget all the hocus-pocus and hysteria over unproven foreign “interference” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Filmmaker Kimberly Reed’s intelligent new documentary Dark Money details the real and dangerous impact of unchecked and undisclosed political contributions by billionaires and corporations on the entire American project in democracy — starting on the local and state level. Dark Money takes place largely in Montana, where determined investigative journalist John S. Adams works doggedly to determine the full impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” decision — the one that (in)famously declared political spending a form of free speech, which meant that corporations couldn’t be stopped from using funds to support or denounce specific candidates. As facts unfold in scene after scene, you might find yourself shouting out loud: “What?!” This is necessary viewing.
I AM NOT A WITCH (#MOTW September 7, 2018) selected by Jennifer Merin : I Am Not A Witch is the beautifully crafted and profoundly provocative first feature from writer/director Rungaro Nyoni, who was born in Zambia but moved at a young age to Wales. The fascinating story she tells in the film is based on her personal observations and extensive research on witchcraft superstitions and the treatment of those accused of witchcraft in Zambia and Ghana. A rich mix of smartly entertaining satire and sharp social commentary, the film tells the tale of Shula, a young Zambian girl accused of witchcraft, found guilty, considered to be property of the state and subjected to disturbing exploitation. I Am Not A Witch was shot in an actual witch camp that has been in existence for some 400 years. Nyoni’s choice to cast local people in the film gives the fantasy-like scenario a feeling of alarming authenticity. Masterfully bewitching storytelling, superb performances, exquisite cinematography and outstanding editing skills have brought I Am Not A Witch into contention for Oscar gold as Britain’s submission for best foreign film. I Am Not A Witch is a must see. Read Jennifer Merin’s full review.
COLETTE (#MOTW September 21, 2018) selected by Pam Grady:
– Keira Knightley is sublime as the titular French novelist in this lavish depiction of her birth as a writer during her first marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villiers aka Willy (Dominic West). A well-known author at the time of their marriage, his turn-of-the-20th-century “Claudine” novels created a sensation—except that he didn’t write them, his far more talented wife did. The film paints a portrait of an independent woman who finds some satisfaction in affairs with other women and a career on stage, but wants more than anything else to be recognized for her writing. Director Wash Westmoreland, in his first feature since the death of his filmmaking partner (and husband) Richard Glatzer has made a lush, lively, and evocative drama out of Colette’s scintillating life and struggle to lay claim to her own vivid creation, Claudine.
COLETTE (#MOTW September 21, 2018) selected by Cate Marquis: What a marvelous film! Keira Knightley stars as French novelist Colette in director Wash Westmoreland’s gorgeous and gripping period biopic. The story focuses on the writer’s early years. starting with the marriage of country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette to the older, famous Parisian writer known as Willy (Dominic West). Willy may have once been an author but now he is more of a celebrity brand, paying a stable of ghostwriters to churn out material under his name, while he lives high. Soon Colette is recruited to join the ranks of ghostwriters. In late 19th- early 20th century Paris, Colette broke barriers of all sorts. Although the story is set in Paris more than a century ago, this tale of a woman’s awakening to her own worth, her struggle to be free and be herself, and be recognized for her own work is as thrilling as ever, and surprisingly timely. Knightley delivers a splendid performance, taking Colette from a country girl with brains to a worldly woman who was the most popular French woman author of her time, shattering barriers as she rose. This drama is not to be missed.
JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS (#MOTW September 28, 2018) selected by Nell Minow: Director Susan Lacy has the great advantage of a subject whose life has been extensively documented literally since birth, and the archival material, including an interview with the late Tom Hayden, is thoughtfully selected and presented. Wisely, it is not always chronological. Older material is included when it is most thematically appropriate, as an echo of Fonda’s understanding over time of who she is and when to let go of past hurts and mistakes. Fonda’s own interviews are candid and insightful. Her regrets about the way she allowed herself to be used by the North Vietnamese are sincere but practiced. She has said this many times. More visceral is when she is visably shaken admitting her sadness in not being a better mother to her oldest child, Vanessa Vadim (named after Redgrave). While Vanessa’s children appear briefly in the film, Vanessa herself does not. Fonda’s son with Hayden, actor Troy Garrity, and their adopted daughter, Mary Luana “Lulu” Williams, do appear. Their affection and respect for their mother show that Fonda achieved her greatest wish, to be the loving parent she never had.
ALL ABOUT NINA (#MOTW October 5, 2018) selected by Elizabeth Whittemore: We’re living in a world where we have an admitted sexual predator in the White House. We’re living in a moment in time where women are sick and tired of being trampled on, blamed, persecuted, broken, and made to relive their trauma over and over. In dark times we seek escapism. Movies and theater and art keep us grounded. They let us forget the shit and live in a world that can be, at times, as perfect as the fairy tale presented. The new film starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, All About Nina, is not that film. Winstead gives a striking performance in this very dark film.A comic, trying to wade her way through shitty relationships and her budding career, invites us to ride an emotionally explosive rollercoaster right alongside her. The emotionally high and low journey will astound and leave you breathless. All About Nina takes center stage with comedy fueled by hurt, ambition, and truth. Read Elizabeth Whittemore’s full review.
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (#MOTW October 19, 2018) selected by Loren King: Melissa McCarthy in director Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? delivers one of the best on-screen portraits of a writer because McCarthy nails real-life scribe Lee Israel’s writerly torment. Despite penning three biographies, she can’t pay her rent; she drinks way too much; she battles with feelings of superiority/insecurity and the gnawing sense that no one (especially not her agent, a great turn by Jane Curtin) is interested in her work anymore. That Israel, who died in 2014, desperately turned to forging letters by famous writers and other celebrities to pay her bills but also to prove to herself, in the hellish vacuum of invisibility, that she still had talent is rendered as a tragically comic twist in the film. Yes, Lee is deluded, bitter and rather pathetic. But the smart, witty script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and Heller and McCarthy’s willingness to make Lee unlikable is what makes the character relatable. She’s acerbic and eccentric, but never treated as a joke. Heller generates suspense, even for those who know Lee’s story. She stages great scenes such as Lee browning stationary in her apartment oven or tracing a signature using her glowing TV as a backlight. McCarthy is, not surprisingly, terrific in this juicy dramatic role. Her subtle reactions reveal so much of Lee’s brash personality and damaged soul that she turns this darkly funny tale about an oddball into a biting portrait of a writer raging from the margins. Read Loren King’s full review.
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (#MOTW October 19, 2018) selected by Susan Wloszczyna:: The arrival of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is more than enough evidence that Melissa McCarthy is the real deal as she closes off her usual buoyant avenues of emoting for a darker, morose and complex persona – one paved in frustration and failed opportunity that is uniquely female in nature. Her usual brassy bravado is tucked away beneath a frumpy veneer of bitterness, disappointment and deeply seated resentment over anyone else’s success. As Lee Israel, a real-life Manhattan-based middle-aged biographer, she is at the point in her life in 1991 where she is doing a lot more drinking than writing. McCarthy manages to retreat to a rather painful place of misery while embodying someone who admittedly prefers the company of Jersey, her black-and-white cat (a great feline performance by the way), over humans and commits to it fully. I kept waiting for her to crack and show a bit of her sunny side, but this is a marvelously overcast performance that pays off big time as the movie concludes. Hats off to whoever insisted on hiring a female director and screenwriter – namely, the extremely talented up-and-coming Marielle Heller, who visually captures ‘90s Manhattan in all its power-suited glory — and scribe Nicole Holofcener.Read Susan Wloszczyna’s full review.
PIONEERS: FIRST WOMEN FILMMAKERS (#MOTW November 23, 2018) selected by MaryAnn Johanson : I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say this this could be one of the most important box sets in the history of film. Women’s contributions to cinema have been constantly erased since the very beginning of the medium, to the point where we have to keep reeducating ourselves and film fans about the fact that women have been vitally important and innovative artists on celluloid since there has been celluloid. There is no qualifying the women pioneers of film as separate or other than men: they are pioneers, full stop. They were innovators from the first, like Alice Guy-Blaché, well represented here, who *invented the idea of using film to tell a narrative story* as opposed to merely documenting reality. The Lumière brothers shot a film of a train arriving in a station; a few months later, Guy-Blaché told a fantasy story in her La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). How much do women’s cinema contributions get erased? That train film has its own Wikipedia page; La Fée aux Choux does not. I’m delighted, too, to see Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic films in this set. She may have been the first African American filmmaker — of any gender — but again, we don’t know for sure because so much cinema history that isn’t about white men is gone, or was never recorded in the first place. I’m angry all over again, thinking about this, but this box set assuages me a little. It’s a small step toward righting some of these wrongs.
FILM DETAILS: See the full details for each film by clicking on the film titles above to read the original Movie of the Week posts.
Movie of the Week (#MOTW) is a weekly feature on AWFJ.org, the official website of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. AWFJ’s Team #MOTW endorses one releasing movie that reflects AWFJ’s core goals of greater attention for films made by and about women, or films that represent women’s concerns and will appeal to women audiences.
Each week, AWFJ’s Team #MOTW selects a releasing movie to endorse, one that reflects AWFJ’s core goals of greater attention for films made by and about women, or films that represent women’s concerns and will appeal to women audiences.
AWFJ Movie of the Week Team Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin