MOVIE OF THE WEEK December 27, 2019: The Best of A Banner Year

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As shown by this year’s roster of Movie of the Week selections, 2019 has been a banner year for femme-helmed and femme-centric films. Thirty-eight of the films we’ve featured during the past twelve months are directed by women and most of them boast women in key crew positions, too.

All of the selected films have been about women, including inspiring biodocs about game-changing women like Tracy Edwards, Alice Guy Blache, Toni Morrison and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, as well as stirring narratives about complex, powerful and unforgettable fictional characters such as Claire in The Nightingale, Molly in Late Night, Kate in Family and Orna in Working Woman. Real or fictional, these are women who want to be seen and deserve to be seen. Their stories represent every aspect of women’s struggles for equality and justice, and illuminate other serious social issues that demand our attention.

In this late December recap, we present for your enjoyment Team MOTW’s wonderfully varied list of recommended films — our pick of the best #MOTWs of 2019. Excelsior! — Jennifer Merin

Team #MOTW’s Top #MOTWs of 2019: (in alphabetical order by title)

AFTER THE WEDDING: Astonishing performances from Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams are the heart of this gender-flipped adaptation of Susanne Bier’s 2006 drama. Williams plays an Indian orphanage worker who uncovers a devastating secret when she travels to NY to meet with a wealthy potential benefactor (Moore). They play beautifully off each other; Williams is quiet, pensive, wrought by past tragedies that she keeps buried until they threaten to overwhelm her, whereas Moore is bombastic, driven and – in one breathtaking scene in particular – rails against the injustices of life. Bart Freundlich has sensitively re-written this twisting story, allowing the talents of his leading ladies to take centre stage. Watching them share screen time is a privilege indeed. —Nikki Baughan

ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE: Ali Wong and Russell Park – dear friends who co-wrote and co-star – have produced a pan-Asian American romcom that’s representational and universal. This second-chance love story is about childhood neighbors who were best friends but grew estranged. After a 15-year silence, celebrity chef Sasha returns to the Bay Area for work and reconnects with Marcus, an air/heating tradesman. Park charms as a lovable loser. Wong is delightful as ambitious Sasha. James Saito gives a fabulously nuanced performance as Marcus’ supportive and wise father. Michelle Buteau stands out as Sasha’s loyal assistant. Keanu Reeves appears in brilliantly laugh aloud scene-stealing cameo. A joy to watch, Always Be My Maybe is the romcom the world needs now. – Sandie Angulo Chen

ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH: Jennifer Baichwal’s epic is a cinematic meditation on human impact on our planet. Through image and narration, it presents research by the Anthropocene Working Group, a scientific organization that tracks Earth’s evolution. After intensive study, this exacting group of geological timekeepers argues that our planet is now in a new epoch, the titular Anthropocene, in which human behavior is causing rapid changes to Earth’s surface. The forecast isn’t good, but the documentary is essential viewing. If our species survives the human epoch, our descendants may view this film as we read the Bible as a record of ancient historic events that shaped our cultural and political roots as well as our understanding of our spirituality. — Jennifer Merin

BE NATURAL – THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY BLACHE: What a wonderful film this is! Pamela Greene’s well researched, intelligent documentary spotlights the pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy Blache, who was there at the very beginning of movies. Presented in a visually lively style, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blache goes way beyond merely chronicling the facts of Alice Guy Blache’s life – her innovations, her many awards while working at Gaumont, her marriage to fellow filmmaker Herbert Blache, their immigration to the US where they opened their own movie studio – but gives examples of her films and puts her work in context of both film history and feminist history. For all film fans, the delightfully engaging Be Natural is a must-see.– Cate Marquis, read full review.

FAMILY: Stories about stand-offish/lonely/workaholic adults being transformed by their relationship with precocious/charming/offbeat kids aren’t hard to find in Hollywood, but — until Family — none have hinged on the transformative power of acceptance by the Juggalos. And that helps make Laura Steinel’s quirky, poignant comedy about a reluctant aunt and her awkward niece stand out from the crowd. Workaholic Kate Stone has no discernible people skills: She’s dismissive, brutally honest, and extremely impatient. When recruited to care of her niece Maddie, a one-night gig turns into a full week of unexpected and unfamiliar domesticity during which Kate finds herself drawn to the tweenage girl who’s also an outsider among her peers.– Betsy Bozdech, read full review.

FOR SAMA: Never mind all those so-called superheroes that have dominated movie screens for the past two decades. Now is not the time for escapist fantasies. For Sama is the reality wake-up call we as a country desperately need right now, one that shows what happens to a society when corruption, injustice and oppression goes unchecked. Is this a political documentary? Yes. As a young and engaging female Syrian university student, Waad al-Kateab decided to chronicle on camera the uprising of the Aleppo citizenry against a cruel self-serving regime and the resulting horrifying devastation when Russia and Syrian leaders retaliated by terrorizing the community with constant bombings from the air and on the ground. — Susan Wloszczyna, read full review.

HONEY BOY: Shia LaBeouf delves into the darkest recesses of his soul in Amazon’s riveting Honey Boy based on his own autobiographical screenplay about a young actor’s tumultuous childhood and early adult years as he attempts to reconcile his love for his alcoholic father with his pain. Honey Boy is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It’s transcendent cinema told with authenticity and brutal honesty. This is a beautifully crafted film, and the impressive work by first feature director Alma Har’el, the ensemble and DP Natasha Braier make them worthy contenders for consideration in this year’s awards season. — Sheila Roberts, read full review.
HONEYLAND: Documentary filmmakers Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska show the same infinite patience and care in telling the story of their subject, a Macedonian beekeeper named Hatidze, that Hatidze shows in caring for her beloved bees. The simple intimacy of their storytelling is matched by the exquisite framing of their images, lit by sun and by candle. The directors let the story unfold naturally, so that they encompass Hatidze’s whole world, from the big abstractions like economics and culture to the smallest, most personal longings of the heart. —Nell Minow

MAIDEN: Thirty years after 26-year-old Tracy Edwards challenged the orthodoxy of the sailing world, by putting together an all-women crew and skippering her second-hand yacht in the Whitbread Round the World Race, she, her crew, and the competition recall that history-making event in this rousing, inspiring documentary. Director Alex Holmes has an ace in the hole: Not only did he have access to news footage and the Whitbread Race archives, Maiden’s voyage was also captured by crew member Joanna Gooding, revealing moments of euphoria and periods of great tension. The story unfolds through memories of Edwards and the others, but never feels nostalgic. This marvelous story is a testament to the power of women to get things done—even the extraordinary. Pam Grady

THE NIGHTINGALE: Jennifer Kent’s second feature film is a beautifully crafted period drama set in the penal colony of Tasmania in the 1800s. The Nightingale delves into the dark difficulties of life for everyone on the island; women who were abused and taken advantage of, natives who were kidnapped, abused, killed, and whose lands were stolen, and soldiers abandoned in the backwoods with food, booze and little else. The Nightingale is a haunting snapshot of their daunting, depressing lives. It’s raw, unflinching and occasionally difficult to watch, but Kent captures that life in all its brutality as well as its small moments of joy and hope. The film is stunning and performances from Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr are unforgettable. — Marina Antunes

ONE CHILD NATION: From 1979 to 2015, Chinese Communist law dictated that families were allowed to have only one child. This policy permeated documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang’s childhood. Comprised of intimate first hand accounts and government-made propaganda, Wang’s One Child Nation taps into your soul. If you are a mother, it will offend your understanding of the world. How can government care so little for the lives of its own citizens? Fighting back, telling stories is what brings enlightenment to the ignorant and empowers progressive change. One Child Nation shows us how great filmmaking can educate a new generation. You can’t rewrite history but you can prevent it from ever happening again. — Liz Whittemore, read full review.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE: The gifted French writer-director Céline Sciamma, has created a masterpiece with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a sumptuous lesbian romance set in France in 1760. The exquisitely crafted film, winner of the best screenplay award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, is an unforgettable love story that unspools at a slow burn until the final act, which blazes with an unforgettable incandescence. The women don’t end up together — no surprise, given the times, and this outcome is made clear by the film’s opening scene. But through artistic images of one another — those they recorded, what they revealed — they keep alive a precious, private memory forever burned into their hearts and minds. — Loren King, read full review.

ROLL RED ROLL: Any time I forget how so many people could vote for a candidate who was caught on tape describing how sexual assault is part of his nature, all I’ll have to do is watch Roll Red Roll again. Here, in graphic detail, is a portrait of rape culture in Steubenville, Ohio, a community like so many across the country and around the world that prizes feeling like a winner above all else. Big Red, the Steubenville High School football team, is the squad of virile young men whose athletic feats form the glue that holds this small, economically depressed town together. When word filters out through social media that some players on the team raped a drunk-to-unconscious 16-year-old girl, the town soon finds itself embroiled in a shattering controversy. — Marilyn Ferdinand, read full review.

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID: When Tigers Are Not Afraid isn’t busy scaring you, it’s breaking your heart. Social activism meets horror meets coming-of-age in this bracing, gorgeously shot, intense award-winning film that’s written and directed by famed and favored Mexican filmmaker Issa Lopez who shows her considerable facility with child actors, including Paola Lara and Juan Ramon Lopez as El Shine, who demand audience attention from the first scene and hold it hostage through the last indelible image onscreen. Though not recommended for those who shun films featuring children in peril, committed viewers will likely place Tigers Are Not Afraid on the list of 2019’s best films.– Leslie Combemale, read full review.

WOMAN AT WAR: In this uniquely compelling drama from Iceland, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir’s Halla is one of the coolest, most intruiging people I’ve ever met onscreen. I just adore her… and I adore this movie. It’s so rare to see a vibrant middle-aged woman onscreen, and even rarer to see one so dedicated and passionate about her, er, hobby. I love, too, that writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson has so much fun with undercutting assumptions about what women can and can’t, might or might not get up to: it becomes a great message about using whatever privilege we might have to do good. Being invisible and presumed harmless *can* be used to advantage! — MaryAnn Johanson

The Alliance of Women Film Journalists has been presenting our Movie of the Week feature since March of 2014. AKA #MOTW, the feature began as a compilation representing women perspectives about a releasing film, one that might attract the attention of women audiences and/or might be of special interest to women. We began with fifteen Team #MOTW members whose comments were published weekly. To date, we continue with a team of 15, occasionally rotating team membership in order to give a wider range of AWFJ members the chance to participate. Over the years, our focus has shifted to endorsing films made by and/or about women. Our purpose is to acknowledge, honor and boost industry and public awareness about truly and wonderfully watch-worthy femme-helmed and femme-centric films that are mostly overlooked by those who record and post stats about women working in film.

At present, Team #MOTW members are: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Please browse through our previous #MOTW selections for a complete roster of all of our #MOTW endorsements.

#MOTW is edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).