We’re saying a final farewell to 2020, a year that has but few fond memories for most folks. But, among the good remembrances are fine films that sustained us not only by providing stress respite, but also by opening minds to much-needed contemplation about the way we live, and by energizing heartfelt aspirations for change for the better. Throughout the year, AWFJ’s #MOTW feature served as a beacon, a guiding light for moviegoers seeking excellent and inspiring entertainment.
Despite disruption in the movie industry – or perhaps in part because of it- we saw the release of a greater number of beautifully-crafted and satisfyingly feminist femme-helmed movies. Most were indies that might not have seen release during ‘normal’ years. For us, they were rays of light that pierced the pandemic darkness. Our #MOTW selections reflected the variety of stories they told and the perspectives they represent. These movies provided some of the year’s fondest memories for Team #MOTW members and for all who follow our Movie of the Week.
As we rise to meet 2021’s new set of expectations and challenges, we invite you to revisit our 2020 #MOTW selections, with one favorite title chosen by each member of Team #MOTW. Enjoy! – Jennifer Merin
Team #MOTW’s choices:
With his stunning 2017 debut feature God’s Own Country, British writer/director Francis Lee created complex gay and working class characters and put them front and center. His follow up, the historical drama Ammonite does the same for women who were straightjacketed by their gender and class. Kate Winslet portrays real-life, self-taught British paleontologist Mary Anning who lived in an English coastal during the 1840s; Saoirse Ronan plays Charlotte, a fragile upper class woman lodging in Mary’s home. As romance blossoms between the two women, the atmosphere shifts from dim candlelight and grays to a brighter, warmer tones transforming the bleak ambience of restriction into one of openness and love — at least for a while.
Quebecois filmmaker Sophie Deraspe shows the enduring vitality of eternal themes with this modern adaptation of the classic play by Sophocles. The update’d contemporary Montreal setting changes the details and makes superb use of cinematic storytelling techniques to make the essential story of courage and integrity as immediate as this morning’s newspaper. Nahema Ricci is radiant in the title role, making us believe Antigonr should and could inspire those who feel most lost and abandoned to follow her. The movie is filled with a passion for righteous justice that is based in a deeply compassionate humanity, and anyone who watches this marvelous film will come away enlightened and inspired by it.
Swedish visionary Hilma af Klint didn’t merely create stunning works of abstract art: she invented the form with a painting dated 1906 So how is it that Wassily Kandinsky is generally considered the first abstract painter, when af Klint’s abstract canvas predates his by four years? Women’s achievements are regularly erased in male-scribed annals of history, even when – perhaps especially when – a woman did something groundbreaking before a man did. This is nothing new to those who’ve been paying attention. It is wholly enraging that feminists are constantly having to rediscover and rehabilitate women’s achievements (and do so again 25 years later in aft Klimt’s case, when the rehabilitation doesn’t stick). So thank you, Halina Dyrschka, for bringing Hilma aft Klimt back into the annals of history with such visual flair and compelling storytelling.
BLOW THE MAN DOWN — Jennifer Merin
Blow the man Down is a colorfully noir-ish New England thriller co-written and co-directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. The plot twists and turns around around the plight of sisters Mary Beth and Priscilla Connolly as they try to cover up a gruesome run-in with a dangerous local hoodlum and, in doing so, inadvertently uncover their coastal community’s dirty little secrets. The scandal involves matriarchs who run town affairs with consensual clout. Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor are super as the sisters, as are June Squibb and Margo Martindale as two of the towns bad biddies. The scenario is sprinkled with subtle clues about what’s to come. A chorus of net-slinging lobstermen who sing sea shanties as counterpoint to plot twists. It’s thoroughly engaging and entertaining throughout.
There’s a prevailing myth that AI isn’t racist when in reality, AI is only as unbiased as its mostly white male architects. Even with the best intentions, some degree of racism and/or bias is inevitable and its fragmenting society. AI profiling means that more than half the world’s population are unfairly judged or excluded by so-called “blind” tech. Documentarian Shalini Kantayya introduces tech experts opposed to relying on AI for everything from facial recognition to processing civic interactions. She provides insight about how AI is developed, and how its use sometimes does more bad than good – a concern not always discussed and often ignored. One of the year’s most important documentaries, Coded Bias is a must watch.
Underdog sports movies are a Hollywood staple, but The Grizzlies, about a real-life lacrosse team of Inuit high-schoolers in Kugluktuk, a Canadian Arctic town, has more at stake than winning or losing. It’s about living rather than dying in a colonized community where a diamond mine is the main source of income and few opportunities exist for marginalized indigenous residents. Drugs, alcoholism, domestic abuse and teen suicides are rampant. Writer/director Miranda de Pencier’s ‘white savior,’ a preppy teacher from “the South,” arrives for a year’s stint. He fails to earn his charges’ trust until he introduces lacrosse, a team sport native to their culture. Teaming up gives the kids a sense of pride, identity and the feeling they’re not alone in the world. In essence, they become their own saviors
Sasie Sealy’s darkly comic action/adventure drama Lucky Grandma is set in New York’s Chinatown and focuses on Grandma Wong, an irascible elder who’s down on her luck. It starts with a fortune-teller advising Grandma she’s in for a year of good luck – and should expect particularly lucky day. When she wins a prize at her bank, she figures that special day has come. So she withdraws her savings and heads for the casino. She wins big, then loses – but gets an unexpected windfall that makes her the target of rival Chinatown gangs. Grandma, played with irresistible charm by Tsai Chin – with dangling cigarette and cynical attitude – is a tough cookie who easily outsmarts the buffoon-like gangsters. The films chase scenes, fisticuffs and shootouts are unexpected and hilarious. Lucky Grandma is wildly entertaining.
Andrea Riseborough gives a luminescent performance in Zeina Durra’s contemplative, hypnotic Luxor, her talent and poise radiating through the suppressed trauma that leaves her character, Hana, seemingly teetering on the edge of complete breakdown. A medic, Hana is in the Egyptian city of Luxor on a break between frontline work in Syria and a new posting in Yemen, desperately trying to drown out the horrors she’s witnessed by immersing herself in the beauty of this spiritual, historical city. When she runs into her former lover, pushes her to face the things she has tried so hard to push away. Riseborough is phenomenal as this fascinating enigmatic woman who has been brought to her knees by her experiences, yet is determined to forge a happier path.
Conventional Sally and firebrand Jo go together like chalk and cheese. Yet, in this exuberant real-life drama, these opposites unite to support Britain’s nascent women’s liberation movement. Their target: the 1970 Miss World pageant in which Miss Grenada and Miss Africa South were pioneering Black contestants in an overwhelmingly white competition. Director Philippa Lowthorpe portrays these women – feminists and beauty contestants, each in their own way – making moves for equality in an era when gender norms were taken for granted and budding women’s libbers were treated with derision. Not to be dismissed as a mere history lesson, Misbehaviour masterfully recreates an era that directly speaks to our own as we continue the work those women started.
MISS JUNETEENTH — Kathia Woods
The dynamic relationship between mother and daughter creates a bond like no other. Miss Juneteenth examines that bond intelligently and with raw honesty. Channing Godfrey Peoples uses a small town Texas beauty pageant as background for this story. Nicole Beharie (Fox’s Sleepy Hollow) plays Turquoise, a former Miss Juneteenth who’s determined that her daughter follow in her footsteps. Miss Juneteenth is the story of many women whose light is dimmed by a mistake. But it’s also about self forgiveness, healing and moving forward. Just because you made a mistake or were surrounded by dysfunction doesn’t mean your daughters are doomed. Miss Juneteenth examines a woman’s challenging choices and gives us an idea of what the Juneteenth celebration means to Black America.
THE OLD GUARD — Leslie Combemale
The Old Guard makes you wish there were a dozen more like it. It celebrates complicated female characters who kick ass and collaborate without any sexualization. Warrior women show physical strength, fearlessness, and empathy. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s direction delivers the best, most compelling version Greg Rucka’s script, based on his The Old Guard graphic series. Bythewood leaned into the depth of the characters and required inclusion of a powerful queer love story. One of my favorite films of the year, The Old Guard will propel Kiki Layne to the actors A-list, and reaffirm Charlize Theron as an action hero for the ages. Bythewood again shows how talented and laser-focused she is as a director.
SWALLOW — Liz Whittemore
Feelings of isolation, fear and wonder surround pregnancy. You can try to assure your baby’s health but really have little control over your body’s reaction to making another human. Pica, an eating disorder associated with pregnancy, is the uncontrollable urge to consume things not meant to be eaten. In Swallow trophy wife Hunter’s desperate attempts to behave normally only heighten her impulses to consume dangerous objects. Stunning cinematography of Hunter’s cold, sparse modern home highlights her plight. The textures in Swallow are equally gorgeous and gag-worthy. Topped off by Haley Bennett’s thrilling performance,
WE ARE THE RADICAL MONARCHS — Betsy Bozdech
Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s compelling documentary about an Oakland scouting troop specifically and intentionally centered on girls of color couldn’t feel any more timely than it does in 2020. The troop of tween girls and their socially conscious and activist adult mentors talk openly and honestly about pride and sexual identity, gender politics, stereotypes, police brutality and profiling, ableism, and more. They make signs and participate in protest marches and demonstrations; they visit lawmakers and effectively advocate for meaningful change. They’re constantly reminded how very important it is to love both themselves and others. In short, they kick ass.
YELLOW ROSE — Sandie Angulo Chen
Filipina American director Diane Paragas’ Yellow Rose is a beautiful exploration of the bond between mothers and daughters, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and the transcendent power of music. The film stars two Broadway divas: Tony Award nominee Eva Noblezada of the latest Miss Saigon revival as the titular Rose and pioneering Tony Award winner Lea Salonga as her aunt Gail. Noblezada’s performance is fabulous and scenes when she sings are so memorable that audiences will want to check out the film’s soundtrack. Even more poignant than the music is the fierce connection between Rose and her mother, who’s detained by ICE. Even though Rose is left alone, she knows her mother’s love is stronger than any border.
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods
Edited by Jennifer Merin