A Woman's Touch: Ten Great Films From Female Directors

Though film directing has been an overwhelmingly male preserve, there's an enduring legacy of women directors to celebrate. To prove my point, here are ten of my own favorite titles helmed by women.
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When Kathryn Bigelow snagged Best Picture and Best Director at last year's Oscars, I was thrilled primarily because a) I thought the picture ("The Hurt Locker") richly deserved it; and b) I hated the idea of the visually stunning but narratively challenged "Avatar" -- and its prickly, unabashedly egotistical director -- winning the big prize.

It was also, of course, high time that a woman won, though in the history of the Oscars there have been precious few instances when female directors even had the chance: over 80+ years of Academy Award history, prior to Bigelow, female directors had received a total of three nominations.

A figure this stark clearly indicates that from the outset, film directing has been an overwhelmingly male preserve, particularly here in the U.S. Though opportunities expanded somewhat with the onset of the feminism in 1970s, the male/female ratio still seems decidedly out of whack.

I'll leave it to others more expert and insightful than I to speculate on why men still dominate to such a degree, since I don't pretend to have a complete and informed answer. My gut tells me the reason is complex: not just a question of innate aptitudes, nor one of sustained discrimination, but more likely, a combination of both.

Regardless, in applauding Kathryn Bigelow's historic accomplishment, I can only hope her victory serves to motivate a whole new crop of female filmmakers whose work will help level the playing field further in years to come.

Not that there isn't already an enduring legacy to celebrate. To prove my point, here are ten of my own favorite titles helmed by women over the past fifty years... and let me also be the first to admit this is hardly a comprehensive list.

Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) -- Over the course of a single afternoon, as she awaits the results of a medical exam for cancer, spoiled pop chanteuse Cleo (Corinne Marchand) goes about her routines with an alternately morbid and pouty attitude. But when she meets Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), a kind-hearted soldier on leave, in the park, he has a tranquilizing effect on the ravishing singer's anxiety. With "Cléo," photojournalist-turned-filmmaker Agnes Varda (wife of Jacques Demy) composes an effervescent visual homage to the City of Lights and the modern harried woman, beautifully capturing the faces of everyday Parisians as well as the giddiness of big city life. In a single day, we watch Cléo (real-life model/pop-singer Marchand) negotiate the hustle of modern-day Paris streets and boutiques, collaborate with songwriters (one of whom, Michel Legrand, is the film's composer), visit with friends and a fortuneteller, all the while feeling the gnawing anxiety of her expectant diagnosis. One of the most dizzyingly romantic works of the early New Wave, "Cléo" will sweep you right off your feet. (Also look for brief cameos by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina in the comic silent-film segment.)

Swept Away...By An Unusual Destiny In The Blue Sea Of August (1974) -- Piloting wealthy, entitled Raffaella (Mariangela Melato) around the islands of the Mediterranean, Sicilian cabin boy Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini) is appalled by the gorgeous harridan's haughty airs, brusque treatment of the crew, and unapologetically capitalist political opinions--a tension she is quick to pick up on and cruelly aggravate. But when the two class enemies wind up marooned together on a desert island, the tables turn, and their conflict becomes inflamed with passion. It's true: the 2002 remake of this magnificent film, starring Madonna, was awful. But put that shipwreck out of mind: Lina Wertmuller's provocative original is smarter, more compelling, and ultimately quite devastating, thanks to a force-of-nature performance by the hirsute Giannini, playing a boorish sailor, and Melato's own sexy, brilliant turn as queen bitch of the Mediterranean. As always, director Lina Wertmuller explores class politics through a flagrantly funny, sometimes brutal story of desire and submission, with a lost-in-paradise scenario that gets downright prehistoric when Gennarino gains the upper hand. You'll be "Swept Away" by this rousing drama, shot on location on the sunny blue waters of a Mediterranean isle.

Harlan County, USA (1977) -- A visceral, uncompromising look at one of the bitterest showdowns in American labor history, this documentary tracks the efforts of non-union Kentucky coal miners to win basic human rights from their employer, Eastover Mining Company, over the course of one year. When Eastover brings in gun-toting scabs to replace the beleaguered striking miners, the ugliest fight of all begins. Filmed between 1973 and 1974, Barbara Kopple's groundbreaking work gets up close and personal with the downtrodden rural miners, who are deprived of fair wages and insurance, and forced to shop at the company store. As her roving, restless camera makes plain, Eastover operates in collusion with the Harlan police, who look the other way when its representatives start taking pot shots at miners (and Kopple herself). Few documentaries today have the immediacy, intensity, or militant appeal of this Oscar-winning film, an edge-of-your-seat tribute to a courageous group of hard hats and their families. "Harlan County, USA" is real-life drama of the highest order.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) -- Tracking the ups and downs in the lives of a group of teenagers, this sharp ensemble piece centers mostly on Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a likeable, attractive girl who starts dating confident cad Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) when the true object of her affection, shy Mark (Brian Backer), appears uninterested. Meanwhile, good-natured surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) tortures his teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), with inane questions and a blissfully drugged-out aura. Less well known than "Animal House" but equally worthy of cult status is Amy Heckerling's "Fast Times," a teen sex comedy perceptively penned by future director Cameron Crowe. Beyond its warm and winning script, what elevates "Fast Times" above most teen movies are the infectious performances of its juvenile actors, in particular a young Penn as the perpetually stoned Spicoli. Veteran Ray Walston (from TV's "My Favorite Martian") is also priceless as Spicoli's frustrated teacher.

(1988) -- Penny Marshall's comedy/fantasy concerns Josh Baskin, a boy whose carnival ground wish to be "big" comes true one morning when he wakes up as a young man (Hanks). Telling his incredible secret only to best friend Billy (Jared Rushton), Josh goes out to navigate the adult world, and his native intelligence and refreshingly simple outlook on life win him success. But does Josh want to stay big and miss out on the rest of his childhood- and if not, how can he return to his former life and size? This irresistible film brings off a fantastic premise with warmth and charm. Hanks excels as man-boy Josh, and Robert Loggia is also terrific as the toy magnate who mentors him. But it's John Heard who has a comic field day playing Paul, a suspicious, resentful colleague who loses ground professionally and personally to Josh, as both his boss and girlfriend Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) reject him for this wunderkind who quite literally came out of nowhere. Don't miss the priceless scene where Josh and Susan have their first "sleep-over". A treat for all who are young at heart, or want to be.

Salaam Bombay (1988) -- Penniless and desperate after he's kicked out of his home, 11-year-old Krishna (Shafiq Syed) buys a one-way ticket to Bombay, where he joins a small band of homeless urchins and gets a job delivering tea. Hoping to save some rupees and return home, Krishna befriends a number of hard-luck types, including ailing drug dealer Chillum (Rhagubir Yadav) and "Sweet Sixteen" (Chanda Sharma), a young virgin being sold to the highest bidder. Yet even as he forges theses tenuous connections, his future remains grimly uncertain. Former documentarian Mira Nair's angry, disconsolate, and deeply moving drama about poverty and child homelessness in India was shot on location and stars a cast of non-actors the director recruited from Bombay slums. Like De Sica and other Italian neo-realists, Nair focuses with unblinking tenderness on the blighted lives of her protagonists, juxtaposing Krishna's squalid existence with the lush extravagance of the Bollywood musicals he so enjoys. Great performances, affecting imagery, and a heartbreaking plotline deservedly won "Salaam" worldwide acclaim.

The Piano (1993) -- Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), mute since childhood, travels with young, precocious daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) to a remote part of New Zealand to wed icy farmer Stewart (Sam Neill). A ferociously talented pianist, Ada soon agrees to give music lessons to George Baines (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman living among Maoris, in exchange for his housing the piano her husband would not let her keep, and a strange, erotic passion slowly begins to consume them. Set in the 19th century, Jane Campion's brilliant period tale earns praise for its eccentric storyline and otherworldly, dreamlike atmosphere. Despite never uttering a word, Oscar winner Hunter exudes intelligence and determination as the rebellious Ada, along with a repressed yet combustible sensuality. Anna Paquin is a marvel in her debut, exemplifying the mix of spunk and knowingness that made her a sought-after young star. Visually ravishing and exquisite, "The Piano" is Campion's visually poetic ode to our unspoken emotions.

Boys Don't Cry (1999) -- When 20-year-old Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) moves to tiny Falls City, Nebraska, from Lincoln, all the good-natured kid with a crew cut has to show for himself is a certain way with the ladies. Soon, Brandon gets romantically involved with Lana (Chloe Sevigny), and falls in with a rough crowd, including ex-con John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III). When the guys discover he's actually a woman masquerading as a man, however, a violent confrontation ensues. This gritty, compelling film by debut director Kimberly Peirce examines homophobia, sexual identity, and unconventional love in a small, dead-end town. Based on the real-life story of Brandon Teena (born Teena Brandon) who was murdered in 1993, "Boys" is a first-rate docudrama with a lot on its mind, but Peirce never lets the issues diminish the emotional impact of her story. Swank's unusually brave performance, honored with an Oscar, is gut-wrenching to watch, while art house darling Sevigny breaks your heart as Brandon's love interest. Brutal subject matter, but "Boys" demands to be seen.

Lost In Translation (2003) -- At a hotel bar in contemporary Tokyo, twenty-something Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) meets jaded, middle-aged actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who's in town shooting a high-end whiskey ad for big bucks. All but abandoned by her narcissistic photographer husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), who has brought her to Japan on assignment, Charlotte is bored, unhappy, and vulnerable, and finds an unlikely soul mate in the equally disillusioned Bob. Sofia Coppola's second venture in the director's chair (after "The Virgin Suicides") is a subtle triumph for all concerned--a delightful, quirky film that feels fresh, funny, and slightly otherworldly. As isolated travelers in a wholly foreign place who somehow find each other, Johansson and Murray have a winning chemistry that provides the heady emotional charge of "Lost." Coppola's unique way of photographing the neon-drenched Japanese capital, and her dreamy, atmospheric tone perfectly captures the feeling of being blissfully out of sorts. Spend an evening in the company of Charlotte and Bob, and you'll find yourself thinking: let's get "Lost."

Water (2006) -- When her husband dies in 1938 India, feisty 8-year-old Hindu bride Chuyia (Sarala) is sent to live at an ashram managed by a cruel headmistress, Madhumati (Manorma), who follows the custom of forcing widows to live an ascetic, sheltered life. But almost immediately, the child's befriended by two older women, gorgeous Kaylani (Lisa Ray) and kindly Shakuntula (Seema Biswas), to whom she offers a ray of brightness in a world of lonely deprivation. The third chapter in Deepa Mehta's Elemental Trilogy ("Fire," "Earth"), this extraordinary film has a bleak premise--a child widow forced into a religiously strict lifestyle--but is anything but downbeat. In fact, Mehta, along with her marvelous cast of actors, has created a deeply felt, beautifully stirring film about innocence and privation, morality and romance within the conservative Hindu milieu. Beneath it all, of course, is a pointed critique of a hallowed but obviously inhumane tradition in India. Bollywood actor John Abraham offers excellent support as Kaylani's would-be suitor, Narayan.

(Note: the three other Oscar-nominated directors before Kathryn Bigelow were Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, and Sofia Coppola, all covered above.)

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