The "52FilmsByWomen" hashtag isn’t a new invention, but in the last few years, and especially 2017, it’s gained increasingly urgent relevance. Created and disseminated by Women in Film, a nonprofit outlet established to "achieve parity and transform culture," the tag translates into a simple pledge: Watch one movie directed by a woman each week for an entire year. Most years, completing that pledge would be the least one could do. Today, it’s a means of pushing back against rampant gender bias in the film industry.
To help those interested in putting their viewing habits to good use, Paste is highlighting some of August’s best new movies in theaters, as well as on home video, directed by women.
Release Date: August 2, 2019 (select cities)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Calling The Nightingale a revenge film sets an expectation of triumph, found in the satisfaction of grim justice done on the unjust. Let it be known that there’s no such catharsis in Jennifer Kent’s followup to her 2014 debut The Babadook. Revenge, while indeed a dish best served cold, tends to be prepared in one of two ways in cinema: with fist-pumping vigor or soul-corroding sobriety. The Nightingale sticks with the recipe for the latter. This is neither a pleasant movie nor a pleasing movie, but it is made with high aesthetic value to offset its unrelenting pitilessness: It’s fastidiously constructed, as one should expect from a director of Kent’s talent, and ferociously acted by her leading trio of Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr and Sam Claflin, respectively playing Clare, an Irish convict driven by rage; Billy, an Aboriginal tracker driven by vengeance; and Hawkins, a British military officer driven by cold ambition and bottomless malice, who’s also Clare’s master and rapist. They’re three peas in a horrible pod, being 1820s Tasmania during the Black War, when English colonists slaughtered Aboriginal Tasmanians to the latter’s near extinction. It’s an altogether dark time in the country’s long history. Thus, The Nightingale is an appropriately dark film—but Kent is too shrewd a filmmaker to argue that Clare’s suffering trumps Billy’s, or to make any equivalency between them. She understands what must happen to fulfill Clare’s part in the story, and what must happen to fulfill Billy’s part. That she’s able to so seamlessly achieve both is an incredible accomplishment. The Nightingale is a far cry from The Babadook on obvious grounds of genre and style, though there are horrors here aplenty: Nightmare beats where Clare dances with Aidan, then with Hawkins and her other attackers. But the film expands on Kent’s interest in women’s stories by telling Billy’s tale alongside Clare’s, and shows once more her gift for making well-tread genre elements feel unique. If The Nightingale denies the traditional satisfactions of revenge cinema, it discovers new ones as well. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Release Date: August 30, 2019
Director: Chanya Button
In most hands, an account of the love affair between Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) would be played straightforwardly as period melodrama. Chanya Button’s treatment modernizes that period setting with a contemporary score from Isobel “Sister of Phoebe” Waller-Bridge: Layering electronic and orchestral elements lets Vita & Virginia point to the past directly from our present, connecting the two eras through song. The effect is subtle, unobtrusive, and yet Waller-Bridge’s work feels so integral to Button’s that the latter doesn’t work as well without the former. At times, the music appears choreographed to what’s seen on screen. Printing presses churn in time with Waller-Bridge’s chorus, a dance shared by the old and the new. Vita & Virginia leans on the new elsewhere, as Debicki is increasingly one of the most talented actresses of the day, while Arterton feels the opposite, a criminally underrated talent in spite of her long, polished résumé (except, perhaps, for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which isn’t polished at all but is no less a delight for it). Button stages scenes where the two stare each other down both up close and from across crowded rooms, but she also gives them space to monologue straight into her camera, reading from letters traded back and forth from one to the other. The idea is simple but profound; history becomes performance, much as Waller-Bridge’s contribution is a performance unto itself. —Andy Crump
Release Date: August 23, 2019 (select cities)
Director: Issa López
It’s possible, even probable, that a portion of Tigers Are Not Afraid’s audience will receive the film as a parable about the current humanitarian crisis unfolding along the U.S.-Mexico border, a clarion call for compassion and decisive legislation to put an end to the suffering inflicted on innocent families fleeing mortal peril and economic repression. Such is the myth of America’s legacy. But Issa López made Tigers Are Not Afraid years ago, before the administration in power escalated the United States’ already appalling immigration policies into full-on decimation. This is not a cry for action. It’s a snapshot of Mexico’s recent history that bleeds into its present day.
Tigers Are Not Afraid molds the sickening consequences of cartel violence on Mexico’s children to fit the shape of folkloric narrative. It’s a fairy tale, and a horror film, though the two tend to go hand-in-hand: Fairy tales point us to the darkness that exists on society’s periphery—or, in this case, occupies society’s center. The world of Tigers Are Not Afraid is made of crumbling walls and whispers, a land of ghosts where children are acclimated to ducking for cover under their desks when bullets interrupt class time. (Another thread to tempt viewers toward forced topical readings.) All the world is horror even before López starts ushering ghosts into the fray.
Estrella (Paola Lara) is one orphan among many in the unnamed border town López has chosen as the film’s location. When she’s given three wishes by her teacher, she immediately asks for her mother to return. Her mother does—but the conditions of her return are fuzzy, so mom resurrects as a hoarse, desiccated revenant. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Shine (Juan Ramón López), also an orphan, but one devoted to keeping his fellow orphaned boys safe on the streets as they outmaneuver cartel thugs and perhaps hope to find justice against them. Estrella and Shine share the screen as sun and moon share the sky, casting the film with light and darkness amidst graffiti-streaked buildings, the threat of death lurking in alleyways and on street corners.
With Tigers Are Not Afraid, López threads the needle through tragedy and hope. This is at once a grim movie, an optimistic movie and a redemptive movie. It’s a welcome reminder that fairy tales and folklore are an essential part of our culture, too. At the most inhuman times, they lay down a path back to humanity. —Andy Crump
Release Date: August 6, 2019 (Blu-ray)
Director: Joanna Hogg
Hogg’s work extends back to the mid-to-late 1980s, when she made her first short film, worked on BBC miniseries, and began directing TV shows. She started making feature movies in 2007 with Unrelated and somewhat steadily continued down that path with Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013). Her latest film is perhaps her best to date, certainly her most personal, and without a doubt one of the year’s most remarkable releases so far. Rooted in her experiences as an artist and based, in part, on entries in her own diary, The Souvenir settles into the perspective of Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), a demure film student in 1980s London prepping for her graduation project, a drama of working-class proportions ringing of kitchen sink realism à la Mike Leigh or Tony Richardson. The question of her credentials, and of whether she has either the right or the perspective to make a film about the hard lives led by Sunderland’s laborers, is raised early on and repeated throughout, both by her professors and her beau, Anthony (Tom Burke). Like Julie, Anthony is possessed of privilege, which makes his comments especially condescending: Who the hell is he to talk to her about privilege in the first place? Admittedly, he has an occasional point, but while these points are made, the movie takes careful, quiet note that every voice critiquing Julie happens to be male. So it goes in a man’s field in a man’s world in the ’80s. Rather than seize on this imbalance to make an argument, Hogg instead lets it serve as fodder for reflection. Timid women on paths of self-discovery recur throughout her filmography, most of all Unrelated, a heartbreaking movie that, much like The Souvenir, takes unexpected turns without telegraphing or forcing them. A hushed, unassuming, intimate movie, Hogg’s latest reminds audiences of the power of cinema by interrogating the definition of cinema itself. Cinema lets people reckon with life (others’ or their own), and it lets them reckon with their privilege (be it their lack or surplus). Julie sees the world as cinema because the world is cinema. Taken together, it all makes this particular Souvenir as close to an instant masterpiece as movies can get. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Release Date: August 6, 2019 (Criterion Blu-ray)
Director: Jane Campion
Janet Frame, New Zealand’s greatest author by seeming consensus, does not actually emerge into authorhood until nearly 2/3rds of the way through An Angel at My Table, New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion’s portrait of Frame’s life and career (which happens to use Frame’s autobiographies as its foundation). For Frame, played by Karen Fergusson, Alexia Keogh and Kerry Fox over the course of childhood, adolescence,and adulthood, respectively, the wait is appropriate: It took about 30 or so years to secure her freedom from the mental institution where she was unjustly detained, as well as to secure her own agency, after all. Campion has no choice but to honor reality, ugly as Frame’s was for so much of her life. She grew up dirt poor in a literal sense, arriving at school visibly grimey; she witnessed horrible domestic abuse; she was shy, struggled with depression in an era where nobody, not even so-called professionals, had a damn clue what that meant. Frame’s is a tough background.
An Angel at My Table does not, however, wallow. In its fashion, it’s actually aspirational. Campion creates scenes of intimacy shared between Frame and her most beloved possessions, her books, gifts handed down to her by her custodians; eventually she seeks them out on her own, realizing that they’re her best route to ditch the bummer hand the universe has dealt her. The film divides her slow, lifelong emancipation from poverty and sadness into chapters, each chapter starring a new actress, orbiting new themes, adopting new styles to match Frame’s maturation on her journey to success and happiness largely unknown to her for much of her existence. There’s an alternating delicacy and firmness to Campion’s hand. In one moment, she acknowledges the unforgiving boundaries of Frame’s upbringing. In the next, she reveals gentler moments to her audience, relief from the strain of the seeming insurmountable difficulties Frame faced at every stage of her growth. And pulling off a film like An Angel at My Table isn’t an easy feat, risking either glorifying a subject’s unflattering circumstances or tipping right into hagiography. Campion wrote the blueprint for how to balance the light and the dark years ago. —Andy Crump