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 February’s best new movies in theaters, as well as on home video, directed by women.
Release Date: February 1, 2019
Director: Mitzi Peirone
Someone ought to give Madeline Brewer an award for the work she’s done carving out a niche playing young women either troubled or utterly broken by the circumstances of their lives. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she plays manic, a woman made mad by the crushing psychic weight of patriarchal domination. In Cam she plays a sweet, and playful, and ultimately baffled to the point of, again, madness, camgirl replaced by a malevolent lookalike on her own stream. Now, in Mitzi Peirone’s Braid, she’s somewhere in the middle, mad once more but not so much as a consequence of male intervention. Rather, she’s off her rocker because she’s stuck living out her childhood well into her adulthood, or maybe she’s living out her childhood well into her adulthood because she’s off her rocker.
In Braid, Brewer plays Daphne, wealthy and absolutely bonkers; Sarah Hay and Imogen Waterhouse play her two old friends, Tilda and Petula, whose names invoke the dark whimsies of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and who wish to rob Daphne blind. But Daphne’s lunacy requires patience to pierce, so Tilda and Petula must subject themselves to her twisted make believe games. Braid plays like a Möbius strip, looping back on itself repeatedly, bending audience perception of its events and its objective reality. Whose perspective is the film actually couched in? We’re given cause to eventually question whether Daphne’s the only delusional one, or if Tilda and Petula are just as stuck in arrested development as she is. Frankly, the answer doesn’t much matter, because we’re stuck with them. —Andy Crump
Release Date: February 22, 2019
Director: Claire Simon
“Sit around and listen to French people argue about students of cinema for two hours” sounds like a drag, but Claire Simon’s The Competition doesn’t drag at all. It’s propulsive. Her film condenses the demanding application process at La Fémis, the most prestigious film school in all Paris, into just under 120 minutes, providing only the bare necessities for context and comprehension before launching into a series of tests and interviews, corralled as vignettes. That The Competition’s narrative is so cohesive belies the absence of cohesion in La Fémis’ examinations. The school’s hopefuls number in the hundreds, vying for just 40 slots; the observers in charge of their fates range from theater managers to filmmakers to critics and editors and everything else in between, and they, too, number on such a scale that objectivity becomes a joke.
Maybe that’s as it should be. Film, after all, and arts criticism writ large, is a subjective gig. Watching the observers’ various subjectivities collide turns out to be a hoot at times, a learning experience at others, or just good drama at others still. Surprise: Putting a bunch of French folks in one room and letting their passions and tempers flare makes for good filmgoing!
Simon’s fly-on-the-wall approach functions as an investment in the process, and in the outcome of the process for the select few students we get to meet. There are too many waiting their turn for Simon to chronicle all of them, but those that do make in front of her camera give context and rationality to their seemingly irrational bid for a spot at La Fémis: Cinema, to them, is everything, whatever side of the industry they’re interested in taking. It’s worth the stress of the process. It’s worth the great risk of failure. Simon hasn’t just captured La Fémis’ enrollment philosophy in The Competition, she’s captured its would-be students’ hopes and ambitions, and treated them with loving care. —Andy Crump
Release Date: February 19, 2019 (DVD)
Director: Marielle Heller
Withnail and Sookie St. James make a perilous odd couple, but if you can dip jalapeno peppers in chocolate and get away with it, you can put Richard Grant on the same screen as Melissa McCarthy and make a movie that’s equally as sweet as spicy. The better word, the most accurate word, to describe Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the recently Oscar-nominated movie from The Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller, is “bitter,” but however you qualify the film, it’s a gem: rough around the edges, sharp to the touch, surprisingly warm.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the tale of Leonore Carol “Lee” Israel (McCarthy), celebrity biographer, who in the 1990s found herself broke and so in need of work that she turned to forgery, penning fake letters by dead authors and selling them off to a tidy sum per piece. She’s aided by her friend, Jack Hock (Grant), a bon vivant bordering on sociopathic in his disregard for the severity of Lee’s circumstances. Watching McCarthy in grouch mode is entrancing, not the least because she’s so good at nodding to Lee’s innermost insecurities without ever showing them. No one, at a glance, might guess at what’s happening under Lee’s hood, so distracting are her boozy, pugilistic tendencies. But Lee’s nursing a case of desperation that’s more crippling than a hangover, as well as fear of being left behind by her own industry. Her biographical style is over. People want warts. Lee doesn’t let people see her warts; why the hell would she bother exposing the warts of others?
The writing world doesn’t have any use for a woman who won’t play by the rules set out for her to follow. Men like Tom Clancy get to wear their smugness like a crown and make obscene chunks of change writing crap, but a gifted woman with a bad attitude gets kicked to the curb. It’s the great injustice of Lee’s life. We don’t condone her for making a career change to crime, and yet the crime lets her put her talent to good use, showing up the literary elite as the jackasses they are, and there’s considerable pleasure to derive from watching as Heller stages Lee and Jack as drunken, foul-mouthed, avenging angels, righting the wrongs dealt them through pranks and felonies. The greatest pleasure Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers, though, is the chemical reaction between McCarthy and Grant, perhaps an unlikely pairing but no more perfect a pairing than you will find as we roll out of the juddering doldrums of awards season. —Andy Crump
Release Date: February 15, 2019 (Netflix)
Directors: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek
Comedies about gal pals tend to follow one plot path, in which complications arise in their friendship and they suffer a split, and then reconcile by the end. The Breaker Upperers, a joint collaborative effort by Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek—stars, writers and directors all at once—doesn’t stray from that path, exactly, but Sami and van Beek are smart enough not to reach hard for a reason behind their characters’ inevitable blow-up. Turns out that once upon a rom-com trope, Jen (van Beek) and Mel (Sami) dated the exact same man at the exact same time without either of them knowing it, until they did, and broke up with that man, and started their own business breaking up with people’s significant others for them.
The Breaker Upperers runs on a current of that delightful New Zealand cringe comedy, just as embarrassing and agonizing as cringe comedy in other countries, but with a dose of sweetness and charm to make the chagrin go down easier. It helps to have a solid emotional center, too—nothing saccharine, just good old fashioned human drama, made utterly believable by both Sami’s and van Beek’s chemistry-driven performances and the nature of their characters’ work. Mel’s grown sick of what they do. Jen, not quite the people person, can’t imagine where she’s coming from. Maybe making a career out of ending relationships isn’t the worst thing in the world, but when that career makes it impossible to maintain personal connections and move on with life, maybe find a new career? That’s where the sweetness comes in, and that’s what makes The Breaker Upperers so damn special. —Andy Crump
Release Date: February 5, 2019
Director: Mari Okada
The Iorph people, known as the Clan of the Separated, enjoy life spans centuries beyond humans, living out their days in their remote homeland weaving Hibiol, a unique cloth as well as a written record of time’s passage. When the kingdom of Mezarte invades the Iorph village, wreaking havoc and upon dragons, 15-year-old Maquia (Manaka Iwami) winds up separated from her kin and removed from her home, where she must begin again as an outsider in a land not her own. Her very identity puts her in danger, more so when circumstances lead her to adopt an abandoned human baby. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, a high fantasy epic helmed by the great anime screenwriter and director Mari Okada, thus becomes the story of one girl writing the Hibiol of her life. It’s a fraught life: The film spans years, decades even, and Maquia’s path takes her through wilderness, war, poverty, mourning and constant alienation from all around her—even her surrogate son, Ariel (Miyu Irino), doomed to age and die long before Maquia. Or maybe: She’s doomed to survive him. Neither case sounds pleasant, but Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms reminds us that the pain of loss is proof of life, of memories made and love shared between parents and children. Okada’s a titan in her field. She doesn’t need one more movie under her belt to prove it, but Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms’s ambition, both as narrative and as a demonstration of stunningly fluid, ever gorgeous animation, makes for an impressive entry in her body of work regardless. —Andy Crump