The "52FilmsByWomen" hashtag isn’t a new invention, but in the last few years 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 May’s best new movies on home video directed by women:
Release Date: May 8, 2020
Director: Lara Gallagher
Stars: Otmara Marrero, Sydney Sweeney, Sonya Walger, Will Brittain
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Runtime: 90 minutes
Silhouettes in Lara Gallagher’s Clementine signify power dynamics; blacked-out bodies stare down at bodies cast in light, ominous and dominating, the former carrying on a cycle of women adopting authoritative stances against other women. That the film dramatizes this toxicity in romantic relationships only is telling and deeply painful, and makes Gallagher’s work essential viewing. When Karen (Otmara Marrero) drives to the remote lakeside house owned by her ex, D. (Sonya Walger, heard mostly in voiceover until a brief appearance toward the end), she makes unexpected acquaintances with an enigma, Lana (Sydney Sweeney), who lives at a neighboring home. The two slowly start to bond, even though Lana’s nature hints at secrets buried beneath her performative naivety. Much like Karen’s attachment to D., her flirtations with Lana are decidedly unhealthy, and muddled by the presence of Beau (Will Brittain), a handyman tasked with work on the lake house (and possibly monitoring Karen on D.’s behalf). Clementine uses its soundtrack of quiet, echoing percussion and off-kilter plot development to cast its coming of age tropes in the cloak of a thriller: At any moment there’s a feeling that the axe could fall, or the revolver in D.’s desk drawer could be fired. Lana’s innocent veneer is a cover for innocence lost, or innocence that never was, and Clementine takes Karen down that rabbit hole with unsettling grace. —Andy Crump
Release Date: May 29, 2020
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Zoe Chao, Eddie Izzard, Bill Pullman, Diplo
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Runtime: 113 minutes
The entertainment industry is not kind to women over 40. Often movies, including the recent biopic Judy, love to tell the story of an aging star clinging to her (it’s almost always her) last grasps of fame. Oh, let’s all look on her with pity. How sad that she cannot accept her fate and fade gracefully away. Delightfully, The High Note is not that kind of movie. Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a megastar. Yes she’s over 40 with no recent hits, but she still performs to sold-out crowds and is coming off her extremely successful tenth world tour. Caesars Palace wants to lock her in for a decade-long residency. The movie doesn’t necessarily view a Vegas residency as selling out, but it’s definitely not a desired outcome (sorry Mariah, Celine, et. al.), and she is also keenly aware that only five women over the age of 40 have ever had a number one hit. Enter Grace’s assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), or Margaret as Grace insists on calling her: a walking encyclopedia of music trivia, but what Maggie really wants to do is produce and she’s secretly produced an alternate version of Grace’s live album. Happily, a burgeoning romance takes a backseat to the main thrust of the story—the friendship and working rapport between Grace and Maggie. Professional fulfillment for both Grace and Maggie is the crux of the conflict. How often does a movie just allow a woman’s career aspirations to take center stage? Light, fluffy and sugarcoated, The High Note feels like a throwback to another time when studios produced movies with the sole purpose of putting a little spring in viewer’s step. That we would all leave the movie theater (or, as is the case now, the virtual movie theater) smiling. That also makes it seem a little more like a Hallmark movie and less like a major theatrical release, but it still comes close to dependably hitting the right note, even if it doesn’t quite end on the high. —Amy Amatangelo
Release Date: May 19, 2020 (Criterion Blu-ray)
Director: Dorothy Arzner
Stars: Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Runtime: 90 minutes
Not many women working in 1940s Hollywood had opportunities like Dorothy Arzner did with Dance, Girl, Dance, in every sense: Women didn’t get to direct pictures all that often, and they certainly didn’t get to direct pictures about gender intersecting with power structures in male-defined industries. Arzner achieved both goals with Dance, Girl, Dance, a comedy-drama set in the world of dance and in which frenemies Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles, a.k.a. Tiger Lily White (Lucille Ball), engage in covert competition with one another for auditions, for work and for male attention.
Bubbles is a fucking terrible friend. She gets Judy a job, sure, but a job working as her stooge, performing ballet on stage while garments are loosed from above and dropped on her head to entertain an audience full of sweaty, corpulent pigs, plus a few braying jackasses. Bubbles gets the satisfaction of humiliating her pal and also knowing that she can drive a crowd of men wild with little more than a sway of her hips and a twist of her lips. Ball is terrific here, and unsurprisingly the flashier performer compared to O’Hara. By comparison, O’Hara is more muted, but as Ball acts through her smile, O’Hara acts through her eyes, and we’re drawn in by her sympathetic projection.
The only reason these women have to go head to head with each other so ruthlessly in the first place is because dance is a biz curated by guys, who prize hubba-hubba sexuality over actual talent. Guess who has the former and who has the latter? Arzner, just like her stars, knows exactly what she’s doing here, and despite the film’s critical reassessment in the ’70s, Dance, Girl, Dance feels like a discovery even today. —Andy Crump
Year: May 6, 2020 (Netflix)
Director: Nadia Hallgren
Runtime: 89 minutes
There seem to be two goals of Netflix’s new Michelle Obama documentary—first, to humanize (or normalize) the former First Lady of the United States as she embarks on a countrywide book tour (for her bestseller of the same name), and second, to reinforce the idea that Michelle Obama is a woman necessarily and eternally concerned with race and racism in America, particularly for Black women. The first goal is achieved, almost as much as it can be, and the personal stories and appearance of family members like her mother and brother are the strongest part of the Becoming experience. The second goal is a little more complicated, largely due to the fact that Michelle Obama occupies a strange space as a figure who is neither a politician, nor an activist—but who often presents like one or the other. Nadia Hallgren’s film is an attempt at a portrait of a lady seemingly on fire, now that she’s “free at last.” In an early scene, Obama and billionaire Oprah Winfrey laugh as they candidly discuss the relief that came with the end of her time in the White House. Becoming is about the “liberation” of Michelle Obama, and it takes care to remind us of all that she endured on the road to the White House. There’s a hollowness sometimes echoed in Obama’s celebrity interviews (on her press tour, she sits down with the likes of Oprah, Stephen Colbert, Gayle King and Reese Witherspoon), but something far more interesting happens when Obama is working as a mentor. In several scenes, she sits down with small groups—groups of Black women, young female students, Native American students in Arizona, and older black women in the church. In one especially compelling scene, we go home with Shayla, a teen in one of the groups, and we get to know the women who are inspired by Obama’s story of becoming. Watching a young black girl, giddy as she imitates the former First Lady’s walk down a hall, we get the sense that the mere experience of being in the same space as Obama will change some of these girls forever. They light up the screen in this documentary; they are the true stars, and they bring the real magic to this story. —Shannon M. Houston
Release Date: May 5, 2020 (Blu-ray)
Director: Issa López
Stars: Juan Ramón López, Paola Lara
Genre: Horror, Drama
Runtime: 83 minutes
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. As such, 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