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 November’s best new movies in theaters, as well as on home video, directed by women.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Director: Marielle Heller
One of the best things about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is how stubbornly it resists what you think it is going to be. Sure, this isn’t an exposé of Fred Rogers: In this telling, he’s kindly and pure—but the film never lets that be the end of it. The easy piety of the public perception of Mr. Rogers, the idea that you can simply Be Kind and stick to that platitude and that will be enough, is one the movie roundly rejects. Rogers himself is elusive, mysterious, but he’s also palpable and tangible: He exists in our physical realm and runs into the same challenges the rest of us do, sees the same pain and strife as everyone else. In fact, Mr. Rogers is not the main character of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The protagonist is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, playing a fictionalized version of writer Tom Junod), a highly successful magazine journalist and new father who is cynical about the world and crippled with rage at his alcoholic father (Chris Cooper) for leaving his mother when she was dying of cancer. His editor (a charming, much-missed Christine Lahti) assigns him a short 400-word profile for the magazine’s “Heroes” edition of Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, of course), and the two men meet and talk. You think the film is going to go in a familiar direction from then on, with the cynic journalist having his heart warmed by the human kindness (that word again) of this American hero. And it does, a little. But the movie is more willing to get its hands dirty than that. It wants to put in the work. The film is anchored in Hanks’ inherent goodness and likability as Rogers: He might be too big and too urgent to truly capture Rogers, but he captures the calmness of Rogers, that sense of total presence in the moment. The movie argues not that we should all be like Mr. Rogers, but that when tragedy hits us, and anger envelopes us, we must strive for grace wherever we can find it. The movie is tougher, and more rigorous, and more interested in the hard work of healing than empty slogans. It is true to the spirit of Mr. Rogers without every deifying him. I bet he would have loved it. —Will Leitch / Full Review
Release Date: November 8, 2019
Director: Alma Har’el
Honey Boy, to the ear, rings of stunt filmmaking, a redemption tale for freeing Shia LaBeouf from actor prison. In his case, “prison” is more a matter of public opinion than actual industry cancellation, but the truth is that Honey Boy is the truth: LaBeouf wrote the film’s screenplay as part of his rehab treatment after flying so far off the rails over the course of the decade, and in turn the screenplay wound up in the hands of Israeli-American filmmaker Alma Har’el. She sees, in LaBeouf’s story, a portrait of tormented American manhood, passed down like a volatile heirloom from father to son. In turn, she approaches the telling delicately, with compassion and even love for James (LaBeouf), the father, and empathy for Otis, the son, alternately played by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges as Har’el cuts from past to present and back again.
There’s harsh, guiding realism in Honey Boy, no better articulated than in one key moment where Jupe plays interpreter for James and his mother (voiced by Natasha Lyonne) in a shouting match staged by phone. Caught between James in person and mom in his ear, young Otis does what he does best—performing—as he dictates his parents’ words to one another. The scene cuts deep. Imagining boys and girls like Otis, forced to play referee between squabbling guardians, is made easy by the frankness of Har’el’s filmmaking. But she uses actual realism as a path toward magical realism, the aesthetic in which she resolves the movie, and in so doing resolves Otis’s (and LaBeouf’s) complicated feelings toward dad. Honey Boy is undoubtedly a redemptive film, but it isn’t redemptive at the expense of honesty and accountability. This is perhaps the best apology for bad behavior any celebrity captured in headlines has ever offered, and an extraordinary act of self-examination. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Varda by Agnès
Release Date: November 20, 2019
Director: Agnès Varda
“Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love.” There’s no better summary of Agnès Varda as a filmmaker, as a visual artist, as a humanitarian, and simply as a human. Think of Varda by Agnès as its namesake’s Blackstar: A parting salvo cast upon the world, her way of saying “bon voyage,” giving the final word on her life and times to no one but herself. Few people get to choose the terms on which they leave this world. Varda being Varda, she negotiated her own terms in a deal that makes Death look like a chump. This is her valediction, immutable, and without a pause given for objections or corroboration, except when she allows. And so, Varda by Agnès functions on a familiarity spectrum: If you know her work back to front, then the film feels like a chance to stroll through her oeuvre, Agnès at your side as your personal guide. If you know nothing of Varda’s work save for the names of her movies, then this is a terrific introduction, not only to the movies themselves but to Agnès: Her spirit, her aesthetic, her philosophy. It’s Varda 101, taught only as Varda can. Film is for everyone. Film is by everyone. Varda was, and in memory still is, one of the great champions of film as a communal experience. Varda by Agnès lets the artist tie up loose threads on her life, and lets audiences bask in the warmth of her egalitarianism. —Andy Crump
Release Date: November 12, 2019 (Blu-ray)
Director: Lulu Wang
Family, falsehood and farce: all the comforts expected of a funeral—when the funeral isn’t a funeral but a wedding. Yes, two people do end up getting p= married, but no one cares about matrimony as much as saying goodbye to the family matriarch, stricken by a diagnosis with an inevitably fatal outcome. Here’s the trick: No one told her about it. She thinks all of the hoopla is just about the bride and groom to be. The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s sophomore film, is many things. It’s a meteoric leap forward from the tried-and-true rom-com formula of her debut, Posthumous. It’s a story made up of her own personal roller coaster of loss. It’s a neat and, 26 years after the fact, unexpected companion piece to Ang Lee’s underappreciated masterpiece The Wedding Banquet. Mostly, it’s a tightrope walk along the fine line between humor and grief.
Chinese-American Billil (Awkwafina) travels to China to see her grandmother (Zhao Shuzen) one last time, as grandma’s just received a death sentence in the form of terminal lung cancer, but the clan keeps mum because that’s just what they’d do for anybody. A wedding is staged. Cousins and uncles and aunts are convened. Masks, the metaphorical kind, are donned. Wang knows how to find the perfect tonal sweet spot from scene to scene in a sterling example of having one’s cake while also eating with gusto. With exceptions, moments meant to be uncomfortable and prickly on the surface are hilarious beneath, and moments meant to make us laugh tend to remind the viewer of the situation’s gravity. It’s perfect alchemy, yielding one of 2019’s most intimate, most painful and most satisfyingly boisterous comedies. —Andy Crump
Release Date: November 19, 2019
Directors: Amanda Kopp, Aaron Kopp
It never hurts to be reminded of how powerful storytelling actually is. Not in an airy, abstract way, but: empirically, emphatically and literally. Which stories we tell and how we tell them—these are profoundly powerful choices that can do anything from spark a war to help that war’s survivors regain the ability to trust the world they live in. Story can influence health outcomes and lifespan, resiliency and self-empowerment, social and political change and, sure, stuff that’s more abstract and mystical than any of that. For a moving example of this, check out Liyana, a part-documentary, part-animated children’s story executive produced by Thandie Newton and set in Swaziland, where there are prodigious numbers of orphaned children, largely because it has the highest HIV infection rate on Earth. In a children’s home in a rural part of the small nation, a children’s book author, Gcina Mhlophe, comes in to help a group of orphaned kids write a story of their own, one that’s collaborative and involves a hero’s journey. The film documents the process and also tells that story, with animation cells, in the voices of the young authors. The titular character of Liyana has no special powers or supernatural enhancements. She is a skinny human girl without much of anything but the kind of reluctant bravery we develop when we understand the consequences of not doing anything will be harder to live with than the consequences of doing something. She could be any of these kids and indeed she is all of them. It’s a simple enough act, writing a fiction. Actually there’s nothing simple about writing stories; it’s really hard. That’s why it is necessary, and heroic, and powerfully healing. —Amy Glynn / Full Review