At first glance, these movies have nothing in common. I will confess that I juggled around half a dozen of the films on the new bracket to try and make some sort of comparative sense out of them, and these were the last two I couldn't quite reconcile. As it turns out, they had way more similarities than I ever could've predicted: saturated technicolor, gas-station couture (my FAVORITE KIND of couture!), and a bold new way to approach the depiction of violence in film.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)
Directed by: Cathy Yan
Written by: Christina Hodson, based on the character created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm
Starring: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco
IMDB Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.
"I really wanted to show these women as imperfect human beings, and that they can still be aspirational. They can still be these superheroes, but it doesn’t mean that they have to be perfect. I think that we’re burdened as women with perfection all the time."
Birds of Prey is an aesthetically delicious visual masterpiece with a kinky punch in the stomach to boot. It's like a cupcake with a razor blade in it, equal parts glitter and blood. Ultimately Han deserves all the credit for picking her sidekicks, but much like the movie itself, this was a team effort.
So what do you get when you combine the Production Designer who gave us this....
...With the Costume Designer who gave us this? (That's right, Benach is the woman responsible for Ryan Gosling's ICONIC silver scorpion jacket from Drive).
You get something truly fantabulous, that's what:
Han was highly praised for her depiction of violence in the film, and rightly so - no, not the 10,000 (or more) bone-crunching, leg-breaking, knee-knockers (seriously, SO many legs and balls were broken in this movie that I legit lost count) - but her deft hand when it came to dealing with violence against women. It's a razor sharp line between sensationalizing brutality against women and allowing room for equal-opportunity violence, especially when you're a woman (and WOC at that) making a super hero movie.
On the one hand, these women are badass and we WANT to see them get bruised and dirty and sweaty, otherwise it's not a fair fight and there's no point watching. On the other hand, I do not relish the thought of being forced to see a woman get the shit beaten out of her by a group of the super villain's henchman, especially if they're going to try and make it look sexy. The solution? A DANCE NUMBER, OBVIOUSLY.
The first time I saw a move like this was in 2011's Sucker Punch - right before the first hit, cut to your heroine dancing in a larger-than-life, dazzling musical masterpiece. We'll know the beating is done with the music ends, and not only is this a psychologically accurate depiction of the disassociation that often accompanies moments of violent trauma, it lets the audience know what's happening without forcing us to desensitize ourselves while watching it.
What a brilliant, creative, and powerful way to tell a necessary part of the story. Because there's nothing sexy about a woman getting beaten up... But there is something very sexy about a woman who's gotten beaten up having her revenge.
And what a BALLSY move to have Robbie sing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend!" Not only did it make totally Quinn-esque tongue-in-cheek sense, it both paid homage to and reinvented Nicole Kidman's similar number in Moulin Rouge! Not an easy feat to pull off, but it would appear that walking the line is Cathy Han's super power.
Queen & Slim (2020)
Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Written by: Lena Waithe & James Frey
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya & Jodie Turner-Smith
IMDB Synopsis: A couple's first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.
"I didn’t really feel like I grew up seeing two dark-skinned people fall in love on screen. I had never really seen that connection between two people who looked like our Queen and Slim, like Jodie and Daniel. I really wanted to be part of redefining what black beauty – well, beauty – means. I also think about when I went to film school and they said: “Hey, casting a black woman as your lead won’t be profitable.”
Never heard of Matsoukas before? Chances are, you've seen her work: this was her first feature, but she's been directing music videos for years. Matsoukas was the visionary genius behind Rihanna's We Found Love and Beyoncé's Formation (for which she won a Grammy), amongst others. And while I'm singing the praises of under-appreciated womxn genius, a moment of highly deserved acknowledgement is due to the other creative goddesses on this project: (LENA WAITHE I AM SO FUCKING IN LOVE WITH YOU OH MY GOD)
Starting this bracket has made me extremely analytical (and self-conscious) about paying attention to what I really like in a movie. Each time I've watched a film like this, I instinctively yell out at least half a dozen times: "See! I do like slow movies! I am not a Michael-Bay-watching-ADD-rube!" I don't mind a slow pace, as long as what I'm looking at is visually beautiful, and as long as I know that we are going somewhere. By all means, take your time getting there: but don't fucking take me on a road trip to nowhere (MEEK'S GODDAMN CUTTOFF). That being said... I've never watched a movie quite like this.
The way the characters were revealed through small but meaningful details, the way they were racing to a destination while taking their time, the way tension was built slowly and brutally towards an inevitable and tragic end... It all just worked for me. The music, the lighting, the color, the texture, they all richly wove this quiet masterpiece together. You can definitely see the influences of Matsoukas' music video background, but to quote de Wilde: "Why shouldn't a sad movie also be beautiful?"
Apparently Matsoukas received some criticism for her handling of violence in this, but I completely disagree. When you're discussing police brutality, it would be a disservice to the audience and the story if it were anything less than brutal. That being said, there is a world of difference between the gratuitous depiction of brown and black bodies being victimized (something Katheryn Bigelow's Detroit was condemned for; you'll notice she is nowhere near my fucking bracket) and meticulously crafting a story that includes violence as a narrative thread but does not condone, glorify, redeem, or sensationalize it. Matsoukas does not negotiate with violence, nor does she deny where it comes from.
It was smart (and ballsy) for Waithe to write a story in which a black man uses violence as self-defense against a white cop, and then also include: a black cop who helps them out, a white veteran who tries to help despite his wife's resistance, a black cop who gets shot, and a black man who sells them out. Make no mistake, this was not a socially defensive tactic - there is not one fucking echo of "Not All Cops" or "All Lives Matter" here (nor should there fucking be). Waithe is an emotionally intelligent and intensely passionate writer who fully bears the burden of how multi-layered an issue this is.
But at the same time, the "issue" isn't that complicated at all: if a white couple had been pulled over by that cop, there wouldn't be a movie at all. That truth remains constant, and burns long after the movie is done.
And the winner is...
These just keep getting harder and weirder. How do I compare a ring pop with a pack of cigarettes? A hyena with a turquoise Catalina? Two broken legs with a shot in the heart? Roger Ebert can't help me here, because I already know full well that both of these films accomplished EXACTLY what each of them set out to do. In that respects, they are equals.
...But in every other category that matters, Queen & Slim was an unparalleled masterpiece. This one will stick with me for a long, long time.
Holy shit, only 8 more movies left!!!!!!!!!!!!
FIRST OF ALL: I just have to say that I am A HILARIOUS GENIUS for pairing these two movies together because they're actually both incredibly similar and serve as iconic time capsules for their respective eras. They both have a LOT going for them, so this is going to be another really hard (and sad) bracket to break down. WHY DO I DO THIS TO MYSELF?
A League of Their Own (1992)
Directed by: Penny Marshall
Written by: Kim Wilson, Kelly Candaele, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel
Starring: Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell
IMDB Synopsis: Two sisters join the first female professional baseball league and struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry.
"I have a strange combination of fearlessness and massive insecurity."
So I don't even know how this is possible, but I have SOMEHOW NEVER SEEN THIS MOVIE?! It was SO good! I don't even know where to begin! Just kidding, I do:
1) LORI FUCKING PETTY!!!!!!!!! If you know anything about me at all, it should be that I FUCKING LOVE TANK GIRL. So yeah, I lost my shit when I found out she was the HEART AND SOUL OF THIS MOVIE. I get why they had to put Geena Davis and Madonna on the poster, but come on! It's Tank Girl!!!!
2) Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna being HILARIOUS!!! And surprisingly sex-positive for '92??
3) ...Like that moment when Madonna goes to church and blows the priest's goddamn mind! 😂
4) Geena Davis being a straight up BDE BABE, including her palpable sexual tension with Tom Hanks (which I wanted more of! Leave Bill Pullman! Play baseball forever! Marry your drunk coach! Wow I'm projecting here!)
5) DRUNK TOM HANKS!??!?! HAHAHA!!! Why has he never played a character like this again??? He is SO GOOD AT IT!!! I know I'm supposed to be focusing on the ladies and feminism of it all, but TOM HANKS STOLE MY HEART AND THE SHOW.
This movie was truly very well made. It managed to utilize all of the expected and familiar sports movie tropes, while still managing to feel fresh, funny, and relevant (even now!). It occasionally drifted into the territory of early-90s over fraught sentimentality, but it's hard not to when you're making a movie about a real event and those events happen to be sentimental. I loved that each of the women - even the more minor characters - were fully formed and believable and lovable; they were feminine and awkward and promiscuous and loud and brash and they felt like real women. And yeah, I loved that the little sister got to win (BECAUSE YOU NEVER SEE THAT! Can you tell I'm a little sister?).
Written & Directed by: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart
IMDB Synopsis: Inspired by the viral New York Magazine article, Hustlers follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.
"That was part of the beauty of making this movie. I was excited to look at these women close up — from the neck up — and in ways that maybe we aren’t used to looking at them."
If I had one complaint, it would be with some of the writing. There were a few lines that were just a little too contrived, and the relationship between Constance Wu and the journalist (Julia Stiles) became a little awkward as the plot moved forward. Wu keeps interrupting herself to say things like, "I shouldn't even be telling you this! You're going to perpetuate the stigma that strippers face every day! I'm not gonna say one more thing." Then Stiles would blink and Wu would be like "You're right never mind where was I..."
I get that the whole plot was centered around Wu's flashbacks while she was reiterating them to the journalist and therefore had no choice but to keep talking to her/ the audience, but methinks the lady doth protest too much. Scarafia kind of wrote herself into a corner on that one.
But besides that? This movie hit a lot of key points. Scarafia managed to create the Big Dick Energy of vintage Scorcese at his best, with the fur coats and the diamonds and the hookers and the blow - but this time it's from the hooker's point of view.
I was paying very close attention, and I believe there is only one moment where you ever see just a close-up part of a woman's body onscreen. Scarafia was meticulous when it came to training the audience's eye: you never forgot that these bodies were attached to faces, that these women were people too. Unlike every salacious music video I ever saw growing up in the 90's, it was impossible to objectify these characters as mere disembodied parts.
Also... JENNIFER FREAKING LOPEZ IS FIFTY AMERICAN YEARS OLD and her pole-dancing scenes (there are exactly 2 of them) must not be undermined as simple eye candy or gratuitous T & A: they are remarkable, astounding, Olympic feats of strength and grace. Is it sexy? Of course it fucking is, it's a pole dance routine! It's supposed to be. But this is the Anti-Slut-Shame Movie of the Year, and you never forget who's in charge. Her body, her choice, y'all:
And the winner is...
I'll tell you what, these sure aren't getting any easier. A League of Their Own is a timeless classic and it is so, so good. And Hustlers might not stand the test of time as an iconic movie I want to show my nieces someday, but it started a conversation about The Female Gaze (and contributed to the vital one about sex-positivity) that I think we will begin to see more and more of as long as we keep putting women behind the camera. Marshall paved the way for it, and filmmakers like Scarafia will just keep taking it further and making it bigger.
In retrospect, it would've made more sense for this to be a challenge between Lady Bird and Booksmart (a Beanie Feldstein double feature, hell yeah!). But I've seen Lady Bird at least 4 times and I HADN'T EVEN SEEN THE NEW LITTLE WOMEN yet, so it had to be this way.
That being said, prepare to be shook...
Little Women (2019)
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Written by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet
IMDB Synopsis: Jo March reflects back and forth on her life, telling the beloved story of the March sisters - four young women, each determined to live life on her own terms.
"I've never had a plan. I've always done things from instinct."
Before I can talk about Gerwig's Little Women, it is paramount that I adequately express how critically fundamental this story was to my upbringing: I am the youngest of three daughters. I grew up obsessively watching The Original (I know there are a dozen versions, but this is how I will refer to the 1994 one starring Winona Ryder). Jo March invented the iconic "Tomboy Writer" that I spent the rest of my adolescence trying to emulate, and she was my goddamn hero. I cannot emphasize this enough. To be honest, I really put off watching this one because 1) I really like Gerwig, and 2) The Original holds such a dear and significant place in my heart that I was extremely reticent to believe any reiteration could possibly hold so much as a candle to it.
Please observe Exhibit A: Is that Baby Sarah playing Jo March in the high school play??? OH YOU KNOW IT IS.
So prepare the tar and feather, folks, because I'm sorry to say I was right. Gerwig's might've been better than my sophomore debut, but it did not succeed my expectations. NOW LET ME EXPLAIN: This was ALWAYS going to be a battle of Gerwig vs. The Original. So let's break it down as such.
What Worked For Me:
1) Emma Watson as Meg: I'll tell you what, I had to look up who even played Original Meg (it's Trini Alverado?) because except for the iconic hair-curl incident (SO glad they kept that) I don't remember her at all. Watson was, as always, fresh and bold and interesting. She was more than just the example of domesticity, she was a woman who consciously chose "love in a cottage," as Aunt March puts it, instead of the simpler (and safer) choice of marrying for money (and what a great foil this is for the other sisters).
I love that Gerwig chose to show us how this was not always easy for Meg - she still struggles with wanting more - but that those struggles come with a desire that is more pure and more complicated than just immature vanity. And despite how hard it is at times, she is still ultimately glad with her choice.
I was actually reminded of Julia Stiles in Mona Lisa Smile, when Julia Roberts confronts her that being barefoot and pregnant isn't the "feminist" choice: "Isn't that kind of the point of feminism, though? That the woman gets to choose what she wants? Because this is what I want."
2) Beth! God bless Baby Claire Danes, but Gerwig did succeed in actually giving Beth a personality (albeit a exhaustively precious one. Why is she playing with dolls when she's like 16??). She was more than a cardboard cutout, even if it was only in her significance to other characters. Hardly a Bechdel success, but then again I've never been the biggest Claire Danes fan (I know, I know, we can tar and feather me for that later. Sorry, but chin wobbling is not an emotion!) And after watching Eliza Scanlen in the Sharp Objects adaptation, I am excited to see where this little firey one goes.
3) Amy, Amy, Amy. This one is kind of a tie, because NO ONE can compete with Baby Kirsten Dunst setting fire to Jo's book. And I'm sorry, but WHERE was the clothespin on the nose, Greta?? Where was it??
That being said... I simply cannot get enough of Florence Pugh. I could watch her lick envelopes and be on the edge of my seat. She is unique and fascinating and I am obsessed with her round face and husky voice and regal composure and captivating, never-ending inner monologue. I actually didn't mind that Gerwig chose to make them all teenagers much closer in age in the "past" scenes - it certainly made the Amy/Laurie romance later on significantly less awkward, abrupt, and off-putting than the '94 version - but I wish Pugh (who was 23 during filming) had played her like more of a 15 year old instead of a 12 year old. For that reason, Baby Amy award goes to Kirsten, but Pugh blows Dunst out of the goddamn water with her take on Adult Amy. I enjoyed how Gerwig played Amy and Jo off each other - both constantly thinking the other has it better - and their competition was perfectly layered with the genuine affection and jealousy that real sisters share. And my god, Pugh earned that Oscar nom with every syllable of that two-sentence speech on marriage and economics.
4) Now a name that might not be as familiar to you but definitely should be... Jacqueline Durran. She was the Oscar-winning Costume Designer, and you might recognize her other work from such films as Atonement, Pride & Prejudice (2005), Anna Karenina, & Beauty and the Beast (to be clear, I don't think being nominated for or winning an Oscar is the end-all be-all pinnacle of success... but it's hardly the worst indication of exceptional talent either).
Period costumes can be tough. They are little works of art, and it takes a delicate nuance to make them feel realistic and lived-in; beautiful, but not distracting. These costumes were orchestrated to look like real outfits, and Durran succeeded in making the actors actually look comfortable in them. They didn't sit on their bodies like high-end couture or ill-fitting community theatre hoop skirts; they looked natural AND beautiful, which is one of MY FAVORITE COMBINATION OF THINGS. (Also of note: the delicate and fresh score by Alexandre Desplat).
5) Finally, the aesthetics in general were gorgeous. From the costumes to the music to the cinematography (Yorick Le Saux), this film was undeniably beautiful. Along that note, the way in which Gerwig and Le Saux worked together to capture the sheer frenzy that exists in a house full of girls was so spot on. The constant chatter, the whirl of clothes and costumes, the bickering, the wrestling, the giggling, the warmth; it was familiar and beautiful and straight up Gilmorian in the best way possible.
"I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body... Because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
"It's really hard to get stories made that are about women. Not just women being obsessed with men, or supporting men. And it's really hard to get men to be a part of films that are about women in a leading role. I'm really interested in how we can adjust that."
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"The star ratings are relative, not absolute. If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his [OR HER!] audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose."
"When her arthritis got so bad that she needed a cane, Autumn de Wilde didn’t just pick one up at the pharmacy. She went to a 19th century Victorian umbrella shop in London and told the shopkeeper: “I need your weirdest cane.”
“Check this out,” she said, unscrewing the top of the French walking stick, supposedly modeled after one once owned by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Inside was a thin vial containing Japanese whiskey, bookended by a couple of shot glasses. “These need a little wash, because we’ve partaken recently. It actually only holds a shot, which is so disappointing. I thought it was so much more when I bought it.”
The idea of following standard protocol is anathema to De Wilde. Every day, she dresses in a uniform — some version of a suit with a broad-brimmed felt hat. (She says her style is a mix of Paddington Bear and Oscar Wilde.)"
- Amy Kaufman, The LA Times
“One of the things I was most struck by that seemed very intimately her is her female gaze on men and romance. When you look back through at the men she has photographed, she’s not afraid to take in what’s beautiful about a man’s body — this is how he’s childlike but also tough.... I just think it’s interesting in this moment, when you wonder what have we been missing — it’s a different way to see men. Of course we’ve missed women’s voices and stories, but men have missed out on a certain kind of tenderness that someone like Autumn can give. It’s interesting to think there may be some healing in that.” - Miranda July
"I just wanted to do something about the teenage experience; it's such a wonderful and horrible time of life."
“De Wilde, however, views “Emma” as an offering of levity during a period of political unrest that makes us feel “like we’re all being bullied.” And she takes issue with those who view films with ornate scenery — like those of Wes Anderson, one of her creative inspirations — as pure fluff.
"I mean, have people seen ‘Moonlight’? There’s so much color in that movie, and it’s genius. It’s a strange idea that movies about pain and struggle should have color removed from them,” she said. “I don’t know why it’s been assigned to extravagance. I don’t walk into a pastry shop in Paris and go, ‘Why are all these colors here?’ I go, ‘That’s delicious, and I want to eat it.’ How it looks is part of the story.”
- Amy Kaufman, The LA Times
"You can never have too much butter – that is my belief. If I have a religion, that's it."
- Named after the heroine in A Doll's House by Ibsen
- Applied to work as a writer for Newsweek in the early 60s but wasn't allowed to because she was a WOMAN. She later filed a class action lawsuit against them for sexual discrimination (and won!)
- She was nominated for Oscars for Best Original Screenplay for Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, & Sleepless in Seattle
"We don't want to be our own niche. We're filmmakers like everybody else. How many years in a row are we going to talk about the fact that we make films and we are women? Enough already."
- Got her start as a PA on The Price is Right
- Her first feature, Private Benjamin, was turned down by almost every producer in Hollywood, because no one believed a film with a female lead could make money (and, let's be real, it was written by a woman too). However it became one of the biggest box office hits of 1980, grossing nearly $70 million in total, AND was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, and both lead actresses earned Oscar noms as well.
“The question I’ve had for most of my life is, ‘How are you coping?’ ...Some people have these small, positive schemes for survival, a kind of strength that I am attracted to, maybe because I’m prone to the blues.”
- Jewish, queer, experimental filmmaker from Boston
- Her casting of Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone proved to be breakout, career-making performances for both actresses
"Now, it’s not just female filmmakers making romantic comedies, but there are female filmmakers across the board. It’s no longer a realm for women that’s impossible."
- From Brisbane, Australia
- Initially pursued acting because she "wasn't aware that women could direct movies."
- Was inspired to direct after watching Lars Von Triers Dancer in the Dark and wrote to him asking if she could apprentice with him... and he said yes!!
- She went on to work under him on the set of his next film, Dogville in 2002
- In 2005 she directed her first short, Monster, which she later adapted into her debut feature Babadook
- Made a short film about the case of Brandon Teena (a transgender man who was brutally raped and murdered) for her final thesis project at the University of Chicago. She moved up to Falls City, Nebraska, to interview Lana (Brandon's girlfriend) and her mother, as well as attend the trials of Brandon's murderers. It was this short film that garnered her attention from producers seeking to make it a feature.
- Two years later - after working multiple jobs to help fund it - Peirce was able to make Boys Don't Cry starring Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny. Sevigny was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and Swank took home the Oscar for Best Actress that year (beating Winona Ryder's exceptional performance in Girl, Interrupted).
- From Wellington, NZ
Has no formal film training, but trained herself by adapting screenplays from her favorite books (which her mother would type up for her, cute!)
- Whale Rider was her first feature film to direct, and earned Keisha Castle-Hughes an Oscar nomination
- She went on to direct Charlize Theron in North Country, who also received an Oscar & Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress
- Her adaptation of Mulan (2020) makes her part of Disney's "$100M Women's Club" along with Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle in Time) and Anna Boden (Captain America) - they are the only three women to ever be hired by Disney to direct a feature film with a budget of +$100 million.
“I’ve got a reputation for being difficult,” she says, “and yet with my crew and my cast, I’m super-collaborative and we get on really well, and they like working with me. So to me that always feels like bullshit. You’re doing a tough job, where you’re the captain of the ship, and there’s always tough decisions to make, and sometimes you’ve just got to go, ‘That’s not right for this’. You’ve got to stick up for what you believe in. If you don’t do that, you’re doing a disservice to the audience, because you’re making something really diluted.
And if you do that when you’re a guy, you’re seen as artistic – “difficulty” is seen as a sign of genius. But it’s not the same for women. It’s a tough industry, and if you’re a woman it’s harder, whether you like it or not.” - The Guardian