An Academy of One's Own
Oscar nominations were released this week, meaning that once again films directed by women were underrepresented among the major award contenders. To be fair, the Academy has made strides in diversifying its membership, and the nominees reflect this to a certain extent. Among the Best Picture nominated works, two films are from African-American directors, another one is from a Mexican filmmaker, one is from a gay (although now controversial) director, and only one is from a devilishly handsome straight white male movie star with a supermodel girlfriend.
Contrarians and Oscar purists might object that it was simply a weaker year for films from female directors, though this is a flimsy argument that ignores the fact that it was a weaker year in general. While it's certainly fair to say that Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time did not have the same cultural impact that helped Black Panther break through the big budget franchise film ceiling, there were definitely smaller scale movies that could have garnered more recognition. For example, Independent films like Crystal Moselle's Skate Kitchen, Debra Granik's Leave No Trace and Lynne Ramsey's You Were Never Really Here that made Bundler's extremely subjective and informal "Best of 2018" list failed to catch the zeitgeist in the same way that Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird dominated the awards conversations last year (before eventually ending the night with no hardware).
While it's safe to say that the Academy and Hollywood likely suffer from the same sexism that plagues American society as a whole, the Oscars may have other structural issues and biases that prevent the pageant from recognizing interesting, worthwhile films instead of "Oscar movies". How else to explain the presence of a film with middling reviews and a #MeToo director as a possible Best Picture winner...unless there was collusion with the Hollywood Foreign Press? Anyone who's ever been disappointed after devoting four hours of their life to the telecast can agree that the Academy's problems go beyond garden variety misogyny. In this spirit, here are some pretty cool female directed movies that received no recognition from the Academy but are more worthwhile than the average Oscar baiting biopic.
Strange Days (1995) - Kathryn Bigelow famously shattered the Academy's glass ceiling when she won for The Hurt Locker. Prior to making Oscar-friendly films that chronicled the War on Terror and American race relations, she made exquisitely pulpy genre movies like Point Break, Near Dark and this drug-addled sci-fi thriller. Co-written by Bigelow's ex-husband (some deep sea explorer named James Cameron), Strange Days may have missed the mark a bit on Y2K paranoia. However, the technology-as-narcotic device that allows people to endlessly relive their old memories feels like a prescient account of Facebook and Instagram.
The Love Witch (2016) - Anna Biller's homage to the sumptuous soft-core horror films of the 1960's and 1970's is the neo-feminist genre appropriation we always subconsciously wanted. The film poses provocative questions about the role of sex in the women's movement and the power dynamics of relationships, while also featuring a challenging performance from lead Samantha Robinson. The title isn't a metaphor: she's actually a witch.
The Bad Batch (2017) - Ana Lily Amirpour's follow-up to her acclaimed vampire western is a post-apocalyptic cannibal romance between a girl named Arlen and a desert gang leader named Miami Man who may or may not have eaten one of her limbs. It's crazy that the Academy didn't take the bait here, right? In addition to Suki Waterhouse and Jason Momoa as the classically star-crossed lovers, the cast includes Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi and Diego Luna.
Pariah (2011) - There's a chance that Dee Rees's debut feature would have received more recognition after the Oscar's push for diversity. This story of a Brooklyn teenager discovering her sexuality was ignored by the Academy despite the presence of producer Spike Lee, though it did win the prestigious John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirits.
Meek's Cutoff (2010) - We've said it before and we'll say it again: Kelly Reichardt is one of the most interesting directors making films today. Her historical imagining of an ill-fated expedition along the Oregon Trail cuts through the pioneer mythology and Old West stereotypes, particularly the importance of women's roles in navigating and surviving in often harsh conditions. Reichardt also made a neo-western about women in the contemporary west with her 2016 adaptation of Maile Meloy short stories, Certain Women.
Madeleine's Madeline (2018) - Performance artist turned filmmaker Josephine Decker may have emerged from the mumblecore movement, but her work possesses a darker, more surrealist quality than that of, say, Joe Swanberg (who appeared in one of her earlier films) or Greta Gerwig. This story about identity in the world of theater seems closer to David Lynch's Inland Empire or even Ingmar Bergman's Persona. In short, Decker's film was a little too outré for Oscar this year.