"Je tu il elle" (1974) — Chantal Akerman
Hitting age 25 with a number of experimental shorts under her belt, the burgeoning Belgian native/New York transplant Chantal Akerman decided to try something a bit longer and more narrative (well, relatively speaking) with "Je tu il elle" ("I, you, he, she"). The film was borne out of a little bit more than a week of work and, of course, touches upon many ideas she would revisit in the not-so distance future (in fact, the structure of support character-centric vignettes appears again in "Les Rendez-Vous D'Anna," this film's pea-in-a-pod). Divided into a triptych, Akerman leads as Julie, a seemingly obsessive neurotic that spends most of her time writing letters and rearranging furniture, taking a break for the occasional spoonful of sugar, which is all she eats. The confines of home don't hold for long, though, and the next two segments involve her sexual exploits with a married truck driver and an ex-girlfriend. Like the following year's masterpiece "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," this film is highly physical and rhythmic, with the director taking the truly mundane and spinning a new perspective on it: somehow, a woman sliding a table across a wooden floor transforms from humdrum task to dreary self-expression. The film is a war of conflicting forces — the title alone is incredibly depersonalized and yet it can't help but feel otherwise, exposing the viewer to the film's radiant passion and rawness. It's not as refined as her later works, but it's surprisingly confident for a first-timer, with no overflow of half-baked ideas, and no dramatic swinging for the fences.
“Sweetie” (1989) — Jane Campion
Having recently had the pleasure of enjoying New Zealand director Jane Campion’s masterful “Top of the Lake” TV show, it’s interesting to go back two and a half decades and look at her debut feature, “Sweetie” again. On the surface, “Sweetie” is a lot more lurid and a great deal broader than the restrained, chilly aesthetic Campion would more frequently employ from “The Piano” onward, but her outsider’s eye was clearly sharp from the very beginning and she brings it to bear on this dark, occasionally grotesque, black comedy to great effect. Kay (Karen Colston) is a mousy young woman who falls for Louis (Tom Lycos) because he fits a description she’d heard from a tea-leaf reader. They move in together and all is well until two things happen: Lou plants a tree in the yard and Kay’s sister Dawn aka Sweetie (MVP Genevieve Lemon) turns up unexpectedly, trailing chaos in her wake. Sweetie is a fascinating character, overindulged by her parents (especially her heartbreakingly doting Dad) to the point that they seem blinded to her obvious mental instability, whereas Kay’s fraught reactions to her now adult sister’s bipolar antics are themselves colored by Kay’s own neuroses and her sibling jealousy. In its deadpan drollery and considered mis en scene “Sweetie” is very much of a piece with emergent U.S. independent cinema at the time — think of an Antipodean Hal Hartley (whose own first feature, “The Unbelievable Truth” was released the same year). And like Hartley, retrospectively at least, there are undeniably creaky elements — some of the performances feel a little stretched, and very occasionally, quirk is favored over characterization. However these are small niggles in a film that already showed more inventiveness and assurance than many directors manage at a much later stage of their career, and with her very next film, the extraordinary “An Angel at My Table” Campion has ironed out those glitches. It may feel minor, and perhaps a slight outlier, in comparison to some of her later pinnacles, but “Sweetie” is a fascinating film even now, and back then was nothing less than a shot across the bow of the international film scene Campion would soon conquer.
“Girlfriends” (1978) — Claudia Weill
Technically filmmaker Claudia Weill’s second film, “Girlfriends” is her first feature-length narrative film (her first pic is a 74 min doc), and it’s so damn terrific, we had to include it here. It’s no real secret there’s still a dearth of female friendships in movies that are honest, complicated, complex and real — and not just two girls on the couch sobbing while sharing a pint of sorbet — which is why Weill’s well-drawn and endlessly charming 1978 picture is such a revelation. Take the New York and milieu of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” pretend the characters in “Girlfriends” lived in that same universe, only residing downtown instead of in the Upper East Side, and you might just strike the flavor of this endearing and funny movie (it even features Russell Horton, the man in the theater line who gets put on blast from Marshall McLuhan himself in Allen’s “Boy, if life were only like this!” sequence). A proto “Frances Ha” or “Girls” about single life in New York for women, “Girlfriends” centers on Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron, who some will remember from TV’s “Thirtysomething”), a Jewish aspiring photographer, who is left behind when her WASPy would-be poet roommate moves out and abruptly marries a man she’s only known for a few months (Bob Balaban). Susan is then forced to navigate the challenging waters of career, friendship and romance while negotiating the just-as-complicated politics of the art world. Stuck in a series of unfulfilling relationships, missing her best friend and struggling to assert herself in the dog-eat-dog art world of New York, Weill’s intimate, well-rendered and measured picture sensitively uses self-deprecating humor, nuanced vulnerability and a refreshing naturalism to draw a terrifically endearing and empathetic portrait of independence, relationships and self-discovery. (Mayron's wonderfully subtle performance earned her a BAFTA nomination and a Locarno Film Festival award). Co-starring Eli Wallach, Roderick Cook and a very young Christopher Guest, “Girlfriends” is criminally underseen, but has been getting its due a little more recently thanks to cinephiles like Wes Anderson and Lena Dunham, the latter of whom included it in a 2012 BAM retrospective and then coaxed Weill into directing a second-season episode of “Girls.” And let’s not forget Stanley Kubrick himself, who gave the movie and its sensitive writing and direction serious props when he called it his favorite film of 1978.
“Red Road” (2006) — Andrea Arnold
Following a 6-year stint as a TV actress on inventive U.K. Saturday morning magazine show “No 73," Andrea Arnold changed tack and studied film, a decision that bore serious fruit in 2005 when her startling, brilliant “Wasp” picked up the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. And her feature debut had a no less storied a development. “Red Road” was actually the first in a Dogme-influenced project shepherded by Lone Scherfig, among others, intended to comprise three films directed by different first-timers, but all featuring broadly the same characters and actors, and all set in Scotland. But despite the experimental formalism of that premise, “Red Road” feels like a fully authentic, fully realized, organically developed film; a brilliantly thoughtful and compelling story which propelled Arnold to the very top echelons of rising British talent (something she’s borne out, and then some, with subsequent features “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights”) and which netted her the Jury prize in Cannes. “Red Road” tells the story of Jackie (Kate Hardie), a police officer who works in a surveillance unit that electronically “patrols” a rough stretch of Glaswegian suburb that incorporates the titular Red Road on which sits a block of high-rise flats. Given very little information about her background except what we can glean from seemingly incidental details, we’re shocked when Jackie, apparently professional and calm, reacts bizarrely to seeing a certain ex-con (Tony Curran) on one of her screens one night. She starts to follow him, via CCTV camera and in real life, and soon is engineering meetings with him and his volatile flatmate Stevie (the terrific Martin Compston). The mystery that unravels around her behavior gradually reveals itself, but the point of the film is never a “gotcha!” moment, rather it’s a tenderly drawn character study of loss, and of redemption achieved by the strangest of means. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Hardie especially negotiating Jackie’s sometimes bewildering actions and motivations with a deep compassion that never strays into sentimentality, and the refusal of the film to judge any of its characters despite the explicitly moral nature of the situation they are in, is as absolute as it is refreshing. Slow, hypnotic and building to a satisfying and surprising conclusion that subverts as many of our expectations as it fulfills, “Red Road” is a small, burnished gem of a film, a surveillance thriller played as moving human drama.
“La Pointe-Courte” (1955) — Agnès Varda
Balanced exactly between the Italian neorealist tradition of De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti that preceded it, and the French New Wave sensibility that would follow, Agnès Varda’s debut film “La Pointe-Courte” (edited by Alain Resnais) is without doubt one of the most beautiful on this (or any other) list. With her documentarist’s eye for authenticity she captures a few days in the life of the titular fishing village, using the local inhabitants as her supporting cast and only employing professionals Sylvia Monfort and Phillippe Noiret, for one of the two central couples. Appropriately, they play outsiders anyway: a couple who have come back to his childhood home from Paris to discuss the future of their relationship. The walks the two go on, and their monotone, quasi-philosophical meanderings on the subject of love and life and inevitability foreshadow the more navel-gazey aspects of New Wave filmmaking, and the Bergman-esque close ups of the two faces set at right angles feel similarly artificial and constructed, verging on affectation. But that’s only because Varda’s heart (and her extraordinary eye) seems to lie really with the townsfolk as they go about their daily lives, and the contrast between the effortless grace she finds in a hand grasping for a peg on a high clothesline or a little kitten playing in the mesh of a fishing net, and the lugubrious musings of the 'sophisticated' couple seem so marked as to almost feel satirical. Especially compared to the breezier nature of the other central relationship in which the obstacles are far more tangible (a young fisherman, disapproved of by the father of the girl he likes, falls foul of the authorities). Varda’s curious, rarely static camera finds such astonishing images within the downtrodden pre-modern shacks and boats the villagers inhabit that although the film is light on narrative, from its opening frame it never lifts its peculiar spell, right up till a fascinating climax set during the carnival-like atmosphere of the village’s chief sporting amusement: a kind of jousting tournament in which, instead of horses, the participants try to knock each other off gondola-like platforms built on the rear of rowing boats. It would be seven years before Varda made her next fiction feature, the seminal “Cleo from 5 till 7,” before which she made several documentaries, and during which time the French New Wave, whose first glimmerings many film historians trace to this very film, burst into life. Even without this context, “La Pointe-Courte” is a film of exceptional beauty and power, but to have essentially launched one of the most influential movements of in film history with your very first film?