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20 Great Debut Films From Female Directors

by The Playlist Staff
August 29, 2013 3:44 PM
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"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?

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  • Evyatar Gour | November 13, 2013 12:23 AMReply

    Hi guys!

    Thought you might be interested in mentioning this new short film that is currently in production. Feel free to use the info below or contact me for any questions.

    The Sirens – Press Release

    Student Kickstarter Film Receives Support of Award Winners James Strouse and Christopher Newman.

    New York, NY - Two time Sundance Film Festival winner James Strouse and three time Oscar winner Christopher Newman have just put their names behind a small kickstarter project by an unknown student prodigy called Mor Shamay (this is her first professional short, after several creative projects that have caught the attention of Professors at New York’s School of Visual Arts.) Both have been teaching their respective art at New York’s SVA – School of Visual Arts. Upon reading the script and being approached by Miss Shamay for support, the two agreed to place their support for the student’s final project.

    While it is not uncommon to see creative minds supporting Kickstarter projects, it is worth noting that these two Executive Producers may take this tiny project and help turn it into the next surprise hit at next year’s festival circuit.

    About The Film

    The Sirens revolves around a couple in a passionless marriage, whose weekend getaway is interrupted by the wife's beautiful younger sister dropping by unexpectedly. You can find details and updates on the production at The Sirens website or see what all the fuss is about on their Kickstarter page .

  • Irene | September 9, 2013 3:33 AMReply

    Great list - one that I would have added is Joanna Hogg's Unrelated. That and her follow-up Archipelago have become two of my most revisited films. Masterful control of tone and fascinating dissection of group/family dynamics with a distinctive style. Very much looking forward to seeing Exhibition.

  • Matt | September 2, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    Where is Patty Jenkins - Monster?

  • marc | September 1, 2013 2:48 PMReply

    'Little Noises' by Jane Spencer also great. 'Daughters of the Dust' by Julie Dash. Both premiered at Sundance.

  • Amit Itzcar | September 1, 2013 2:19 PMReply

    I would add the Israeli film "Or (My treasure)" by Keren Yedaya that won the "Camera D'or" award at Cannes in 2004. Amazing movie

  • BT | August 31, 2013 2:55 PMReply

    Nice list, but as much as I appreciate Sofia Coppola not sure Virgin Suicides belongs. Also, Eve's Bayou probably doesn't either... Walking and Talking and Gas, Food Lodging, on the other hand, do. The biggest omissions, however, are Away from Here and Wanda, which are both better than half the films on this list... Biotch - your commentary here does nothing but demonstrate your ignorance. Your anger arises out of frustrating over what you cannot understand. The great films you mention are boring to you because you are not intellectually capable/cinema versed enough to understand and appreciate them. The constant cry of the ignorant is that the people who like something they don't understand are only saying they like it because they are pretentious or trying to conform to traditionally held thought when almost always it's because they truly appreciate the works for their greatness. With more experience you will hopefully be able to form opinions about art independent of their reputations. Again, this seems like the protestations of someone very young and/or inexperienced with art/expressing intellectual thought about it. Hopefully too you'll learn to have discussions (even anonymously on the interwebs) without resorting to nasty name-calling.

  • Billy Z | August 31, 2013 6:41 PM


  • Ellea | August 31, 2013 1:11 AMReply

    Fantastic list!

  • Erin | August 30, 2013 12:57 PMReply

    Massy Tadjedin's Last night. Underrated.

  • soirore | August 30, 2013 10:07 AMReply

    What about Celia by Ann Turner. An amazing debut film.

  • Bob | August 29, 2013 5:48 PMReply

    Manny & Lo, directed by Lisa Krueger.
    Scarlett Johansson's first leading role, just amazing. Sundance film in the late 90s, score by John Luire, produced by Dean Silvers, great performance by Mary Kay Place. Everyone should check it out. It's like a young girl's version of Badlands.

  • sean | August 29, 2013 4:19 PMReply

    Wanda, by Barbara Loden

  • Taylor Jones | August 29, 2013 4:26 PM

    Seconded. Baffling omission.

  • TheoC | August 29, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    Great list, great stuff.

  • Pat | August 29, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    Any person who believed that The Virgin Sucides was better than The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, or even Tucker the Man and His Dream needs to seriously be put under psychiatric care.

  • Biotch. | August 29, 2013 11:22 PM

    I didn't really like the Godfather, but that's because it's been so ingrained in pop culture, that when I watched it, it was not new. Having not seen the Virgin Suicides, I can't comment on its worth, but yo, I liked Lost In Translation better than both Godfather movies, not Apocalypse Now though. I also could understand why a lady might not like the Godfather movies or Apocalypse Now or whatever, because those movies are pretty fucking masculine. Anyway, eat a dick. Lots of "great" movies actually are really boring and suck, see Last Year at Marienbad and Rules of the Game and every Jean Luc Goddard film I've watched.

  • cory everett | August 29, 2013 4:52 PM

    Dude, read the entire thought. "most agreed it was the best film by a Coppola (any Coppola) for a very long time." Key being FOR A VERY LONG TIME. No one here was positing it was better than 4 of the 10 best films of the 70s because the 70s were a "very long time" away from 2000. So was 1988 for that matter but "Virgin Suicides" is still better than "Tucker."

  • oogle monster | August 29, 2013 4:22 PM

    Whoa there Pat. Let me be the first to say (since apparently you have never met someone who disagrees) that TVS is better than most of those films you named. Different strokes, buddy. In fact, I think TVS is better than Lost in Translation.

  • Pat | August 29, 2013 4:09 PM

    Sorry Cory, I still don't agree. Granted, Sofia's old man was written off as just a has been when The Virgin Sucides came out, but no one (beyond a small fringe group in Filmcomment) was ever going to say it was better than four of the ten best films of the 70s. Now if you are saying best debut by a Coppola, than I'd agree.

  • wouldathunk | August 29, 2013 4:06 PM

    Gee a knee-jerk audience reaction on The Playlist? Never.

  • cory everett | August 29, 2013 4:03 PM

    Keep reading.... "for a very long time." I would say 10+ years qualifies.

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