“Somersault” (2004) -- Cate Shortland
Like an Australian version of Sofia Coppola, Cate Shortland’s striking debut is beautifully shot, expressive and sensitively attuned to the unspoken glances and connections between people. In this poignant psychological drama and coming of age story, an impulsive teenager named Heidi (Abbie Cornish in a revelatory, star-making performance) leaves home after being caught in bed with her mother’s boyfriend. Naive and rash, she travels to a snowy ski resort where she finds herself short on funds, directionless, and ripe for being manipulated by older, scheming men. A guileless, troubled teenage girl starving for experience but who doesn’t know the difference between sex and love, Heidi falls headfirst into ill-advised situations, until she meets Joe (Sam Worthington), a thoughtful but reluctant older man battling his own inner turmoil. Admittedly light on plot, and high on atmosphere, “Somersault”'s story could be read as a little pat. Yet the movie is deeply, emotionally raw, the mood and tones gorgeously shot (DP Robert Humphreys’ work is beautiful) and the nakedly vulnerable performances demonstrate a filmmaker who knows how to get the best out of her cast (it’s Worthington’s best performance to date, directly contrasting with his normally leaden mien). A mesmerizing portrait of emotional instability and the feeling of being lost, “Somersault” is heartfelt, and at times, painful to watch, but provides an exhilarating rush of feeling, mood and visceral substance.
"A New Leaf" (1971) -- Elaine May
As detailed far more thoroughly in our recent retrospective, we’re big fans of the short directorial career of Elaine May, which came to an abrupt end after the notorious failure of “Ishtar.” Her first film, “A New Leaf” is ripe for reappraisal as a highly idiosyncratic, if compromised, debut that boasts some terrific elements, not least the performances from Walter Matthau and from May herself as the clumsy, socially inept heiress Matthau pursues. An odd mix of social satire and romantic comedy all shot through with the very blackest of humor, “A New Leaf” follows stinking rich, widely disliked Henry Graham (Matthau) as he discovers he’s run through his fortune, and resolves to marry money, secretly plotting to off the offending wife as soon as possible thereafter. In a town apparently teeming with rich heiresses with no familial attachments, Henry settles on Henrietta (May) a ditzy botanist whose very existence is an affront to all of Henry’s refined tastes and snobbery. In an ending significantly different from that planned by May, Henry undergoes a last-minute change of heart as regards his murderous plan; May’s own instincts were for his redemption not to come through the transformative power of Henrietta’s sweetness and devotion, but for him to actually commit several other murders along the way, for which he then ends up “sentencing” himself to a life with Henrietta as punishment. Lady knew dark. But the studio stepped in, as so often happened over May’s short and volatile directorial career (not unreasonably, one might suggest, when her cut reportedly ran 180 minutes and was delivered only after an extended series of delays which at one point saw May hiding the negative under her bed in an effort to keep producer Robert Evans away from it). What’s left after Evans’ did a pretty drastic chop on it may not be what May had envisaged (she tried to have her name removed, in fact) but it is a unique showcase of her offbeat sensibilities, slightly reshaped though they may be, and of her deliciously misanthropic streak.
"Girlfight" (2000) - Karyn Kusama
There's a certain feeling independent movies can occasionally give off, one in which entertainment is the furthest thing from the filmmakers' agenda. "Girlfight" is a tiny movie but it never gives off that vibe. It is wonderfully, aggressively entertaining, but still quite artful, a debut feature that announced a major new talent. A young girl from pre-mommy-fied Brooklyn, who has problems in school associated with her excessive aggression, decides to channel that into something positive, as she trains to become a boxer. While there are a number of inspirational, "Rocky"-ish cliches sprinkled throughout, they never stand out as such. The movie hooks you from the very first shot (pushing in on star Michelle Rodriguez as she broods in school) and doesn't let up until the credits roll. In addition to making Rodriguez something of a star (she's had a long and varied career, recently revived with her reintroduction to the "Fast and Furious" franchise), the movie began Kusama's career. Her direction here is peerless — "Girlfight" is an elegant mixture of entertainment and social commentary. The movie makes bold statements about gender, sexuality and race, but it never takes you out of the fun of watching a kick-ass chick beat the everloving shit out of people. Kusama pays homage to the gods of independent genre movies past (John Sayles shows up as a science teacher), and her script offers poignant insights like when Rodriguez asks her grizzled trainer what happened to his own boxing career, and he scowls and says, "What happens to most of us when we do it - we lose." The movie was one of those rare film festival crowd pleasers that translated into a minor theatrical hit (it was also pretty much on every top ten list at the end of the year). Kusama continued her career of mixing issues of gender, sexuality, race and class with more easily recognizable genre tropes, with two underrated studio features, Paramount's "Aeon Flux" and Fox's "Jennifer's Body." Both fared disappointingly, but Kusama has genre talent to burn and feels like a director who's just one shot away from the big time.
"The Virgin Suicides" (2000) -- Sofia Coppola
When "The Virgin Suicides" debuted in 2000, most agreed it was the best film by a Coppola (any Coppola) for a very long time, though there was cynicism, for sure. Few directors, on their first features, get to work with a cast as starry as this one (including exemplary performances by James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Danny DeVito and, in a voiceover role, Giovanni Ribisi) or are able to recruit a reclusive French electronic duo to compose the dreamlike score (Daft Punk contemporaries Air). But it doesn't really matter how Coppola arranged the stars for "The Virgin Suicides," only that she did, and the results are nothing short of dazzling. A contemplative adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel of the same name, "The Virgin Suicides" charts a family of five sisters (led by Dunst), who, after beguiling and charming the local neighborhood boys, all commit suicide at the same time, Jonestown-style. As the narrator explains, this event affected the boys who were infatuated with the sisters for their whole lives; the mystery of why is always with them. Many of the foundations of Coppola's career were established here: her amazing use of music (the moment when Dunst and a young male suitor kiss, to the sounds of Heart's "Crazy On You," is nothing short of unforgettable), her gauzy visuals, her creative use of fonts to evoke a singular spirit and mood, and her uncanny ability to put you into the heads of young female characters, no matter how different they might feel from you — and there's a lot to divide you here, by time, gender, or class). Given the subject matter, a lesser (and, most likely, male) director would have heaped tragic pathos onto the story, smothering it in sentimentality and bleakness. There's a lightness to Coppola's direction, a sunshiney effervescence, that radiates from within every scene; yes the event that defines the movie is tragic but the girls who commit the act are not. Coppola makes it very clear why they enchant every person they come across, she understands the scary raw power of young women transitioning to adulthood. In Coppola's world, it gives off a kind of glittery shine. While film nerds argue endlessly about whether or not Coppola has adequately followed through on the promise, both visually and on a narrative level, displayed in "The Virgin Suicides," she still remains one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
"Eve's Bayou" (1997) -- Kasi Lemmons
We could have included this in our list of actors who have become directors since Kasi Lemmons first started as a character actor, perhaps most notably playing Clarice Starling's FBI Academy roommate in Jonathan Demme's masterful "Silence of the Lambs" (remember her running down the hall?) For her debut feature, however, Lemmons let her imagination run wild, crafting an unforgettable drama that combines elements of the psychosexual thriller, coming of age story and, of all things, supernatural horror tale, into a giant Southern Gothic gumbo that cast a spell on pretty much everyone who saw it. From the movie's opening narration, in which Eve (Jurnee Smollett) admits to being ten years old the summer she killed her father, "Eve's Bayou" wraps itself around you like thick swirls of swamp fog. There are so many things going on in the movie that it's amazing that it doesn't end up as some kind of incoherent jumble, but Lemmons, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps everything crystal clear, with different plot threads amplifying others and the emotional and thematic throughlines always clearly defined. Mostly, "Eve's Bayou" is about Eve, a young girl in rural Louisiana who begins to suspect her father (Samuel L. Jackson, in one of his very best performances), of cheating on her mother (Lynn Whitfield, radiant as always) and worse, attempting to rape her older sister (Meagan Good). Eve is supernaturally blessed (she has "second sight") and goes about putting a hex on her father (yes, there is voodoo), which she feels results in his death. (Even though the movie is 15 years old, most people haven't seen it, so we're not spoiling anything else...) While "Eve's Bayou" has been singled out as an important film about race in America (it made a Time Magazine list of the 25 most essential movies on the subject), we can't help but feel that an oversized importance placed on the film takes away from acknowledging what a damn fine yarn it is. Because it really is wonderful — the kind of thing you'd tell around a campfire or read in some dusty old book of Southern Gothic ghost stories (even if all the ghosts are metaphorical or psychological). Lemmons has gone on to direct two more strong films, the detective movie deconstruction "The Caveman's Valentine" (again starring Jackson) and "Talk to Me," an incredibly fizzy biopic starring Don Cheadle shot in the rich orange and browns of the seventies. Her new film, "Black Nativity," opens this year. Bout time too. It's been way too long.