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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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"Boys Don't Cry" (1999) -- Kimberly Peirce
1999 was a particularly amazing year for cinema, an exciting period when film seemed to be on the cusp of something new and unexpected, both in terms of the technology allowing these stories to be told and the way that stories were told. "Boys Don't Cry" was one of the banner films of that period; it seemed fearless and dynamic and set itself apart from other movies opening on a weekly basis. Based on the true-life story of Brandon Teena, a transsexual played by a largely unknown Hilary Swank (who ended up winning the Oscar for Best Actress), who is beaten, raped and murdered by male friends after they learn his secret, the brutality of the movie might be what's most remembered (and is part of the reason the movie was initially awarded an NC-17 rating from the MPAA). But just as powerful as the sadness is the downright dewy romantic joy felt in the romantic relationship between Teena and his girlfriend (played by an equally fearless Chloe Sevigny, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar). What's so amazing about "Boys Don't Cry" is that you, as a viewer, are able to emotionally connect with the relationship between Teena and her lover, no matter how unique that relationship might be. Peirce's visual style is plainspoken, capturing economically depressed characters in ways that never actually feels depressing, in fact sometimes the images border on the lyrical, but never in a flowery way. Instead she flirts occasionally with imagery associated with westerns or revenge thrillers, without ever tipping over into genre cliches. With "Boys Don't Cry," Peirce established herself as a filmmaker able to dramatize heavy material without a heavy hand. It's a unique ability, for sure, and we can't wait to see what she does with another tale of an oppressed youth yearning for vengeance, Stephen King's "Carrie."

The Taste of Others” (2000) -- Agnès Jaoui
A lighthearted ensemble comedy of manners, French film and TV actress Agnès Jaoui’s directorial debut could be accused of being too firmly mired in the rarefied stratosphere of white, middle-class people’s problems, if it didn’t have such a sharp take on that very milieu’s foibles and contradictions. In fact, this very funny, hugely endearing relationship comedy is in the vein of Woody Allen, with its deadpan characterization meaning pretty much every swing it takes at the absurdity of middle-class, middle-aged life and its assorted pretensions, lands in a well-earned punch(line). The chorus of characters brought into collision breaks down like this: Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is a well-off business owner who, for insurance purposes, has to be followed around by two bodyguards Frank and Bruno (Gerard Lanvin and Alain Chabat) until a certain lucrative contract is signed. One night he and his wife, whose chintzy taste for interior décor is perhaps the least affectionate running gag in the film, go to the theater where Castella, normally a cultural boor, falls for the lead actress Clara (Anna Alvaro) whom he hires to teach him English. Trying hard to ingratiate himself with her far more bohemian circle, Castella attempts to remake himself, much to the unkind ridicule of the artists and actors she’s friends with, while Clara’s friend Mani (Jaoui herself), the hash-dealing waitress in the café where they all convene, gets romantically involved with the bodyguards. If it all seems like a big stew, it kind of is, but that belies the skill Jaoui displays in keeping all the strands compelling and constantly developing and in having every relationship feel as true and considered as if it were the center of the film. Juggling all these narrative balls, and performing herself from a script she co-wrote with Bacri (her husband), you would think that, especially with this being her first film, somewhere the strain would tell. But it never does, and the film retains its kicky pace and effortless-seeming chemistry right down to the final, understated but thoroughly satisfying curtain call. Laying no claim to any particular depth or importance, but remaining resolutely entertaining throughout, Jaoui’s film plays out entirely in that sweet spot that marks the bullseye crossover of funny/sad/absurd/true, and is a rare gem: an ensemble comedy in which no character gets left behind, and everybody turns out to have been equally wrong about everyone else all along.

Honorable Mention: We called "Wadjda," directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first Saudi woman ever to direct a film, "a phenomenal debut from an exciting new talent" in our review. It's released through Sony Classics on September 9th and quite aside from the amazing story surrounding its making, it's a film that every Playlister who's seen it so far wholeheartedly recommends.

Don’t even get us started on all the films/directors we haven’t featured here. Some we excluded for specific reasons, like Sarah Polley’s great “Away From Her,” which we covered in our recent feature on actor-turned-director debuts (which was prompted by the release of Lake Bell’s “In A World,” another strong candidate), and Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” had its praises sung in the Lovers on the Run feature. But then many, many titles were the subject of much agonising and arguing, and ultimately ended up just missing the cut due to us having to narrow the list somehow, like: Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love and Basketball,” Lisa Cholodenko’s “High Art,” Nicole Holofcener’s “Walking and Talking,” Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol,” Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging,” Gurinder Chadha’s “Bhaji on the Beach,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s “All is Forgiven,Jodie Foster’s “Little Man Tate” and Lynn Shelton’s “We Go Way Back."

And of course not every director hits a home run their first time at bat and so there are some names who don’t appear despite their profile or our admiration for their subsequent work, like Kathryn Bigelow, Nora Ephron, Catherine Hardwicke, Kelly Reichardt and Catherine Breillat. More often, though there were films we just couldn’t get to in time, but hope to check out very soon, including six foreign-language titles: Lina Wertmüller’s “I Basilischi,” Susanne Bier’s “Freud flyttar hemifrån,” Agnieszka Holland’s “Aktorzy prowincjonalniLucia Puenzo’s “XXY,” Celine Sciamma’s “Water Lilies” and Lone Scherfig’s “Kaj's fødselsdag,”plus a clutch of English-language debuts like Sally El-Hosaini’s “My Brother the Devil,” Debra Granik’s “Down to the Bone” and Katherine Dieckmann’s “A Good Baby.” And those are just the ones we can think of right now. All of which must be proof, for any of us feeling pessimistic about women in the film industry, that, fingers crossed, lists like these will soon be simply impossible to manage.

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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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