"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 prowincjonalni” Lucia 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.