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A Look Back at November's Women-Directed Movies

Features
by Serena Donadoni
December 6, 2013 3:28 PM
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Still from 'Frozen'

Frozen had already made history when it opened on November 22 for an exclusive 5-day run at El Capitan, Disney's restored movie palace in Hollywood. Screenwriter Jennifer Lee directed Frozen with animator Chris Buck, making her the first woman ever to helm a Disney animated feature. After expanding to 3,742 theaters on Wednesday, Frozen earned $93 million and became the top-grossing film to open on Thanksgiving weekend. Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Frozen focuses on two sisters and reworks (or sanitizes, depending on your viewpoint) a classic fairy tale to please modern sensibilities. Frozen will easily become the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman in 2013, but it's not the only woman-directed, 3-D animated feature to be set in snowbound environs. 

Canadian filmmaker Nancy Florence Savard makes her directorial debut with The Legend of Sarila, which follows three Inuit teens who set out to find a fabled land among the glaciers in the far north. Out of the 19 animated features submitted for Academy Award consideration, Frozen and The Legend of Sarila are the only two directed by women. And when the Annie Award nominations were released this week, Frozen received a total of ten, with Jennifer Lee nominated for two as writer and co-director.

The other major November release, Black Nativity (Fox Searchlight Pictures), opened in 1,516 theaters with less success. Since her haunting 1997 debut Eve's Bayou, Kasi Lemmons has made films (The Caveman's Valentine, Talk to Me) that don't fit into easy categories. She wrote and directed Black Nativity, adapting the 1961 Langston Hughes "song-play," which uses gospel to tell the Christmas story, into a contemporary musical about a fractured family reconnecting through their faith. With a gross of nearly $4 million, Black Nativity came in ninth during the busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend. 

Of the ten features directed by women released in November, two opened in the cities where they were filmed (Detroit and Providence) before making their New York debuts. The Lebanese-born, Michigan-raised Rola Nashef sets her gentle romantic comedy Detroit Unleaded in the convenience store of an urban gas station. In Detroit, these neighborhood markets (standalones and with gas pumps) are known as party stores, stocking mostly junk food and alcohol and distinguished by the Plexiglas cages that separate the usually Arab owner and staff from the primarily black clientele. In Breakfast with Curtis, the divide between neighbors isn't racial, stemming instead from simple insensitivity. Writer, director and actress Laura Colella (who teaches screenwriting and filmmaking at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design) used her own house as the set and friends to fill out the cast of this coming-of-age comedy.

In her second film released this year (following And While We Were Here), Kat Coiro directs a script co-written by star Justin Long about a writer who fashions himself as his dream girl's perfect man. A Case of You gives Coiro the opportunity to send-up Brooklyn bohemians in the same manner she lovingly spoofed Silver Lake denizens in her debut feature L!fe Happens. China Lion has been releasing independent and mainstream Chinese films in North America and Xue Xiaolu's romantic comedy Finding Mr. Right bridges these two worlds as the pregnant mistress of Chinese businessman arrives in Seattle and finds herself taken with her mild-mannered immigrant driver. 

Writer and director Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby) takes a different view of the American dream in Sunlight Jr., examining the dynamics of a poor Florida couple (Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts) who optimistically embrace their relationship, even as their circumstances slide from bad to worse. On the opposite end of the economic scale, an expat in Paris (Michael Caine) mourns his late wife and finds brief solace in a vivacious dance instructor in Last Love, the second English-language film from German writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck (Mostly Martha). 

Unspoken desire also drives In the Name Of, one of two foreign-language features by a female filmmaker released last month. Director Malgoska Szumowska makes rural Poland exquisitely beautiful in stark contrast to the inner life of the area's new Catholic priest, whose cloaked homosexuality is challenged by his feelings for a local man.

On the nonfiction side, most of the thirteen documentaries released in November focus on reshaping established perceptions.

Jenni Gold has muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair since childhood. Her comprehensive (and humorous) documentary CinemAbility looks at how the entertainment industry has defined disability in film and television. 

Cecilia Peck explores the lives women who refuse to be silenced. Brave Miss World proafiles Linor Abargil, a Miss Israel who was raped six weeks before she received that pageant crown and has used her global prominence to increase awareness of sexual assault. Peck collaborated with documentary veteran Barbara Kopple on her first film, Shut Up & Sing, which details the ostracizing of the Dixie Chicks following a negative onstage comment about then-President Bush.

The black church is at the heart of Yoruba Richen's documentary The New Black, which follows Maryland's 2012 statewide referendum to legalize gay marriage and challenges assumptions about how the African-American community views homosexuality and civil rights. 

Kopple is known for her Oscar-winning documentaries about labor struggles (Harlan County, USA and American Dream), but she's also profiled a number of performers (including Cecilia Peck's father Gregory Peck). Barbara Kopple's latest subject is Mariel Hemingway, who delves into her family's destructive history, including her grandfather Ernest's alcoholism and her suicide, in Running from Crazy. It will air in early 2014 on OWN.

Bikini Kill singer and riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna was very outspoken on stage, but opted out of the media machine during the early years of the Internet. This makes her decision to allow access to her well-guarded private life so surprising, and her candid, trenchant interviews to promote Sini Anderson's documentary The Punk Singer so welcome.

The subjects of art critic and filmmaker Amei Wallach's documentaries are also reluctant to be categorized, especially after a lifetime of creating idiosyncratic work. Getting 96-year-old sculptor Louise Bourgeois to discuss her personal iconography in The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine (2008) took a decade of persistence, and Wallach completed the film after the death of her co-director Marion Cajori. Like Bourgeois, eighty-year-old conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov mines his childhood, turning the famine and hardship of 1930s Ukraine into large-scale installations with his wife and creative partner Emilia. Their return to Russia with a project that delves into Soviet repression is captured in Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here.

The Slovenian cultural theorist and author Slavoj Zizek is not so camera shy. He's already been the subject of Zizek! and was included in Examined Life, a round-up of influential thinkers. In his second film with director Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, Zizek explores cinema through ideological constructs to head-spinning and often comedic effect. Focusing on documentaries, Sophie is the third Fiennes sibling to become a filmmaker, joining sister Martha (Onegin) and actor/director brother Ralph (The Invisible Woman). Her first collaboration with Zizek, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, was only released theatrically in the United Kingdom. Seven years later, their follow-up was released in the U.S. by Zeitgeist Films and earned $48,098, making it the top-grossing documentary directed by a woman in November.

An ancient culture clashes with modern political turmoil in Robyn Simon's Behind the Blue Veil, which examines how the nomadic Taureg are affected by armed conflicts in the Saharan region of north Africa.

Nearly twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, repercussions are still being felt, and siblings Lisa Fruchtman and Rob Fruchtman document a hopeful collaboration as members of the all-female drumming group Ingoma Nshya decide to open their country's only ice cream shop, Sweet Dreams. A designated UNESCO World Heritage City, the port of Akka in northern Israel is experiencing an economic shift that's altering its multicultural community of Muslims, Jews, Christians and Baha'i. Gina Angelone, along with the husband-and-wife team of Mouna Stewart and Patrick Alexander Stewart, explore the changing environment of the walled city through a rite of passage in It's Better to Jump. 

Wendy J.N. Lee captures a different ritual in Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey, where 700 people in red robes trek through the treacherous Himalayas to call attention to global warming and environmental devastation. The prominent guitar-makers who travel to Alaska (at the urging of Greenpeace) in Maxine Trump's Musicwood are seeking to shift logging practices and conserve the old-growth oaks needed for their acoustic instruments. Liz Marshall follows photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, who views all animals, domesticated and wild, as The Ghosts in Our Machine and deserving of human compassion and protection. 

Here are the top grossing female-directed films in November and their rankings, courtesy of Box Office Mojo: 

#3 | Frozen | $93,933,226

#13 | Black Nativity | 4,779,723

#31 | The Pervert's Guide to Ideology | $48,098

#34 | Running from Crazy | $33,300

#37 | The Punk Singer | $24,729

#38 | The Ghosts in Our Machine | $18,079

#45 | Sweet Dreams | $9,174

#48 | Finding Mr. Right | $6,579


Serena Donadoni is a film critic and freelance writer who lives in the officially bankrupt and suddenly cool city of Detroit. She tweets about film @TheCinemaGirl and reviews movies @SerenaDonadoni. For a full list of all movies directed by women in 2013, visit The Cinema Girl.

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