By Serena Donadoni | Women and Hollywood November 13, 2013 at 3:00PM
There are several milestones among the 22 films directed by women that were released in October. Among the ten features is Carrie, the first wide-release (3,157 theaters) studio film from a female director to hit theaters in 2013. Of the twelve nonfiction releases, The Square garnered headlines as the first film to be picked up by the new documentary unit at Netflix.
Carrie is only the third film from writer and director Kimberly Peirce, whose 1999 debut Boys Don't Cry brought gay-bashing and transgender issues to the multiplex and won Hilary Swank a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena. Peirce's 2008 follow-up, the insightful Stop-Loss, went the way of most films about veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan: it received a tepid critical response and was largely ignored by audiences.
Her take on Carrie did marginally better, opening third on October 18 (behind holdovers Gravity and Captain Phillips) and grossing $32 million during the month (with a reported budget of $30 million). The horror genre has had numerous successes in 2013, but this version of Stephen King's debut novel about a bullied teen with telekinesis suffered from remake fatigue. (In addition to Brian DePalma's 1976 Carrie, there's a 1999 sequel and a 2002 television movie.) The prominence of the Sony Pictures release did put Kimberly Peirce back in the public eye, including a lengthy profile in The New York Times Magazine that focuses extensively on the travails of female filmmakers.
Diablo Cody also smartly addressed gender issues during interviews for her directorial debut, Paradise. Like Peirce, Cody's first film was a major indie hit (and her Juno screenplay won an Oscar). Cody's subsequent career has been varied, but has not replicated that early success. The series she created, United States of Tara, ran for three seasons on Showtime while the other films she's written, Jennifer's Body (directed by Karyn Kusama) and Young Adult (with her Juno director Jason Reitman), have not come anywhere near the $143 million gross of her 2007 teen pregnancy comedy.
Paradise, produced by Mandate Pictures (which also did Juno and Young Adult), is another tart and humorous look at a woman in transition, with Julianne Hough as a sacrificial lamb who trades her conservative religion for a sojourn into Sin City. (Lamb of God was the original title.) Image Entertainment gave Paradise a very small theatrical opening on October 18 (when it received mostly scathing reviews) and will release the DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, November 12.
The French writer and director Claire Denis has dealt with the vagaries of the film marketplace since her 1988 debut Chocolat was an international hit. She's also been around long enough to see the reconsideration of one of her most maligned films, Trouble Every Day (2001), which was re-released by The Film Desk on October 11. Nothing this Halloween was as terrifying as Beatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo devouring their sexual partners in Denis' intimate horror film, and Trouble Every Day found an appreciative audience at New York cultural institutions like BAMcinematek. It also generated more interest for her latest film, the dark psychological thriller Bastards, which IFC Films opened in theaters a few weeks after its New York Film Festival screening.
Success of The Square at major film festivals has made Jehane Noujaim's timely documentary the object of awards season speculation. The Cairo-born director of Control Room and Startup.com (with Chris Hegedus) explores the political aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising -- events that are still very much unfolding. The Square won the Sundance Film Festival's audience award in January, and Noujaim returned to Egypt last summer to capture the new wave of protests and ouster of Mohammed Morsi. Her updated version of the documentary won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. In the midst of a self-financed release for Oscar consideration (feature length documentaries must complete a seven-day commercial run in New York and Los Angeles), The Square was picked up by Netflix and will be available for streaming in early 2014. The Square was succeeding on its own terms, grossing $32,700 in a week from a few theaters and gaining enthusiastic reviews, and its high-profile pick-up by Netflix (with Lisa Nishimura as VP of Original Documentary Programming) is prompting discussions about new documentary distribution models.
Another Academy Award contender quietly opened in October. Zinda Bhaag, directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi (and produced by Gaur's husband Mazhar Zaidi), is the first film that Pakistan has submitted for Oscar consideration in 50 years. Zinda Bhaag, which translates as "get out if you can," looks at frustrated young men in Lahore who contemplate emigration. Partners Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews explore a very different group of disenfranchised men in their debut comedy Zero Charisma: devoted Dungeons and Dragons-style gamers whose hierarchy is threatened by an outsider. The married filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster looked close to home for their documentary subjects, following son Idris and his friend Seun through the educational system in New York City. Their American Promise is an examination of race and class as well as a personal epic spanning 13 years. Italian-born designers Lella and Massimo Vignelli became quintessential New Yorkers (they created the iconic subway system graphics), and their 50-year marriage and creative collaboration is chronicled by another couple, Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra, in Design is One.
A range of perspectives within the LGBT community is represented by four documentaries and one feature, including Stacie Passon's controversial Sundance debut Concussion, starring Robin Weigert as an affluent housewife who explores lesbian prostitution after a head injury, and Peaches Does Herself, which documents an outrageous rock musical about gender identity that makes Hedwig and the Angry Inch look like Disney Channel programming. The first documentary from Linda Bloodworth Thomason (creator of Designing Women, that glorious 1980s hybrid of big hair and sassy feminism) is Bridegroom, a sobering account of legal inequality told through one gay couple's personal tragedy. While Bridegroom is currently streaming on Netflix, Marta Cunningham's Valentine Road is airing on HBO. She explores the stunning 2008 death of a California eighth-grader shot in the classroom by a fellow student after openly exploring his sexual orientation. Heather Winters takes a decidedly upbeat approach to Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro, a real-life version of The New Normal with songwriter Desmond Child and his partner having twins via surrogate and then incorporating her into their family.
Music is all-important to the Scottish duo in Jeanie Finlay's The Great Hip Hop Hoax, who pretend to be American to achieve success in Great Britain, and to the American ethnomusicologist of Oka! who records the Bayaka while observing the systematic ostracism of this Pygmy tribe. Although Lavinia Currier's gentle feature film Oka! was initially released in 2011, concerns about protecting ethnic minorities in the Central African Republic take on a new urgency with current fears of genocide. In Naomi Jaye's Yiddish-language The Pin, two Jewish teens fall in love while hiding from the Nazis in Lithuania, an act of defiance that reverberates decades later. For the Dutch chef in Threes Anna's Silent City, moving to Japan to study fish preparation results in culture clash and a disheartening isolation.
The natural world provides solace in Shasta Grenier and Sabrina Lee's Not Yet Begun to Fight, which profiles a Vietnam vet who introduces a new generation of veterans to the quiet pleasures of fly-fishing. Author and renowned conservationist Dayton O. Hyde is the subject of Suzanne Mitchell's Running Wild, which explores his life, philosophy and biggest project, the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. Deborah Koons Garcia's Symphony of the Soil examines the global impact of maintaining the earth's top layer, while Kalyanee Mam focuses on Cambodia's vital water system in A River Changes Course, which has won numerous festival awards including the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Here are the top grossing female-directed films in October and their rankings, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
#4 | Carrie | $32,074,837
#30 | American Promise | $60,500
#31 | Concussion | $42,606
#36 | The Square | $32,700
#46 | Bastards | $12,247
#48 | Design is One | $9,745
#50 | Zero Charisma | $8,487
#54 | Trouble Every Day | $6,100
Serena Donadoni is a film critic and freelance writer in Detroit. The Cinema Girl blog lists movie releases by month, and she began compiling a list of films directed by women after noticing the quantity (176 and counting) and variety arriving in theaters every week. It's become the most viewed page on the blog. She tweets about film and other topics @TheCinemaGirl and reviews a movie a day @SerenaDonadoni.