It seems every year since I decided to return to the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, it’s been a special year for women. I think I originally decided to return specifically because there were more films directed by women in competition than ever before and the Sundance Women’s Initiative was new and planning an event. I couldn’t bear to miss it all, so I booked a flight!
That was followed by a couple more years of strong showings by female directors and continued festival programming inclusive of women. Then, last year, the election and upcoming Women’s March loomed large over the attendees and united us in a great big fuzzy blanket of sisterhood. There was definitely a special vibe in the air.
I didn’t think it was possible, but this year the support and excitement about female filmmakers feels even bigger– more films by female directors that I’m eagerly anticipating; more offscreen festival programming that features prominent women (R.B.fucking G.?!); more panels on topics of interest to women; and the newest twist, even more name companies jumping into the lady convo to sponsor women’s groups and celebrate women in one way or another. In other words, more parties for the ladies!
In all seriousness, I thought we had our “moment” a few years ago, but now we’re at a moment-moment– industry players across film and television are FINALLY acknowledging there are huge problems with representation and inclusivity behind the camera, and many other places in Hollywood, and they’re taking action in big ways (see: 2018 Golden Globe Awards, Times Up, etc). Could this be momentum we’re witnessing? I’m not calling it just yet, but I know it’s definitely going to make for more magic at the festival this year.
I’ll get to the parties another time (see social media). Today, it’s about the documentary and narrative features directed by women. If you’ve read my pre-festival posts before, you know I can’t possibly do a top 5, 10, or 20 “most highly anticipated films” because I love all these babies! Instead, I’m going to arrange them into a few groups and point out some patterns and points of interest as if you’re a stranger with whom I’m awkwardly trying to strike up a conversation on line in a cold tent outside the Holiday Theater. Cool? Ok, here we go!
Hey stranger, did you know…
Bad Ass Women Everywhere!
There are tons of films in the festival this year that feature bad ass women, either the real life versions or fictional bad ass characters. (Did I mention R.B.fucking G!?) And most of these films are directed by women, check them out:
RBG (dir by Betsy West and Julie Cohen)
Sundance says: “An intimate portrait of an unlikely rock star: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With unprecedented access, the filmmakers show how her early legal battles changed the world for women.” I say: Is it weird that I’m hoping they include a peek at her infamous push-up workout?
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (dir by Susan Lacy)
Sundance says: “Girl next door, activist, so-called traitor, fitness tycoon, Oscar winner: Jane Fonda has lived a life of controversy, tragedy, and transformation – and she’s done it all in the public eye. An intimate look at one woman’s singular journey.”
Seeing Allred (dir by Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain)
Sundance says: “Gloria Allred overcame trauma and personal setbacks to become one of the nation’s most famous women’s rights attorneys. Now the feminist firebrand takes on two of the biggest adversaries of her career, Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, as sexual violence allegations grip the nation and keep her in the spotlight.”
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (dir by Lorna Tucker)
Sundance says: “Dame Vivienne Westwood: punk, icon, provocateur and one of the most influential originators in recent history. This is the first film to encompass the remarkable story of one of the true icons of our time, as she fights to maintain her brand’s integrity, her principles – and her legacy.”
Kusama–Infinity (dir by Heather Lenz)
Sundance says: “Now one of the world’s most celebrated artists, Yayoi Kusama broke free of the rigid society in which she was raised, and overcame sexism, racism, and mental illness to bring her artistic vision to the world stage. At 88 she lives in a mental hospital and continues to create art.” I say: I love what little I know about this artist, looking forward to seeing many more details filled in.
Half the Picture (dir Amy Adrion)
I say: I met director Amy Adrion a couple years ago at Sundance when she was just starting to collect interviews for her documentary about female directors. I was flattered when she asked me to sit for one of those interviews, too, and Amy and I have since become friends. So yes, I’m the badass in this case! Just kidding, rumor is I was left on the cutting room floor in order to make room for more bad ass female directors. I’m not mad, I swear.*
Revenge (dir by Coralie Fargeat)
Sundance says: “Three wealthy married men get together for their annual hunting game in a desert canyon. This time, one of them has brought along his young mistress, who quickly arouses the interest of the other two. Things get dramatically out of hand as a
hunting game turns into a ruthless manhunt.” I say: Love the idea of the “young mistress” trope being turned on its head!
Quiet Heroes (dir by Jenny Mackenzie and Amanda Stoddard)
Sundance says: “In Salt Lake City, Utah, the socially conservative religious monoculture complicated the AIDS crisis, where patients in the entire state and intermountain region relied on only one doctor. This is the story of her fight to save a maligned population everyone else seemed willing to just let die.”
Ophelia (dir by Claire McCarthy)
Sundance says: “A mythic spin on Hamlet through a lens of female empowerment: Ophelia comes of age as lady-in-waiting for Queen Gertrude, and her singular spirit captures Hamlet’s affections. As lust and betrayal threaten the kingdom, Ophelia finds herself trapped between true love and controlling her own destiny.” I say: An empowered Ophelia!
Special mention: Bad Reputation (dir by Kevin Kerslake) Not directed by a woman, but damn, Joan Jett’s going to be at Sundance, y’all!
Who says you have to stay in your lane? These familiar names are flexing their creative muscles in new genres and mediums:
Leave No Trace (dir by Debra Granik)
Sundance says: “A father and daughter live a perfect but mysterious existence in Forest Park, a beautiful nature reserve near Portland, Oregon, rarely making contact with the world. A small mistake tips them off to authorities sending them on an increasingly erratic journey in search of a place to call their own.”
The Tale (dir by Jennifer Fox)
Sundance says: “An investigation into one woman’s memory as she’s forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive; based on the filmmaker’s own story.”
Skate Kitchen (dir by Crystal Moselle)
Sundance says: “Camille’s life as a lonely suburban teenager changes dramatically when she befriends a group of girl skateboarders. As she journeys deeper into this raw New York City subculture, she begins to understand the true meaning of friendship as well as her inner self.”
Sundance always has timely films that give viewers an opportunity to consider current issues in different ways and this year is no different. Here are three women-directed films that I suspect will start some interesting conversations:
This Is Home (dir by Alexandra Shiva)
Sundance says: “This is an intimate portrait of four Syrian families arriving in Baltimore, Maryland and struggling to find their footing. With eight months to become self-sufficient, they must forge ahead to rebuild their lives. When the travel ban adds further complications, their strength and resilience are put to the test.” I say: Can we make this required viewing at the White House?
Dead Pigs (dir by Cathy Yan)
Sundance says: “A bumbling pig farmer, a feisty salon owner, a sensitive busboy, an expat architect and a disenchanted rich girl converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs float down the river towards a rapidly-modernizing Shanghai, China. Based on true events.” I say: China’s influence grows, but we still barely truly know the people of this dynamic country. I’m hoping this film will entighten and expand our view of its diverse people.
Hal (dir by Amy Scott)
Sundance says: “Hal Ashby’s obsessive genius led to an unprecedented string of Oscar®-winning classics, including Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Being There. But as contemporaries Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg rose to blockbuster stardom in the 1980s, Ashby’s uncompromising nature played out as a cautionary tale of art versus commerce. I say: Sure, it’s about a dude, but I think this is a good time to reconnect with the maverick filmmaker of a maverick filmmaking era, especially if you’ve lost touch with why you wanted make films in the first place.
One of the greatest things about Sundance is that rare opportunity to sit in a theater knowing close to nothing about a director or the movie you’re about to watch, and being totally blown away. For me, those moments usually happen with films directed by first-time feature directors, so I’m reeeeally looking forward to checking these out:
306 Hollywood (dir by Elan and Jonathan Bogarín)
Sundance says: “When two siblings undertake an archaeological excavation of their late grandmother’s house, they embark on a magical-realist journey from her home in New Jersey to ancient Rome, from fashion to physics, in search of what life remains in the objects we leave behind.”
Night Comes On (dir by Jordana Spiro )
Sundance says: “Angel LaMere is released from juvenile detention on the eve of her 18th birthday. Haunted by her past, she embarks on a journey with her 10 year-old sister that could destroy their future.”
Clara’s Ghost (dir by Bridey Elliott)
Sundance says: “Set over the course of a single evening at the Reynolds’ family home in Connecticut, Clara, fed up with the constant ribbing from her self-absorbed showbiz family, finds solace in and guidance from the supernatural force she believes is haunting her.”
Never Goin’ Back (dir by Augustine Frizzell)
Sundance says: “Jessie and Angela, high school dropout BFFs, are taking a week off to chill at the beach. Too bad their house got robbed, rent’s due, they’re about to get fired and they’re broke. Now they’ve gotta avoid eviction, stay out of jail and get to the beach, no matter what!!!”
And Breath Normally (dir by Isold Uggadottir)
Sundance says: “At the edge of Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula, two women’s lives will intersect – for a brief moment – while trapped in circumstances unforeseen. Between a struggling Icelandic mother and an asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau, a delicate bond will form as both strategize to get their lives back on track.”
What They Had (dir by Elizabeth Chomko)
Sundance says: “Bridget returns home to Chicago at her brother’s urging to deal with her mother’s Alzheimer’s and her father’s reluctance to let go of their life together.”
Nancy (dir by Christina Choe)
Sundance says: “Blurring lines between fact and fiction, Nancy becomes increasingly convinced she was kidnapped as a child. When she meets a couple whose daughter went missing thirty years ago, reasonable doubts give way to willful belief – and the power of emotion threatens to overcome all rationality.”
And last, but not least, more familiar names. Some of them played Sundance in the past, others made splashes at other name festivals, all of them make me giddy when I hear they have new projects. Here are a few of the women returning for another ride around the fest circuit (yay!):
You Were Never Really Here (dir by Lynne Ramsay)
I Think We’re Alone Now (dir by Reed Morano!)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (dir by Desiree Akhavan)
The Long Dumb Road (dir by Hannah Fidel)
Private Life (dir by Tamara Jenkins)
Generation Wealth (dir by Lauren Greenfield)
Madeline’s Madeline (dir by Josephine Decker)
The Devil We Know (dir by Stephanie Soechtig)
The Kindergarten Teacher (dir by Sara Colangelo)
Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (dir by Marina Zenovich)
Check out this festival blog post for a complete list of all the Sundance
films directed by women.
I’d love to hear about your top picks directed by women, let me know in the comments. Happy Sundancing!
*I am genuinely ridiculously excited for Amy! Goooooo, Amy!!