Overview

To honor the end of Women's History Month, film critics Myles Mikulic and Casey Karaman pay tribute to some of the greatest films by female-identifying directors

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Courtesy of IMDB.com

Mujer Lobo (She Wolf, 2013)

A shape-shifting killer prowls the Buenos Aires subways in Tamae Garateguy’s inventive, trippy Mujer Lobo. Played by three actresses (Mónica Lairana, Luján Ariza, Guadalupe Docampo), the killer’s identity fluctuates as she navigates the constellation of dangers posed by the men in her orbit. Valeria Villegas Lindvall’s essay points out the parallels to earlier films trading in anxieties over female sexuality, a la Chained Girls and Satan in High Heels. But like the more recent Jennifer’s Body and Under the Skin, Garateguy engages in tricky role reversals between victims and victimizers as the killer evades a sadistic cop with a penchant for sexual degradation. Mujer Lobo is not for the squeamish, but for those looking for offbeat horror of the A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Mujer Lobo should be required viewing. -MM

Courtesy of Lionsgate

American Psycho (2000)

A dissertation could be written about masculinity through the female lens. The Bret Easton Ellis source material of American Psycho has a self-serious, “Joker is my favorite character” aura to it. The titular psycho, Patrick Bateman, is both a vehicle for yuppie madness, and someone that the author might admire. Mary Harron’s film adaptation has no such admiration. In her hands, American Psycho becomes a black comedy. She created moments like the famous business card sequence and the obsession with Huey Lewis and the News. She took Martin Scorsese’s twisted use of pop music in films and made it insane. Patrick Bateman in the book is a demigod. In the movie, he’s a psychotic madman who’s creepier and more pathetic than the dudes who put posters up of him in their dorm rooms would like to think. More so than even Kathryn Bigelow, Mary Harron shows just how silly uber-masculinity really is. -CK

Courtesy of Universal

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001)

In Kasi Lemmons’s sophomore feature, Samuel L. Jackson plays a crime-solving, homeless, Juilliard trained pianist on the trail of an artistic serial killer loosely inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe. Critics were lukewarm and the film tanked at the box office, perhaps contributing to Lemmons pursuing more restrained, less notably bonkers historical dramas like Talk to Me and Harriet. A tragedy! The Caveman’s Valentine is the highest of high concept, right down to
the sweaty naming of Jackson’s character “Romulus Ledbetter” and his mad crusade against the thought-control-emitting-from-the-Chrysler-Building Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant. Brimming with ideas, energy, and bizarre conceits, this movie is long overdue for critical reappraisal and a weirdly passionate fan base. -MM

Courtesy of Criterion

Beau Travail (1999)

Just like Mary Harron above, Claire Denis takes the macho world of the foreign legion and makes it lyrical, beautiful, and haunting. Denis Lavant plays a hard-driving lieutenant who pushes his troops hard during training in remote, alien, and beautiful Djibouti. There is a conflict that comes about between him and Gregoire Colin’s character, a beautiful young man who has caught the eye of their Commandant, played by Michel Subor. There are clear homoerotic undertones that are always mentioned when this film is discussed. In the hands of Claire Denis, these undertones are played in an abstract, disjointed, and endlessly fascinating way. Denis is a director of instinct and invention, who seems to find moments of beauty in every day of shooting. This ending of this film has been regularly discussed as one of the best endings in film. “Best” is subjective. “Unforgettable” is not. -CK

Courtesy of Alta Films

Sin dejar huella (Without a Trace, 2000)

María Novaro’s fourth feature finds a mismatched counterfeit art smuggler (Aitana Sánchez- Gijón) and assembly plant worker (Tiaré Scanda) on a perilous road trip in a stolen car. Critics were quick to draw comparisons to Ridley Scott’s female-led road movie Thelma and Louise (a comparison Novaro bristles at), but Novaro’s careful pacing and laser-focused tension bring to mind another prolific British filmmaker lazy critics are wont to compare everything to, Alfred Hitchcock, particularly in the planning and execution of a trap straight out of the Stephen King short Dolan’s Cadillac (Novaro is 100 percent correct about American critics, incidentally). Despite initial accolades (it was awarded best Latin American film at the 2001 Sundance Festival), Sin dejar huella has fallen to semi-obscurity, so now is as good a time as any to rediscover it. -MM

Courtesy of IFC

The Babadook (2014)

Some of the best horror directors are women, and the best horror film is also directed by a woman. A single mother, dealing with her son’s serious behavioral problems, is haunted by a creature known as The Babadook. An obvious metaphor for the horrors of motherhood, this film joins the pantheon of great maternal anxiety films. It’s impeccably textured, from a desolate home to the creepiest children’s pop-up book ever conceived. Director Jennifer Kent deserves to be mentioned amongst the world’s top directors. -CK

Courtesy of Red-Horse Native Productions

Naturally Native (1998)

Valerie Red-Horse’s career in film began as an actress typically offered stock “Indian Maiden” roles that bore little resemblance to her lived experience or the Native Americans she knew. So she made her own. Financed by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut, Naturally Native was not only the first feature film entirely financed by a Native American tribe, but the first film written, co-directed, produced, starring, and about Native American women. The plot follows
three sisters (Red-Horse, Irene Bedard, and Kimberly Guerrero) who start a cosmetic business.

Critics have likened the entrepreneurial struggles depicted to the challenges of independent film production (the go-to analogy when there isn’t a Ridley Scott title at hand), and indeed Red-Horse has described in interviews an autobiographical component of the sisters as different stages of her own life. Naturally Native is a family drama that deftly explores a broad range of
intimately personal to broader socioeconomic concerns, and you can see it for free on Vimeo, right now, so what are you waiting for? -MM

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

This film is a stand-in for any Lynne Ramsay film. Ratcatcher. Morvern Callar. We Need to Talk about Kevin. Watch all of them (only one a day, they must be savored). You will not find a more closely observed and more lyrically oriented director, with whom every moment feels spontaneously discovered. You Were Never Really Here is her most accessible film (in the way that a film about a hitman that involved sex trafficking can be accessible). Joaquin Phoenix is a deeply disturbed hitman tasked with finding the kidnapped daughter of a politician. Every door in his mind opens to another trauma. He shambles throughout his life barely functioning but still driven forward by his skills.

As with every Ramsay film, catharsis only comes through enormous pain and sacrifice. She understands the emotional stakes of a character better than any character alive. Her films are hard and heartless so that their joy can be more profoundly felt. She is one of the best film directors to have ever lived, and her only flaw is that she has not made more films. -CK

Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....