6. Je, Tu, Il, Elle (Dir. Chantal Akerman, 1975)
Throughout the history of cinema, female filmmakers have been marginalized and downplayed. They are especially ignored when making films about womanhood and feminism. Is this fair? No. Which is why the best of the group need especial recognition. Such is the case with Chantal Akerman, who, despite achieving minor success with her sophomore feature, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is one of the most under the radar filmmakers around. As a filmmaker, she is one of the boldest of the late twentieth century. Period.
Her debut feature, Je, Tu, Il, Elle is a prime example of how one goes about making personal, feminist pieces properly. The film is told in three parts, all about Julie, an aimless drifter played by the director herself. In the first segment, Julie is in self-imposed isolation in her apartment and the way she interacts with the objects around her is observed. In the second segment, Julie has left the apartment to go on an aimless road trip and as a result gets involved with a lonely truck driver.
In the final segment, Julie goes to an old lover’s home where she attempts to rekindle the past relationship. In each of the three segments, sex and sexuality are in the forefront, while never feeling gratuitous or erotic. Instead it gives a portrait of the central character, showing her visually and focusing on her body and the way it interacts with its surroundings.
The filmmaking, as with all films by Chantal Akerman, is minimalistic and barebones. Akerman sits her camera static and rarely cuts, resulting in characters coming in and out of frame and therefore hinting at a deeper, underlying meaning to the film. Je, Tu, Il, Elle is both feminist and minimalist cinema at their finest.
For those interested, it is currently available on Hulu Plus and through the Criterion Collection in the Eclipse Series Box Set, Chantal Akerman in the Seventies.
7. Meek’s Cutoff (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2011)
Kelly Reichardt is one of the most distinct voices in American cinema working today. Her films are defined by their ultra minimalistic vibe and heavy use of the outdoors. While the films have all been strong hits with critics, they have never seemed to connect with audiences the way they should, nor have they ever had wide theatrical distribution in the U.S. This is most apparent with her most audacious film, Meek’s Cutoff.
Meek’s Cutoff is a period piece set in 1845, a rarity in minimalist cinema. A small group of settlers are being led through the Oregon Trail. The wives of the men begin to suspect their guide of getting them lost, as the journey was supposed to last three weeks, but has since stretched to five. Tensions further begin to arise when it is discovered the water supply is running low and a source has not been seen since the beginning of the trail, leading to the question will the settlers survive or not?
Reichardt’s film is very minimalistic in its storytelling, as the film is focused on the mundane and repetitive aspects of the journey over the grandeur and excitement that one would expect from a traditional western. But that doesn’t stop her from putting especial focus into the wagons and costumes, which are historically accurate. The faces of the women are hardly seen through the shadows cast by the bonnets they wear and their role in the decision making process is very limited.
The wagons don’t always work in the ways they were intended, with the wheels commonly coming off and give off a feeling as if they are about to shatter. This culminates in giving Kelly Reichardt’s overall vision of the West- of slowly impending doom and a humdrum journey from one place to another. Everything is felt and has weight to it. Thus making Meek’s Cutoff seemingly inert for some, but hypnotic for others.
Meek’s Cutoff is available on DVD and Blu Ray through Oscilloscope Laboratories and is available on Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube instant.
8. Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil, 1967)
Czechoslovakia is one of the most popular places for film students to do their study abroad, since in Prague it has one of the most well respected film schools in the world. Despite this, Czechoslovakia’s reputation for actual filmmaking in the United States is minimal. While filmmakers such as Miloš Forman and Jan Švankmajer have followings, František Vláčil does not, despite making what is commonly referred to in the native land as the best film that country has ever produced, Marketa Lazarová.
In Marketa Lazarová, a feud between two rival medieval clans causes war amongst them. One of the clans’ kings has a daughter whom he loves dearly and has the intention of keeping her a virgin permanently so that she could join a nunnery to become a nun. This all changes when a robber kidnaps her from the rival clan and is raped; therefore denying her access to become a nun and therefore adding an extra tension to the ongoing war.
The film is by all accounts grand in its scope, with every moment in the film feeling large. This comes in part from the cinematography, which uses black and white to great effect, and the mise-en-scène, which is filled primarily by larger-then-life sets that feel authentic to the time and the landscape of Czechoslovakia’s forests.
Marketa Lazarová is also very trance-like in the way the events and characters unfold. For some this experience may be overwhelming, but for others it is a rewarding and hypnotic experience that will not be forgotten easily.
Marketa Lazarová is currently available on DVD, Blu Ray, and Hulu through the Criterion Collection.
9. The Only Son (Dir. Ozu Yasujiro, 1936)
Ozu Yasujiro is recognized as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His films are defined by their examination of the family dynamic and his later films feature the backdrop of a Post WWII Japan. One of his very best films is his first sound film, The Only Son, one of his least talked about films.
The Only Son is about a widowed mother who, on the brink of poverty, sacrifices everything she owns to send her intelligent son to school in hopes that he will have a successful future. Years later, she goes to visit him and discovers he is poor and not living up to his potential, working as a night school teacher. This results in emotional conflict between the mother and son that unfolds as the film progresses.
Ozu’s film is one of his most poignant films primarily because of the intimate way he handles the relationship between the mother and her son. Each of these characters make sacrifices for one another and the love between them is genuine. This results in the film’s final shot being one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever committed to cinema. It is that real. What remains is the question as to how it is not as widely viewed as Tokyo Story, Late Spring or Floating Weeds, as it is equal, if not better then those films.
The Only Son is available in the Criterion Collection Box Set, The Only Son/There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu and on Hulu Plus.
10. Ossos (Dir. Pedro Costa, 1998)
Pedro Costa is one of the best filmmakers working today. More so then Agnes Varda, his films blur the line between narrative and documentary, going so far as to cast actual people to play themselves in fictional scenarios and keep them in the destructive locations that they naturally inhabit. His films have a strong critical following, especially on the international scene. But, in spite of this, Costa is rather unknown to the common viewer.
Perhaps it is because his films might be too harsh and too real for them to handle. Regardless, his most audience friendly film comes in the form of the first film in his Fontainhas Trilogy, Ossos, which translates directly from Portuguese as ‘Bones’.
Ossos is about two teenagers who live in an impoverished neighborhood in Lisbon. The girl has just given birth to a child and is suicidal and addicted to heroine. The boy is a deadbeat and shady. She makes the mistake of entrusting the infant to him for a day, leading to disastrous results.
As with all the films in Costa’s portfolio, Ossos is not so much about plot and character then it is about atmosphere and mood, which is always melancholy and apocalyptic. The locations are scummy and buildings collapse on their own.
This is the only film from Fontainhas Trilogy that has cinematography that is not crude by design, perhaps because it is also the only one of the trilogy not shot digitally, making it easier for the audience to embrace and forces them to think of where the line between fiction and reality actually is.
Ossos is available on Hulu and DVD through the Criterion Collection in the Box Set, Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa.