8. Lost in Translation (2003)
“Melancholy is a topic I’m interested in more than something I deeply feel. There is indeed some form of melancholy in me, but I’m not the kind of girl who spends her afternoon looking out the window with a sad gaze.”
– Sofia Coppola
Coppola’s breakthrough picture, Lost in Translation, a film about mondaine ennui and alienation, netted her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Having grown up on film sets––is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that her pop is Francis Ford Coppola?––maybe it isn’t such a shocker that Coppola’s budding auteur status is well founded for such a gifted writer-director.
Lost in Translation’s jetlagged kindred spirits are a conflicted newlywed named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and an aging international movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who together navigate the excited, feverish, and frequently surreal landscape of contemporary Japan.
Their shared stretch in the Land of the Rising Sun is punctuated with platonic explorations including meals, sightseeing, intimate conversation, and the requisite karaoke occurrence. And just when has the delicious fuzz of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s anti-involvement anthem “Just Like Honey” been used so dismally cool?
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
When A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night debuted at Sundance in 2014 it was hailed by New York Times critic Brooks Barnes as “the first Iranian vampire Western”, and that’s a fair cop. But it’s much more than just a moody, atmospheric vampire film, Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut is a Beckett-like creation, full to burst with dark tableau and an effulgent frame of mind.
Set in an apocryphal Iranian interurban deep within the recesses is Bad City, and her denizens dwell in a climate of fear and flesh as a lonely vampire lives amongst them. Sheila Vand plays the eponymous vampire with glow and discretion, adding to the obliquely effective emotional landscape at the crux of Amirpour’s mythology.
The black-and-white cinematography is ethereal and adds to the otherworldliness as visual symmetry underlines the narrative and antes up feelings of existential ennui. The listless and lonely sound of the wind rattles like an Antonioni film, a pleasing post-punk soundtrack, and one of the best and most expressive feline performances you’ve seen in years (can Masuka appear in more movies, please?) further adds up to an arresting and exquisite accomplishment.
Post Script; fans of Amirpour be on the lookout for her latest film The Bad Batch, a cannibal romance dystopian thriller with Jason Momoa (!), Jim Carrey (!!) and Keanu Reeves (!!!) which will hopefully get some kind of wide release in 2017.
6. The Love Witch (2016)
A stunning to look at and thrilling to think about throwback to the Technicolor melodramas of the swinging 60s and the sexploitation cinema that followed, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is like nothing you’ve seen in cinemas in a very, very long time.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson, brilliant), is a beautiful but bloodthirsty narcissist who’s keen on love magic and other dark arts, she also dabbles in oil painting and murder. Determined to find the man of her dreams, Elaine will cast spells, brew strange potions, and make marvellous meals to manipulate the men around her until she finds her ideal man.
Biller’s delightfully macabre exercise in seduction, sass, witchcraft, and vintage sensations feels like it was made decades ago but with bracingly modernistic designs. Her inspired and kaleidoscopic set design––and we’re talking Goddess level artistry here––sumptuous costumes, and deliberately superannuated aesthetic is a crafty coup de cinema.
For anyone keeping track Biller wrote, directed, edited, production designed, made the costumes, and contributed to the soundtrack (which also includes selections from Ennio Morricone, and nostalgic scores from 60s Italian films), making sure that auteur theory is alive, well, and wonderfully witchy.
The Love Witch is a delightfully subversive, hilariously quotable, and slyly feminist revenge saga. Odds are good that this will be your new favorite movie, it’s got “cult classic” written all over it. Ravishing, ineffable, and awesome, that’s The Love Witch.
5. Wendy and Lucy (2008)
This humble, heartrending and lamentable third feature from Kelly Reichardt, whom Senses of Cinema’s Scott Littman has dubbed “the poet laureate of the Pacific Northwest” is an understated and breathtaking showpiece.
Writer-director-editor Reichardt, inspired by the short story “Train Choir” by Jon Raymond (who co-wrote the screenplay with her) revisits some neo-realist territories (think Vittorio De Sica’s heart-tugging dog-loving epic Umberto D.) in this life-affirming tearjerker that earns each of those tears with absolute honesty and nobility.
Michelle Williams is brilliantly wonderful as Wendy, a young, broke drifter travelling to Alaska in search of work, solo save for her dog, Lucy. When her junker car finally kicks it in Oregon things get even bleaker when Wendy is busted shoplifting dog food. After finally struggling to post bail Wendy is next faced with the sad fact that Lucy is now missing.
Florida-born, New York-based filmmaker Reichardt may well have her understated masterpiece with the moving miracle that is Wendy and Lucy, but her entire oeuvre makes for an austere yet ravishing tapestry of forlorn and disparate figures as in her revisionist Western from 2010 Meek’s Cutoff or her most recent and widely acclaimed small-town drama Certain Women (2016).
4. The Gleaners and I (2000)
Certainly a matriarch of modern French cinema, Agnès Varda actually predates the Nouvelle Vague––though her wonderful 1962 Left Bank film Cléo From 5 to 7 is perhaps the quintessential New Wave experience––and at 88, is still going strong. A prolific auteur of the highest caste, Varda’s avant-garde documentary The Gleaners and I was inspired by an 1867 painting by Jean-Francois Millet who set out to the French countryside to essential film people who scavenge for a living.
These “gleaners” take what they can from surplus in the fields, oysters washed ashore after storms, to useable discarded goods in trash bins. Amusingly narrated by Varda herself, the resurfacing feminist politicking, social commentary, and ravishing reformist experimentalism make for a singular filmic experience from a living legend and full stop cinematic genius.
3. Morvern Callar (2002)
Morvern Callar is Lynne Ramsay’s miraculous second feature, a loose adaptation of contempo-beat Scottish writer Alan Warner’s 1995 cult novel of the same name.
A challenging but rewarding film of startling beauty and immense intellect, Morvern Callar begins in a small coastal town in the west of Scotland where self-effacing clerk Morvern (Samantha Morton, incredible) is suddenly thrust into turmoil after the suicide of her boyfriend.
A series of rivetingly rendered events soon finds Morven and her bff Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) on a trip to Ibiza and beyond that brings with it unexpected emotions, revelatory questions and comments regarding sexuality, class conflict, loyalty, identity, and lamentation all contribute to a many-layered parable that’s also a stunning tour de force.
“Where are we gonna go?” asks Lanna, to which Morvern responds: “Someplace beautiful.” Ramsay’s Morvern Callar is such a place.
2. Fish Tank (2009)
Truthfully, this list could easily contain every film by English filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Red Road, American Honey), but instead we opted for a personal favorite with the disquieting, emotionally rich and utterly raw Fish Tank. With this film writer-director Arnold proves an astonishing talent in a story which, in just a few words tells of fifteen-year-old Mia’s (Kate Jarvis, genius) fragile world turning on its ear when her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing) brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender).
Fish Tank, arguably Arnold’s best film to date, is a youth-in-trouble masterpiece that is clearly and miraculously demonstrative of Arnold’s keen, clear, and uncanny observations of working-class realism; a bleak and melancholy milieu shared by the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Arnold’s spiritual forebears.
An incredibly muscular film on every level––Arnold’s characters especially feel energized and authentic, and you want nothing but the best for them––with a sharp cinéma-vérité vibe, a self-improvised spirit that would make Cassavetes cheer, and an elusive and expansive feeling of innovation and fatalism that puts the film into the upper echelon of world cinema.
So few films are this staggeringly sublime and intensely realized. Easily one of the best films of the 21st Century by a visionary and formative filmmaker.
1. Toni Erdmann (2016)
Pathos and playfulness make for admirable bedfellows in German writer/director Maren Ade’s sprightly pièce de résistance, Toni Erdmann.
Estranged father Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is an aging bohemian with penchant for elaborate practical jokes. Winfried, also a divorcé and retired music teacher, is greatly distressed following the death of his little dog, Willi, and decides to make a surprise visit to Bucharest to see his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a reluctant workaholic corporate hot shot.
Winfried, donning a cheap disguise consisting of a bad wig and false teeth creates the ambitious persona: ‘Toni Erdmann’, life coach. Will his spontaneous visit bring a holy mess to his daughter’s distracted world? You betcha.
Toni Erdmann has a lot on its mind, and Ade is a director of great intelligence, and one well versed in abrupt instants of audience blindsiding and many modes of humor from gross-out gags (there’s one here that would make the Farrelly brothers blush) to surrealist circumvention (Luis Buñuel would’ve loved this film).
A dazzling comedy of modern life’s illogicality, a bold feminist statement, a touching family drama, and more, Toni Erdmann is proportionately disarming and charming and should be considered one the most ambitious films in recent memory. Wow.
Limiting this list to 25 films isn’t meant to diminish other great films released this century by women so here’s a few more that are certainly worth your while and no doubt will be featured in future lists from Taste of Cinema:
A Way of Life (2004, directed by Amma Asante), Always Sunshine (2016, directed by Sophia Takal), American Psycho (2000, directed by Mary Harron), Beach Rats (2015, directed by Eliza Hittman), Bright Star (2009, directed by Jane Campion), Casting JonBenet (2015, directed by Kitty Green), Monsoon Wedding (2001, directed by Mira Nair), Ninth Floor (2015, directed by Mina Shum), Obvious Child (2004, directed by Gillian Robespierre), Porcupine Lake (2017, directed by Ingrid Veninger), and Things to Come (2016, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve).
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.