One of the highlights of the Oscar season is the series of round table discussions produced by The Hollywood Reporter, and for good reason. We spend much of the fall and winter comparing drastically different films only on the most basic of levels, who is deserving of awards and who isn’t. Any real conversation between the creators of the best movies of the year is therefore worth watching. Unfortunately, the list of the participants is not often as diverse as the films themselves.
This year’s directors’ round table was made up entirely of men, as was the one last year. The same is true of this year’s writers’ panel. Meanwhile, the one real opportunity for us to hear a genuine dialog between women in cinema, the actresses’ panel, was bungled by the typical soft and silly questions that plague American actresses. As Monika Bartyzel so astutely points out in her piece over at Movies.com, it might not be intentional on the part of THR but that doesn’t make it any less problematic.
At last year’s directors’ panel this actually became a point of discussion. The interviewer asked the assembled men why there were no women in the room, as if there were no good films directed by women that year. The apparent ignorance of The Hollywood Reporter was both awkward and shocking. More than embarrassing, however, this is also irresponsible. It perpetuates the notion that there aren’t women directing films, or at least not films worth rewarding. One wonders if the Academy and various Oscar watchers have decided that after Kathryn Bigelow’s historic win, there’s nothing more to worry about.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, and every year it seems there are excellent films directed by women that either get completely overlooked or aren’t taken seriously in the race for Best Director. So what’s the problem? Well, when asked last year about the lack of women directors, Steve McQueen boiled it down to a question of nationhood. In other countries, he pointed out, women filmmakers don’t have nearly as much trouble getting taken seriously. I wouldn’t realistically expect THR (or the Academy) to look far abroad, but for the sake of argument here are just a few names, women whose work is daring, creative and among the best of the year: Nadine Labaki, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Valeria Sarmiento, Angelina Nikonova, and Rama Burshtein, whose film Fill the Void picked up a few Independent Spirit nominations this week. Labaki and Burshtein both had their films selected by their home countries to be the official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Actually, while we’re on the subject of things that will never happen, how great would it be if a director of a documentary were given this sort of treatment? Many of the best documentaries of 2012 were directed by women, from crowd pleasers like Indie Game: The Movie to works of greater vision such as Leviathan and Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry. A number of women have actually walked away with the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, beginning with Nancy Hamilton’s victory for Helen Keller in Her Story in 1955. Lauren Greenfield should absolutely be considered for The Queen of Versailles, perhaps the year’s most astute representation of American life and society.
However, foreign language films and documentaries aren’t the only categories to look in order to find awards-worthy work by women. This has been the case for years, but rather than gripe about old mistakes let’s look at this year alone. Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, featuring a revelatory performance from Elle Fanning, absolutely deserves to be in the awards conversation. It’s a portrait of a time gone by; the England’s left wing political culture in the 1960s. Shot by the ever-exciting Robbie Ryan and with a daring script by Potter that feels like a Doris Lessing novel of the same period, it’s the kind of thing that should be considered in a handful of important categories.
Closer to home, there’s Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. Canadian films don’t often get very far in the awards race, but they often should. In this case in particular, I’m a little surprised that there isn’t at least more buzz around Michelle Williams’s performance, in a film leaps and bounds better than My Week with Marilyn. Polley’s screenplay is perhaps a little too passionate, but it works, and she gets some excellent performances out of Seth Rogen and the apparently smoldering and seductive Luke Kirby. Playfully art directed, Toronto seems like a magically colorful landscape for lovers rather than the gray Midwestern city we all know and occasionally enjoy.
But wait, there are Americans! I haven’t yet seen either Middle of Nowhere or Zero Dark Thirty, but I am eagerly looking forward to them and I’ll trust the critics who have expressed their passion for both films that Ava DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow should be in the conversation. Anyone who’s seen Lana Wachowski’s stunning HRC Visibility Award acceptance speech knows how excellent a choice she would be for any round table discussion. Yet I can’t quite talk myself into backing much of a Cloud Atlas awards season push, so I’ll hope the Wachowskis pull out something truly brilliant down the road.
I can, however, rave about two other American directors. Julia Loktev‘s new film, The Loneliest Planet, is just something else. Two quiet performances from Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg sit in the foreground, two young travelers on a long journey through the Caucasus Mountains. The script is simple and elemental, and gets right to the deepest roots of this intimate relationship without the need for any sort of context or history. Its brilliance, however, derives from the juxtaposition of this hushed narrative and the breathtaking landscape. The couple seems so small compared to the gorgeously photographed masses of green and brown that hover above them, yet are somehow also elevated by them. More than any acting showcase, The Loneliest Planet is a surprising work of cinematic vision that will hopefully find traction as the season goes forward beyond its Independent Spirit nomination for Loktev herself.
More than anything else, however, there’s one omission from the season that I just don’t understand. Lynn Shelton‘s family and character study, Your Sister’s Sister, is at least as witty and emotionally resonant as Silver Linings Playbook, if not much more so. The cast of Rosemarie DeWitt, Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass might not be as famous as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, but that’s not a good enough reason for this excellent work to be sidelined. Out of all of these names, excepting the already Oscar-winning Bigelow, Shelton seemed the most likely to be included in the season. Hopefully, with the film now boosted along a bit by the Gotham Awards and the Indie Spirits, something will stick.
We have a long way to go before women filmmakers are taken seriously in Hollywood. Yet we’ve come far enough that there’s absolutely no excuse to ignore the talented women who are already making awards-worthy films. Bigelow’s victory was an historic cause for celebration, but no woman has been nominated since and the total nomination tally for women in that category is still four.
And if not even the press takes these filmmakers seriously as Oscar contenders, when will the Academy itself?