#52FilmsByWomen 2019 Ranked & Reviewed

When I first learned of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in late 2016, I was horrified to discover that I hadn’t reached the “challenge’s” quota naturally that year, despite my voracious movie-watching habits. Promoted by the organization Women in Film, #52FilmsByWomen is merely a pledge to watch one movie a week directed by a woman for an entire calendar year. It’s not at all a difficult criteria to fulfill if you watch movies on a regular routine, but so much of the pop culture landscape is dominated by (white) male voices that you’d be surprised by how little media you typically consume is helmed by a female creator until you actually start paying attention to the numbers. Having now taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen three years in a row, I’ve found that to be the exercise’s greatest benefit: paying attention. I’ve found many new female voices to shape my relationship with cinema through the pledge, but what I most appreciate about the experience is the way it consistently reminds me to pay attention to the creators I’m supporting & affording my time. If we want more diversity in creative voices on the pop media landscape, we need to go out of our way to support the people already out there who work outside the white male hegemony. #52FilmsByWomen is a simple, surprisingly easy to fulfill gesture in that direction.

With this pledge in mind, I watched, reviewed, and podcasted about 52 new-to-me feature films directed by women in 2019. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list (along with a re-watch of Goodnight Mommy for our “Good Torture Porn” episode of the podcast). Each film is also ranked below with a link to a corresponding review, since I was using the pledge to influence not only the media I was consuming myself, but also the media we cover on the site. My hope is that this list will not only function as a helpful recap for a year of purposeful movie-watching, but also provide some heartfelt recommendations for anyone else who might be interested in taking the pledge in 2020.

5 Star Reviews

Strange Days (1995), dir. Kathryn Bigelow – “Incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Bigelow frames the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.”

Smithereens (1982), dir. Susan Seidelman

When I Get Home (2019), dir. Solange Knowles

Blood & Donuts (1995), dir. Holly Dale

4.5 Star Reviews

Messiah of Evil (1973), dir. Gloria Katz – “You can approximate a nearly exact equation of what genre pieces were assembled to create its effect; it plays like a post-Romero attempt at adapting ‘Shadows over Innsmouth’ as an American giallo. However, you can’t quite put your finger on how these familiar pieces add up to such an eerie, disorienting experience. That’s just pure black movie magic, the goal all formulaic horrors should strive for but few ever achieve.”

Blue Steel (1990), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Homecoming (2019), dir. Beyoncé Knowles

4 Star Reviews

Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls (1989), dir. Katt Shea – “In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions.”

Punisher: War Zone (2008), dir. Lexi Alexander

Gully Boy (2019), dir. Zoya Akhtar

Aniara (2019), dir. Pella Kågerman

High Life (2019), dir. Claire Denis

Paradise Hills (2019), dir. Alice Waddington

Hail Satan? (2019), dir. Penny Lane

I Am Not a Witch (2018), dir. Rungano Nyoni

Yellow is Forbidden (2019), dir. Pietra Brettkelly

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), dir. Marielle Heller

The Farewell (2019), dir. Lulu Wang

Jezebel (2019), dir. Numa Perrier

Confessions of a Suburban Girl (1992), dir. Susan Seidelman

Braid (2019), dir. Mitzi Peirone

Buckjumping (2019), dir. Lily Keber

Booksmart (2019), dir. Olivia Wilde

3.5 Star Reviews

Greener Grass (2019), dir. Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe – “Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.”

The Breaker Upperers (2019), dir. Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), dir. Susan Seidelman

This Magnificent Cake! (2019), dir. Emma De Swaef

Steven Universe: The Movie (2019), dir. Rebecca Sugar

Knives and Skin (2019), dir. Jennifer Reeder

The Banana Splits Movie (2019), dir. Danishka Esterhazy

Slut in a Good Way (2019), dir. Sophie Lorain

Tenement (1985), dir. Roberta Findlay

Ladyworld (2019), dir. Amanda Kramer

Share (2019), dir. Pippa Bianco

Hunting for Hedonia (2019), dir. Pernille Rose Grønkjær

Nancy (2018), dir. Christina Choe

Cassandro, the Exotico! (2019), dir. Marie Losier

The Field Guide to Evil (2019), dir. Veronika Franz, Katrin Gebbe, Agnieszka Smoczyńska

3 Star Reviews

Spookies (1986), dir. Genie Joseph – “Fractured across two separate production crews and held together only by its central haunted house locale, this is effectively a creature feature horror anthology: a series of disconnected vignettes that each present a spooky-creature-of-the-minute for our temporary enjoyment.”

Disco Pigs (2001), dir. Kirsten Sheridan

Stripped to Kill (1987), dir. Katt Shea

Captain Marvel (2019), dir. Anna Boden

Dumplin’ (2018), dir. Anne Fletcher

Satanic Panic (2019), dir. Chelsea Stardust

Psycho Granny (2019), dir. Rebekah McKendry

Riot Girls (2019), dir. Jovanka Vuckovic

Daddy Issues (2019), dir. Amara Cash

Origin Story (2019), dir. Kulap Vilaysack

Would Not Recommend

The Loveless (1981), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Detroit (2017), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Always Be My Maybe (2019), dir. Nahnatcha Kahn

Fyre Fraud (2019), dir. Julia Willoughby Nason

-Brandon Ledet

#52FilmsByWomen 2018 Ranked & Reviewed

When I first learned of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in late 2016, I was horrified to discover that I hadn’t reached the “challenge’s” quota naturally that year, despite my voracious movie-watching habits. Promoted by the organization Women in Film, #52FilmsByWomen is merely a pledge to watch one movie a week directed by a woman for the entirety of a year. It’s not at all a difficult criteria to fulfill if you watch movies on a regular routine, but so much of the pop culture landscape is dominated by (white) male voices that you’d be surprised by how little media you typically consume is helmed by a female creator until you actually start paying attention to the numbers. Having now taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen two years in a row, I’ve found that to be the exercise’s greatest benefit: paying attention. I’ve found many new female voices to shape my relationship with cinema through the pledge, but what I most appreciate about the experience is the way it consistently reminds me to pay attention to the creators I’m supporting & affording my time. If we want more diversity in creative voices on the pop media landscape, we need to go out of our way to support the people already out there who work outside the white male hegemony. #52FilmsByWomen is a simple, surprisingly easy to fulfill gesture in that direction.

With this pledge in mind, I watched, reviewed, and podcasted about 59 feature films directed by women in 2018. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list, which includes all the re-watches of the batch. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only list the feature-length movies I saw for the first time last year, which serendipitously totaled a clean 52. Each film is ranked & linked to a corresponding review, since I was using the pledge to influence not only the media I was consuming myself, but also the media we cover on the site. My hope is that this list will not only function as a helpful recap for a year of purposeful movie-watching, but also provide some heartfelt recommendations for anyone else who might be interested in taking the pledge in 2019. It’s an experience I highly recommend, as I got so much out of it myself that I’ve already started a new Letterboxd list for my third year of participation.

5 Star Reviews

The Gleaners & I, dir. Agnes Varda (2001) – “I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth.”

Dirty Computer, dir. Emma Westenberg, Lacey Duke (2018)

4.5 Star Reviews

Working Girls, dir. Lizzie Borden (1986) –Working Girls is often darkly funny, but it is first & foremost dark, depicting even the most privileged corners of sex work as an inherently exploitative industry hinged on power, greed, and violence. Whether that criticism is aimed at sex work in particular or capitalism at large is up for interpretation (I assume it’s a healthy dose of both), as the brothel setting of Working Girls is essentially the entirety of capitalism in an apartment-sized microcosm. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film with this much sex play as aggressively unerotic as what’s on display here, resulting in what’s basically a horror film about the hour-to-hour mundanity of sex work (and, by extension, all labor under capitalism), a slow burn creep-out & a low-key political screed.”

You Were Never Really Here, dir. Lynne Ramsay (2018)

Faces Places, dir. Agnès Varda (2017)

Dogfight, dir. Nancy Savoca (1991)

Flames, dir. Josephine Decker (2018)

Shirkers, dir. Sandi Tan (2018)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed, dir. Lotte Reiniger (1926)

4 Star Reviews

Good Manners, dir. Juliana Rojas (2018) – “On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.”

Ratcatcher, dir. Lynne Ramsay (2000)

Blockers, dir. Kay Cannon (2018)

Le Bonheur, dir. Agnès Varda (1965)

The Hitch-Hiker, dir. Ida Lupino (1953)

Mamma Mia!, dir. Phyllida Lloyd (2008)

Thou Was Mild and Lovely, dir. Josephine Decker (2014)

Butter on the Latch, dir. Josephien Decker (2013)

The To Do List, dir. Maggie Carey (2013)

Skate Kitchen, dir. Crystal Moselle (2018)

Sheer Madness, dir. Margarethe von Trotta (1983)

Revenge, dir. Coralie Fargeat (2018)

Blue My Mind, dir. Lisa Brühlmann (2018)

United Skates, dir. Tina Brown, Dyana Winkler (2018)

Double Agent 73, dir. Doris Wishman (1974)

3.5 Star Reviews

Morvern Callar, dir. Lynne Ramsay (2002) – Morvern Callar feels less like an original screenplay than it does like a feature film adaptation of a crumpled-up Polaroid Ramsey found in a sewer. Along with a fearless performance from indie movie mainstay Samantha Morton, Ramsey’s direction & scum-coated visual language capture a very specific phase of soul-crushing grief: the stage where you stumble in total shock, only emerging from drunken stupors long enough to pray for the release of death.”

Madeline’s Madeline, dir. Josephine Decker (2018)

Toni Erdmann, dir. Maren Ade (2016)

Variety, dir. Bette Gordon (1983)

Zama, dir. Lucrecia Martel (2018)

Tigers Are Not Afraid, dir. Issa López. (2018)

Trouble Every Day, dir. Claire Denis (2001)

The New Romantic, dir. Carly Stone (2018)

Saving Face, dir. Alice Wu (2005)

Let the Corpses Tan, dir. Hélène Cattet (2018)

Never Goin’ Back, dir. Augustine Frizzel (2018)

Blank City, dir. Celine Danhier (2010)

Generation Wealth, dir. Lauren Greenfield (2018)

The Spy Who Dumped Me, dir. Susanna Fogel (2018)

The Breadwinner, dir. Nora Twomey (2017)

Alaska is a Drag, dir. Shaz Bennett (2018)

Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami, dir. Sophia Fiennes (2018)

3 Star Reviews

Somewhere, dir. Sofia Coppola (2010) – “This is a deliberately simple, quiet work that scales back Coppola’s ambitions after the go-for-broke excess of Marie Antoinette, one that mirrors the listless emptiness of its the-price-of-fame protagonist. As a result, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a lazy act of pretension, but Coppola’s too tonally & visually skilled as an artist to let it sit that way. This may be the most underwhelming film in her catalog to date, but it’s also quietly sweet & charming in a way too few movies are, which is why she’s one of the best.”

Summer of ’84, dir. Anouk Whissell (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, dir. Desiree Akhivan (2018)

Mary Queen of Scots, dir. Josie Rourke (2018)

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge, dir. Marie Noëlle (2017)

A Wrinkle in Time, dir. Ava DuVernay (2018)

Nailed It, dir. Adele Pham (2018)

Would Not Recommend

Woodshock, dir. Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy (2017)

Imitation Girl, dir. Natasha Kermani (2018)

Romy & Michelle: In the Beginning, dir. Robin Schiff (2005)

Rabbit Test, dir. Joan Rivers (1978)

-Brandon Ledet

Film, Representation, and the Historical Record

Why we care

For the second consecutive year, the writers here at Swampflix have been attempting to complete the #52FilmsByWomen challenge posed to us by the organization Women in Film. The pledge is simple enough: to try over the course of one year to watch the equivalent of one film per week by a female director or female writer. As a staff member of a library, I started to wonder what films from within our own collection qualify and how do I find that out? A team of several colleagues, including my co-author Rachel Tillay and supervisor lisa Hooper formed to answer this question about our own collection, with the aim to create a tool that would allow other institutions to similarly analyze their own holdings.

The Representation Problem

Recently, students of film and film arts have begun to ask whether the creators of film accurately reflect the human record. Studies such as “Inequality in 800 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT, and Disability from 2007-2015” have explored the relationship between creators and whether they accurately represent the human condition. Interest in the unequal rates in which women fill various positions has been particularly acute. Women in Film found that “women comprised 11% of all directors working on the top 250 films of 2017.” Women are slightly more likely to be involved in other parts of the creative process. For example, “overall, women accounted for 16% of all directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 films. Women fared best as producers (24%), followed by executive producers (15%), editors (14%), writers (10%), directors (8%), and cinematographers (2%).” These studies all point to the importance of further examination of the factors that lead to inequality in hiring and funding practices in movie business.

The Data Cycle and Libraries

While the factors that lead to inequality in the creation of film are being examined, the role discrimination plays in other portions of the data cycle have not been examined. The data life cycle is the process which occurs between the creation of a film and the inclusion of that film as part of the inspiration for a new film. This is the work of libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions. For example, libraries collect or acquisition film into their collections, describe the films (also known as creating metadata or cataloging), and store the content for the long term. Specifically, two of the most common, long-standing characteristics of libraries are that they are a “collection [of] what is deemed to be important information” and that they “preserve the information for future users.” [Evans, G. Edwards and Margaret Zarnosky Saponaro. Collection Management Basics, sixth edition pg. 2]

Nevertheless, libraries are not living up to their own ideals regarding properly recording the wealth of diversity present in modern culture. In fact, one of the topics being discussed passionately in recent conferences (such as ALA 2018 held this past June in New Orleans), is how can these organizations work to increase inclusion in their own organizations and the wider community, preserve the record of oppressed peoples, and correct past practices which suppressed the knowledge and values of minorities. In this context, the question about diversity in film becomes, “is the work of a diverse population being acquired, described, and preserved by historical institutions?” When libraries acquire film and make it available for loan we are supporting the status quo if we collect more films by men, describe them more accurately, loan them out more often, and save more of them for future watchers. Additionally, the libraries that exist on the margins often struggle to protect the collections they’re preserving. As an example of the scale of the loss, the sample collection of data we are examining begins with DVDs bought in 2005. All other DVDs owned by Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, and a number of other items, were all lost when ten feet of water filled the bottom floors of the library during Hurricane Katrina.

If, however, we can begin to correct this bias by collecting, describing, loaning, and preserving more films by women or other under-represented groups, we are participating in creating a more accurate version of the historical record and succeeding in our mission, as well as providing a more equitable set of data from which new films will draw for their inspiration.

A New Tool

For this reason, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library has begun to explore our own collections and is developing a free tool that will allow other preservers of the historical record to examine their own collections to answer these questions. Our initial project has been to examine what percentage of our DVD collection was directed by women and what percentage of the directors whose work we have collected are women.

This project was more difficult than desired because only recently have library metadata (or catalog) records for DVDs been allowed to incorporate demographic data about the creators, and the majority of records created by libraries around the world rarely include this data. Unfortunately, in the complex calculus of balancing comprehensive records for all information and detailed records, many new fields like those for demographic data are often ignored. Additionally, the terminology that should be used in demographic fields is still in development. Catalogers and metadata librarians are exploring how to describe gender in sensitive and accurate ways. The terminology must encompass cis and trans, male, female, and gender non-conforming identities. It must be useful for grouping and analyzing large sets of data, be relatively stable, and be extensible as terminology change over time.

Fortunately for our purposes, cataloging records do almost always very carefully note who the agents associated with the creation and dissemination of each object are. The names are recorded according to a very detailed set of predictable rules, many creators of multiple works are assigned their own name format to distinguish from people who have the same name, and they are included in the same place in every record. Many records also use terminology or codes that describe the role each person played. We were also able to harvest into our dataset lists of female directors from Wikipedia’s female directors list, Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s Inclusion in the Director’s Chair, and Collider.com’s The Most Exciting Female Directors Working Today. We created Python scripts and regular expressions that interpret the most common data structures in libraries (inverted names, often followed by dates or other identifying information) into direct order (First Name Last Name). We documented the process we used for creating and applying these so that others can recreate or extend our work. Finally, we compared the imperfect lists that resulted. We were disappointed to realize that only a bit more than 4% of our DVDs have female directors. We are hopeful that as we add missing names to our data, that the percentage will increase. However, we are also going to put more effort into acquiring films with female directors in an attempt to create a more representative collection.

We invite you to participate in this work! Ways you can participate include:

  1. Contributing to lists of creators on Wikipedia who belong to under-represented groups.
  2. Examine your collections, or collections you have data for. (Spoiler alert: it would take some effort, but nearly all libraries have provided some information about their holdings publicly online). Because our code is available for free online, you can reuse it as well!
  3. Check our work! Is there something obvious we’re missing? If you find something we should take into account, you can even submit suggestions through Github and we would love to add them in!

-Rachel Tillay & CC Chapman

Nude on the Moon (1961)

threehalfstar

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While we were performing our various autopsies on the best movies we watched in 2016, I noticed something embarrassing about my own viewing habits. Out of the near-400 films I watched last year, less than 40, a mere 10%, were directed by women. As a minor corrective to this massive oversight, I’ve decided to take the 52 Films by Women pledge this year, a very simplistic resolution that only urges that you watch one film a week directed by a filmmaker. It’s very little to ask of someone who watches film with any regularity, but I think it’s an important means of consciously paying attention to who’s behind the camera in your media production. My first step in achieving this goal, and my first viewing experience of this year overall, is proof positive that this 52 Films by Women pledge will in no way limit the variety of films I’m watching in terms of genre, style, or content; it will only make sure that a woman is behind them. The light sci-fi nudie cutie Nude on the Moon, directed by undercelebrated sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman (under the psuedonym Anthony Brooks), is not likely to be a typical inclusion on most people’s 52 Films by Women lists. It was a solid start for the year in my mind, though, considering how much it tickled my lowbrow sensibilities.

Two amateur rocket scientists tinker away with vaguely defined bleep bloop machines & chem lab beakers in order to pull off a self-funded trip to the moon. Ignoring the all-too-obvious romantic desire of his sheepish, but buxom secretary, the youngest scientist buries his head in his work until an inheritance payment from a deceased uncle fully funds the trip, newly energizing the ultra-macho nerd. The two-man expedition to the moon goes beautifully smooth . . . almost too beautifully smooth. The men land in a crater teeming with unexpected treasures: water, plants, “moon gold,” and, most treasurable of all, half-naked space aliens. The citizens of the moon are beautiful humanoid specimens, both male & female, who wear only shiny lamé booty shorts & dumb little antennas that allow for telepathic communication. Much like in the similar erotic fantasy piece Cat-Women of the Moon, they follow a matriarchal Moon Queen, except in this case the monarch is topless & means no harm for the Earthmen. Our two rocket scientist heroes frolic in this nudist colony for as long as they’re allowed, then return to Earth unharmed, but without proof of what they’ve witnessed. The only thing that’s changed upon their return is that the hunkier professor finally notices that his adoring secretary looks an awful lot like his beloved Moon Queen (both roles were played by an actress billed simply as “Marietta”) and he rapturously returns her affection.

As the title suggests, there’s not much more to Nude on the Moon than an indulgence in light-hearted kitsch. The main innovation Doris Wishman brings to the post-Immoral Mr. Teas nudie cutie genre is in transporting the typical nude colony setting to an extraterrestrial locale. Adding a sci-fi touch to its genre’s flimsy excuses to leer at beautiful, naked bodies makes the film a memorable novelty, especially in its dinky rocket ship model & ASMR telepathic space alien whispers. Nude on the Moon is careful not to frame its actors in the same shot as its kids’ science fair project moon rocket, which is only shown from a distance. We do get a close look at the astronauts’ space suits, though, which feature exposed skin where the helmet doesn’t meet the body and vaguely resemble either the green Power Ranger’s 90s getup or The History of Future Folk, I can’t decide. The dialogue is exactly as goofy as you’d expect, given the circumstances. For instance, an astronaut points for his Earth-buddy to notice a ladder that’s leaning on a wall, only to tell him in perfect deadpan, “This leads to the top of the wall.” All of this cheap sci-fi silliness combines with an original lounge crooner number “Moon Doll,” set to a a picturesque, starry sky moonscape, to pad out the film’s opening half, which has been tasked with the dubious honor of entertaining audiences before the film delivers on the nudity promised in the title. It’s all delightfully inane.

Don’t be surprised if when I recap the films I watched for the 52 Films by Women pledge at the end of the year, over half of my selections are Doris Wishman productions. Although this light nudie cutie territory is far-removed from the nastier “roughies” genre pictures her career would eventually devolve into (strangely mirroring Russ Meyer’s own sexploitation career path), it was wildly entertaining stuff. Making an interesting picture solely out of near-nude actors & cheap sci-fi effects is a much more difficult kind of genre film alchemy than you might imagine. Although Nude on the Moon didn’t quite match my enthusiasm for the less bawdy, but similar-in-spirit Cat-Women of the Moon, it was still a delightful novelty and I can’t wait to see what else Wishman delivered with that innate understanding of what makes this kind of half-cooked frivolity so appealing to audiences like me.

-Brandon Ledet