Little White Lies

100 great movies by female directors – part 5

Tilda Swinton, Jodie Foster and Adam Sandler all feature in this segment of our epic movie countdown.

As his buddy Berzin explains, Eddie’s life is ruled by “bullshit”. The day before leaving for Vietnam, a war he believes will be easy, Eddie (River Phoenix) and his friends, the Bees, decide to engage in another unfair ego-inflating battle: whoever finds the ugliest woman to bring to their party wins. This dogfight encapsulates the misogyny suffered by all women – attractive or otherwise – when they are objectified by men. Yet when Eddie preys on Rose (Lili Taylor), a shy and lonely waitress, her honesty and genuine interest in his life make it difficult for him to see her as just a funny face. Simply by questioning his salty manner and easy recourse to violence, she awakens his self-awareness and brings his lack of confidence to the surface. Her kindness isn’t synonymous with naivety, however, and when she accepts to not leave Eddie alone on his last day, she is clearly the one offering the favours. Her self-respect and generosity allow him to face his fears, which his macho friends, the army and America itself insisted that he deny. Manuela Lazic

42. Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)

Okay, so Derek Jarman is the person who we can all hold responsible for introducing the world to the glory of Tilda Swinton, but it was Sally Potter who gave her one of her great early roles. Indeed, this dynasty-hopping saga of an omnipotent Elizabethan dandy and nobleman who eventually switches gender, is an abridged adaptation of Virginia Wolff’s 1928 novel ‘Orlando: A Biography’, which was inspired by the life of the poet Vita Sackville-West. The film harks back to something of a lost golden age in the British film industry, when non-narrative films were the order of the day (think Jarman, Terence Davies, Chris Petit, etc), and it stands up as a bold experiment in telling a story which rejects the conventional three-act structures of film without ever straying into a work you’d describe as alienating or obscure. And, it’s a film in which every penny of its budget appears on screen. David Jenkins

43. Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992)

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched Wayne’s World. Yet it wasn’t until fairly recently that I learned of the film’s troubled production. Prior to 1992 director Penelope Spheeris was best known for her documentary work, which largely focused on Los Angeles’ ’80s punk rock scene. This, coupled with the reputation she earned producing for Albert Brooks on the first series of Saturday Night Live, made her the ideal candidate to helm fellow SNL alumni Mike Myers’ big screen debut. But the pair reportedly came to blows over the final cut, and Spheeris has since blamed Myers for preventing her from directing the 1993 sequel. The pair (along with Dana Carvey, who also fell out with Myers while making the film) seemingly put an end to their long-running feud when they appeared on stage together at a reunion screening in 2013. Some two decades on from its original release, the product of their turbulent creative union continues to test very high on the likeability scale. Adam Woodward

44. Billy Madison (Tamra Davis, 1995)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love is the best Adam Sandler movie, but this one comes in at a dangerously close second. From its opening scenes of the dim-brained heir to a luxury hotel chain floating in a garden water feature on a rubber ring and engaging in a Pinter-esqe dialogue with a bottle of suntan lotion, it’s obvious we’re in for something radical (in both senses of the word). The story sees ne’er-do-well Billy sent back to high school as a way in which to prove his basic academic competency, and it’s just a great excuse to pile joke upon joke upon joke. Some may credit Sandler’s grotesque but loveable central turn as the main magnet for laughter – especially the strange way that he constantly suggests his idiocy is a put-on – but there’s no doubt that Tamra Davis’ intuitive and snappy direction help to bring out the best in her divisive star. And it’s not just the framing and the rhythm which make the film work so well, it’s the repetitions and call-backs and delayed punchlines and bathetic edits too. Favourite quote: “O’Doyle, I’ve got a feeling your whole family is going down.” DJ

45. Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

Before Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, she was the first to win the sci-fi Saturn Award for same. “You Know You Want It” read the tagline for this movie, which fetishised the tormented sexuality of Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Lewis and Angela Bassett amid a dazzlingly chaotic purple-green techno-future. But the movie flopped financially, despite dialogue that inspired Fatboy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’, a punchy virtual-reality premise, a genre take on the LA riots, euphoric electro music and one of James Cameron’s leanest, most propulsive screenplays. Not to mention an original lexicon, of ‘SQUIDs’, ‘wire-trips’ and ‘jacking in.’ The cynical, digi-industrial cool of cyberpunk has rarely taken off with the masses, but this is its cinematic apotheosis. Ian Mantgani

46. Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

“Oh my God, I am majorly, totally, butt crazy in love with Josh!” It’s been 20 years since Beverly Hills princess Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) realised that the college boy was interning for her dad’s law practice (Ant-Man) might just be her Prince Charming, and the world is still trying to work out the wording of her epiphany. “Butt crazy” just wasn’t one of those things the kids said, and it still feels like a typo, excluded from America’s proud tradition of flash-in-the-pan vernacular. But while so much of Amy Heckerling’s modern spin on ‘Emma’ is inextricable from the plaid and boxy universe of the ’90s, this one mysterious glitch in the fabric of the film’s reality is just the most jarring of the many movements that make Clueless too divorced from reality to be digested as a simple time capsule. From the Polaroid closet to the Pismo Beach disaster relief efforts, this is a deeply weird piece of work, and one that connects two distinct eras of heroines by bubbling with a life force all its own. DE

47. Home for the Holidays (Jodie Foster, 1996)

Early on in Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, Claudia (Holly Hunter) leaves a message on her brother’s phone. She immediately regrets confessing about her current difficulties and, “cannot believe [she has] said all this to a machine.” She hates machines. What Claudia longs for is a human being who will listen and respond to her doubts. As we first encounter each family member during a Yuletide get-together, their anxieties and extravagant coping strategies seem fairly stereotypical – and yes, robotic. But the film reveals a realistic and tender sensibility through Claudia’s compassionate point of view. Rarely has a midlife crisis been depicted as that moment where a person plumbs the depths of their own psyche, but also opens up to other people’s manic attitudes to discover their very human foundations. In the end, better understanding does not guarantee reconciliation, yet an existential question has been addressed: the point of life may be not to find its meaning, but rather to have people with whom to share our fears about what this meaning may be. Moments of joy serve to dispel the question altogether. Manuela Lazic

48. Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders, 1996)

“The dress fits the occasion, so perhaps it’s you that doesn’t fit the dress dear.” These are the words spoken towards kooky Philadelphian Denise Waverly (Ileana Douglas) in Allison Anders’ delightful Grace of my Heart. They act as a prelude to the misfortune of a female singer/songwriter in this whimsical, pop biopic loosely based on the life of music prodigy Carole King. The film flows elegantly, transitioning from the smooth ’60s through to the psychedelic ’70s, the point at which Denise takes stock of all the emotional tumult she’s experienced and pours her pain into creating the platinum selling hit of the title. Douglas elegantly demonstrates Waverly’s battle with her inner skepticism and captivates through her exterior emotional vulnerability and interior sense of resilience. Anders sensitively exhibits the evolution of the tyranny of a woman’s endeavour to shatter the ‘glass ceiling’ and shift gender norms that were notably prevalent of the time. Anders focuses on the female empowerment that sisterly bonds can bring about, evident in the alliance between Denise and English songwriter Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit). Anders’ feature is one of female triumph in a cutthroat showbiz industry that’s monopolised by male dominance. We know what that’s all about. Dora Densham-Bond

49. Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, 1997)

Something of a lost treasure, Kasi Lemmons’ debut feature Eve’s Bayou showed great potential, and should have sparked a quick rise to prominence for the actor turned writer/director. Set in 1962, the film explores the adulterous exploits of Louis Batiste (Samuel L Jackson), a doctor serving an affluent African-American community in Louisiana. Recounted from the perspective of his youngest daughter, Eve (Jurnee Smo), the story maps out the catastrophic impact of his schemes on the women in his family. Lemmons illustrates the woe of his wife (Lynn Whitfield), the obsession and desolation of eldest daughter, Cisely (Meagan Good), and the unyielding loyalty of sister, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), with comedic eloquence and gentle melancholy. Documenting everything from a first period to the final stab of a father’s rejection, this sometimes dark, often richly entertaining coming-of-age tale explores what it means to be a woman at the different stages of life. Tahlia McKinnon

50. Fire (Deepa Mehta, 1997)

Through modern eyes, Deepa Mehta’s Fire might look like what the children of Web 2.0 might describe as “problematic”. And not because of its combustible (sorry) subject matter, but the fact that, formally, it looks and sounds somewhat dated. But maybe the film works best as a timepiece, a monument to its own conservative-baiting subject matter which hit audiences in ’90s India like a pool cue to the temple. A young woman enters into an arranged marriage with an almost comically evil guy – he runs a grocer’s shop and video rental store which stocks such choice adult titles as The Joy Suck Club. His brother is also a scoundrel, in thrall to the teachings of a quack guru and undertaking a life-long vow of celibacy, much to the chagrin of his tortured wife. When these two women get together in private and begin discussing their abject dissatisfaction with life, up goes the mosquito net, soft goes the focus, and forbidden is the love that blossoms. As tonally hysterical as it all sometimes seems, Fire is one of the most radical works to grace this list, as it literally incited pressure groups to bombard screenings, tear up the seats and demand and end to this amoral filth. Which can only be a good thing. DJ

Read more 100 great movies by female directors: 1-10 | 11-20 | 21-30 | 31-40 | 51-60 | 61-70 | 71-80 | 81-9091-100

Published 17 Jul 2015

Tags: 100 Great Films by Female Directors

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Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.