Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
In this masterpiece from our dearly departed Chantal Akerman, there is so much pathos in the pacing alone. The deep tensions in the film, which concern sex and violence and domesticity and motherhood, unfold with a sense of unrelenting inertia. Jeanne Dielman epitomizes my favorite kind of person in film and in real life—the unruly woman.
This is the first film I purchased on DVD, and it’s the film I recommend most often. Though I consider Todd Haynes a feminist filmmaker, he has a tendency to leave his female protagonists much worse off than they were before as the end credits roll. His character arcs are vicious downward spirals, and they’re utterly compelling. When I teach this film in my class at the University of Illinois, I pair it with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that is also about a wife and mother slowly unraveling under the pressure of her own femininity. At the end of a hard day, I often find comfort knowing that at least I am not Carol White.
The first time I watched this film, my mouth was hanging open for the entire duration. It’s an astonishing portrait of female adolescence that starts with a hurdle and never lets up. You walk with the young protagonist uphill both ways as she navigates life in a specific place and time. This is a hard and fast film that nevertheless has a tender touch that will break your heart.
. . . And speaking of unruly women, this film from 1985 remains entirely fresh in the way it presents its female protagonist. Mona is an unlikely role model, a woman on the outside. She has rejected a repressive order that can be understood as a kind of patriarchy, and even though it does not end well for her, it’s clear that nevertheless, while she was able, she persisted.
The Daphne du Maurier book on which this film is based is on my summer reading list every year. This film is such a solid early example of feminist horror. It’s an obsessive love triangle between three women, one of whom is only known as “the second Mrs. De Winter” and another of whom is dead. This gorgeous film draws you in with a dizzying seductiveness while at the same time plunging itself into your chest and stopping your beating heart.
I consume this film the way I imagine foodies consume fine cuisine. I am utterly in awe of how it presents layers of complication while remaining entertaining and super satisfying. It’s a visually stunning and surreal take on an existential conundrum and a sharp reminder that you can’t always get what you want.
Carl Th. Dreyer
The Passion of Joan of Arc
If you know me, you know that I will endorse anything related to this radical teen martyr, whom I consider the original riot grrrl. Dreyer’s take is a beautifully stark and visceral portrait of her final days.
Each time I watch this film, I try to keep count of all of the characters. There are at least twenty-five significant roles and so very many outstanding women. This is a perfect Altman film and the one to start with if you haven’t seen any of his work yet. It captures a lot of melodrama in the country music capital, and some of the actors play fictional characters while others play themselves. Plus, there are so many awesome musical performances that serve to both enhance the setting and propel the narrative.
This is one of two films on my list that are about a man—a dying man. McQueen comes to feature filmmaking by way of fine art, and it’s clear this is what makes Hunger so profoundly special. The structure of this film is masterful and includes a twenty-minute long take of uninterrupted dialogue. Though it’s extremely human, it’s not for the squeamish. This is a discomforting film about a discomforting life.
All That Jazz
This is the second film on my list about a dying man, and like Hunger, it’s based on true events. Bob Fosse came to feature filmmaking by way of dance, which is entirely evident here. This film features a lot of actors dancing, dancers acting, and dancers dancing. It’s a sweaty and sexy take on the stress and fragility of the creative process. Plus, it features an early-career Jessica Lange as the Angel of Death.
Amy Seimetz’s Top 10
The multitalented filmmaker behind Sun Don’t Shine (now playing on the Criterion Channel) and She Dies Tomorrow shares a list of favorites that subvert narrative convention and dive into the mysteries of identity.