Black History Month & More Woman Directors: February ’16 in Film

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Much like the previous month, this month in movie-watching was quite a doozy for me. In total, I watched 61 films throughout the entire month. Although nearly half of all these films were short films at an average length of 10-15 mins each, that still leaves 35 full-length films throughout the month – slightly more impressive, given that February is a tad shorter than most months. I kicked off the month by watching through all of this year’s Oscar-nominated animated and live action shorts, continued by watching more Looney Tunes shorts, and watched a variety of all sorts of narrative and documentary features throughout the rest of the month.

Continuing with the trend I started last year, I took advantage of February being Black History Month as an excuse to make my viewing choices more diverse. In total, I watched ten films that were written, directed, and/or primarily starred Black people (although I sought to focus more on the former two). At the same time, I continued on with my quest to watch more woman-directed films. In February, I watched eight films that fit this criteria, which have also worked very well at shaking up the variety in my movie-watching habits. It’s also been getting much easier to decide to watch films directed by women over those by men, since (from my experience) there’s a better chance that they’ll be well worth my time.

It’s always been the case that I’ve emphasized movie-watching over all else, in terms of my personal media consumption. This is due to the obvious reason that movies are my first love and are what I tend to turn to in my own aims for comfort. Nonetheless, I want to spend the next month or two dividing my focuses within other art forms, particularly music, TV, and books. I’ve given myself a loose goal of 500 albums listened to by the end of the year, and I’m already way behind on this; same with my goal of 100 books read. So next month, I plan to watch a somewhat smaller number of films than I had been doing in previous months. True, I still want to keep up with new releases, finishing the filmographies of various auteurs, and #52FilmsByWomen – but this should be enough to keep at an average pace of a movie a day. Conveniently, I just reached a decision to sign up for Hulu, which should undoubtedly help with my TV-watching goals given their wide selection. Then again, I may also be tempted by their selection of films from the Criterion collection. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens…

Without further ado, here is the complete list of films I watched in February. As always, asterisks indicate rewatches.

  1. Ave Maria (Khalil, 2015)
  2. Shok (Friend) (Donougue, 2015)
  3. Alles wird gut (Everything Will Be Okay) (Vollrath, 2015)
  4. Stutterer (Cleary, 2015)
  5. Day One (Hughes, 2015)
  6. Sanjay’s Super Team (Patel, 2015)*
  7. World of Tomorrow (Hertzfeldt, 2015)
  8. Mi ne mozhem zhit bez kosmosa (We Can’t Live Without Cosmos) (Bronzit, 2015)
  9. Historia de un oso (Bear Story) (Osorio, 2015)
  10. If I Was God… (Condie, 2015)
  11. The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse (Jean et al., 2015)
  12. The Loneliest Stoplight (Plympton, 2015)
  13. Catch It (Bar, et al., 2015)
  14. Prologue (Williams, 2015)
  15. 45 Years (Haigh, 2015)
  16. Teen Witch (Walker, 1989)*
  17. Canned Feud (Freleng, 1951)
  18. Lumber Jerks (Freleng, 1955)
  19. Speedy Gonzales (Freleng, 1955)*
  20. Tweety’s S.O.S. (Freleng, 1951)
  21. The Foghorn Leghorn (McKimson, 1948)
  22. Daffy Duck Hunt (McKimson, 1949)
  23. Early to Bet (McKimson, 1951)
  24. A Broken Leghorn (McKimson, 1959)
  25. Devil May Hare (McKimson, 1954)
  26. Born in Flames (Borden, 1983)
  27. About a Boy (Weitz & Weitz, 2002)
  28. Training Day (Fuqua, 2001)
  29. Kung Fu Panda 3 (Yuh, 2016)
  30. Lila & Eve (Stone, 2015)
  31. Bulworth (Beatty, 1998)
  32. The Wood (Famuyiwa, 1999)
  33. I Will Follow (DuVernay, 2010)
  34. Everything Will Be Okay (Hertzfeldt, 2006)*
  35. I Am So Proud of You (Hertzfeldt, 2008)
  36. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Hertzfeldt, 2011)
  37. Mississippi Damned (Mabry, 2009)
  38. How to Steal a Million (Wyler, 1966)
  39. Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960)
  40. Hail, Caesar! (Coen & Coen, 2016)
  41. Amistad (Spielberg, 1997)
  42. Mean Creek (Estes, 2004)
  43. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen & Coen, 2000)
  44. Locke (Knight, 2014)
  45. Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
  46. Brown Sugar (Famuyiwa, 2002)
  47. Edge of Tomorrow (Liman, 2014)
  48. The Last Unicorn (Rankin & Bass, 1982)
  49. Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998)
  50. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (Harris, 1992)
  51. Kangaroo Jack (McNally, 2003)
  52. American Hustle (Russell, 2013)
  53. The Ladykillers (Coen & Coen, 2004)
  54. Flashdance (Lyne, 1983)
  55. Meet the Patels (Patel & Patel, 2015)
  56. The Bling Ring (Coppola, 2013)
  57. The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012)
  58. Killer Joe (Friedkin, 2011)*
  59. Bicentennial Man (Columbus, 1999)
  60. Girlhood (Garbus, 2003)
  61. Losing Isaiah (Gyllenhaal, 1995)

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For the fourth year in a row now, I’ve watched through all the short films that received an Oscar nomination for the year (minus the documentary shorts, which I could never get around to). The live-action program this year is particularly grim. While Ave Maria is rather comedic and Stutterer (which ended up snagging the award) is poignant and crowd-pleasing in all the right ways, the dark, intense subject matter of the other three shorts tend to dominate the entire program. I particularly hated Day One for how ugly it is and exploitative it felt. The strongest of the nominees, for me, was Everything Will Be Okay from Germany, a seemingly simple father-daughter relationship narrative that slowly unravels into something much more unsettling. Out of all the category’s nominations, this is the most worthy watch.

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The Oscar-nominated animated shorts were, however, much more stronger in quality this year. I already wrote in length about World of Tomorrow on my Best of 2015 post, so I’ll digress a bit on that topic. I had previously watched the colorful, imaginative Sanjay’s Super Team as a predecessor to my viewing of The Good Dinosaur – needless to say, it’s much stronger than that feature, but it’s also rather clever and heartwarming in its own right. The biggest surprise for me came from We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, a rather poignant short that I also read into having a bit of queer subtext. I definitely loved it, but given that Russia has a fierce reputation for its exceptional animated works, perhaps this should have been less of a surprise after all.

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Andrew Haigh’s magnificent 45 Years barely scraped past both my top 25 and the honorable mentions section on that post. What can I say – 2015 was really just that impeccable of a year. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched his highly acclaimed Weekend, but 45 Years really makes me want to revisit. It is quite possibly the tensest, most emotionally-draining depiction of a marriage in crisis since Blue Valentine. If anything, the scope of the time through which the conflict finds itself coming to terms with (five decades!) creates a whole new dimension of tragedy to this couple’s story. Much has been said about the nuanced performances presented here – particularly Charlotte Rampling – and while they are extremely effective, the most valuable player here is Haigh’s spectacularly complex screenplay, the backbone by which this film communicates itself.

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One of my biggest regrets through this past month is that I haven’t set aside much time to write up full reviews of the women-directed films I watch, like I promised myself. Hopefully March will be kinder to me in this regard, because I’ve been watching some truly invigorating stuff lately. One of the most profound viewing experiences I’ve had from the past month is of Lizzie Borden’s feminist classic Born in Flames. It’s pretty radical in every sense of the term – through its imagining of a full-charged socialist rebellion in a dystopian future, to its lack of a single concrete narrative focus, to its refusal to assign a role of protagonist to any of its characters. It displays its themes in a way that plays out much like an overarching upheaval of the patriarchal state and values. It is rather harrowing, however, that many of its issues (particularly those stemming from an intersection of sexism and racism toward Black woman) are still completely relevant to modern day anxieties, despite this having been made over thirty years ago. Perhaps this is a testament to how much work always needs to be done for true liberation, despite what oppressors want us to believe.

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Although I was less of a fan of last year’s Dope than I wanted to be, I decided to check out some of Rick Famuyiwa’s earlier films in lieu of my trend to watch more output from Black people. First was his debut The Wood, which I really did not enjoy at all. I’m always welcome to watch films that break the mold of tired genres in their own unique ways, and in the sense that this was a coming-of-age film that didn’t center around White people, I was certainly not disappointed. Of course, as with many a coming-of-age film, rampant sexism was certainly thrown in for good humor’s sake, and such moments did little but weigh it down. Meanwhile, the scenes that took place when the kids are adults are some of the weakest in the entire film. This was his debut, however, so I guess that should have been expected.

His next effort, Brown Sugar, proved to be somewhat stronger. Here, he tries his hand at another tried-and-tested, somewhat cliché genre: the romantic comedy. I have no problems with the genre – I even kind of love them sometimes – but this one does frequent some misfires that such films have a tendency to embark upon. However, the chemistry between Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs prevent this from becoming an unfocused mess; it really made me want to believe that these two best friends could end up together in the end. Moreover, Brown Sugar demonstrates a fiery love for retro hip-hop that would rear its head again in Dope. The former, however, also works very much like a love letter to hip-hop music, including cameos from many of its most qualified performers. It is through this regard that Brown Sugar really shines and where Famuyiwa’s artistic vision is the most pronounced.

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I’ve never heard of Mississippi Damned until I stumbled upon it on Netflix a few months ago. Later, a friend of mine warned me of its deeply distressing subject matter, urging me to only “watch it when I’m ready”. I’m not sure if anything could have prepared me for what lie ahead. Essentially, it follows a family from the American South, as well as their friends, who deal with various issues and traumas including poverty, racism, sexism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, imprisonment, homophobia, and alcoholism. And Mississippi Damned doesn’t dare to shy away from sensitive details of the dark, looming cloud that seems to hang over this community. Yet it truly is a great film that is, above all, spearheaded by an array of magnificent performances, including a young Tessa Thompson. I didn’t realize it until after I watched the film, but its director Tina Mabry also wrote the 90s feminist comedy Itty Bitty Titty Committee. Her achievement in capturing such a diversity in tone and genre throughout her career really amazes and inspires me.

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So, I really enjoyed Deadpool. I was even inspired to write a terrible, nonsensical review of the film mere hours after my viewing. I’m surprised too. But then again, I also really enjoy Superbad and always have, so I guess this shouldn’t have been that much of a shocker. Still, does this mean that my previously ambivalent relationship to Marvel has finally come to end?! We’ll just have to wait and see.

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I haven’t been watching too many animated features as of late (besides my finishing up the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, which is terrific), so I decided to finally get around to one of my biggest omissions, that being Rankin & Bass’ 80s masterpiece The Last Unicorn. I’ve never watched this film, not even when I was a kid, yet the fantastical mood and tone expressed throughout really brought up an inexplicable sense of nostalgia within me, as if I’ve watched the movie hundreds of times before. It certainly feels very 80s in pretty much every which way, especially its animation. Overall, it’s a beautiful piece of art that covers such topics as belongingness and realizing oneself through inevitable personal changes. It stands up there with The Secret of NIMH and The Fox and the Hound as one of the finest outputs of early 80s US animation.

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Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. is yet another film that I knew practically nothing about until I decided upon the opportunity to watch it for #52FilmsBy Women. I’ve come to the conclusion that teenage girls are some of the smartest and most misunderstood demographic on the planet, and Just Another Girl only strengthens this belief. It follows Chantel, a teenage girl with urban upbringings who seeks to achieve academic excellence on a path to a steady career – contrary to what others expect of her. Of course, this is all complicated when she gets pregnant, forcing her to juggle her options whilst dealing with pressure from family, school, and her lover. The narrative never shames her for her potentially “bad” decisions, but instead treats Chantel’s role as a young person weaving through very adult circumstances with great sensitivity. She is never shamed for her promiscuity or even for being as loud and outspoken as she certainly is. Ariyan A. Johnson gives one hell of a performance in this film; if anything, she’s worth watching for the sheer vibrancy she brings to the screen. It’s an absolute crime that this is Leslie Harris’ only film to date – it sure makes for a fabulous debut and I’m aching (with sadness) to see what else she might have up her sleeve.

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One of the very last films I watched in February was yet another one I was completely oblivious on prior to my viewing – Liz Garbus’ documentary Girlhood (not to be confused with the 2015 Céline Sciamma film of the same name). It follows two female inmates who are held in a juvenile detention center for crimes ranging from assault to murder. It covers not only the harsh conditions undergone by these girls in this center, but also the circumstances of their familial and personal lives that undoubtedly contributed to the harsh trajectory of their lives. It’s especially interesting to me how the complexity of the judicial jargon is beyond these girls’ comprehension (and understandably so), leaving them with the impression that the outcome is beyond their grasp. It’s a heartbreaking watch – especially considering the poor circumstances of their upbringing – and shines a light on how the prison system is a failed concept for handing the situations of troubled youth.

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