52 Films by Women: Saving Face (2004)

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

By Andrea Thompson

2004's “Saving Face” is a good film, and it almost makes you cry for the greatness it could have achieved. It's one of the only films that revolves around queer people of color, and in an immigrant community no less. It has a clear affection for that community, and how the people in it interact, but director and writer Alice Wu is also very aware just how strict its standards are for how people should live.

In New York City (because where else?) the Chinese-American Wilhelmina 'Wil' Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is a successful surgeon who's on a clear track to success. She's also a lesbian, but she doesn't dare reveal that to her traditional family. They share many of the characteristics other on-screen immigrant clans do. They fuss, they're deeply embedded and connected with others who also came to America, and they are set on Wil getting married to a nice boy of their choosing.

So Wil is hardly a fan of the mandatory gatherings at Planet China, where these pressures are magnified. But she does get something out of it, since that's where she meets Vivian (Lynn Chen), a ballet dancer who's more interested in the less prestigious world of modern dance. These two prove that with the right chemistry, standing in front of a junk food machine can be hot. Thankfully, they get together pretty quickly, but there's early signs that between the demands of Wil's career and her more closeted status is getting in the way of a good thing.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

Wil's existence gets even more complicated when her widowed 48-year-old mother Hwei-Lan Gao (Joan Chen) just shows up on her stoop and basically bosses her way inside. Wil finds out what's really going on not from her, but on the phone with her grandma Wai Po (Guang Lan Koh) her Ma is pregnant and unwilling to say who the father is. Whoa. The situation is unusual to be sure, and revealing of some very messed up dynamics. Not only does Hwei-Lan still live with her parents, her stern father berates her, calling her a disgrace and a shame to them. He kicks her out of their home, and the family, until she finds herself a respectable husband. So Hwei-Lan moves in with Wil.

Wil's mother may have quietly acquiesced to her father's harsh words, but she has no problem ordering Wil around and redecorating her apartment. It also adds a few more obstacles in her budding relationship with Vivian, who wants more openness in their lives. Have to admit though, they're adorable together. Although their love scene together, which is shot beautifully, is still a little weird since Wil is wearing her ponytail the whole time. Does she ever take that thing out?

Of course, Hwei-Lan is dealing with her own difficulties, such as the pregnancy she decides to see through. When she also decides to start dating, it's interesting to see the dynamic flip, with Wil ordering her around. Although why Wil is going along with all this, and not discouraging her mother to marry a nice but unsuitable man that's been chosen for her is rather baffling.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

Much of the frustration about “Saving Face” comes down to a certain...distance, shall we say in the directing. Even though the entire cast gives great performances, this reticence also keeps them apart. There's also abrupt cuts between Hwei-Lan's story and her mother's that can also be somewhat jarring to see. Not to mention the ending, which seems a bit too feel-good after the rest of the film delving into how cutting the traditional community can be.

Pretty much all of the issues in “Saving Face” can pretty much be boiled down to Wu's inexperience. Wu is from the tech world, and actually left her job at Microsoft to make this film, which is obviously inspired by her own experiences. Wu's instincts obviously lean more towards the technical side of filmmaking, but “Saving Face” is still an incredible first effort, showcasing Wu's unique voice and perspective. It should've led to far more, but this is Wu's only film to date. Thankfully, that should change, as Wu will be directing the upcoming Netflix film “The Half of It,” which is about a shy, bookish Chinese-American high school student who helps the school jock win over the girl she's also in love with. Here's hoping there won't be 15 (16? There's no release date yet) years until her next feature.

7 Films To Watch For Pride Month

By Andrea Thompson

Happy Pride Month! Since there's still a few days left to enjoy it, here are seven films that you should make time to watch.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

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IMDB

This Golden Age Hollywood film is somewhat limited by its time, but it's also got quite a bit going for it. Countess Marya Zaleska (film goddess Gloria Holden) should be more well-known as not just one of the great female villains, but just a great villain in general. She could even easily be anti-heroine, as we meet her far before our hero and his love interest, who aren't nearly as interesting. What makes Zaleska so tragic is that what she truly wants is a normal life. She believes Dracula's death has freed her, only to discover she still craves blood and death. She is a great danger to both men and women, and lesbian undertones are quite clear, given her ultimate temptation is the sight of a young woman's bare throat. So Hollywood's first reluctant vampire was a complex female character, whose was equally regal, beautiful, and terrifying.

Desert Hearts (1985)

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IMDB

First off, that dynamite outfit on Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). Cay doesn't exactly arrive on-screen, she bursts onto it, laughing as she recklessly drives backward, wind in her hair. The prim and proper Vivian (Helen Shaver), who has just come to a Nevada ranch for some peace and quiet after filing for divorce, is fascinated by her, and only gets more so. Their mutual attraction practically sets the screen on fire every time they meet, and their love scene together is both tender and sensual without coming off as objectifying. The love story is also blissfully free of any love triangle, and the sweetly optimistic ending was a rarity for LGBTQ films at the time.

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

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IMDB

“The Watermelon Woman” isn't just a criminally underappreciated classic, it's a 90s time capsule, a time which saw a resurgence in Black cinema. Director and writer Cheryl Dunye plays a fictionalized version of herself who's also named Cheryl, a Black lesbian who works in a video store (ah, nostalgia) in Philadelphia with her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker). Cheryl soon becomes obsessed with a Black actress who played a series of mammy type roles in the 30s. It's a meta narrative that's also socially conscious, as Dunye creates her own history in order for the fictional Cheryl to confront the lack of resources devoted to Black women on-screen, just as she's dealing with a fallout with her best friend Tamara after she starts dating a white woman. It's groundbreaking, fascinating watch on its own merits, not just because “The Watermelon Woman” is the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian.

Imagine Me & You (2005)

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IMDB

In many ways, “Imagine Me & You” is just another rom-com. The difference? It revolves around two women. Also, it stars Lena Headey. Yes, Queen Cersei. And she's fantastic as Luce, who shares an intense chemistry with Rachel (Piper Perabo) from the moment they lock eyes...on Rachel's wedding day to Heck (Matthew Goode, yes this movie also has Matthew Goode). Even if the poster makes it seem as though this relationship blossomed behind the back of not just one, but two men, Luce is very aware and comfortable about her preference for women. It's Rachel who is initially very sure of who she is, then begins to question her sexuality after she meets Luce. Their love story is sweet and tender as it grows in spite of Rachel's conflict over her kind and decent husband Heck, who senses the change in his wife but is unable to discern the cause. Even if the the movie keeps things light, it also delves into the prejudices and disapproval Luce still has to face simply being who she is, and Heady and Perabo have the kind of chemistry that makes rom-coms soar.

Pariah (2011)

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IMDB

“Pariah” doesn't sugarcoat just how rocky coming-of-age can be for LGBTQ youth in an environment that wants them to be anything but. For her feature film debut, Dee Rees pulls few punches in just how much 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) must overcome despite of her status as a gifted student and writer who lives in Brooklyn, which is often depicted as a liberal haven. Alike is very certain of her lesbian identity, but her conservative parents prefer denial and conformity. Alike's mother is especially invested in her daughter conforming to a more conventional femininity, buying her pink clothes Alike clearly isn't comfortable in, and displaying open hostility towards her supportive and out friend Laura (Pernell Walker). For a time, Alike thinks she's found comfort and love with Bina (Aasha Davis), only to experience her first heartbreak as she learns just how invested Bina is in denying not only her own truth, but their shared one. Even if Alike emerges firmly committed to breaking free of the forces that constrict her, those forces still ensure her freedom has a price.

The Handmaiden (2016)

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IMDB

“The Handmaiden” is one of the most unusual on-screen love stories. The plot seems simple enough at first. In Japanese-occupied Korea, a Korean pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired to serve as a handmaiden to the supposedly naive and innocent Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) in order to assist a conman in robbing Hideko of her inheritance. What seems like a straight path (pun intended) soon proves to be more of a maze, as Sook-Hee begins to develop feelings for Hideko, who is also more complicated than she appears. Unlike other films that claim to be erotic, “The Handmaiden” actually lives up to the genre, giving us a thriller that is equal parts suspenseful, stylish, and yes, sexy.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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IMDB

Unlike the other heroines, or even the other anti-heroine, on this list, author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) isn't even trying to be good. It's understandable though, since other priorities like survival take precedence. In 1991 New York Lee is deeply out of step with the times. She not only a female writer, she's an older woman who's also a lesbian, and not interested in making nice with entitled, successful male authors. To make some extra cash, she decides to forge letters from deceased authors, and before long is actually able to find quite a bit of success. McCarthy manages to make Lee not only sympathetic but lovable without softening her or making excuses, taking us gleefully along for the ride as Lee cons the industry that has shut her out.

52 Films By Women: Pariah (2011)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

The 2011 Dee Rees film “Pariah” may be a coming of age film about a Black teenager who is also a lesbian, but her struggle isn't with her sexuality exactly. From the film's opening shots, it's pretty clear that 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) knows she's into women. As “Pariah” begins, Alike is staring in awe at a female stripper at a club with mostly Black lesbians while the very uncensored version of Khia's “My Neck, My Back” plays. So no Alike isn't in denial, but most of those around her are. Alike has to leave soon after, and her insisting that her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) leave the bus before her is the first sign that Alike doesn't feel. Sure enough, Alike sheds her preferred masculine clothing for a more conventionally feminine look.

The reasons why are soon clear enough. New York City is generally depicted as a bastion of liberalism and acceptance, where stand-up comics can confess onstage that they're pregnant and planning on getting an abortion the next day. Not so in Alike's Brooklyn neighborhood, a more conservative world where in seems most are happily in denial when reality doesn't suit their beliefs.

Alike's parents certainly are. They're not only in denial about their daughter's sexuality, but their marriage itself. “Pariah” never officially reveals that Alike's father Arthur (Charles Parnell), a police detective, is having an affair, but the late-night phone calls, the absences, his lack of interest in almost any kind of intimacy with his wife Audrey (Kim Wayans), and his general defensiveness, are all clear indications.

Alike's inclinations are just as equally clear. It's inescapable even in trivial moments, such as when Audrey buys Alike a pink shirt, and her coworker immediately assumes it's for Alike's younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), who is clearly interested in boys and what dress to wear to the school dance. Rather than accepting Alike, Audrey tries to mold her into the image she believes Alike should conform to, which backfires as such efforts usually do.

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IMDB

The really heartbreaking thing is that it backfires in a way neither Audrey nor Alike predict. Audrey disapproves of Alike's friendship with the openly gay Laura, and pushes Alike to befriend Bina (Aasha Davis) instead. Alike is at first reluctant, but quickly forms a bond with Bina, who proves to be more complicated than she appears. In a film where music plays such a large role, the two first bond through a shared appreciation of the underground rap Alike adores. This also gives her a welcome relief from the club scene that the studious Alike has never felt truly comfortable in.

It turns out though (if it needs to be said...spoiler alert!) that Bina is pretty deep in denial too. She's very aware that Alike is a virgin, and takes the initiative throughout their relationship. Bina is the one who makes the effort to get to know Alike, and is the first one to kiss Alike, invite her to stay the night, and take their relationship deeper. But the morning after Bina and Alike have sex, Bina is detached, picking up stuff around her room and not looking at Alike. Not good.

It gets worse, as Alike naturally assumes that Bina still cares about her, even telling Bina that last was amazing and thanking her. In response, Bina dismisses both Alike and the ramifications of their night together, telling her it was just playing around and that she's not “gay, gay, just doing her thing.” The only concern she has left for Alike is whether or not she'll tell anyone. It's basically every girl's worst nightmare of how your first time will be.

This can't leave Alike anything but devastated, but it seems to make her more determined than ever to live her own truth. When she hears her parents arguing, she decides to get involved and finally tell them the truth neither of them wants to hear. Far from being cathartic, Audrey beats Alike in spite of Arthur's pleas, and Alike retreats to Laura's house. Even though Arthur makes a feeble attempt to bring Alike back home, Alike decides to head to Berkeley for an early college program she's been accepted to. “I'm not running, I'm choosing,” she says defiantly. Even if Alike's mother still refuses to reconcile with her daughter at the end, Alike's loved ones, which include not just her father and her sister, but Laura, are there to see her off.

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IMDB

In a way, “Pariah” is a far more brave film than “Moonlight,” a far more iconic film directed by Barry Jenkins that came out in 2016. Dee Rees even utilizes many of the same techniques as Jenkins, albeit in a far more subdued fashion. Jenkins used a far more instrumental score in “Moonlight,” bathing its Miami neighborhood setting in far more sumptuous colors that spoke to Jenkins's influences, specifically Wong Kar-wai.

“Moonlight” also has Chiron reconciling with his mother and finding love by the end. In contrast, diligent student Alike leaves by the end for a new life, still estranged from her mother and the classmate who was her love interest. Even Alike's closeness with the father who was far less interested in changing her remains tenuous. Yet Rees leaves us in no doubt of the bright future Alike has ahead of her. Her heartbreak has allowed her to delve deeper, leaving us with a poem that speaks of her brokenness, and defiance, the freedom she has found as the result of her struggles.

52 Films By Women: Desert Hearts (1985)

Screenshot

Screenshot

By Andrea Thompson

Few things are more satisfying than a groundbreaking film that's actually good. And in 1985, lesbians were doing the Western romance way before “Brokeback Mountain.” So if you haven't heard of the 1985 film “Desert Hearts,” get familiar.

“Desert Hearts” isn't just groundbreaking because it's a lesbian love story that's written and directed by women. There's more to it than that, as director Donna Deitch is also a lesbian, so we're also seeing a queer love story as told through a queer female gaze, which helps explain why the love scene is sensual and appreciative rather than leering or objectifying.

Many films also love to claim they're subversive, but such claims are genuine in this case. “Desert Hearts” kicks off when 35-year-old New York academic Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) comes to Reno, Nevada in 1959 for some peace and quiet during her divorce. As she explains to her lawyer, there was nothing really wrong with her marriage. Her husband was good to her, and they had a good life together. It just wasn't the life she wanted, which is an honest one that doesn't depend on having the right friends and the right prints on the wall.

“I yearn for something you couldn't analyze or reason away,” Vivian explains. “I want to be free of who I've been.” She accepts that this might mean she's alone for the rest of her life.

Or not. Enter the 25-year-old free-spirited Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), who feels like a force of nature from the moment she appears on-screen, laughingly, recklessly driving backward to greet Vivian as she's arriving at the ranch where Cay is also staying. Vivian is immediately interested, if not quite consciously at first. From the first time the two actually meet and chat, the chemistry is off the charts. Blue really is the warmest color the way Charbonneau rocks that crop top and jean shorts. It's bodice ripper level of swoonworthy.

worldscinema.org

worldscinema.org

The setting for their slowly building romance also soon proves to be far more complicated than your typical repressive small town. Cay is pretty open about her numerous affairs with women, which her surrogate mother and ranch owner Frances (Audra Lindley) tolerates while simultaneously turning a blind eye to. She also has a true friend in Silver, an older woman who works with Cay, and who's happily engaged to a man, but also has a tenderly physical relationship Cay as well.

“Joe's in the kitchen, you're in the tub,” Silver sighs to Cay. “Jesus, I'm happy.” Unconventional to be sure, but it becomes one of the film's more beautiful portrayals, not only of love, but of female friendships, with Joe (Antony Ponzini) accepting of them both and unconditionally loving towards Silver. Silver is also the only one who seems to have Cay's best interests at heart, and offers her advice that is actually geared towards her betterment.

Cay does seem to have all the freedom in the world...until she finds that “somebody who counts,” as she puts it. As her and Vivian's connection grows, so too does the opposition to it. Frances kicks Vivian out of the house, but then, she might have done that with any connection Cay formed. Her lack of acceptance is also ironically born out of a deep need for Cay's love and presence. She was the mistress of Cay's father for ten years, even taking Cay in after her mother left her, and Frances desperately wants to keep Cay close to her.

It's indicative of Deitch's refusal to allow either women to be defined by the reactions of the straight women around then, and it's most likely why reactions to their tender love story were mixed. There are few things straight white men dislike more than such complete and utter dismissals of their perceptions and opinions. Deitch even had a difficult time finding actresses to audition, since fear of playing LGBTQ material was at an all-time high, especially when the script didn't involve suicide, heartbreak, or a love triangle with a man.

It is also the older, prim and proper Vivian (who actually wears a string of pearls) who is seduced by Cay, slowly and tenderly in the gorgeous desert landscape. I'm no fan of small towns, having hated the one I grew up in. But they do lend themselves to a kind of poetry onscreen, which makes certain one-liners sound wise rather than laughable, such as when Vivian tells Cay her marriage “drowned in still waters,” and Cay replies, “Say no more.” Even the country music is used to great effect. As Silver sings a love song and the two eye each other up, the heat they generate radiates off the screen.

The best, most enjoyable exchange between the two actually happens right before their love scene, where Vivian is explaining to Cay what a respected scholar she is, and how fond she is of order and how unused she is to raising her voice, only to turn around and see Cay naked in her bed. “I wouldn't know what to do,” Vivian protests. Cay replies, “You can start by putting the do not disturb sign on the door.”

What happens after, when the two women leave the hotel room and spend time in the outside world, is difficult to watch. It's clear they love each other, partially because they both tell each other, and that Cay's feelings for Vivian make this a new experience for her too. Vivian is unused to having to defend herself and her relationship against the world, and feels exposed just sitting in a restaurant with Kay, resulting in their first fight. In another film, this is where they would part ways, and “Desert Hearts” would end in either a terrible accident or their declaration to love each other regardless of what the outside world thinks. When they do risk parting, it has nothing to do with any outside opinion, which must have set so many critical teeth on edge.

Indiewire

Indiewire

When the real suspense comes is when Vivian has to return to New York, and Cay's real insecurities swim to the surface. Vivian wants Cay to come with her and really commit to a new life, even if it may not work out. “If you want a sure thing, stay in Reno,” she tells Cay, who is hesitant to leave the comfortable world she knows. “Desert Hearts” likewise gives us no guarantees, only a glimpse of what could be a happy ending when Cay jumps on Vivian's train at the last minute, at least deciding to give Vivian another forty minutes to the next station. I can only hope she decided to take the ride for as long as it lasted.


52 Films By Women: Always Be My Maybe

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

I was less than impressed by “Set It Up,” the last Netflix rom-com I watched, so it was a relief that “Always Be My Maybe” is about as progressive as it thinks it is. The movie addresses race, a major blind spot in not only “Set It Up,” but of quite a few rom-coms in general, which tend to heavily rely on the trope of the black best friend. But “Always Be My Maybe” just doesn't have a cast that's mostly Asian, it's culturally specific in how it references the differences between the cultures.

Sasha (Ali Wong, who co-wrote) and Marcus (Randall Park) are definitely a couple worth rooting for. They meet as kids in San Francisco, where they're inseparable from childhood to their teen years, which at one point involves matching Wayne’s World Halloween costumes. Awww. Sasha's parents are always away at the store where they work, so she also finds a kind of surrogate family with Marcus's parents, especially his mother Judy (Susan Park), where she learns a love of cooking that will be the bedrock of her hugely successful career.

Sasha and Marcus fall out as teen, shortly after Judy dies. Shortly after, Marcus and Sasha have sex for the first time. The aftermath is a mutual awkwardness that can occur even under the best of circumstances, and feels way, way, too relatable. Much like teen years in general, people tend to forget how the first time can lead to even more weirdness rather than ending it. It ends up inadvertently ending the friendship between Marcus and Sasha.

Given the whole situation, which includes the recent death of his mother, it's understandable that Marcus would lash out at Sasha. And it's just as understandable why his anger would be so devastating to Sasha. They were both already on the precipice of major changes, and this comes just to in time to lead to an estrangement that lasts 15 years. By the present, they're both in very different places. Sasha is a hugely successful celebrity chef, while Marcus is still living and working with his father at their air conditioning company. He's also in a band called Hello Peril (a play on the term yellow peril, a period where Asians were seen as a threat) that has found some local success, but is reluctant to play outside his neighborhood.

When Sasha returns to San Francisco to open a new restaurant, she and Marcus reconnect. It's of course a bit awkward at first, but they quickly fall into old familiar friendship patterns, with the two of them even going to their favorite childhood restaurant after Sasha breaks up with her handsome and successful, yet detached, commitment-phobic fiance Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim). Marcus also has a girlfriend (Vivian Bang) albeit one he's only been dating for five months who's clearly wrong for him.

We all know where this is going, and it's refreshing that Marcus is pretty quick to realize that he is and always has been in love with Sasha. Less of the arbitrary rigamarole! Yay! This is still a rom-com though, and there's plenty of movie left, so we know it's not gonna be that easy. And sure enough, Sasha just happens to meet someone. And it involves one of the most hilarious celebrity cameos ever. Because the guy Sasha has been dating turns out to be...Keanu Reeves, who plays a demented version of himself.

Astoundingly, “Always Be My Maybe” also knows when to stop. Keanu Reeves is fantastic, and game as hell, but it would also get grating if this were pushed too far. We'd respect Sasha less for sticking with a jerk, and even Keanu's act would probably get old. Instead of having this be the conflict for the rest of the film, it only takes a little time spent at Keanu's apartment for Sasha realizes Keanu is that much of a jerk and for Marcus to break up with his girlfriend. After they call out each other's bullshit, they fall into bed together and just...start dating.

Yet...there's still plenty of movie left. So what gets in the way? Marcus, really, and the difference in status between him and Sasha. While Sasha has her issues, she is savvy and aware enough to know what she wants and to go for it. Marcus, on the other hand, is stuck, unsure if he even wants his band to play in a bigger venue across town. So he does freak out when Sasha asks him to go to New York with her. Their inevitable argument and break up sucks, but it's clear that Marcus and his issues that are at fault, while allowing him to remain sympathetic. The really inspiring thing is how much Sasha stands up to him and lays it out. She is unapologetic about how her career, and about asking Marcus to support her. As she points out, “No one would question it if the situation were the other way around.”

When their disagreements causes them to part ways, it's also because Sasha lays it out and says she loves Marcus for the first time, that she always has. And that she wants to be with him, even when she recognizes he's being an asshole. But she refuses to keep him in her life if he can't accept the way she lives it. It's one of the best rom-com moments ever, where a declaration of love comes from a driven career woman who is allowed to be vulnerable, smart, and decisive.

We may all know how this is going to end up too, but the big romantic gesture where Marcus wins Sasha back feels earned in a way such moments rarely do. Hell, “Always Be My Maybe” manages to squeeze in quite a bit, especially for a rom-com. There's even a subplot involving Sasha's parents, who are trying to reconnect after being absent for much of her childhood, and are even present at the big romantic moment. Hilariously, their big gesture that wins Sasha over is paying full price at her restaurant.

Randall Park, who plays Marcus, actually helped write many of the songs his band plays, having been a part of a hip hop group early in his career. It's part of why the songs feel so fun, and why we feel just as invested in Marcus and his career as we do Sasha's. It also indicative how so many people from an array of Asian cultures were involved in making this film, from director Nahnatchka Khan to all THREE writers: Michael Golamco, Randall Park, and Ali Wong. Perhaps this will continue to be a trend among mainstream movies, as even Disney is beginning to hire creatives of color behind the scenes as well as in front. What can possibly capture the feeling of people besides straight white men FINALLY being allowed to tell their stories? Possibly only this gif, so I’ll leave it at that.

52 Films By Women: Wanda (1970)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

It can be easy to lose patience with the title character and protagonist in the 1970 film “Wanda.” From the very first time we see Wanda (who's played by writer-director Barbara Loden), she's a figure of passivity, barely able to get off her sister's couch. This may be one of the great, underrated feminist films, but what frustrates so many about it is Wanda not only begins passive, she remains passive. She comes to no great awakening or revelation, and the fact that she's alive and free by the film's end is a matter of luck.

The first twenty minutes is more than enough to establish her helplessness. Wanda shows up to her divorce hearing late and relinquishes custody and all rights to her ex-husband. She tries and fails to get a job in a sewing factory, has a one-night stand with a man, then chases after him when he tries to leave in the morning. She manages to get in his car before he drives off, only for him to abandon her at an ice cream stand. Things only get worse from there, as Wanda gets robbed after she falls asleep in a movie theater and meets Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins) in a bar. She thinks he's the bartender, but he's actually robbing the place.

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IMDB

Wanda leaves with Norman, and he begins abusing her almost immediately. He hits her, and is openly contemptuous of her. He also sexualizes her, insisting she change the way she wears her hair, and dress in the clothes he chooses for her, even yelling, “No slacks!” as he tosses the offensive garments out of the car window. Yet Wanda meekly accepts her fate, referring to Norman as Mr. Dennis, and even stays with him after she discovers his criminal activities. It's hard not to believe at least some of this abusive, controlling relationship wasn't inspired by Loden's real-life husband, the filmmaker Elia Kazan.

If this film is hard to watch now, it also was for many critics at the time. Pauline Kael referred to Wanda as “an attractive girl, but such a sad, ignorant slut that's there's nowhere for her and the picture to go but down.” With all due respect to Kael, she's mistaken. In Loden's hands, Wanda is not merely a blank slate, but a woman with an inner life who yearns to escape from her bleak circumstances but lacks the tools to do so. “I'm just no good,” she laughs to Norman. “No good.”

Loden was an actress who was born into similarly hardscrabble circumstances as Wanda, but managed to leave them at age 16 for New York, quickly making her name in the kind of glamorous pictures she mostly despised. “Wanda” is a kind of meditation on the life Loden could have had if things had gone just slightly differently. The crimes in the film, especially the bank robbery, are also stripped of the fashionable romanticism that defined “Bonnie and Clyde” just a few years earlier in 1967. No one was going to be hunting for Barbara Loden's wardrobe the way many did for Faye Dunaway's Bonnie.

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IMDB

“Wanda” may have been rediscovered and praised far more lavishly in recent years than upon its release, but Barbara Loden would only direct two more shorts in 1975 before she died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 48. Today the film has been cited as an inspiration to artists such as Isabelle Huppert and John Waters. Loden may have been completely unsure of her own identity for much of her life, but her film “Wanda” lives on as her very personal declaration of independence.

52 Films By Women: Paris Is Burning (1990)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

It's often remarked that great art comes from pain. Nowadays there's sort of an addendum, in that said pain is often co-opted by the those in power. This was already well underway by the time Jennie Livingston's documentary “Paris Is Burning” was released in 1990, which follows New York's drag scene in the 1980s, and the many peole who made it what it was.

Past tense is key here. By this time, voguing had become mainstream, with a prime example being Madonna's Vogue video that year. There's always going to be some sense of melancholy to any snapshot of the New York that existed in the 80s and 90s, fictional or otherwise. At least we have “Paris Is Burning” as a chronicle of this vibrant community, which mostly consists of LGBT people of color, and who have only barely been represented in mainstream cinema. Or for that matter, even acknowledged for their cultural contributions.

The first words spoken are from one of the film's subjects, who says, “I remember my dad used to say, 'You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two, just that they're black, and they're a male. But you're black, and you're a male, and you're gay. You're gonna have a hard fucking time.' And he said, 'If you're gonna do this, you're gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.'”

The rest of the film is how various people in this cope with the truth behind these words in this particular time and place, which is a conversation that is also only beginning to be acknowledged (and more often than not, denied) by the mainstream. And the balls, which many have dismissed as spectacle, are an important part of life for many. Taking place in shabby rooms, they mostly consist of people of color cheering on those who walk, showing off the fabulousness of their outfits...or in some cases, their lack of them.

While many of the people on camera don't delve into too much detail about their backgrounds, stories of their vulnerability are rampant. Many of them ran away to New York City in search of a home, while others were thrown out by homophobic and transphobic families. The balls are where they can be with those who share their identity, passions, and interests. They can feel okay about being who they are, and they can also aspire to be who they want to be.

Those who have such hobbies are generally natural performers with the personalities to match. But time and again,, they are shown just how little place their ambitions have in America, especially in the 80s, where practically every form of media depicted white people as emblems of the ideal life, whether it was middle class or the more opulent one that was aspired to more and more as Wall Street became a force unto itself.

It's hardly surprising that such an ambitious exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality provoked controversy, which continues to this day. Director Jennie Livingston was able to capture so much of this world partly because she is a queer woman herself, but her detractors probably have a point when they state that her whiteness held her back. That said, while many of the people in the film have met ends both triumphant and tragic, Livingston has only made shorts since, and has only recently began developing another film. “Paris Is Burning” may have gone to win many awards, and even perhaps help change how documentaries are nominated for Academy Awards, but Livingston herself never became a prolific filmmaker. (If you really want the ultimate rundown of the film and everyone in it, check out out.com's ultimate viewing guide.)

Yet for all its flaws, the conversations “Paris Is Burning” raises continue to be relevant. “All minorities know it's a white America,” Pepper LaBeija person mused. “Any other nationality not of a white set knows this and accepts this till the day they day die. That is everybody's dream and ambition as a minority - to live and look as well as a white person.” One of the images used during this statement is a cover of Forbes magazine. One of the smiling men on that cover is Donald Trump.

52 Films By Women: Near Dark (1987)

IMDB

IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

“Near Dark” is a creative kind of genre fusion that absolutely works, but also tends to be unprofitable if it's not released at the right time. Even if 1987 looked like the right year for Kathryn Bigelow's now cult film, it just wasn't familiar enough for audiences to get behind at the time, resulting in a very familiar situation: positive reviews, but not much returns at the box office.

The neo-western “Near Dark” was part of a number of serious vampire films in the 1980s. “The Lost Boys,” “Fright Night,” “Once Bitten,” “Vampire Hunter D,” and “The Hunger” are all just a small sampling of the large proliferation of films that revolved around the undead. And while the smash hit “Interview with the Vampire” wouldn't be made until 1994, the book it was based on had hit shelves in 1976, followed by “The Vampire Lestat” in 1985 and “The Queen of the Damned” in 1988 to a very appreciative audience.

“Near Dark” flips many of the genre staples from the start. The first and most obvious is it is not a young woman who is victimized by a vampire's bite, but a young man. Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is the quintessential good ol' small town boy. Hell, he even lives on a farm with his father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds). One night, he meets a beautiful drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright) and gets bitten by her. He heads back home, but begins burning up in the sun. Just before he returns to the farm where he lives, the vampires Mae runs with pull up in an RV and kidnap him. During the rest of the film, Caleb is engaged in a battle for his soul. His nature now requires that he kill people to survive. “The night has its price,” Mae tells him soberly.

IMDB

IMDB

Once Caleb resigns himself to staying with his kidnappers for survival purposes, the movie gets into territory that was probably too uncomfortable for audiences. Colton's struggle to live without killing is constant, and there's genuine suspense as to whether he'll kill or not. Even when he refuses, with Mae giving him blood from her wrist in lieu of killing, there's no guarantee he'll stay on a non-lethal path, not just due to his thirst for blood, but the other vampires, who insist that he kill to prove himself.

It's not just Caleb's struggle, which is all too recognizable, that probably made audiences uncomfortable. It's the vampires themselves, which also include Bill Paxton as the most psychotic of them, and Joshua John Miller as Homer, a vampire child who is actually decades old. They quickly become the other protagonists of the story along with Caleb, and they're mostly unrepentant monsters, killing the evil and the innocent alike, and bear more resemblance to the truckers in “Alien” (directed by James Cameron, whom Bigelow was married to from 1989 to 1991) than our most iconic bloodsuckers. These are blue collar vampires, with no aristocratic bearing whatsoever. For the most part, they became vampires by accident rather than being carefully chosen by a darkly handsome psychopath.

Nor are they particularly smart. Their leader, Jesse (Lance Henriksen), is charismatic, but it's hard to imagine these idiots surviving in a non-digital age, and it's also chilling to see just how easy it was for people to disappear before that age hit. This is a group of vampires who just decide to walk into a bar and kill everyone there in the most sadistic ways possible, and are nearly killed – by the police of all things. These guys may have superhuman abilities, but humans still pose a major threat since they're unable to get far enough away from the crime scene before daylight. Humans also manage to put up a credible threat later in the film's final battle.

Over thirty years later, “Near Dark” is still one of the best vampire or horror movies ever made, even if the word vampire is never uttered. Bigelow herself went on to make other films that became even bigger pop culture staples. “Near Dark” isn't just a melding of genres, it combines many of the topics Bigelow became famous for: machismo and women who are making their own lonely way in a male world. Films like “Point Break” and “The Hurt Locker” are examples of the former, while “Zero Dark Thirty” is the latter. Mae bonds with Caleb because of the loneliness and isolation inherent in her life. While she is equal to the men in her lethal family, they are clearly the ones who rule. The film was also a subversive look at the politics of the Reagan Era, which villainized the poor to make the public more comfortable with the continuing erosion of their safety net.

In their own way, the vampires of “Near Dark” are a kind of found family that embrace the very values Reagan was espousing with their loyalty and devotion to each other. But in spite of their strength, they face a constant struggle for survival, and are constantly dependent on others for it. They're essentially a struggling white working class family who mostly gets away inflicting pain and death, mainly because people who being taught that other groups were responsible for such vicious crimes. It feels even more relevant now in our current age, which makes the happy ending even more of a relief. It may be a bit too unrealistic even for a vampire movie, but with hope in ever shorter supply, the possibility of a new, better day after such horror feels like a much needed ray of hope that doesn't burn, but heals.