Film’s Female Powerhouses — Part 2: The Indie Darlings

(Re-posted from Limité

Last week, we kicked off our three-part series honoring female filmmakers with some of Hollywood’s biggest hitmakers. This week, we continue our Women’s History Month tribute with some of independent cinema’s brightest stars.

Be sure to join us Friday, March 29 for the final part of our series, “The International Cineastes.”



by Morgan Goldin

History was made in 2010 when Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker (2008), becoming the first woman to win this honor. For most of her career, Bigelow has worked in the arena of “masculine movies” and crafted some of the most impeccable action spectacles to hit the big screen. Despite some of her bigger action films, it was her success with breakout, low-budget film The Hurt Locker that places her on this list.

Her talent for crafting taut and lean imagery could be traced to her art school beginnings. She got her start in painting, and later studied film theory and criticism. “The Set-Up” (1978) was a 20-minute avant-garde deconstruction of cinematic violence that was Bigelow’s first short film. This piece lays down the themes that Bigelow returns to throughout her career. The aestheticization of violence is a mode in which Bigelow heavily operates. This style can be traced back to her first feature, The Loveless (1981), a biker-movie that showcased her taste for visual flourishes. Near Dark (1987), her sophomore film, is a neo-horror classic that successfully merges two distinct genres, the western and the vampire movie. A later success is Point Break (1991), about an FBI agent who goes undercover with a group of adrenaline junkie surfers who rob banks in ex-president masks.

Her most celebrated picture, The Hurt Locker, earned its accolades and rightly won Best Picture. An Iraqi war film that strips away the political subtext and focuses on the day-to-day struggles of a bomb diffuser, the film employs handheld camera work that expertly complements the fractured mental and physical states of its soldier protagonists. Her follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), is no less thrilling and chronicles the days leading up to the locating and killing of Osama bin Laden.

Kathryn Bigelow proves you don’t need a man’s touch when working on action films. Her muscular oeuvre speaks for itself. Future textbooks and scholars will recognize her as a female director succeeding in a typically male province.


by Curtis John

Although her 2010 dramedy The Kids Are All Right, about what happens when two children conceived by artificial insemination decide to bring their donor father into their lives and the lives of their lesbian mothers, won the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy, writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s non-Hollywood aesthetic still makes it difficult to get her distinct films made, separating her from her mostly male and straight peers.

Cholodenko is often lauded with kicking off the continual wave of “lesbian chic” movies with the release of her feature film High Art(1998). Starring Ally Sheedy as a once-famous, heroin-addicted photographer who meets an ambitious young female photo editor,High Art premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (as would Cholodenko’s next feature Laurel Canyon, 2002) and won numerous awards, catapulting the director into critical success. Yet, with her focus on life in the LGBTQ community, the filmmaker goes beyond visibility and representation to delve into how characters interact with one another. In doing so, her films are neither sentimental nor apologetic.

Cholodenko’s career kicked off during the 1990s resurgence in independent filmmaking, wherein she landed assistant editor jobs before further honing her craft at Columbia University’s MFA film program, where she was mentored by unconventional filmmaker Milos Foreman (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) and won numerous short film awards. Her breakout hit, The Kids Are All Right, went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture (a rarity for a film directed by a woman) and Best Original Screenplay, the latter being an honor shared by both Cholodenko and writing partner Stuart Blumberg. The film stars Hollywood perennials Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo, as well as younger cast members Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, 2010) and Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games, 2012), who were elevated into the mainstream with their starring turns.


by Daniel Quitério

With a last name like Coppola, it should be a foregone conclusion that you might end up working in the film industry. For Sofia Coppola, that realization came perhaps earlier than most would expect. She had her first taste of the industry before she could even form her first words, appearing as baby Michael in her father Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 “greatest film ever made,” The Godfather. The “infant actor” would find herself making appearances in several more of her father’s films as she grew, but despite her experiences in front of the camera, it’s her acumen behind it that allowed her to step out of her father’s hefty shadow and create a name for herself.

The 41-year-old filmmaker was born in New York City to father Francis and mother Eleanor, a documentarian and artist. No doubt it was her upbringing in a creative household that influenced her decision to later study fine arts at the California Institute of Arts. She said, “I was going to art school and trying different things. I was interested in a lot of, mostly visual arts. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and then I made a short film and felt like it was a combination of all these interests of mine … But it was really when I read the book The Virgin Suicides that made me wanna make a movie.” This 1999 debut feature about a group of troubled sisters stars Kirsten Dunst, who later starred as the title character in Coppola’s 2006 effort Marie Antoinette. But it was Lost in Translation (2003) that put the filmmaker in the Hollywood eye. This character study of loneliness in a foreign world earned the filmmaker the distinction of being the first and youngest American woman (at age 32) to be nominated for the Best Director Academy Award. She won an Oscar for the film’s screenplay.

This year, Coppola releases her fifth film, The Bling Ring, about a group of teens who rob celebrities’ homes.


by John Lee

Debra Granik has only directed two features, but with each she’s carved out star-making performances and earned critical acclaim. The Massachusetts native was raised in Washington DC and entered a career in politics after college. It was through politics that she became interested in documentary film. She made educational films for trade unions before her interest turned to narrative filmmaking, which lead her to enrolling in NYU’s graduate film program.

While at NYU, Granik directed her first short film, “Snake Feed,” which was accepted into the prestigious Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs. It was during this time that she realized what “an organic, incremental process filmmaking is. The Labs were my training ground that really formed who I am as a filmmaker,” she said. The short went on to win the Short Filmmaking Award at the Sundance Film Festival (1997) and eventually grew into her first feature, Down to the Bone (2004). The film tells the story of an upstate New York mother (played by then unknown actress Vera Farmiga [The Departed, 2006]) who goes to rehab to kick her cocaine addiction.

It wasn’t until Granik’s next film, Winter’s Bone (2010), that she broke through to mainstream audiences and really caught Hollywood’s eye. She adapted the story with partner Anne Rosellini from a 2006 novel. The film tells the story of Ree Dolly, an Ozark teenager who is the sole caretaker of her two younger siblings and her catatonic mother. The film displays Granik’s remarkable skill at conveying atmosphere and location. Once again, she cast relatively unknown actors—Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes—who turned in star performances that earned them both Academy Award nominations. The film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. With so much success after just two films, the 50-year-old Granik is primed to continue making waves and shatter the proverbial glass ceiling.


by Saidah Russell

Last summer was an epic one for epic movies, but it was also full of small gems, one of them being Your Sister’s Sister, directed by Lynn Shelton. The director was a bit of a late bloomer in her filmmaking career, but she’s long been surrounded by the arts. In her early years, she studied acting, painting, poetry, and photography. She took part in theatre productions before enrolling in the photography MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She claims that her decision to seriously pursue a career in film came after attending an event with French director Claire Denis, who began her film career at 40. Shelton came to the conclusion that age was not a factor and she jumped into directing head first. She worked as a freelance editor and made experimental shorts before she was invited by film studio The Film Company to write and direct her first feature, We Go Way Back (2006).

Shelton’s breakout film was the 2009 comedy Humpday, starring Mark Duplass (a frequent collaborator) and Joshua Leonard as two straight friends who are dared to star together in an adult movie. For its low budget, small cast, and mostly improvised dialogue, Humpday would come to epitomize Shelton’s trademark style. Her films defy the stereotype that “low budget” must mean sloppy and unpolished, or that improvised scenes and an outline (rather than a script) can’t translate to sophisticated filmmaking. The director claims that as a filmmaker she is “looking for the humanity in everybody,” and in her films she attempts “to reveal that humanity.” Her latest film isTouchy Feely (2013), about a massage therapist who finds herself in an unusual circumstance when she develops an aversion to bodily contact. The drama stars Your Sister’s Sister actress Rosemarie DeWitt.

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