On March 7, 2010, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally recognized a woman as being worthy of the title ‘best director’ for the first time in the 81-year history of the Academy Awards. Even as a constant Hollywood critic, Deren would have loved to have seen that moment, if not receive an achievement award from the Academy (which should happen). Originally from the Ukraine, her family came to America five years after her birth. After college, she made her way to New York City where she did a thesis on poetry, worked as a photographer and assisted a choreographer. She then made her way out to Los Angles, finding a kindred spirit in Czech Alexander Hammid, who became her second husband and collaborator on Meshes of the Afternoon, which alone would have assured her place in film history.
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The most polarizing—and under-appreciated—director of the New Hollywood, Brian De Palma’s ultimate legacy may be that of being the first post-modernist director in American cinema. While the so-called “movie brats” of the 1970s may have reveled in their cinematic upbringings, none did so more explicitly than De Palma. Referencing movie lore visually and orally may be business as usual in 2011, but back in 1973, when De Palma made the Hitchcockian Sisters, more than a few eyebrows were raised. He did himself no favors by continuing to draw comparisons to the Master of Suspense, and the primary argument by De Palma detractors is that he is simply an imitator, as opposed to an innovator. De Palma would probably never deny this as he has made a point out of exploring the nature of copying and doubles in films like the claustrophobic Body Double and the erotic thriller Femme Fatale. Throughout his career he has shown a fascination with what can only be deemed as “possession”. Whether it be the cross dressing killer of Dressed to Kill (1980) (which not coincidentally features a now iconic shower scene with Angie Dickinson) or the identity disorder of Mission: Impossible (1996), De Palma seems mystified by the idea of taking over someone else’s life. His “imitation” therefore should be studied as a symptom of post-modernism: who are we really in a world largely influenced by the media?
“I always freak out when I hear people opposing sensation to story-telling,” Claire Denis has said. “A great story-teller always gives you that sense of warmth or cold… [Sensation and story-telling] are not opposed … Why deprive a film of what belongs to cinema?” Perhaps more consistently than any other contemporary filmmaker, Denis’ movies work to make sensation into story-telling, and vice versa. Elliptical and fragmentary, sometimes oblique to the point of opacity, Denis’ films re-write the rule-book in terms of narrative content and characterization, her stories often emerging through an intense focus on the bodies of her actors and a moody, sensuous evocation of places and spaces. The result is a cinematic style that, in its combination of discretion and ellipsis with moments of confrontational, sometimes brutal directness, is one of the most distinctive in modern French cinema.
Some might argue that without The Silence of the Lambs, Demme may not have made this list. Yes, he has made a surplus of outstanding films, including quite a few unjustly ignored documentaries such as The Agronomist (2003), but initially, the now 67-year-old director was most known more for his first two critical successes in the early 1980s ending up as box office duds (Handle With Care and Melvin and Howard). Despite the excellent Talking Heads doc Stop Making Sense (1984), the quirky masterpiece of Something Wild, and the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Married to the Mob (1988), Demme flew mostly under the radar for the rest of the Me Decade. That is, until he paired up with Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and screenwriter Ted Tally in 1991 to create the definitive portrait of a serial killer, the film that defined the psychological thriller/horror film hybrid for modern audiences.
Kelly McGillis signed with Paramount Studios in the mid-80s to make two features films. The first, “Witness,” was a huge hit and earned her a Golden Globe nomination. The actress had some specific ideas about what she wanted to do in the second movie but the Paramount brass had already decided: It would be about a group of young test pilots.
It wasn’t exactly the film McGillis would have picked for herself, but “Top Gun” went on to become the biggest box office draw of 1986 , taking in more than $176 million. From its driving Kenny Loggins tune “Danger Zone” to the catch phrase “I feel the need, the need for for speed,” “Top Gun” became a hit and remains as high-flying as ever.