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Is 2017 The Year of the Woman Director?

October 26, 2017

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The sexual-harassment scandal gripping Hollywood has put a focus on gender inequality in the film industry, where women are disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power. But there is reason to hope: Women’s voices are being heard not only as they stand up and speak out against creeps like Harvey Weinstein and James Toback but also as directors of some of this year’s biggest and best movies. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has shattered box-office records, while Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Maggie Betts’ Novitiate are expected to compete for Oscar nominations. I’ve just seen two more films made by women, Dee Rees’ Mudbound and Noel Wells’ Mr. Roosevelt, and they bring diverse points of view to stories that also happen to be immensely entertaining.

Mudbound would be a lock to make Rees the first African-American woman to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, were it not being streamed on Netflix simultaneously with its limited theatrical release on Nov. 17. It certainly deserves to break down the barriers that have kept the service from getting nods for films like Beasts of No Nation and The Fundamentals of Caring. The deeply affecting drama represents a huge step forward for Rees, as it’s on a grander scale than her indie breakthrough Pariah as well as her Emmy-winning HBO biopic Bessie.

At the very least, Mudbound is a sure bet for a best ensemble nomination at the SAG Awards. Carey Mulligan stars as a farm wife torn between her small-minded husband (Jason Clarke) and his World War II-vet younger brother (Garrett Hedlund, who brings a beautifully wounded intensity reminiscent of Heath Ledger), while Mary J. Blige belies her song “No More Drama” with a quietly powerful performance as a midwife whose son (Jason Mitchell) returns from the war to face the horror of racism on the homefront. Equally fine are Netflix staple Rob Morgan (Stranger Things, Daredevil) as her sharecropper husband and Jonathan Banks as a virulent Klansman.

Mudbound has the scope and impact of a classic Hollywood epic, while Mr. Roosevelt has much more modest ambitions, but it’s no less refreshing. Wells, who showed promise during her sadly short-lived tenure on Saturday Night Live, writes, directs and stars in this eccentric comedy as improv/sketch artist Emily, who leaves L.A. and returns to Austin, Texas after her titular cat falls ill. Unaware that her ex-boyfriend (Nick Thune) has a seemingly perfect new girlfriend (Britt Lower), Emily melts down, and Wells proves unafraid to cast herself as an hysterically flawed mess.

Mr. Roosevelt is Wells’ first film as a writer-director, yet she’s already adept at creating three-dimensional characters (there are no heroes or villains) and using the camera for maximum comic effect. She’s particularly skilled at finding the painful laughs in random sexual encounters. In a just world, Wells could the cinematic successor to Woody Allen. She’s a seriously funny filmmaker.

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