Director Claire Denis -- who was born in France but raised in colonial Africa -- enjoyed a measure of art-house buzz when she leapt onto the scene in 1989 with her film Chocolat (not to be confused with the awful 2000 Johnny Depp/Juliette Binoche movie of the same name). Siskel & Ebert praised it and Denis on their show at the time. In 2000, her film Beau Travail topped the Film Comment critics' poll of the best films of the year. But in-between, she couldn't catch a break. She has a tendency to make "mood pieces" rather than plot-driven films; these tend to cause people to think, thus making them very uncomfortable. Some of her movies couldn't get distribution and remain difficult to see. Others received only the tiniest distribution and even most critics didn't notice them. Such is the case with her wonderful new 35 Shots of Rum (2 screens), which is one of the year's best films.
It takes place within a small community of mostly non-white Parisians, led by train engineer Lionel (Alex Descas), and his grown, beautiful daughter Jo (Mati Diop). Lionel and Jo share a tender, loving relationship, illustrated by lots of hugs and little kisses on the cheek, but very little talking. In one sequence, Jo buys herself a new rice cooker, and her father coincidentally brings home a new one as well. She hides hers, opens her father's and doesn't say a word. We meet some of their friends and colleagues, and Denis never flat-out introduces anyone to us. We infer and intuit who they really are and we eventually get to know more about them, even if some things are kept a mystery (like the title), though it's actually less confusing that Denis' last film, The Intruder. Just as importantly, we have silences and landscapes, and trains and the light in the sky. It's the kind of movie that can nourish the soul.
Denis is at the forefront of the current crop of women filmmakers, flanked by Kathryn Bigelow, whose The Hurt Locker is just finishing up its run, and Jane Campion, whose Bright Star is playing on 295 screens. Those three films are among my favorites this year, accompanied by Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues and Drew Barrymore's Whip It. In fact, this may be the best year for women directors I've ever seen. A quick look at the current box office list includes the following: Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes (2 screens), Lynn Shelton's Humpday (4 screens), Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls (20 screens), Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel (54 screens), Anne Fletcher's The Proposal (173 screens), Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia (295 screens) and Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body (313 screens). Plus Mira Nair and Natalie Portman directed segments of New York, I Love You (118 screens). It appears that only Sofia Coppola is missing. I happen to love badass chicks, so I'm very happy about this trend. I only hope it continues in full force.