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  • Kerry Chambers

That drawl, that stillness, that gaze. He is a fascinating watch, is that James Spader. Sometimes he seems like an entity trying to figure out what it is to be human; sometimes he is something more than human. His severity blended with his precociousness makes for unpredictable and hypnotic performances every time. He’s an underrated cult icon, in everything, and nothing, a phantom, a larger than life personality that slips and snoops and lives for the characters luring in the side-lines.

Crash (Cronenberg, 1996 - Arrow Video)

A guy impossible to really pigeon hole, Hollywood never knew what to do with him. With minor roles as various yuppie-types during the eighties in films such as Mannequin (Gottlieb, 1987) and Wall Street (Stone, 1987) or entertaining arseholes in The New Kids (Cunningham, 1985) and Less Than Zero (Kanievska, 1987), Spader’s career has been marginalized and yet uprooted by the actor himself over the years. He never just plays a yuppie; he never just plays an oddball. Romances, thrillers, dramas; Spader does his own thing. In his Hollywood, he is anomaly, one I always find a joy to see on screen, always capable of doing something different with a character who in another’s hands could be dull or generic. I mean, this guy was brilliant as Ultron in an Avengers film that is not remembered too fondly., the highlight of an otherwise lacklustre entry. He was my favourite part of Steven Spielberg's rather bloated Lincoln.

White Palace (Mandoki, 1990 - Universal Pictures)

In later years he has become a small screen legend with amazing turns as Alan Shore in The Practice and a personal much binged favourite, Boston legal. He’s surprised all in The Blacklist (the first series was peak) and divided fans with his turn as the slimy, sex-obsessed oddball Robert California in The Office’s season eight. As a member of the approving side, I still believe that some of the best scenes of that season were carried by this weird character. In this list I will refrain from including these roles, for this is place to celebrate his cinematic output, because if there is anything I have obsessively invested in, it is Spader’s unusual career. The films have not always been great, but there has never been a doubt that he is the best thing in them.

Sex, Lies and Videotape (Soderbergh, 1989 - Premium Collection)

10. Bad Influence (Dir. Curtis Hanson, 1990)

Following a stream of obnoxious antagonists and weasly pains-in-the-arse, Spader had a chance to play against type and so did co-star Rob Lowe in Bad Influence, following his own tenure as misunderstood bad boys and loveable rogues. Not so much as a role swap but as a twist on their usual casting, we see Spader, a nerdy and shy suit whose life is turned upside down when he meets a mysterious drifter who teaches him to step out of his comfort zone and enter a world of garish parties, risqué sex with women and high-octane antics. However, things go too far one night and he discovers that the new figure in his life is not quite what he seems. The movie is a lot of fun. Of course it’s not high-brow; it’s a nineties thriller that I have an irrational nostalgic fondness for. But it’s a great display of Spader’s range in a semi-mainstream film.

Bad Influence (Hanson, 1990 - MGM Home Entertainment)

9. The Pentagon Papers (Dir. Rod Holcomb, 2003)

A little seen film but a striking one at that, it is an assured performance from Spader. Based on the true story of Daniel Ellsberg who uncovered the deception of the US government to downplay the dire situation in Vietnam during the war, he leaks the information to the press whilst also battling his own perception of the war he once supported and the nation he once had faith in. More serious than many of the other entries on this list, it still displays a mature transition, an ability to hone a grounded character through a harrowing narrative. It is a breath of fresh air from some of his stranger roles, a man faced with his shame and rectifying it by doing the right thing, at the risk of everything else.

The Pentagon Papers (Holcomb, 2003 - Paramount Home Entertainment)

8. White Palace (Dir. Luis Mandoki, 1990)

Many of Spaders’ films of the nineties were Erotic something-something’s. Some of them were questionable, a little over-the-top, a little weird (1993’s Dream Lover, I’m looking at you). He’s really good at them, the more perverse the better. But others were capable of being surprisingly touching. A meeker type he embodies in White Palace, but sparks fly with marvellous co-star Susan Sarandon. A widowed Jewish advertising executive in his twenties falls hard for a forty-something diner waitress; their class and age differences come between them as friends and family doubt their relationship, however their chemistry is unquestionable, and in one another they find a comfort and trust that they had been seeking.

White Palace (Mandoki, 1990 - Universal Pictures)

7. Wolf (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1994)

Definitely one of the weirdest films Mike Nichols ever directed but it’s fitting that Spader would happen to be in it and now, upon reflection, Wolf is kind of an underrated gem almost thirty years on. It’s a Horror Romance from the nineties; that gets brownie point from the get go. Supporting a main cast of Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeifer and Christopher Plummer, the story follows a publisher, Will (Nicholson), whose life is re-invigorated when he is attacked by a wolf, gaining supernatural powers and heightened senses. However, he must hide wolfish tendencies under the intense scrutiny of his rivals and the woman he has fallen for; meanwhile mysterious animal attacks are happening across the city. Spader, as Stewart, was once his protégé, now office rival, sleeping with Will’s wife, and a total sleaze; he nails it too.

Wolf (Nichols, 1994 - Columbia Home Entertainment)

Encapsulating the smarmy duplicity of his character, he is still genuinely holding his own in every scene with a great like Nicholson and is absolute proof of Spader’s often underrated talent. He also enjoys some of his own scene-chewing moments. His confrontation with Pfeiffer in the police station really is eccentric, playing up the farcical elements of the film – in no way a bad thing either, the best parts are when it embraces its werewolf-in-the-office premise – yet so utterly hypnotic, and not just because of his freaky contacts and freakier sniffing. Countless times, my sister and I have re-enacted his ‘What an odd question’ scene, it’s just highly entertaining.

Wolf (Nichols, 1994 - Columbia Home Entertainment)

6. Crash (Dir. David Cronenberg, 1996)

Remember when I mentioned ‘perverse’. I didn’t even like this film the first time around. Nor the second or the third but I kept watching it. Yes, my Spader obsession had a huge part to play - he looks great, he performs great – yet the whole experience is so weird you have to kind of remind yourself that it existed. Over time I kind of grew to love it, some overexposure and Stockholm syndrome like indoctrination for sure, but now it’s one of my favourite Cronenberg flicks and kind of a party piece for me (The Greasy Strangler another favourite to break to the ice).

Crash (Cronenberg, 1996 - Arrow Video)

Based on JG Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same name, considered un-adaptable and too taboo for the time, of course Cronenberg found something cinematic in the depravity. Following car crash survivors who develop a sexual infatuation with motor accidents, they enter an underworld of eroticized danger, the stakes getting higher and higher as they seek the ultimate pleasure. This kind of role somehow suits James Spader, the otherworldliness, the strangeness, the grotesque; he captures the descent into this world magically. He also gets to star in what is still considered one of the freakiest sex scenes of all time involving a gaping scar; iconic.

Crash (Cronenberg, 1996 - Arrow Video)

5. Stargate (Dir. Roland Emmerich, 1994)

Of all the ‘Star’ franchises, this was always my favourite. The most Hollywood leading man Spader ever got to be and an attempt to make him conform to a nerdy meek persona, even that he does endearingly, utterly sincerely, and different. The first to helm the iconic sci-fi character Dr. Daniel Jackson, it’s his performance that provides the heart of the film, certainly what brings me back again and again. In fact, the music, the atmosphere, the fantastical (the suspicious similarities to Disney’s Atlantis – not a bad thing, I love that too), its’ an escapist adventure that I adore indulging in. Sometimes I forget that Kurt Russell is there…

Stargate (Emmerich, 1994 - Momentum Pictures)

Scientist Daniel, rarely taken seriously in his field, is approached by a military facility to decode an ancient Egyptian artefact. The hieroglyph harbours important information, which reveals the possibility of Stargates, portals between worlds. The springboard for the rest of the franchise and considered by many fans as a lesser entry in the canon, I simply can’t shrug it off. Spader really is great and so likable. I love that his career became so unpredictable and diverse, but I often wonder what would have been if he had entered the world of Hollywood blockbusters; what kind of films he would have made as a leading man.

Stargate (Emmerich, 1994 - Momentum Pictures)

4. The Music of Chance (Dir. Philip Haas, 1993)

As a huge fan of the original 1990 absurdist novel of the same name by Paul Auster, I can say that this is probably one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen committed to screen. So it’s a huge shame how little seen it is. When I think of different, impressive performance in Spader’s career, I will think of this. As the twitchy, obsessive card-shark Jack, he alongside Mandy Patinkin’s Jim partake in a high stakes poker match with two eccentric millionaires. When they lose, they are put to work on the property building a never-ending stones wall.

The Music of Chance (Haas, 1993 - Boulevard)

It’s that kind of storytelling I simply love in cinema. A strange premise, a stripped back cast, an unusual pairing. The story is infused with element of Godot; its terrifying banality making room for some immersive characterization becomes strangely hypnotic. Spader’s Jack is self-assured but a total mess, restless and aggressive. He paces like a caged animal, animated beside Patinkin’s reserved lead. He’s allowed to let loose and inhabits the weird story, he’s heart-achingly fragile, a man destined to spiral in his pursuit of money and success, for a life of wandering, of hollow dreams. An amazing performance overall.

The Music of Chance (Haas, 1993 - Boulevard)

3. Pretty in Pink (Dir. Howard Deutch, 1986)

I don’t want to hear about how disappointed John Hughes was in this interpretation of his screenplay. I don’t want to hear how 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful was better, the rewrite and truer to the original vision. I don’t want to hear about who Andie should have ended up with. Pretty in Pink is iconic. It is one of my favourite brat pack flicks; the soundtrack, the mood, the lines, the cast. It has Steff too. Spader’s Steff is the best eighties teen villain of all time. His unprovoked bitchiness, his aesthetic, his unspoken backstory that in the twenty-first century would have filled pages upon pages on fanfiction sites (four years he has lusted after Andie, he admits this, they would have a field day with the premise, angst upon angst, lusty lemons…); you love him as much as you hate him. That voice, that indestructible hair, his crass gestures. He’s glamorously grotesque.

Pretty in Pink (Deutch, 1986 - Paramount Home Entertainment)

Andie (Molly Ringwald) is in her final year of high school, an outcast whose mother left home when she was young and caring for her depressed father, she is determined to make it through with the support of her friends including the lovesick Duckie (Jon Cryer as arguably one of cinemas most irritating sidekicks). She didn’t expect to fall head over heels for a guy, Blane (Andrew McCarthy) from the right side of the tracks. Meanwhile, their social circles are trying to drive them apart. Spader is Blane’s best friend, Steff. A self-entitled rich bastard who hates Andie more so because he lusts after her; rejected over and over, he cannot fathom how he can like such a poor girl, and how a poor girl can so confidently dislike him. Now is it Spader’s performance or the writing, I don’t know? There seems to be dynamism in the character that makes him one of the most interesting in the whole thing. Perhaps it’s just years of relentless viewings and obsession that has made him into a fabled mystery I must unravel.

Pretty in Pink (Deutch, 1986 - Paramount Home Entertainment)

2. Secretary (Dir. Steven Shainberg, 2002)

I’ve spoken about this film before in my article Top 10 Love Stories to Indulge in on Valentines Day, exploring my favourites from around the world. I’ve yet to see anything that can match it for energy or mood; it touches my heart in ways that sometimes can be hard to explain. It’s weird and shocking, funny and moving and still one of my favourite romances of all time. James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal helm this quirky love story in what I still consider amongst some of their finest films. Together they are sweet, sexy and terrifying; I can imagine no one else in the roles. Mr. E. Edward Grey and Lee Holloway are perfect. Spader’s Grey is so odd, sensual but unsettling, obsessive and unreasonable beside Gyllenahaal’s blossoming wallflower, finding herself and sexuality under the gaze of her boss.

Secretary (Shainberg, 2002 - Tartan Video)

Lee has been released from a mental institution where she was admitted following a severe self-harm incident; she must now adjust to daily life even as her family falls apart at home, forced to portray a manufactured perfection that conforms to her family’s world. Meanwhile, she is treated as a child. When she finds an advertisement for a position as a secretary with a local lawyer named Mr. Grey, she attends a strange interview, eventually landing the job. But an untraditional relationship unfolds, as both emotionally stunted find a way to express themselves through BDSM office games. Awkward as they are, it is a beautiful portrait of an unconventional romance, of finding oneself and voice and exploring women’s desire.

Secretary (Shainberg, 2002 - Tartan Video)

1. Sex, Lies and Videotape (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1989)

This is it. The film that I am repeatedly enthralled with upon multiple re-watches. The film that brought independent cinema to the mainstream, that transcends it’s controversy and tells a raw, unusual tale of sexual repression and intimacy. That each time the films asks more questions, that with my own personal growth I take more and more from the film yet find the familiar anxieties and heartaches I related to all those years ago upon my first viewing, is proof that the story has a certain universality that maintains its relevance. Maybe not as taboo as it once was, there is still a sense of daring, provocative and titillating in its subject; something that still tugs at my heart in that final act which traps me in its spell. One of the major attributes besides the writing, beside the direction, besides Cliff Martinez’s engaging score is James Spader’s powerful, Cannes winning performance as Graham.

Sex, Lies and Videotape (Soderbergh, 1989 - Premium Collection)

Ann (Andie Macdowell), a prudish, housewife, is put out when her lawyer husband John (Peter Gallagher) invites an old college roommate to stay. Unawares to her, her husband is having an affair with her outgoing sister, Cynthia (Laura Sa Giacomo) whilst she is at home keeping house and attending therapy sessions where it is revealed that she struggles with her sexual life and identity, conforming to her pure, straight-laced image. When Graham arrives, to John’s disappointment he is much changed from the man he knew in school; once a scheming lothario, he now is a soft-spoken nomad living from the boot of his car. Choosing to settle in the town, he lives a life he deems more honest whilst engaging in a strange hobby; interviewing and filming women discussing their sexuality, pasts and fantasies.

Sex, Lies and Videotape (Soderbergh, 1989 - Premium Collection)

On paper it seems like a typically odd Spader role. But he never pulled anything quite so understated and convincing, vulnerable and impenetrable. Graham is eerie in his stillness, honest yet deceptive. The delivery, the timidness, the control in Spader’s movement, tone, he remodelled himself in this character. Equal parts attractive and repellent, he’s an eternal question mark. ‘I’ve got a lot of problems, but they belong to me…’ is one of my favourite scenes in American cinema (bold statement I know, and vague as hell but I get that line stuck in my head a lot), and in the hands of Spader is something so frightening and real. It’s beautiful cinema. Go watch it.

Sex, Lies and Videotape (Soderbergh, 1989 - Premium Collection)

Honourable Mentions: Bob Roberts (Robbins, 1992), True Colours (Ross, 1991), Storyville (Frost, 1992)

 

There we go, my obsession with James Spader put into a maniacal article. But let’ get more exposure on this underrated star, the guy who even after all these years is exciting to watch. I hope you found a new favourite and enjoyed the exploration into the cinema of his work.

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Sometimes a film feels like a mirror is being held up to you. Sometimes it feels like a little bit of déjà vu. The strangest of these is a haunting familiarity, a glimpse into a future you have anxiously anticipated, seen to reality. The world is not the same, you know its not, but those moments, those feelings become so glaring they take shape on the screen before you. This was a sensation I experienced during The Worst Person in the World. Described as an ‘Existential dark Rom-com’ by many of critics, that descriptor alone doesn’t really capture the welcome unwelcomeness of Joachim Triers latest film.


Where a lot of films have dealt with coming-of-age experience, have depicted the various eras of human existence, the muddy waters of ‘figuring-it-out’ found in the high school dramas to the pensive thought pieces of the twilight years. Trier embarks on the in between of that. Now more than ever, is becoming an more realised possibility for many younger generations that into their thirties, things are less certain. Social pressure boasts that by ones late twenties, they should be settled and figuring it out. I have seen this myself, all my friends are in relationships, weddings pending or scarier still babies pending. I can’t relate to their experience, I'm the other end of the spectrum. The grown-up baby, still in it's cradle but rattling anxiety medication instead of rattles. The Worst Person in the World tackles the period where ones feet must begin to take root in the ground, decisions must be made. Or so we are made to believe.

Aksel and Julie in The Worst Person in the World (Trier, 2021)

Told in twelve chapters, we follow Julie (played by Renate Reinsve, winning best actress at Cannes for the role) as she moves from interest to interest; degrees, relationships and jobs are explored in her attempt to find her true calling. From medical student, writer to photography, eventually she finds work in a book shop, still none the wiser to the light bulb moment that will guide her to her future career. Meanwhile, she falls in love with an older, successful comic book artist, Aksel. Despite at different stages in their lives, they decide to persevere with a relationship, having connected in a way neither of them have ever experienced before. However, even this becomes strenuous as overwhelmed by the reality of their future, of the children he one day wishes to have, along with her own prospects which still seem so unclear, Julie begins to diverge, seeking out a purpose in her life. In doing so she meets Eivind, and following a night she can never forget, her future becomes even less certain.


Grounded and fantastical, funny and heart-breaking, somehow Trier shows restraint in all these things. Most potently he captures the naiveties and inconclusiveness of modern day youth. We don’t know what we’re doing; there's a bunch of us, if not a majority of us who are muddying our way through. It’s like the secret everyone knows and no one wants to really admit to. In Julie’s world, time is running out. Decisions must be made. There is no clarity. Either that or she can just keep plodding on, unfulfilled.


Julie is smart, creative, attractive; though a child of divorce, her family is relatively well-off, her mother is supportive, her father is unreliable and absent, with no investment in her as a person. Her life is made up of the little tragedies of humanity, there is no great shocking twist or turn, no earth-defying event. Her dad's aloofness, and distance shapes her but does not break her, providing an understanding to her character. Imbued with a sense of humour both biting and accurate, Julie’s story is marvellous in it’s simplicity. As much as she tries to take control of her decisions, the reigns are snatched from her again and again. Those decisions hurt others, they hold her back, and mistake after tiny mistake litter the path behind her.

Eivind and Julie in The Worst Person in the World (Trier, 2021)

She's restricted both financially, emotionally and physically. Her own indecisiveness is her crux. It’s unsettlingly relatable. Julie says that she feels she has ‘become a spectator to her own life’; how many of us have felt that way. I’m feeling it right now. It’s a entirely human and captured by Trier in some of the films most striking scenes. One which has made the rounds, is the frozen-time scene, in which we see Julie in world where she and object of desire spend the day together as the rest of the world stops around them. It’s romantic, full of longing. As the dawn approaches, the tragic reminder of reality, the cruelty of fate creeps in.


The script is phenomenal. Structurally, its episodic style should be worn but in the hands of Triers narrative, it makes more sense to follow Julie through each phase of her life. The fleetingness of these phases, mimic so well the flippancy of it; as a young person I can vouch for my tendency to enter various very intensive and sometime irrational phases. I thought I would grow out of it, that with time and maturity my life would become one prolonged phase. Nah, I just get more hectic with each one. Following Julie in each phase, we see her grow. Her relationship with Aksel probably the most fascinating and powerful of them all; between these two, their candid conversations lend the film it’s greatest moments. Through the creative flourishes, playful quips, quick humour, Aksel and Julie get the realest in their scenes together, enough to knock my fragile nerves.


The film is not cruel. It is honest. It is still a coming of age, reserves it's judgement of Julie and makes her likable. She matures, her approach towards the people in her life altered as she grows, where she no longer sees the idolised versions of them but the people underneath. It’s as much about synchronicity of our lives with others, it’s about the wrong times. It’s about the pressure, the love, and what it can and cannot endure, in spite of it. A moment which stands out to me most, of Julie leaving an exclusive party for Aksel’s work without him, staring out at the cityscape, shedding a tear. We know it'd overwhelming, it’s so many things, and nothing, it’s a life out of control that chips away a Julie. It doesn't matter, because we understand. We understand the solitude of her sadness.

Julie in The Worst Person in the World (Trier, 2021)

I don’t want to spoil this film, going in with so little information made a journey far more compelling than the title and premise let on. It was rich with nuance, steering clear of the sentimental and embracing a mild cynicism that is challenged throughout. I admit I don’t know Triers work well. This was a first but this may have aided me ever more because I had no reference, only that I loved the poster of the smiling woman, juxtaposed with that striking title. I knew I had something a little close to home coming my way.



‘…without doubting that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do’

Funny, emotional and raw, The Worst Person in the World was not what I expected. I don’t relate to so many physical aspects of Julie’s life, yet immediately I swallowed it all, recognised it all. How human we all are; fickle, foolish and frivolous. That was the most poignant of it all. Trier tells a reserved, simple, grounded story and manages to twist it into an odyssey of self-fulfilment, of self-love. It’s a winding, uneven road to go down, but Julie’s journey gives us a glimpse into our own lives. A week after seeing it, I haven’t forgotten about it. That's always a good sign. I left the screening and thought of how wise it was, remembered scenes and found myself soothed by it. It deserved it’s nominations, it’s probably one of the most accessible of the awards season. But best of all, it’s an entertaining and honest look at the messy middle years of our lives. We’re not young, we’re not old but we’ve not figured anything out; finding our own way, struggling on through mundanity and waiting for the magic to happen.


****


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Happy Mother’s day and all that jazz! What better way to commemorate the day than exploring some of the most complex mother daughter relationships on screen. I am, myself a daughter (crazy, I know), and have found it rather fascinating the various depictions of this dynamic. It’s not easy being mum, nor is it easy being a daughter and with generational divides or deeper rooted issues, it’s sad to say it but we can’t all live our lives like The Gilmore Girls – well, the majority of The Gilmore Girls. We fight, make up, fight even harder and bottle up a lot of messy emotions that often get dealt with way too late. Doesn’t always mean we love each other less, it really is just complicated.

Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017 - A24 Films)

I’ve wanted to do this list for a while and there really is no better time. Steering clear of naming this selection ‘the downright twisted’, I wanted to compile the striking portrayals of mother/daughterhood in cinema that for me, have lingered long after the credits have rolled. This is not to say there is no darkness, of course there is. Jealousy, resentment, indifference, murderous intent; is as prevalent as the mild inconvenience as the better relationships on the list. But it’s easy to paint a picture of warped sensibilities and violent hatred, possessiveness and psychotic repressions. In the end, mothers and daughters aren’t always so toxic. Though the toxic ones make for some fascinating viewing…


Honourable Mentions: A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie, 1961), Marnie (Hitchcock, 1964), Wild at Heart (Lynch, 1990), Crooklyn (Lee, 1994), The Winter Guest (Rickman, 1997), The Diary of Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015), Edge of Seventeen (Craig, 2016), The Truth (Koreeda, 2019), Shiva Baby (Seligman, 2020).


15. Stoker (Dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013)

Let’s start off a little messed up. A coming-of-age with murderous intent, mad incestuous overtones and some rivalry between mother and daughter over a creepy uncle who shows up following the death of his brother. It’s not the ideal situation. The English language debut of the amazing South Korean director Park Chan-wook, it’s full of atmosphere and filmed beautifully. It’s all senses, sounds and horrifying skin-crawling details. It’s more a mood. Narratively, sure there’s a lot to be desired but Stoker is rich viewing and set with a great cast including Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and a toned down Nicole Kidman.

Stoker (Park, 2013 - Twentieth Century Fox)

India Stoker is a weird teenager; detached from her classmates and harbouring a dark lust for something even she can’t quite figure out. That is until her uncle Charlie turns ups out of the blue; a man she never knew existed, he seems to ‘guide’ his troubled niece whilst also seducing her mother. Her father has just died, the circumstances around it unknown; the family is pretty messed up. All the while, violent events are unfolding around India, with the strange past of her uncle and father coming to light. The two women seem to resent each other, always have. The men in their lives have been the biggest divide between them. Perhaps, they are both very similar in this sense but overall; they have given up on any sort of relationship. Is what they have competitive is or it a lack of familial love that has been absent all along?

Stoker (Park, 2013 - Twentieth Century Fox)

14. Saving Face (Dir. Alice Wu, 2004)

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for more Alice Wu films. Her voice as a storyteller is so strong and original, it genuinely is a crime against all of humanity that we have had so little. To date she has made two feature films, and Saving Face was her debut feature. Following a successful young Chinese-American surgeon who is a closeted lesbian to her mother and family friends, she begins a relationship with a dancer, a young woman she knew as a child. Just as their relationship is starting to take off, her unwed mother decides to move in with her, with little consultation. Why? Because she is pregnant… and she won’t reveal who the father is. Unable to house her forever, struggling to hide her sexuality, balance her day-to-day life, she figures that the best way to get rid of her mother is to marry her off.

Saving Face (Wu, 2004 - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

A comedy drama, it’s so well told as it explores some huge themes and manages it effortlessly. The perception of homosexuality within the Chinese culture is a major one. In fact it tackles a lot of controversial topics though this culture clash; female sexuality (especially in older women), family loyalty, the role of the working woman and the modern ideals young women are expected to conform to. There is play on role reversal between mother and daughter, a complexity in which there is no doubt of the love between them but an emotional constipation that hinders them form ever being able to be honest with one another. With all the topics weighing down on them, it’s no surprise. Still, it’s lovely and ground-breaking work and yet to be matched.

Saving Face (Wu, 2004 - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

13. Mermaids (Dir. Richard Benjamin, 1990)

Biology at odds with self-identity, another coming-of-age story takes us through lives of a flaky single mother, Rachel, and her two daughters as she moves them from town to town, avoiding men she’s gotten involved with, people and all of her problems at the expense of the girls. Her eldest, fifteen year old Charlotte resents her mother and the lack of consistency in her life so much that she seeks to be the polar opposite. She dreams of a normal family life. Taking up an obsession with the Saints and Catholicism (despite being Jewish), she desires to be a devout and chaste woman before she can become a nun. It seems perfect that they move into a house near a convent, but her morals are challenged by the groundskeeper, Joe. Meanwhile, her mother is entering a relationship with a local shoe store owner (Oi oi, it’s the fabulous Bob Hoskins), resisting as he gradually assimilates positively into her family’s life.

Mermaids (Benjamin, 1990 - Warner Home Video)

God, I love this movie. Is it perfect? No. But it’s got Cher. And Winona Ryder. And it’s autumnal and so very sixties aesthetic through a nineties lens and I dig it! Witty and quick, of all the films on this list I have shamelessly seen this one the most – the film could be half way through and I’ll just pick it up on TV and religiously devote myself. I mean, there are fears of immaculate conception! Ryder is straight up hilarious as the awkward teenager. My lil’ moody heart wants to be her. The relationship between Rachel and Charlotte is intense; lacking in any authority that comes with parenthood or even respect, they have to learn to manoeuvre this dynamic what will probably benefit both of them.

Mermaids (Benjamin, 1990 - Warner Home Video)

12. Carrie (Dir. Brian De Palma, 1976)

Probably the most unsettling relationship on this list and perhaps the most harrowing part of the film overall, how could I not bring up Carrie? It always struck me, after all the pop culture references, after reading Stephen Kings striking novel, how the titular character was the greatest victim of them all; her psychic freak-out was long overdue. The horrifying scenes of relentless bullying, the little glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout that eventually proved more cruel than the intentional act of cruelty, it’s just a terrible road to go down. The only person who shows her any kindness is her teacher, and even she does not or cannot do very much to help. I mean, the girls got no chance of fitting in that far into her school career. She had her period in front of everyone and freaked out about it… in front of everyone. Like, she can’t recover. Poor Carrie White, after all of this, is still invited to prom by her crush

Carrie (De Palma, 1976 - Warner Home Video)

It’s made all the worse by her domineering mother, Margaret ‘They’re All Going To Laugh At You’ White. She’s an insane hypocrite, a mad woman, a devoutly religious and overbearing, the very reason that the timid and sweet-natured Carrie is a total mess. Womanhood is a vile sin in her warped world, growing into her body was the ultimate grotesquery committed unto one’s self (‘Dirty Pillows’ is her term for breasts…), periods are a punishment for filthy people with their filthy thoughts. Yet she’s no saint. Her past relationship with Carrie’s unnamed father shows us that. Oh god, I hate her so much. The relationship between Carrie and Margaret probably transcends ‘complex’. What is Carrie to her mother? What does she see in her child? Is she frightened of her? From physical and emotional abuse to weird mind games, she’s a woman who has been tipped over the edge. The ultimate villain. An absolute nightmare. What a brilliant character!

Carrie (De Palma, 1976 - Warner Home Video)

11. Soul Food (Dir. George Tillman Jr., 1997)

Let’s get back into a comfier territory. This one is a little different as the absence of this matriarch reveals the complexities within the relationships between the family, more so the need to fill or sustain the place of the mother figure in their lives. Soul Food is a feel good film but it also manages the plight of the modern woman as three sisters try to live up to the roles they have made for themselves and the ones expected of them as they move through life following the loss of their mother, the integral glue that kept the family together. There’s no resentment, in fact mother and daughters have a great relationship. It’s the pressure that comes with living up to the role, the figure that made you into the person you are.

Soul Food (Tillman Jr., 1997 - Twentieth Century Fox)

Told though the eyes of 11 year of Ahmed, it explores the lives of the Joseph family who get together every week to have dinner. Big Mama, their host, makes plenty of ‘soul food’ that brings them closer. She has three daughters, the eldest is career focused lawyer, another is a happily married, the mother of Ahmed and has strained relationship with her older sister, having settled down with her former boyfriend. The youngest sister is newly married and opening a beauty parlour. They are busy people but it is their mother that unites them altogether, a woman they all aspire to and admire, endlessly generous and kind, wise and thoughtful, strong and supportive. So, when she passes away following complications from diabetes related illness, the family falls apart. The women are forced to face some hard truths and soon young Ahmed takes it upon himself to try and fix things, using the advice his Grandmother’s imparted to him before she died.

Soul Food (Tillman Jr., 1997 - Twentieth Century Fox)

10. 37 Seconds… (Dir. Hikari, 2019)

Although not in the forefront of this film, it’s a worthy of a mention as it explores a relationship stemmed in a co-dependency that almost could not be helped. 37 Seconds… is a great film for a lot of reasons. It depicts the story of young woman, Mei, with cerebral palsy attempting to gain independence and pursue her dreams of becoming a manga artist in a world that holds many prejudices to those with disabilities. With the casting of an actress with the condition and taking a candid approach towards sexuality, romance and discrimination, Hikari’s feature treads some amazing new ground and does it wonderfully. I have talked at length about this film, check out my review '...I Probably Could Have Lived Freely': 37 Seconds.

37 Seconds... (Hikari, 2019)

But its inclusion is because of the dynamic between mother and daughter. Excluding any spoilers from the main narrative, their relationship is one of need. Mei wants to be independent, is aware that without all the tools available to her both physically and to some degree financially, she has to rely on her mother. But, she is also aware that she has not been given the opportunity for liberation. Her mother harbours a lot of guilt towards Mei, but feels useful as long as she can keep her daughter safe day-to-day and form the world as a whole. Maybe the control comforts her, it’s all she has after all, but there is never an intention to smother. It’s a miscommunication but more so a fear of change that hinders her mother, leading to Mei taking the initiative and pursuing her desires and life. It’s a relationship that, until the events of the film, existed pretty conflict-free. Much of the complexity is within the sphere of protective love, it just enters the overbearing. But it’s not a bad relationship, not intentionally. It’s one of the dynamics that makes the film so relatable and engaging. It’s learning to let go as much as learning to break free.

37 Seconds... (Hikari, 2019)

9. Two Women (Dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1960)

What a classic. Sophia Loren is simply mesmerizing, a total queen as she tackles this harrowing depictions of a mother and daughter surviving in war-torn Italy. Following the bombing of Rome where they lived and ran a shop, Cesira (Loren) and her twelve year old daughter Rosetta who is a devoutly religious young girl, escape to the rural Ciociaria. Desperate to protect her daughter from the horrors of war, wishing to offer the girl stability though the people they meet, only to lose in the face of reality in the conflict of World War Two, Cesira is a mother who struggles to live up to her role. In the end the unforgivable offense committed against them robs the woman of anyway to truly provide

Two Women (De Sica, 1960 - Cult Films)

Mostly a study of wartime survival, it is also included in this list as what we finds is the unravelling of a mother and daughter relationship in the face of a tumultuous world. The aforementioned act separates them. We see a sexually proud woman robbed of her will, her choice, but she fights on because she must. It’s painful to see. Meanwhile we also see an innocent child robbed of her childhood. This is simply harrowing. The sexualisation of her daughter is something that is out of Cesira’s control. So in parallel to the chaos around them as war sweeps the nation, so we also see the crumbling of a once solid and loving relationship when physically and spiritually, there is little the mother can offer in comfort. Now the daughter is confused as to whom she is, numbed, detached, utterly traumatized; she has been robbed of her innocence and her faith in humanity. As events unfold in the story, we see Cesira losing sight of her daughter, she has no control in her future, she never had, but now the world has taken that form her too. It’s the plight of a mother trying to stay present for her daughter, but finding too many hurdles in which to embody that presence.

Two Women (De Sica, 1960 - Cult Films)

8. Lady Bird (Dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)

You know what? In recent months I’ve heard some sad stuff around Lady Bird; people are treating it like an edgy, try-hard indie flick, that a certain sort of girl digs, a not-like-other-girls, quirky dramedy. Gosh, it all just downplays how powerfully integral it is to depictions family and youth on screen – and we need nostalgic traipses through the awkward antics of Teen-dom that have been captured though the lens of female filmmakers. We need a love story between a mother and daughter, breaking down the miscommunications, unconditional love and frictions that come with coming into your own. In fact, the decade was blessed for some beautiful depictions of girls growing up by female directors including The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015), Edge of Seventeen (Craig, 2016) and Book Smart (Wilde, 2019) and not a single one is a cookie cutter of the next. Lady Bird is a fantastic addition to these films.

Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017 - A24 Films)

We have all wanted to be edgy, different. This film realigns that. It paints self-named Lady bird as hero in her own story in which there is no room for any other players, how that unravels for her, and how utterly familiar it is to almost anyone who has been a teen. Set in the early 2000’s, through her final year of High School, Lady Bird desires more. From a working class family, she wants to be the star of the drama club, get into a prestigious school far from Sacramento, to the east coast where she can study and live like the pretentious writers she often references. Her mother thinks she’s a snob. Her best friends are pushed away as she seeks clout. She pursues romantic relationships and discovers just how lacklustre teenage boys can be. She has her head rammed all the way up her arse. But we love her for it. The world unravels before her, it’s not all it’s made out to be but in the end she always has her family. Maybe my inclusion of it on this list is really predictable, but it really is a beautiful portrayal of an authentic mother/daughter bond; mundane and honest as it is.

Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017 - A24 Films)

7. The Joy Luck Club (Dir. Wayne Wang, 1993)

This is actually a bold statement from me; I talk a lot about getting emotional at movies, and I do, but in the last year I actually began to cry less at things. Weird things set me off now (A specific incident in a Fruits Basket Season 2 re-watch really undid me in a show full of these moments where I managed a dry-eyed session), it’s hard to really break me especially if it’s something I have never seen before. Animation is also a pretty good contender for this, but live action has to work a hell of a lot harder. Maybe I’m getting a little emotionally constipated. Anyway, this movie broke that streak in me. It moved my little clogged heart. And I loved it. A little sappy, totally a product of the nineties, it doesn’t matter; it’s a story of scope, which grounds its viewer and wraps us in a warm hug at the same time. The diversity of the relationships in this film as we see the clashes through the generations is vast; it explores the role of the mother, sacrifice and loyalty in times of unpredictability and turmoil.

The Joy Luck Club (Wang, 1993 - Walt Disney Studios)

It’s a complicated story, one I can’t go too much into for fear of spoiling anything, adapted from the brilliant book of the same name by Amy Tan. The Joy Luck Club is a made up of four older women, Chinese immigrants now living in San Francisco who get together to play Mahjong and tell stories. These women have raised their daughters together, now adult and assimilated to American culture, their mother’s always there to remind them of their roots. Their pasts are revealed, along with the troubled lives of their daughters, shaped by the conflicts found in Chinese-American cross cultures, the pressures within the family and the burdens, anxieties and inadequacies that come with modern womanhood. At the centre of the film is June whose mother, once a member of the club, has passed away months before. She is about to embark on a journey to be reunited with her long lost sisters in China, believed to have died when her mother had to abandon them and all her possessions during the Japanese invasion. Yeah… it deals with some big stuff.

The Joy Luck Club (Wang, 1993 - Walt Disney Studios)

6. Now, Voyager (Dir. Irving Rapper, 1943)

Bette Davis is still one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the screen. She had range and star power that transcended many of her peers. A risk-taker, she played against character, was never afraid to look hideous for a role, and was a constant scene stealer; I love her. But in her turn in Now, Voyager, she manages a performance of far more subtly (considering the time and the melodrama I thrive off in Classic Hollywood movies). It’s also considered one of the most important American films made, and I certainly think its themes of finding yourself, confidence, love and independence still resonate strongly today.

Now, Voyager (Rapper, 1943 - Warner Home Video)

Davis plays the plain, withdrawn Charlotte who is ruled by her cruel mother, an aristocrat who sees her youngest child as a burden after raising three sons before her. Bullied and berated daily, Charlotte lacks any self-confidence, coming apart at the seams under the pressure placed on her. Eventually she is sent to a sanatorium where she is treated before a nervous-breakdown follows and it is here, that she begins to flourish. Finally free, she finds the courage to go out on her own, even eventually finding love. When she returns to her mother’s side, the woman is horrified to find a new woman before her, one who can speak up for herself. The consequences however are severe. Charlotte’s journey is a devastating, yet empowering one but it takes cracks in her armour before she is able to make changes in her life.

Now, Voyager (Rapper, 1943 - Warner Home Video)

5. Terms of Endearment (Dir. James L. Brooks, 1983)

It had to be included. There’s a reason it appears on lists like this, is the perfect sob fest to have with the fam, totally timeless. A sharp script, a brilliant cast including Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine and my man Jack (Nicholson), I come back to it time again even though it completely wrecks that stoic persona I’m pretending I have. Very funny, very emotive, it’s pace and punch is impactful. Spanning thirty years in the life of a mother daughter, it examines the highs and lows of their tumultuous relationship as they experience love, heartache, motherhood and tragedy. It’s kind of like a melodramatic version of Lady Bird, Terms of Endearment is one of the best depictions of that unconditional devotion that can be found between mother s and daughters, despite all their differences, their conflicts.

Terms of Endearment (Brooks, 1983 - Paramount Pictures)

Aurora, the widowed mother, is vain to no end and repressed as a product of her time, putting all of her focus into her raising her daughter and spurning any potential interest from suitors. Overwhelmed, daughter Emma doesn’t leave it too long before marrying a man her mother disapproves of, moving far way and having three children. Despite the rift it forms, they remain emotionally bonded, frequently speaking on the phone. Meanwhile, a retired astronaut moves in next door to Aurora and a wild romance ensues, as her daughter struggles with infidelity and financial difficulties within her own relationship. Aurora and Emma, they fight and make up over and over, yet they love each other so much. They love by accepting each other, by pushing each other's boundaries. They become more open as time goes on and the story captures the scope of that relationship over time.

Terms of Endearment (Brooks, 1983 - Paramount Pictures)

4. Grey Gardens (Dir. Maysles Brothers, 1975)

A documentary now and one that is rather legendary. Spawning a cultural icon with the depiction of fashionista and philosopher, Little Edie, it’s interwoven itself into the zeitgeist. Endlessly entertaining, moving and bizarre it’s a glimpse into the world of two socialites, a mother and daughter, (both called Edie Beale) who seem to have become dependent on one another through circumstances both in and out of their control. Almost like forgotten relics, they allow the film crew into their world of poverty in their derelict East Hampton Mansion, once an opulent estate now lost to time.

Grey Gardens (Maysles Brothers, 1975 - Criterion)

Little Edie wanted to be a star; as to how she ended up moving back home is of endless debate between the two women who bicker ceaselessly, occasionally foul-mouthed, blunt or self-indulgent. Sometimes Big Edie, once a renowned singer, says that Little Edie chose to, Little Edie says that Mother needed her, could not have lived without her. There is a toxicity to their relationship that existed before their forced seclusion. Once rich, social darlings, their fall from grace is mysterious, impacted by war and general neglect, maybe even a little disillusionment; the house is riddled with stray cats, the attics infested with a family of raccoons – they feed these as well as the cats. The women exist in a handful of rooms, strewn with antiques and objects reminding one of their past lavishness. The house is a shadow of what it once was, and so are the women. They seem to love to put on a show, always the hostesses they once were. They’re lovable yet tragic, utterly endearing.

Grey Gardens (Maysles Brothers, 1975 - Criterion)

3. The Piano Teacher (Dir. Michael Haneke, 2001)

Man, this one is a pretty dark movie. My favourite Haneke film, it depicts the story of an unmarried piano teacher (played hypnotically by Isabelle Huppert), a woman who outwardly appears stern, severe, controlled and rather plain. However, she harbours deep-rooted, emotional and sexual deviancies, partaking in voyeuristic and paraphilic activities on her way home from work from the Vienna Conservatory. Living with her mother, she is watched and monitored, relentlessly interrogated when she takes longer to come home; they share a bed at night. Unable to revel in her fantasies, emotionally burdened by the woman, she soon captures the eye of a student with who she wishes to enter a sadomasochistic relationship with.

The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001 - Artificial Eye)

Sexual and emotional repression, the overbearing control of a woman who has never allowed her daughter to grow up and leave the nest in a traditional sense has probably been the cause for many to the teacher’s issues. She loathes herself, but possesses an obsessive control over her day-to-day life that is overbearing to her own students. She is isolated from peers; she has nowhere she can go. The lack of expression, despite being a musician herself, a woman who should be able to express herself at the piano instead is obsessed with rigidly matching the masters rather than using it as an outlet, or more accurately she probably can’t. She wants liberation through sex. The relationship with the mother is guilt-infused, twisted and possessive. She loves her mother, because it’s programmed into her, it’s that bond that comes from being birthed, the cause for dreadful resentment, it’s the only love she knows. Does her mother manipulate this? Of course. Their relationship is truly unsettling, it’s not explosive (not generally anyway, I mean the explosive moments in this film are few and far between, but shocking when they land), it’s real. It’s micro-manipulation, its possessiveness. Under surveillance by a mother, how is she ever going to be able to pursue even the mildest of fantasies, let alone the wildest? What is the end goal for the mother? Who knows? Probably control, to drag her daughter into miserable existence with her. Yet they still love.

The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001 - Artificial Eye)

2. Volver (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)

Almodóvar has actually tackled the mother-daughter relationship in multiple films. In fact, he loves to depict motherhood, breaking it down portraying the good, the bad and the complicated. Some of his best include All About My Mother (1999), and Julieta (2016). For more recommendations of his work, check out my Top 15 Almodóvar films. But… the one that I think captures my favourite dynamic on screen is the brilliant melodrama, Volver. My goodness, this film; Almodóvar tells one of his funniest and moving stories. A great cast of women helm the film including Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura. Returns, regrets and redemption, the solidarity of womanhood and ultimately forgiveness carry the story. It’s such a kind tale, warm and welcoming despite its premise.

Volver (Almodóvar, 2006 - Pathe)

A woman, Raimunda, must cover up the murder of her husband, committed by her daughter, Paula, in self-defence when the man attempted to rape her. She also must look after a neighbours restaurant and decides to hide the body in one of the freezers. Meanwhile, her sister, Sole, is visited by her mother who died years before in a fire, and kept secret from Raimunda. The relationship between Raimunda and her mother was estranged before the woman’s death; abuse in her childhood that went ignored by her led to the daughter leaving the small town where they lived. Many things had been left unsaid; time had changed much of what had been perceived as truth. The mother has come back with unfinished business, things are changing around their lives and it is time to confront the past in order to face the future. Its devastating undercurrent imbued with humour that grounds the story.

Volver (Almodóvar, 2006 - Pathe)

1. Autumn Sonata (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Years of trauma and resentment unfold in an evening as a daughter, Eva, is visited by her classical pianist mother, Charlotte, who has come in and out of her life since she was a child. Eva lives with her husband, a man some years older than her but who offers her a reliable figure even if their marriage is somewhat muted. Seven years have passed since she has last seen her mother and at first Eva is excited. However, it is not long before the old wounds reopen and her deep-rooted trauma and antipathy rise to the surface as Charlotte displays her over-bearing presence. Charlotte is soon shaken herself when she discovers that her other daughter, the physically impaired Helena, is living with Eva and her husband under her sisters devoted care.

Autumn Sonata (Bergman, 1978 - Tartan)

Of course it was going to be this one. It topped my Top 15 Bergman List and it had to top this one when it comes to the most fascinating depictions of a mother and daughter on screen. The cruelties are so subtle, the neglect monumental in its flippancy. It unravels, infantilizes the poor daughter who becomes a hysterical, sobbing mess as she slips back into the time when her mother left her over and over again. The woman is not a monster; in fact, it would have been easier that way. But she’s a woman who cannot identify as a mother, who chooses to dispel the role in pursuit of her dreams and goals. If her life is fulfilling for her, she still returns to the daughters out of duty or some kind of guilt. I don’t think this film would be so harrowing to watch, so distressing if it were not for the amazing pairing off Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman. Such powerful actresses, they tear apart their characters embodying something so human, so relatable. I can feel the pleas, the fear, and the pain. It’s not easy viewing, it’s terribly sad. It’s real; it taps into something, a basis within the potential toxicity that can divide a parent and child; the strange rivalry, the silent challenges, the expectancy, the demands. Under lack of nurturing, Eva has been undone. What a life she would have had with a better mother, a kinder mother, a normal mother. These thoughts linger in the space between them, always left unanswerable.

Autumn Sonata (Bergman, 1978 - Tartan)

 

Right, there you go. Some films to be enjoyed on Mother’s Day maybe if your after something a little messier, I hope I captured some variations in my selection to make for an interesting selection of recommendations. Hope you all enjoy and have a cracking day!


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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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