It’s become a sadly all-too common refrain, but there aren’t nearly as many women working as writers and directors in Hollywood as there should be. Even fewer are thought of as highly as is probably deserved, and there’s only a minuscule number of “A-List” writers and directors. In the history of the Oscars, which I’ll remind you date back to 1929, there have only been four women nominated for Best Director, Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1994, Sofia Coppola in 2004, and the subject of today’s Directors Cuts. Kathryn Bigelow makes action, sci-fi, horror, and thriller movies, all of which are generally thought of as men’s domain (are women only supposed to direct sensitive dramas and romantic comedies?) and not only does she make them, she’s one of the best people working at it today. Below are my top five favorite of her films.
5) Near Dark (1987)
Part horror movie, part western, Near Dark is a bloody romance that still manages to make bloodsuckers frightening. A young man meets a young woman, and everything seems like it’s great. But, uh-oh, she’s a vampire and she turns him into one too following a particularly passionate night together. He then has to join her family of criminal undead creatures even though they’re pretty damn evil. Lance Henricksen is tremendous as the head of the family, and Bill Paxton is at his batshit best as the eldest “son.” Bigelow also co-wrote the screenplay for this movie, which does something interesting with vampires: they black out car windows so they can drive in the day since they live in the desert. This idea has been co-opted a few places since then, most notably for me in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Spike drives an old Chevy (or Cadillac, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it).
4) Strange Days (1995)
It’s a bit dated now, simply because, well, we’re a whole 15 years after the turn of the year 2000, but you can still watch Strange Days the same way you watch Escape from New York or Terminator, just believing it to be an alternate timeline. In “1999” NYC, a former cop now sells virtual experiences on the black market. These are recordings made from someone’s POV that allow the user to feel like they’re actually doing it themselves. Naturally, a lot of this is used for sex, but there’s also those scarier people out there who want to feel what it feels like to kill someone. Soon, our hero begins to see evidence of a massive police conspiracy to cover up a high-profile murder by cops, the result of which could take our hero out before the big ball drops. This is one of the few movies from that mid-90s cyberpunk splash that stands the test of time and is good enough to overcome the year; this is almost entirely due to Bigelow’s direction, which is artful but never flashy, and it doesn’t rely on digital effects too much like some films of the time.
3) Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Bigelow’s most recent movie to date is a hard-edged, sobering look at the CIA’s dogged pursuit of Osama bin Laden following 9/11. It focuses on a woman (Jessica Chastain) who is an amalgam of real people who essentially gives up her entire life in order to find her enemy. Unlike another film on this countdown, which sort of glorifies, if not war itself, the addiction some people have to it, Zero Dark Thirty is at once about the destructive nature of obsession and the emptiness of having that obsession be over, even if it’s a victory. There are little touches in it showing off the different methods employed by the CIA based on the year and who the president is, and the whole thing plays like a really well-crafted spy thriller…until the end. I have to say I didn’t love the “mission” section of the movie, because it took the focus too far off from Chastain’s character, but this had to be added because, SPOILERS, bin Laden was actually found and killed. It’s a very tense and well-directed sequence, but it didn’t really fit with the rest of the movie. That’s a very minor nitpick, though; it’s still a movie a really think highly of, clearly.
2) Point Break (1991)
Now, do I think Point Break is an objectively better movie than Zero Dark Thirty? Of course I don’t. Do I enjoy watching Point Break more? Oh, a million times yes. This movie has raised in the public consciousness in recent years and with good reason; it’s pure action fun with some killer stunts (absolutely fantastic aerial maneuvers) and one of my favorite Keanu Reeves performances ever, not to mention Patrick Swayze and Gary Busey. Johnny Utah is an F-B-I AGENT! who infiltrates a group of adrenaline-junkie bank robbers and becomes too good friends with Bohdi, the surfing ringleader. He fires his gun up in the air and yells “AAAAAAARRRGHHHH!” It’s basically the exact same plot as The Fast and the Furious, isn’t it? This movie did for surfing what F&F did for street racing. Dammit, why aren’t we on our 23rd Point Break movie? Point 5 and Break 7 would be the highlights.
1) The Hurt Locker (2008)
Bigelow became the only woman to ever win the Best Directing Oscar for this movie, and it is oh-so deserved. A smaller movie, using almost entirely handheld, veritae-style camerawork and a nihilistic and exhilarating lead performance from Jeremy Renner. The story follows Renner’s character on the military’s bomb squad in Iraq diffusing improvised explosive devices. Not only is he really good at it, he loves it, putting himself at higher and higher risk to complete his task because it’s more exciting. Bigelow makes us feel like we’re actually in a war zone and keeps the action at a fever pitch for most of the running time. This is the movie American Sniper was trying to be but couldn’t escape (or didn’t try to escape) some troubling jingoism. Here, Bigelow just gives us a lead character who happens to be American but who could be anyone addicted to the thrill of doing something dangerous, and the complete lack of knowledge of what to do when he’s not doing it. A masterful film, and rightly brought Bigelow back into the dialogue of the great action directors of our time.
These are my favorite Kathryn Bigelow movies, but which one are yours? Let me know in the comments below! And suggest which other directors you’d like me to countdown.