We shouldn't assume too much but the fact that two women made Oscar's best director field for the first time ever in 2021 suggests that Hollywood is realizing that the low number of female directors in the biz (still just 20%) is ridiculous. So, now that Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell are in the club, who's next?
My money is on Sarah Polley.
Actually, my money has been on Polley for a while. The 42-year-old Canadian should have been Oscar-nominated way back in 2006 for "Away From Her," a beautiful drama in which she guided Julie Christie to a best actress nomination. Although Polley's screenplay was nominated, the Oscar nod for directing didn't happen, just as it never happened for such trailblazers as Alice Guy-Blaché (whose career peak preceded the Oscars), Dorothy Arzner (a gay pioneer who started directing in the silent era), Ida Lupino (who carved out the actor/director path for Polley back in the 1940s) and Lina Wertmuller (the first female directing nominee, for "Seven Beauties" in 1977).
Polley's directing career is short but impressive. Her three films demonstrate an intense interest in the lives of women, the complications of public and private selves, the impermanence of relationships and the strength required to keep a family — traditional or not — together.
All of those will come in handy in "Women Talking," a movie Polley is about to begin shooting. Like "Away From Her," based on a story by Alice Munro, "Women Talking" adapts the writing of one Canada's leading literary lights. It is inspired by a tough-minded novel by Miriam Toews that's right in the wheelhouse of Polley and her star/producer Frances McDormand. And there's even better news: Polley, who hasn't acted in a feature in a decade, will showcase that talent in "Women Talking," too.
Since her debut at age 4, Polley has racked up dozens of appearances. So, if you're not familiar with her work (her taste is offbeat so she hasn't been in a lot of hits), there's much to discover.
Her face, especially her large eyes, suggests delicacy. But she's often cast against that notion, going all the way back to "Road to Avonlea," her Canadian TV series about a poor little rich girl. She's also utterly believable as an action hero in "Dawn of the Dead" and in one of her most recent roles as a Dr. Frankenstein-like scientist in the Guillermo del Toro-produced horror movie "Splice."
One of her finest performances doesn't make my list of seven because it isn't streaming but you can get the DVD of "My Life Without Me" at libraries or online and I recommend her bracing performance, opposite Mark Ruffalo, as a terminally ill woman with a plan.
Polley's intelligence and warmth shine in that drama (by another female director: Spain's underrated Isabel Coixet) and in these seven greats.
"Away From Her" (2006)This heart-tugging stunner is so much more than a movie about Alzheimer's. "Everything is going," says the character played by Julie Christie, who reluctantly agrees with her husband that a memory-care facility is where she needs to be. That difficult decision is the catalyst for a movie that insists on the vitality of Christie's character — who, as her memory of her marriage fades, begins a new relationship that baffles her loved ones, especially her husband.
"Dawn of the Dead" (2004)Exhibit A in the you-do-not-want-to-mess-with-Polley argument is this remake of the George Romero classic. Zack Snyder's movie is vigorous, funny and suspenseful. Polley — as a suburban woman who literally wakes up one day to discover her neighborhood is overrun with the undead — is a resourceful survivor.
"The Sweet Hereafter" (1997)This is the place to start with Polley's career. Atom Egoyan's stirring movie reconfigures the Russell Banks novel on which it's based, with a tricky structure that skips around in time and into the heads of various small-town characters whose lives have been derailed by a school bus crash. Polley plays a babysitter who, despite her shy demeanor, becomes the town's moral compass. (If being a writer/director/actor isn't enough, she also demonstrates she's a fine singer.)
"Stories We Tell" (2012)If we know any stories, surely we know our own? Maybe not, as Polley finds out in a documentary about her family, which has some enormous secrets. Interviews with her siblings and others combine with re-created scenes, diary excerpts and film clips that reveal her parents, both of whom were actors, did their best acting offstage.
"The Claim" (2000)When I think of filmmakers I wish more people knew about, I immediately go to Michael Winterbottom. And when I think about Winterbottom's movies I wish more people knew about, I go to this adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge." Winterbottom shifts the setting from England to Northern California just after the Gold Rush, where hasty decisions have disastrous consequences for a family. Polley, Milla Jovovich, Peter Mullan and Wes Bentley star.
"Take This Waltz" (2011)Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams star in Polley's tale of a woman who, despite being happily married, finds herself drifting into an affair. Williams' adulterous character is the protagonist but, like everyone else in "Waltz," she makes the kind of big mistakes from which it is hard to recover. Sarah Silverman is terrific in the supporting role of Williams' friend and Polley beautifully captures the domestic rhythms of the Toronto neighborhood where she shot it.
"Go" (1999)Like "Dazed and Confused" or "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," it's one of those early looks at a bunch of actors who would go on to stardom, including Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant, Taye Diggs, Melissa McCarthy and Jane Krakowski. It's sort of a teenage "Pulp Fiction," a fresh, speedy look at the fallout from a drug deal gone wrong, viewed from varied perspectives.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367