You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

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Sofia Coppola’s Golden Lion-winning Somewhere can be disconcerting for its paucity of spoken words. It is, above all, about people who spend their time looking and being looked at rather than speaking: A-list movie stars, models, exotic dancers. Its protagonist, action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), spends his days at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel drinking and lounging and picking up women and watching blonde pole dancers in twin sexy nurse outfits dance for him alone.Recovering from a broken wrist, he’s in this strange limbo, this somewhere, that seems alternately exotic and utterly mundane: he gazes impassively out of car windows, stares blankly at the pole dancers, and falls asleep in the middle of performing cunnilingus. He’s passive, lacking agency except for all those random hookups — and in Coppola’s subtle way, she asks us to think about such an existence in a way that never seems simple, never merely empathetic. What would it mean to spend your time being wordless?

For me such an existence is fundamentally foreign, for my world is structured by words — my days are (happily) filled with writing, reading, listening, debating, and (less happily, but I’m okay with it) lecturing and leading discussions. Here I am, in my free time, writing some more. There’s nothing that makes me happier than the anticipation of cocktails with quick-witted friends full of tales and observations; a perfect sentence in an email can make me emit involuntary squee noises. Words made me fall in love; they made me have an existential crisis while reading on a bus back in college. This film made me step out of my logocentric world to somewhere else.

After watching Johnny stare with blank pleasure at the pole dancers, it’s disconcerting to watch him gaze at his 11-yr-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). And yet … it’s not the same gaze, is it? Cleo has arrived for a regularly scheduled visit from Johnny’s ex; one of their first stops is the ice rink, where she’s taking skating lessons. At first, Johnny’s distracted — he keeps getting threatening texts from an anonymous number — but then he turns away from his phone and starts to watch Cleo move through a choreographed routine. She’s still tentative, but graceful; one can see her growing confidence in making difficult moves. Director Coppola is content to just let us watch Cleo, and watch Johnny watching Cleo, for it brings up strange emotions. One can’t help but think, at first, about how much Johnny’s tired eyes are more accustomed to watching exotic dancers; is he sexualizing his daughter? Coppola knows we’ll move through that thought to something more subtle: the ways that when he’s with Cleo, Johnny starts to show signs of life.

It took me a while to see Somewhere, and by this time I worried I wouldn’t like it. A lot of critics expressed a kind of frustration with it that amounts to something like, Why should I care about some rich actor’s ennui? I’ve written before about the suspiciously sweeping criticism leveled at Coppola: for example, although he attributes these complaints to unnamed “critics,” Dennis Lim of the New York Times claimed last December that “she makes the same film over and over again,” and that “the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism.” As Rob noted back then in the comments to my post, it doesn’t really make sense to call Coppola an auteur and simultaneously complain that she returns to similar themes from one film to the next, which is pretty much what auteurs do.

After reading all that naysaying, imagine my delight when I found Somewhere to be striking and different than Coppola’s earlier The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette. This one is ultimately about a kind of unexpected parenthood — a man living an aimless, oversexed life begins to find himself opening up to a new, inexpressible love and connection to his daughter. Just look at that complex expression on Johnny’s face, above, as he watches Cleo skate on the ice: this is a lovely screen portrayal of what parental love can do for a man who’s essentially just a child himself. It might well be an idealized portrait of fatherhood — after all, Johnny is unencumbered by worries about money or work. But I’ve never seen it before onscreen, and it doesn’t feel idealized when you watch him experience these emotions.The hardest part for Dorff and Coppola was to achieve all of this wordlessly, in long shots of facial expressions. Imagine the contortions involved: you are Stephen Dorff (a famous actor with many rabid fans out there), playing a different famous actor who’s used to crazy adoration. Your job is to act without any crucial dialogue, and to express on your face that weird conglomeration of feelings — from a growing contentment with life to anxious protectiveness — that emerge from this deepening relationship with your kid. Let’s face it: words don’t really capture those emotions.

Which brings me to one last note about an uncharacteristically funny moment in the film. Despite speaking very little Italian themselves, Johnny and Cleo fly to Milan to attend an Italian TV awards show at which the garrulous hosts ramble on with typical MC repartee in rapid-fire Italian. They invite Johnny up on stage to receive an award and tell him “the stage is all yours” — but as soon as he expresses gratitude and delight in his limited Italian, an overcaffeinated group of female dancers pour out on stage to wiggle and grind and sing lyrics he can’t understand, leaving him perplexed as to what to do. He’s left standing there again, wordless, grinning uncomfortably.

Yeah, maybe that moment is a little bit like Lost in Translation — but the context is so different that it’s unfair to make that charge. Honestly, I don’t care if Coppola herself is rich, the daughter of a famous director, and preoccupied with capturing inchoate feelings onscreen. She does extraordinary work, and I can hardly wait to see what she’ll do next. I, for one, am happy to set aside my logorrhea for a Sofia Coppola film in which emotion comes before words.

The Sunday New York Times Arts section is typically full of generous articles about movies designed for those of us who love film — but not so Dennis Lim’s article this week about Sofia Coppola.  Let’s see if we can sense … oh, let’s call it the slight whiff of patronizingly sexist disdain here in his first paragraph:

AT 39 and with four features to her name, Sofia Coppola finds herself caught in something of a double bind — the predicament of the auteur whose constancy risks being seen as predictability, or worse.  Her admirers detect in her work a good eye, impeccable taste, an exactitude with indistinct moods and feelings.  Her detractors claim that her frame of reference is narrow, that she makes the same film over and over again.

Lim continues in the next paragraph:

By her own admission Ms. Coppola’s first three movies — “The Virgin Suicides” (2000), “Lost in Translation” (2003) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006) — constitute a trilogy about young women on the awkward verge of self-definition.  As her critics see it, the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism.

As much as I love his side-stepping use of these unnamed “critics” and “detractors,” let’s set aside the patronizing air for the moment to ask whether he has seen anything other than Marie Antoinette.  (And I hasten to add that I really liked that film, though I know some didn’t.)  How, Mr. Lim, can anyone characterize her first two films as about “young women on the verge” when The Virgin Suicides is at least as much about boys who look at and admire a group of unknowable sisters, and Lost in Translation is about a relationship between a shlubby, aging actor and a woman less than half his age?  Deep into the article Lim recounts Kirsten Dunst’s exasperated response to this charge at Cannes several years ago:  “Observing that ‘mopey-man movies’ often get a free pass, Ms. Dunst suggested that there is less tolerance for feminine introspection.”  That’s the very least one can say about movie-makers’ tolerance for male solipsism.

Most of all, Lim casts a skeptical eye on the fact that Coppola is the “supremely well-connected daughter of Francis Ford Coppola” and that this has dictated her interest in filming what he calls “the luxe life.”  (Again, have you seen the decidedly middle-class The Virgin Suicides?)  No one doubts that her family ties have helped her, but they didn’t bring her the multiple awards she’s received, including a Golden Globe (for Lost in Translation) and the Golden Lion (for her current film Somewhere).  And I ask you, Mr. Lim, have you ever described Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Jaden Smith, director Jason Reitman, or even Coppola’s cousins Jason and Robert Schwartzman as the “supremely well-connected son of …”? 

Turning to Lim’s sexist and patronizing dismissals, let’s tick through some of his charges:

  • Her work is predictable
  • Her work is somehow about herself
  • Her work is solipsistic
  • She got where she is due to nepotism
  • Her films only portray the cloistered elite, because that’s all she knows
  • She is well known to love fashion, “which seems to have contributed to a perception that there is something frivolous about her films” (we here at Feminéma LOVE the use of the passive voice!)
  • She has responded to past criticism by turning her film Somewhere into a minimalistic film about a male perspective
  • Her films are “delicate”
  • Coppola displays a “lack of awareness” about her films as a group, a lack of awareness Lim calls either “blissful or protective” (hang on, she’s both solipsistic and blissfully unaware?)

Great job, Dennis Lim!  Let’s hope that your own supremely well-connected work with The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Moving Image Source, the Museum of the Moving Image, The Village Voice, The Village Voice Film Guide, the National Society of Film Critics, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the 2010 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and many film festivals including New York, San Sebastian, Vancouver, Tribeca, and South by Southwest Film Festivals — to name only a few I found online — permits you to continue to offer such useful assessments of one of the very few top-shelf female directors in the world.  The New York Times does it again!