by Patrick Bromley
If you're an action movie junkie like me -- or just a fan of cool movies -- you have been aware of Kathryn Bigelow long before Hollywood finally deemed it time to award a woman its highest honor after more than 80 years of being ignorant. One of the best action directors of the last 30 years, Bigelow makes films that are visceral and cleanly constructed without sacrificing style, though it's hardly ever in a self-conscious or show off-y way. It's deeply unfortunate that after making movies for three decades, Bigelow remains the token exception and not yet the rule -- she's pointed to as the "female action director" in a weird "can you believe a girl can do this?" way that should have been eradicated years ago but which still remains a pervasive problem. A couple of filmmakers have managed to follow suit, including Karyn Kusama and Lexi Alexander, but action filmmaking remains a boys club in Hollywood. That's really a shame. Kathryn Bigelow directs circles around most of those assholes.
2. Near Dark (1987) Though it wasn't a financial success at the time, this is the movie that really put Bigelow on the map. Her first of two collaborations with the great Eric Red is a vampire western unlike any other horror movie -- minimalist but incredibly stylish, pondering the existential nature of eternal life while still being really fucking cool. The amazing ensemble, which includes Lance Henriksen, Jeanette Goldstein, Bill Paxton (all on loan from future husband James Cameron's Aliens), Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright and Tim Thomerson provide the first indication that Bigelow is exceptionally good at working with character actors and turning them into leads, which she would continue to do throughout her career.
4. Point Break (1991) Katherine Bigelow has made a lot of great movies, but for me Point Break is still her best. It's one thing to take strong material and direct it well as she has so often done; it's another thing entirely to take goofy, potentially terrible material and elevate it to the level of kinetic art. Not only is Point Break still one of the best action movies ever made (with memorable set piece after memorable set piece on land, in water and [especially] in the air), but Bigelow transforms it into a commentary on cinematic masculinity that fully leans into its own dopiness and takes the plot about surfing bank robbers dressed up as ex-presidents and the former quarterback-turned-FBI agent who takes them down by infiltrating their ranks completely seriously. Point Break didn't just prove that Bigleow was ready for the majors and able to direct an action film as well as anyone else; it proved that she could do it better than the others, and that she could make almost any material work.
5. Strange Days (1995) It's frustrating that Bigelow's best and most prolific period as a filmmaker was so overshadowed by her relationship with James Cameron, who gets story and screenplay credit on what was Bigelow's most ambitious film to date. I will always find the ideas of Strange Days more compelling than the execution, but that doesn't take away from what Bigelow accomplishes here: a prescient, hyper-stylized and altogether bleak look into America's future in which people prefer to spend their time in a virtual world and cops are straight up murdering people in the streets. You know, the future. As is so often the case with mystery stories like this one, the answers are a letdown when compared to the buildup, but there are just too many jaw-dropping things about the movie for it to be easily dismissed: the incredible production design, the POV shots, the mounting sense of a world about to burn and Angela Bassett's amazing performance as Mace, the bodyguard of Ralph Fiennes' Lenny Nero. Bigelow's stylish, go-for-broke direction helps compensate for the sometimes often undercooked screenplay. That's James Cameron for you.
7. The Hurt Locker (2009) While it probably won't ever get credit for being such, The Hurt Locker -- the movie that won Bigelow her directing Oscar and was named Best Picture for 2009 -- is really an extension of Point Break in the way that it examines why men of action are driven to be the way they are. A tense drama following three soldiers working in bomb disposal during the Iraq war, the film succeeds at putting a new face on that conflict and at making a leading man out of former character actor Jeremy Renner. There are a handful of sequences in the movie that are as intense as anything Bigelow has ever done.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Bigelow's first (and, as of this writing, only) post-Oscar effort is another story about America's war in the Middle East, this time focusing in on the hunt and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden. While it may not be popular to say, I actually prefer Zero Dark Thirty to The Hurt Locker. The characterization isn't as strong, but I love the movie's singular focus on the job. There are scene in the movie that are almost abstract in their spareness. The greatness of Bigelow's skill on display -- this is her most assured and confident film -- got totally lost in all of the politicized discussion around the movie's scenes of torture and portrayal of historical events. Like most of her films, this one deserved better than it got.