– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
A report has been making the rounds lately. According to at least one study, films that featured a woman as the top-billed performer have outperformed films with men in the lead for the last four years. While this is certainly a positive development, other studies show the number of women behind the camera is still shockingly low. If we want to see more female directors and screenwriters, it is important that we go see their movies.
Therefore, what we will do today is take a look back at 10 of the best female-directed films of the last year and a half, many of which are still playing in cinemas or have recently been released on home video, and hopefully this little bit of exposure will help to introduce you to some films that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Let’s begin alphabetically, shall we?
- The Beguiled
Written & Directed by Sofia Coppola
I’ve written about Sofia Coppola in numerous articles before, and for simple reason. She is one of the best living directors today, and you should see all of her movies. You should especially see her latest, The Beguiled. The story behind it is unusual. Despite having been opposed to remakes for her entire career, she began wondering what would happen if you took a misogynist old-timey Hollywood film, retold from a woman’s perspective.
The misogynist film of choice? Clint Eastwood 1971 vehicle The Beguiled, about a wounded Civil War soldier who takes refuge in a girl’s school and goes about seducing the girls one by one. Though the original film does give the main character some deserved comeuppance, the story is much more effectively told through the eyes of the women being manipulated by the central man.
Masterfully performed with a cast that unbelievably won no major awards, The Beguiled features Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst and others as the women being toyed with by Colin Farrell. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where Sofia Coppola won the Best Director award, only the second woman in history to do so.
- Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Written by Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty, Directed by Marielle Heller
This film is remarkable in that it gives us glimpses of the mad skills of three women who are often overlooked. First off, we see Melissa McCarthy in a rare dramatic role, displaying a range far beyond what most of us ever expected from her.
Second, we get the masterful scripting of Nicole Holofcener, a skilled filmmaker in her own right (check out her own 2018 film, The Land of Steady Habits for a nice little bonus), who wonderfully pens the life story of Lee Israel, famous celebrity biographer and forger.
And as good a director as Nicole Holofcener is, in this case the directorial work was handled by Marielle Heller (tackling only her second ever feature film, after 2015’s Diary of a Teenage Girl). Put these three together, sprinkle in a little help from co-writer Jeff Whitty and co-star Richard E Grant, and you’ve got a wonderful dark comedy that brings out the best of all the film’s participants.
One of my main beefs with Hollywood is how rarely skilled female directors get projects (take note of the 14-year delay between Patty Jenkins’ Monster and Wonder Woman), so it’s gratifying to see that Marielle Heller is already in the midst of production for her next film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Written by Mark Boal, Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Years ago I recall hearing many people claim women are only suited to making romantic comedies. As dumb as that proclamation has ever been, it has become patently absurd since the arrival of Kathryn Bigelow, a director who thrives in the action movie genre more than any other. After several military-themed projects, in 2017 she adjusted slightly to tackle a controversial true story featuring the Detroit Police Department and the aftermath of a raid they undertook.
Obviously when dealing with true events a filmmaker courts controversy, but controversy is something Bigelow thrives on, never flinching in her portrayal of the events. And no matter which complaints are leveled against her films, not being skilled at handling action films won’t be one of them.
- High Life
Written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau & Geoff Cox
Directed by Claire Denis
Another genre often considered to be a man’s playground is science fiction. In the annals of filmmaking we have seen quite our fair share of great science fiction films. From classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey to contemporary hits like Interstellar and Gravity, it seems like we’ll be able to enjoy new, brain-twisting, cerebral SF stories for a very long time.
With that, allow me to introduce you to a new classic, Claire Denis’ incredible and baffling High Life.
Denis has long been another of my favorite directors, partially because she is never content to stick with one genre or style of filmmaking. No two Denis films are alike, and the most unique one she has tackled to date has been High Life, a dense and puzzling film about a group of convicts being sent out into space to be experimented on. Featuring a career-best performance from Robert Pattinson (okay, so that’s not saying too much, I know) and Juliette Binoche, this is one to keep an eye out for.
- Lady Bird
Written & Directed by Greta Gerwig
I dearly hope you have seen this one already. Greta Gerwig, making her solo directorial debut, knocks it out of the park. Not only did she become the fifth woman to score an Oscar nomination for Best Director (the only one of this decade, I might add), Lady Bird was for a time the single most-liked film in Rotten Tomatoes’ history. What makes this film so good?
Too many reasons to count. One is Gerwig’s own script, which brushes delicately between comedy and drama without ever getting too bogged down in sadness or turmoil. Another key is the incredibly strong performances by Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan, probably the world’s best actress under the age of 30 (sorry Jennifer Lawrence, you’re still top 5). Not to be overlooked are the supporting performances by Timothee Chalamet and Lucas Hedges as Ronan’s first two boyfriends.
Simply put, everything sticks. No film should be this polished and professional when it’s made by someone with so little experience. But Gerwig does it. And now anticipation is at a fever pitch for her next film, an adaptation of the beloved novel Little Women.
- Leave No Trace
Directed by Debra Granik, Written by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini
Some films cannot be adequately explained. Some simply must be experienced for their true quality to be discerned.
Enter Debra Granik’s recent masterpiece Leave No Trace. The story can be easily summed up. A single father with PTSD raises his daughter outside the clutches of modern society, but over time their values begin to clash. Simple. What makes it so good though?
I could rant about Granik’s lush camera work and how it dwells on the little beautiful details. I could rant about the performances of Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie and their chemistry. I could rant about how it compares modern society with an idealized life of freedom. But again, you really should just see it for yourself. I honestly don’t believe it can be fully appreciated unless you see it.
(Bonus: Not only were both screenwriters women, but so were all three producers)
- Mary Queen of Scots
Written by Beau Willimon, Directed by Josie Rourke
If you remember how I praised Saoirse Ronan as the best young actress in the world, then I’m sure this film’s inclusion comes as no surprise to you.
Coming from the pen of Beau Willimon, a master of political intrigue (as witnessed in his series House of Cards), we now see a historical power struggle between Queen Elizabeth of England and, um, Mary. Queen of Scots. Okay, so I suppose the title kinda gave that away.
Once again we see an instance of a first-time director, Josie Rourke (professionally a theater director), tackling a film that looks and feels way too polished to be from an amateur. And yet, everything comes off beautifully. The costumes are 100%. The performances are incredible. The directorial work is stellar. How is it that the film’s weakest link is the script, the one written by one of the current masters of television?
I have no idea. But despite that one slight weakness, this is a film definitely worth looking for. I want to see Josie Rourke at work again soon.
- The Rider
Written & Directed by Chloe Zhao
Beyond action and science fiction, which film genre seems the most stereotypically masculine? Obviously the western film! What could be more white American manly than a western?
Unusually, however, the best western film of the year was written and directed by a Chinese woman. Possibly because of this, the film discards nearly all the standards and clichés of the Western, and the film is all the better for it.
Telling the story of a rodeo rider who gets a career-ending injury, the film leaves behind the regular trappings of the genre, instead becoming a deeply personal character study that questions many of the attitudes surrounding masculinity.
- You Were Never Really Here
Written & Directed by Lynne Ramsay
See this movie.
See it now.
Once again we have what on the surface appears to be an action film, but this time our film doesn’t concern itself with thrills. Rather, it feels more like a deconstruction of action films.
For instance, a big appeal of action films is, obviously, the action sequences. Ramsay subverts this and hardly shows us anything, which is baffling, considering the movie is about a hit man. Camera tricks abound in this sparsely plotted but wholly engrossing tale of violence and revenge. Throughout everything, there is a strong undercurrent of humanity, even though the main character is a remorseless killer.
If you like action films, you’ll love this one too. If you hate action films, you’ll still love this one.
Written & Directed by Lucretia Martel
Our final film is also probably the least well known, and unjustly so. I choose this film for a very particular reason. I’m sure you know how difficult it is for a female director to get any attention in Hollywood. The amount of competition is staggering, and that’s not even getting started on any sexism or bias she has to endure. But imagine how much harder it must be to garner attention on a worldwide scale when you’re a woman in Argentina trying to cut it as a filmmaker. Thus, I present to you Zama, a labor of love from Lucretia Martel.
I should point out that Martel is hardly an unknown or undiscovered director. She is probably one of the more famous female directors in the world cinema scene. And yet, how many know her name? I’ll admit, offhand she’s probably the only South American woman I know of who is making a career in filmmaking. But we all have to start somewhere, and Martel is a good place to do it.
Zama was released in Argentina in 2017 and is still finding release in various places around the world. I’ll confess this one will be hard to catch, but if you do it’ll be worth the effort.
In conclusion, I want to re-emphasize the importance of seeing these movies (or ones like them) if we want to have more films getting made by women. Some of these 10 are among the most popular ones of the last two years, but on average they only earned $21.2 million each. That’s worldwide gross, not just domestic. And if we drop Lady Bird from that list, the average sinks down to just $13 million. So please, in 2019, see as many female directed films as possible.