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Lithium 20 women-directed films to watch for awards season

Jan. 15, 2019
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Photo from Shirkers (2018, dir. Sandi Tan)

Twitter had a field day when Natalie Portman introduced last year’s all-male Golden Globe Best Director nominees as just that—all-male nominees. This sparked a conversation among critics and audiences alike regarding the presence of female filmmakers in awards seasons. Lady Bird was definitely a favorite among critic circles last year, but Greta Gerwig was only the fifth woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar in the 90 years of the Academy’s history. 

While progress remains elusive (the Golden Globes still had all-male Best Director nominees for next year’s ceremony), other award shows are stepping up their game. Recently, the Independent Spirit Awards—which awards the highest honors in indie filmmaking—nominated more women than men. Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Tamara Jenkins (Private Life), and Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) were all nominated together with Paul Schrader (First Reformed) and Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk).

With the year almost coming to a close and awards season nearing its peak, it’s time to catch up on 20 of the women-directed films that made waves in this year’s film festivals. 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (dir. Marielle Heller)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller’s second project is a metabiography of celebrity biographer Lee Israel (played by an almost unrecognizable Melissa McCarthy), who, in fear of becoming obsolete, resorts to deception. The trailer is blunt and electric, and critics have been commending Heller’s and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener’s sensitive approach to an ultimately myopic and unlikeable protagonist. The director’s distinct brand of happy-sad is both hard-hitting and heartfelt, and seeing how much I adored her first film, I am beyond excited for this one. 

Digital release is estimated for January 2019.

Fast Color (dir. Julia Hart)

Black Mirror: San Junipero star Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in Miss Stevens director’s sci-fi thriller as a woman with superhuman abilities who is forced to go on the run. Hart’s aim was to tell a story about the empowerment of women of color; the president of Codeblack Films, which has acquired the film for distribution, calls it a “powerful and original superhero movie.” With the oversaturation of the superhero genre, a woman-led, small-scale character study is definitely a refreshing take. Needless to say, my attention has been caught.

Release date: March 29

High Life (dir. Claire Denis)

Queen of cinema herself Claire Denis is back with another provocative effort, and it’s been the subject of conversations ever since its festival debut. Undeniably visionary, the French auteur resuscitates a tired sci-fi trope with a film you have to see to believe. The premise alone warrants a watch—a group of incarcerated criminals are deceived into believing they will be set free if they participate in a space mission toward a black hole while being sexually experimented on by the scientists on board—and the trailer is bold and breathtaking. Robert Pattinson paints a devastating portrait with very few words, and Denis accomplishes tension through silence. 

Release date: April 12

I Think We’re Alone Now (dir. Reed Morano)

Morano’s take on the classic two-sentence horror story, “The last man on Earth sits in a room. There was a knock on the door,” is this quiet post-apocalyptic drama starring Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning. An intimate and reflective character study guided by an unconditional lens and bolstered by solid performances, it won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. 

Currently available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik)

A father-daughter relationship is tested in Granik’s Leave No Trace, in which the pair’s odd but perfect residence in a nature reserve is rattled by being “rescued” by authorities. The two’s dynamic is harrowing and hard-hitting, and the rawness of their performances meshes well with the lush Oregon setting. Thought-provoking and even liberating, to an extent. 

Currently available on DVD and digital.

Let the Corpses Tan (dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani)

A fierce post-heist story of a gang of thieves and the chaos of their chosen hideout, this 90-minute crime thriller reinvents the spaghetti western without losing the classic familiarity of a sandy desert shootout. Stylistic, and basically commands you to pay attention to it. The exhilaration is so palpable, you could almost touch it.

Currently available on digital.

The Long Dumb Road (dir. Hannah Fidell)

An incredibly fun and heartfelt road trip comedy about two polar opposites—a sheltered art student (Tony Revolori) and an unpredictable, big-hearted mechanic (Jason Mantzoukas)—who somehow find their way to each other. The two protagonists’ idiosyncrasies are not always in sync, but even so you can’t help but root for them. Revolori contrasts Mantzoukas’ energy perfectly, and their dynamism keeps an otherwise bleak premise alive. 

Currently available on DVD and digital.

Madeline’s Madeline (dir. Josephine Decker)

Stellar newcomer Helena Howard stars as Madeline in this cinematic fever dream that offers a unique voice on the continual exploration of an artist’s excruciating, extremely intimate relationship with the art they make. The line between reality and fantasy is not so much blurred as it is completely annihilated; this film is bold and unafraid to displease the audience. 

Currently available on DVD and digital.

Mary Queen of Scots (dir. Josie Rourke)

Two of last year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Actress teamed up in this historical drama about Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), who attempts to overthrow her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). A visual feast, from the cinematography to the costume design, and our two heroines command the screen every chance they get.

Release date: December 21

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (dir. Desiree Akhavan)

The classic charm of coming-of-age meets the inescapable intolerance underlining the LGBTQ+ youth experience in this adaptation of the novel of the same name. Set in a gay conversion camp in the early ‘90s, the humor of Cameron Post is deadpan and its drama is biting—it never loses sight of its significance but also simultaneously keeps the angst and whimsy of teenhood. Chloë Grace Moretz and Sasha Lane are poignant and mesmerizing, and Forrest Goodluck is a scene stealer.

Currently available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

Never Goin' Back (dir. Augustine Frizzell)

Augustine Frizzell’s love letter to female friendships is this road-trip comedy starring the magnetic Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone as two girls who just want to go to the beach. Hilarious, and beautifully, carefully photographed. It allows the protagonists to be crude, the humor is raunchy, and the plot is fun—definitely a summer movie that didn’t get the attention it deserved. A Letterboxd review said the two main characters are the teenage versions of The Florida Project’s Moonee and Jancey, and honestly, that is more than enough of a reason to see this.

Currently available on digital.

Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins)

The classic comfort and wit of New York films are repackaged in this nuanced drama about a couple trying to combat impending infertility through assisted reproduction and domestic adoption. Shares the same vein as a Noah Baumbach film or a Diablo Cody screenplay, but compelling and genuine in its own way. Its warm soulfulness took a lot of viewers by surprise.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

Revenge (dir. Coralie Fargeat)

Rape revenge films are nothing new, but today’s social climate warrants a more brutal take on the subgenre. Revenge is exactly that—blood-soaked, unforgiving, and looks the audience in the eye and asks, “Why do women always have to put up a fight?” Newcomer Fargeat is seething with anger for the male gaze, and she’s unafraid to battle it head-to-head.

Currently available on DVD and digital.

The Rider (dir. Chloé Zhao)

An exploration of identity and self-worth guised as a cowboy movie is what awaits you in The Rider. Zhao met Brady Jandreau, the lead of this film, while shooting her debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me. When a horse crushed Jandreau’s skull and diminished his days as a rising rodeo star, Zhao decided to tell his story in this melancholic reflection that critics and audiences alike have deemed beautiful.

Currently available on DVD and digital.

Shirkers (dir. Sandi Tan)

Shirkers is film critic and now filmmaker Sandi Tan’s debut feature about her debut feature. As a teenager, she shot a 16mm road movie with a couple of friends and her very mysterious,` middle-aged American mentor, who later vanishes with all their footage. When the film is recovered two decades later, Tan recounts the production and retraces her mentor’s steps before his disappearance. There is a portion of the documentary in which scenes from their movie, shot in 1992, are juxtaposed with scenes of Western movies released years later: a shot of Tan, who plays the protagonist, looking through an aquarium cuts to an aesthetically similar scene in 1998’s Rushmore; a shot of her walking through the streets of Singapore cuts to a similar scene in 2001’s Ghost World. It made me cry. I couldn’t help but wonder how different the film industry would be if an Asian teenager’s undeniably innovative film didn’t go missing, and I got so angry about living in a world where Shirkers never found its way to cinemas. It made me realize that as a young Asian female creative, I would rather drop dead than let an older man touch my work. When you’re a teenager creating, it’s inevitable that who you are bleeds into the art you make—the work of young people very often is intimate and personal, and having an older man—your literal antithesis—get all up in your creative space—your safe space—is purely devastating. While I mourn for never seeing Shirkers the movie, I’m grateful for the existence of Shirkers the documentary, a personal reflection on art, our relationship to it, and the importance of paying attention to the teenage lens. 

Currently streaming on Netflix.

Skate Kitchen (dir. Crystal Moselle)

This festival favorite, starring a charismatic group of girl skateboarders collectively called The Skate Kitchen, is an ode to the New York skating subculture and the transcendental unconditionality of female companionship. The palpability of the cast’s chemistry is the rare kind you only see between real-life friends, and Moselle’s loving eye makes us fall in love with the domestic magic of these girls’s everyday lives. This could have a ten-hour runtime and I would still watch it in its entirety. Energetic, unforgettable, and easily one of my favorites of the year.

Currently available on DVD and digital.

The Tale (dir. Jennifer Fox)

A watch that I personally have been putting off because it hits too close to home. Laura Dern plays Jennifer Fox, who is forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship in this powerful, unflinching true story. It will inevitably reopen old wounds I’ve been trying to hide away, but once I muster up the courage to finally watch it, I have no doubt it will heal me in a way that I have never been absolved before.

Currently available on DVD and digital.

Vita and Virginia (dir. Chanya Button)

A haunting biographical romance drama about the love affair between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Beautifully structured, daringly shot, and Elizabeth Debicki stuns as the enigmatic Woolf. 

Release date TBD.

You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

Ramsay is the master of pre-packaged anxiety and cinematic dread, and her quietly terrifying storytelling is ever present in her latest effort. Joaquin Phoenix, playing a traumatized veteran who tracks down missing girls for a living, delivers a haunting and implosive performance. A conspiracy is unraveled through the course of the film, and the fact that it was approached with such intimacy amplifies its horror. Ramsay understands that fear is most effective when personal, and by her fourth feature, she’s already mastered how to harness it.

Currently available on Blu-ray and Digital.

Zama (dir. Lucreca Martel)

Based on the novel of the same name by Antonio Di Benedetto, this film follows Spanish officer Diego de Zama as he awaits his transfer from Asunción to Buenos Aires. A fearless satire on themes of colonialism that is equally slow-burn and riveting. 

Currently available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.