the best feminist movies of 2018

The editor of feminist film journal ‘Another Gaze’ gives us the standout movies of the year.

by Daniella Shreir
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18 December 2018, 8:00am

The movies I have chosen as "best feminist movies of 2018" make up an eclectic mix that strike me as reflecting a slight broadening of the kinds of films women and feminists might be expected to make, in terms of subject matter and form. Many of them haven’t appeared on any of the major movies-of-the-year lists, except for, ironically, the one I’ve included by a man. However, I think it’s important to recognise where male directors, in the wake of #MeToo, seem to have taken something on, rather than just monopolising on the movement with their hastily-sketched, ‘complex’ female characters.

Thankfully it’s been a great year for women-led movies, as major filmmakers whose careers have been marked by big gaps finally got new releases (Claire Denis, Lynne Ramsay, Lucrecia Martel). And distributors -- no doubt pushed by discussions around diversity -- brought films by early-career women filmmakers (including some on this list) to the cinema. This meant that movie critics -- a profession still largely dominated by male voices -- were often pushed to cover ‘smaller’ movies, though many still wrote using unconsciously biased language. But keeping smaller scale women-led films in the public eye for more than just their month of release is important if financiers are going to keep taking a chance on unconventional films by women for longer than it’s the zeitgeist.

Here are some of the films which I see as having contributed to the ever-growing conversation around women, as well as race, class, and sexuality this year -- and which I think are worth watching, rewatching and discussing.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Desiree Akhavan
I’m ambivalent about the term ‘female gaze’, but if it’s meant to imply empathy and respect then Desirée Akhavan’s Cameron Post is probably the best example of one this year. As Cameron (Chloe Moretz) is uprooted from her small town to a Christian conversion camp after her boyfriend discovers her kissing a girl, Akhavan queers the coming of age story. Cameron is not the gawky teen who needs to accept themselves in order to be accepted by others: we meet her at the peak of sexual self-discovery and she remains delightfully stubborn until the end. Cameron Post should be compulsory viewing for any male director who insists on including a lesbian sex scene: Akhavan’s camera is never salacious, it refuses to cut up bodies and instead lets the lust and ambivalence that comes with teen experimentation of all orientations come to the fore.

Touch Me Not by Adina Pintilie
When Touch Me Not received the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival this year, outraged (predominantly male) critics cast the film as ‘silly’ and ‘shallow’. Touch Me Not is an exploration of themes pertinent to contemporary feminist thought -- intimacy, disability, sex work -- and follows a cast of people with either non-normative bodies or who engage in non-normative sexual practices. Set against an almost negative aesthetic (more theatrical than cinematic), our discomfort comes from a new viewing experience in which we find ourselves somewhere between documentary and fiction, masculine and feminine, raw sexual desire and asexuality.

Faces, Places by Agnès Varda
Somewhat surprisingly for an artist who recently turned 90 and who has been making work for over seven decades, 2018 was Agnès Varda’s year. Retrospectives toured the UK, Agnès Varda T-shirts were bought by recent fans, and life-sized cardboard cutouts of the artist and her cat could be found in local cinemas. By comparison, the release of her latest documentary Faces, Places, was rather quiet. In her first co-authored film (though all her films celebrate collaboration), Varda and public art-maker JR tour rural France, recording the process of sticking life-sized photographs of the people they meet onto local buildings. The film is testimony to the importance of intergenerational creation and conversation, and the exposition of art outside of cities and museums. And there’s a brilliant finale where Varda arranges for JR to meet her friend, the major French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard. They travel for hours, only to find that he’s stood them up. It’s a triumph for creativity that is fuelled by empathy, rather than a stubborn individualism.

Waru by Briar Grace-Smith, Casey Kaa, Ainsley Gardiner, Katie Wolfe, Chelsea Cohen, Renae Maihi, Paula Jones, Awanui Simich-Pene
Another film that extols the virtues of co-authorship is the Māori film Waru, which got a small release late this year. The film is directed by eight women who were given a day each to film an equal-sized segment in one consecutive take. Formal constraints like these have often led to messy films, but here they seem to have provided a necessary foundation for a film that tackles the death of a victim of child abuse in a minority community. Each section follows a different woman on the day of the child’s funeral. Each woman appears exhausted, bearing the weight of work, family and the need to be a ‘good Māori’ to the scrutinising white eye. This is most apparent in the section following Kiri, a Māori newscaster, who watches as her white colleague goes on air to cast the problem of child abuse as a Māori problem. But watching Waru is watching a community impelled to examine itself on its own terms.

Jeune Femme by Léonor Serraille
Léonor Serraille’s Jeune Femme opens with its protagonist, Paula (the wonderful Laetitia Dosch), bashing her head so hard against her photographer ex-boyfriend’s door that she passes out and ends up in psychiatric care. What follows is not the story of post-break-up freedom (“Freedom”, she tells the doctor as she discharges herself from hospital, “is for egotistical bastards”) but a quest for shelter and care led by someone with precarious means. As Paula inhabits different personae in order to find a place to sleep or get through a job interview, we are witness to a creativity borne of necessity.

Private Life by Tamara Jenkins
More people should be shouting about Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’s brilliantly-written New York comedy about a 40-something couple’s journey through adoption and assisted reproduction, which slid quietly onto Netflix this autumn. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film so drenched in a desire that is neither sexual nor romantic. The film becomes even more striking when you realise that the object of desire has been entirely forgotten: not once do the couple refer to a child or talk about why they want one. As the couple throw more money at new alternatives, we become aware of how easily alleged freedoms can become constraints.

Shirkers by Sandi Tan
In early 90s Singapore, precocious teen cinephile Sandi Tan started shooting an ambitious feature with two of her female friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique. Taking night classes in film production, she shared its script with her teacher Georges, who convinced her that his (fabricated) success and connection meant that he should be the one to direct it. Slowly, various creative decisions slipped out of the teenagers’ hands, until one day, without warning, the man and the film canisters did too. Tan, never able to get over the loss of the film, became a writer and a critic.

The documentary first orients us in the west-facing underground subculture of late 20th-century Singapore before some of the recuperated, soundless, footage seeps in. Honest conversations with Ng and Siddique recall the pleasures of a form of DIY filmmaking, fuelled by the boundless confidence of youth, and paint a picture of the male fantasist, Georges, whose ex-wife later corroborates their story. She is also the one to returned the stolen footage after his death.

Although the abuse in Shirkers is predominantly non-sexual, it chimes with many #MeToo stories as one of an insecure man who felt so threatened by a woman’s capacity for creation that he had to obstruct it. As the original film’s wildly inventive and beautiful footage flows throughout the documentary, we are compelled to think of all the other scripts would-be women filmmakers were forced to hand over to male directors.

Roma by Alfonso Cuarón
The most unexpected feminist film of the year has to be Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, whose previous exploration of alternative worlds much bigger than ourselves -- Children of Men, Gravity, the third Harry Potter film -- all seem to have been leading to one of the best portraits of the domestic in recent cinematic history. Much has been made of the fact that the film is Cuarón’s love letter to the Mixtec woman who helped raise him in Mexico City (here she’s called Cleo), but this falsely implies a child’s gaze on events. Instead, Roma shows us what Cuarón would have experienced as Cleo’s absence -- her discussions in Mixtec with another maid, her time off, dates with a man who soon abandons her. Visual and thematic symmetry can be found across the film, and so as Cleo finds herself alone, so too does the mother of the children, whose husband leaves her for his mistress. While some brilliant films this year have demonstrated the importance of women representing masculinity (The Rider, Western, You Were Never Really Here), Cuarón deftly tackles the lives of women formative to him that were destroyed by male ego. The story’s great tragedy, however, is the realisation that class is not the leveller that gender can be.