Still from Madeline's Madeline. Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

12 female-directed films to watch

The Oscars unsurprisingly left out women in its nominations, but you don’t have to.

by Molly Gillis
24 January 2019, 5:35pm

Still from Madeline's Madeline. Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

The first ever Academy Awards ceremony took place in 1929, and nearly 90 years later, only five women have been nominated for Best Director. Numerically speaking, out of the 455 directors nominated in total, just five of those are ladies. And only one of them ever won — shout out to Kathryn Bigelow in 2010, for The Hurt Locker. The 2019 Oscar nominations were announced this week and they were consistent with past years - zero female directors. As a filmmaker, a lover of movies, and (surprise!) a woman… it’s a bummer.

However you may feel about the Academy Awards, the silly nominations represent how mainstream culture sees women, which for directors means not recognizing them at all this year. But the work is there, the movies exist, and they are seriously great. In a couple of minutes after reading the nominees, I came up with 12 female-directed films, made in 2018, that rocked me. They aren’t perfect films by any means, but they all happen to score significantly higher on Rotten Tomatoes than 5 nom Oscar contender Bohemian Rhapsody. That’s math that just doesn’t add up. Instead of complaining about the bureaucracy behind an outdated awards ceremony, I want to shout from the mountaintops about these wildly talented women and the striking movies that they directed in the last year.

The Rider
Chloe Zhao is the goddess who directed The Rider — the story of a Brady Jandreau — a real life young rodeo rider who is forced to give up his greatest love in the aftermath of a traumatic head injury. Chloe expertly blurs the lines of documentary and narrative in this one, mainly working with non-actors. Imagine epic tracking shots with wild horses at sunset on the Dakota prairie. She’s breaking our hearts AND serving stunning landscape cinematography. Oh, and she wrote the damn thing too. Chloe’s work is setting the new bar, and she booked the next Marvel movie, so obviously I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Private Life
It’s directed (and written!) by Tamara Jenkins, who might as well have invented the term “dramedy.” Private Life is the story of an aging New York City couple and their desperate attempts to have a child together later in life. Starring a fierce Kathryn Hahn and anxious Paul Giamatti, this movie makes you laugh through pain — which is truly Tamara’s gift as a director. It played at Sundance and the New York Film Festival, but quietly went straight to Netflix? Let’s make more of a ruckus for this expertly crafted story told by a phenom female director!

Madeline’s Madeline
Josephine Decker is the writer and director (double threat again!) who created Madeline’s Madeline, an experimental film about a young talented actress experiencing dissociative episodes while enrolled in a theatre workshop, run by a manipulative teacher. This one dimensional summary doesn’t totally do justice to the wild, fearless, and borderline unhinged storytelling that Josephine offers us in her work. Madeline’s Madeline explores the blurred lines between fantasy and reality, and maybe the performance of the self. This movie made me so stressed, and while I hated the feeling, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Josephine is so bold, her movies are worthy of much attention.

Happy as Lazzaro
Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher created some very beautiful magical realism in this modern fairytale of sorts. Happy as Lazzaro follows a young man who stages a kidnapping for his boss, a bourgeois landowner, and then falls asleep, only to suddenly wake up decades later in the Italian countryside. Stunning farmlands and social class conflicts in 20th century Italy are shot on super 16mm film — an important detail for the true cinephile geeks! The film was nominated for the Palm D’or at Cannes, but won for its screenplay. Alice is a true genius, and you can even watch her lovely film on Netflix.

Dead Pigs
Cathy Yan directs this dark comedy about dead pigs floating down a river in Shanghai. That is a crazy description I know, and so is this eccentric movie about the intersecting lives of five characters facing Chinese modernization and gentrification. It’s stylish, colorful, energetic, and Cathy’s work is in a league of its own. This movie premiered at Sundance in 2018 and I have no idea how one gets access to it beyond stalking the festival circuit. Maybe that should change? Netflix, buy this so everyone can watch! And she’s directing the next Harley Quinn movie, so there is hope for the future perhaps.

Leave No Trace
Debra Granik is a patient director. It took her eight years to return with Leave No Trace after Winter’s Bone, her previous film that launched Jennifer Lawrence. Debra began in the doc world, and it shows in her films — she carefully studies her subjects and her movies brim with authenticity because of it. Leave No Trace is the complicated story of a veteran father managing his PTSD by living with his daughter off the grid, in various public parks of the Pacific Northwest. This movie will teach you a few survival skills and also show you why Debra should be the busiest director working today. Her movies are beautiful and emotionally rich explorations of working class life in rural America.

Little Woods
Nia Dacosta makes a strong debut with her first feature, which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. This moody drama thriller is the story of two unlikely sisters, magnetic Tessa Thompson and Lily James, who hustle to pay back the mortgage on the home of their recently deceased mother. The stakes are high, we’re in North Dakota again, and this movie is tense and bleak. But let’s go see it when it comes out in theaters this spring! Jordan Peele just hired Nia to direct his latest project, a horror classic called Candyman. Not surprised at all to see Nia level up after Little Woods, and bravo Mr. Peele on the smart choice.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Desiree Akhavan is so witty and smart, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post marks the first of her movies that she doesn’t also star in. It’s not my favorite work of hers, but Desiree is an Iranian queer filmmaker and very good at her job. She adapted the novel, of the same name , to the screen, telling the story of a teen conversion therapy center in upstate New York. While there is certainly nothing funny about homophobia, Desiree infuses the subject with her affable, yet ironic sense of humor. The skillful Ashley Connor, DP extraordinaire, shot this film AND Madeline’s Madeline. We should also pay attention to Ashley’s epic breadth of work. If you watch Broad City’s fifth season, you can catch the latest stuff she’s shooting, and Ashley directs too — so let’s give both these ladies more jobs, please.

The Kindergarten Teacher
Sara Colangelo was the HBIC of this American adaptation of the 2014 Israeli film of the same name. She directs the enigmatic Maggie Gyllenhaal as a kindergarten teacher who becomes obsessed with the talent of one of her students — a 5 year old savant poet. Sara builds an uneasy tension throughout, with loads of moody scenes featuring a disheveled Maggie on the Staten Island Ferry, all underscored with pulsing violins. It’s somewhat sexy and dangerous. There’s poetry. Watch it on Netflix, the service that seems to be streaming all of these female-directed films.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Marielle Heller should have an Oscar nomination for directing this film, as it was the most obvious choice overlooked. Based on the life of writer Lee Israel, Marielle directs Melissa McCarthy in this story of a down and out biography writer, who begins to forge historical letters from other famous authors, that she then sells for quick cash. This movie has heart, hijinks, and Marielle pulled off something special — making forgery, the least sexy crime of all time — into something wicked and thrilling to watch. She will be making more movies, no doubt, but this one is a palatable period piece, and pretty good, which is usually Oscar bait, but alas!

Night Comes On
Jordana Spiro is fresh out the gate with her first feature, a 2018 Sundance debut. She wrote Night Comes On with Angelica Nwandu, founder of The Shade Room, for the Insta fans out there! This movie is about Angel, a teenager recently released from a juvenile detention center, who journeys to confront her father, a man who went un-convicted for the murder of Angel’s mother. The story sounds heavy, and it is, but Jordana is directing it with a lighter touch and a deep-seated compassion. She cast Dominique Fishback, a star that brings her effervescence and natural tenderness. Picture shots of long quiet bus rides across Pennsylvania and lots of dreamy, detailed close ups. Jordana is talented, so let’s hop on board people. Watch her short film “Skin” for more proof!

High Life
Buckle your seat belts for High Life, directed by Claire Denis, the queen of all queens. You can prepare by watching Beau Travail, another brilliant movie of hers, in advance of her latest one that got scooped up by A24 and will hit theaters in April 2019. High Life played at TIFF and NYFF in 2018, and it. is. epic. Plus it has Andre 3000??? If you watch Claire’s work, you will realize that everyone, including men directing movies, just wish they were her. But they’re not, so they just screenshot her work for their lookbooks and try anyways. She is French. She is badass. She is truly a legend.

female directors
Private Life
Claire Denis
high life
jordana spiro
Debra Granik
alice rohrwacher
marielle heller
the kindergarten teacher
josephine decker
madeline's madeline
Cathy Yan
leave no trace
dead pigs
Happy as Lazzaro
the rider
chloe zhao
tamara jenkins
little woods
nia dacosta
sara colangelo
can you ever forgive me
night comes on