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2019’s Ten Best Films Directed By Women

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir

in Filmmaking
on Dec 29, 2019

I wasn’t going to do this list this year. I naively thought the dawn of a post-woke film world was upon us. Even though not so long ago I had to explain to a male film programmer editing my program blurbs that woke is a word, and even though an NDA keeps me from naming that male film programmer, I still thought maybe, just maybe, there was progress being made somewhere out there. Then, the Golden Globe nominations were announced and not a single woman was nominated for Best Director. As I struggled to winnow down to ten films this year I came to a new realization: any lack of recognition of women in film is now just willful ignorance.

10. (tie) Portrait of a Lady On Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma) and The Proposal (dir. Jill Magid

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

Marianne is transported across a rocky sea to an isolated French island hired to covertly paint the portrait of a young woman, the painting a gift to the subject’s soon-to-be husband. With Marianne’s intentions shrouded, the painter and her subject, Héloïse, share walks along the roaring ocean, forming a deep connection that transcends words. The eyes of these actors speak volumes of their inner states, their blossoming bond awoken in glances. The film reclaims the long-standing trope of artist and muse by revealing the shared intensity of inspiration, acknowledging how mutual fits of creativity supersede labels to enter some unearthly aura of pure love/art; the painter and the painted blend into one. The film is like a sparse, sterile Vermeer whose surfaces absorb and reflect the light around them instead of passively bathing in it.

The Proposal

In this documentary, artist Jill Magid becomes obsessed with the story of Luis Barragán, a Mexican modernist architect whose vast archive was purchased by a furniture magnate purportedly as a gift to his fiancée. The archive now sits alone, unseen, in Switzerland. Magid conceives of a plan to recover this history, while also pushing her own conceptual narrative that questions the nature of artistic perception and production. Much like her visual art, Magid’s interest in identity, ownership, and surveillance are boldly taken on throughout the film, placing herself as a prism squarely at the intersection of these socio-cultural power plays. The voiceover approach the film adopts is difficult to ease into, but if one can hang on past the purposefully measured delivery, the stratified story that results is one of lucid creativity and pure reflection from every imaginable angle.

9.The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)

Director Lulu Wang’s quasi-autobiographical film feels like opening a warm family photo album, one that celebrates but also memorializes. The story of how Wang’s family kept her grandmother’s own cancer diagnosis from her, even concocting a wedding as a ruse for goodbyes, moves beyond what could easily be a trite, domestic affair. Instead, it becomes an exploration of the chasm between Chinese and Chinese-Americans, seen here as a push and pull of opportunity, guilt, and shame. Characters are crafted with honesty and simplicity but looming in their symbolism; comedian Awkwafina shines as the outspoken yet vulnerable Grandaughter parsing her responsibility to her family (tradition) and to herself (the future). The Farewell is also a case-study in art direction as the smallest of details — props, textures, colors, sounds —  signify a cross-section of an ever-changing, rarely observed image of China. 

8. Greener Grass (dirs. Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe)

The constant clawing of suburban hierarchy is covered in poms-poms in this brightly lit, deep dark horror film (think John Waters swallowing David Lynch). People are judged by the clarity of their pool water. Children are given as gifts. A person becomes a dog. Corrective braces shackle the teeth of every adult. The vague narrative of some lurking stalker is secondary to the scene-to-scene moments of outlandish exhibitions of etiquette, compounding into a sickening, pink, sugary treat. Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the film’s writers, directors, and stars, stretch satire to the limit in such an eerie-yet-cheery way, an Instagram filter that is nearly impossible to explain. The closest I can come to this film’s essence is that lurching fear of a girls night out at paint-your-own pottery, the hideous results of which must be treasured as a testament to friendship and as proof of having been. 

7. Fast Color (dir. Julia Hart)

Fast Color presents three generations of women with supernatural powers. The gifts that make them who they are are to be hidden, masked in a world that isn’t ready for them or, worse, wants to exploit them. The film skates above a potentially eye-rolling maternal metaphor through its skillful maintenance of tone. The relationships are raw and quietly address many levels of real-life complexity (from addiction to the collapsing environment), the muted special effects create a cloud of believability, the rough edges of a coffee cup outline a relatable, handmade cosmos.  The blurring of the fantastical with the everyday is so delicately poised that one can’t help but be convinced, and then subsumed, by the power of these women. Though Fast Color was grossly underseen, Amazon is set to produce it as a series introducing many more to this wondrous, matriarchal superhero universe. 

6. Clemency (dir. Chinonye Chukwu)

Sometimes a film acts as a vehicle for an actor, each moment exposing and embodying a very specific human experience. Such is the case with Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency. Alfre Woodard is Bernadine Williams, a prison warden whose by-the-books demeanor has made her life one of pride and respect. A difficult execution leaves her shaken, sending her into a spiral of conflict and adding to her mounting sleeplessness and marital troubles. As another execution approaches, this time with its own set of tragic complications, Williams’ turmoil escalates. Woodard’s constant balancing of compassion and duty will send any audience into alternating waves of empathy and despair. Though the film goes hard in drama and emotional turns (and many of the supporting actors aren’t easy to connect with) the film remains an effective display of how individual decisions can illuminate the dark corners of questionable moral landscapes.

5. High Life (dir. Claire Denis)

Claire Denis willfully manipulates time, easing into long tedious meditations or jolting into bursts of charged terror. High Life’s narrative is eked out throughout the film, a twisted prison spaceship experimenting on its inmates rockets towards a black hole, but the images in the film are where the true story lies. Layering symbols upon symbols Denis probes the place of humanity in the natural world. She stares into the murky, wet, galaxy-like puddle of human existence where instinct is managed and the entire space/time continuum can be bent at will by science (or by art). Denis captures each scene’s pores, transplanting the watcher into a fully conceived, dreamy nightmare in another place in a different time. By lifting the gravity of suppression the film pushes forcefully at the boundaries of the human-animal, a classic Denis-ian theme.

4. Little Joe (dir. Jessica Hausner)

Alice, a single mother and renown horticulturist, struggles with her newest creation: a flower that breeds happiness. Those who come in contact with it seem to act peculiar, causing Alice to question her sanity and the plant’s oxytocin-laced pollen. Like the best horror films, the tension grows by virtue of a directorial hand. The soundtrack is compiled from tracks by Teiji Ito (Maya Deren’s husband and composer), a tense crawl punctuated by flurries of shivering chaos. Visually, the film is like a chilling sci-fi dystopia painted by Edward Hopper —  serene greens, gleaning planes of interiors, light pouring off the folds in a silk shirt, cut with moments of dull exteriors and violently wind-swept hillsides. Some have criticized Little Joe as an anti-anti-depressant film but it is more like a warning against the root of another pressing issue: can good ever come from science putting profit before safety?

3. The Hottest August (dir. Brett Story)

The Hottest August is a burning mirage that rises from the pavement made visible through a stationary, empirical camera underscored by the charge of pointed voice-over. Brett Story’s documentary floats through neighborhoods in the deep heat of New York City. Observation and conversation mix with readings of tangential texts by Annie Dillard, Karl Marx, and Zadie Smith. By removing identifiers (withholding the source of spoken words and having interviewees self-identify), in addition to the director’s own unseen presence/voice, the film equalizes the experience of rising temperatures and sea levels. Even though a calm doom pervades, the film doesn’t feel hopeless. There is an acceptance that history is pockmarked with change, that some forces (the sun, the tides) seem far beyond control and that the forces that are controllable (the crushing weight of capitalism, xenophobia, racism, collective action) can maybe make dents in the larger, unfathomable timeline of history.

2. Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop)

This feature directorial debut is a proclamation announcing the arrival of Mati Diop’s indescribable artistic force. Two lovers stand on opposite sides of the tracks as a train barrels by catching glimpses between cars; suddenly one of them vanishes from view, a simple destabilization of expectation that slyly conditions for the film to follow. A signature neo-magical realism materializes through an intimate cinéma vérité-style camera, as slights of supernatural unassumingly glide into being. The narrative centers on the forbidden love between Soulemaine, a construction worker in Senegal, and Ada, a young woman about to be married off into money. After Soulemaine’s Europe-bound boat is lost at sea, Ada mourns her presumed loss. Like other diasporic horror films, Atlantics shows the ghost-filled lives left behind. But, unlike other films, Diop’s clarity of vision is preternatural as her emerging aesthetic plays with the sensory impulses of both film and human emotion.

1. The Souvenir (dir. Joanna Hogg)

By draining the drama from her loose personal narrative as a film school student in a toxic relationship, Joanna Hogg leaves her audience to contend with outcomes as opposed to letting them revel in popcorn-movie-conflict. Hogg understands the limits of her craft, she knows that she could never convey her own lived truth. So she tests the medium for what it can do, crafting a string of vivid recollections, the type that one remembers long after they occur: the physical object of discovery seared into one’s memory, the song from the party forever recalling that feeling. She stitches her scenes together with space for reflection of the onscreen experiences but also leaves space to fill in the blanks with one’s own. Film is an impression and, like most art and media, it has the ability to deeply evoke, challenge, define and express a spectrum of living truths.  


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