Somehow, we’re still going to need Natalie Portman to come out during the upcoming Golden Globes and repeat her 2018 observation: “Here are the all-male nominees.” Portman’s biting words didn’t make much of an impact on the film industry at the time apparently because when the 2020 nominations were announced last week, there was a glaring omission: female directors. Yes—absolutely no women were nominated for the categories of best director, screenplay, or motion picture.
Considering the packed pool of excellent films that came out this year, it’s understandable that...just kidding. This is not merely embarrassing—it’s just plain unacceptable, which is even more clear with a mere glance at the output from women directors in 2019: lush lesbian romances, chillingly alienating sci-fi dramas, and so much more. To correct the Golden Globes’ oversight, here are seven of this year’s best woman-directed films.
Atlantics (Mati Diop)
The directorial debut from French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop (who starred as the lead in Claire Denis’s 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum) is by far the finest first-film entry this year. Set in Dakar, Senegal, this enigmatic feature about a teen girl who falls in love with someone other than the man she’s been arranged to marry touches on forbidden love and ghostly hauntings and still manages to escape the clichés of either trope. It’s confidently directed too—deceptively quiet, almost sleepy at times, while seamlessly weaving in sensitive material, from class differences to virginity tests. Its Netflix release was eclipsed by the streaming service’s awards-season titans (The Irishman and Marriage Story), but don’t sleep on Atlantics—not just one of the best coming-of-age films of late but one with a story rarely told. (Watch on Netflix.)
High Life (Claire Denis)
The Robert Pattinson–starring High Life may be another entry for the sad-dad-in-space canon, but it’s unconventional in every other way. Claire Denis is one of the best living directors of our time, and her inventive foray into sci-fi entertains the terrifying thought of space serving not as a symbol of exploration and new life but of death and imprisonment—the latter ironic considering how...big...space is. Pattinson plays Monte, a death-row inmate whose autonomy is worth nothing and whose body becomes the test subject for a fertility experiment carried out by a sinister doctor (Juliette Binoche). This film, like Denis’s previous ones, is no easy watch, with some scenes playing out like a nightmarish wet dream. Even Andrei Tarkovsky would be shaken. (Watch on Amazon.)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
The French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s sultry and sumptuous lesbian love story presents a world in which such Golden Globes mishaps would never exist: With men mostly kept off-screen and muted, it’s all about the women. Set in the coastal town of Brittany, Portrait is a romance as pounding as the waves that crash against the craggy walls. A painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), arrives on secret assignment—to paint a to-be-wed lady (Adèle Haenel) for a portrait meant to be used in an 18th-century proposal and to do it covertly, since the lady refuses to pose. Marianne’s studied gaze is a cross between that of an artist memorizing the features of her subject and that of the lovelorn repressing her taboo attraction for another woman. The feelings eventually break past flirtatious hints, leading to a few days of unforgettable bliss. Be still my heart. (Find showtimes.)
The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
This autobiographical film from Lulu Wang was first told as a story on a This American Life episode—of Wang’s terminally ill grandmother and the great lengths her family took to keep it secret from her (certainly a moral dilemma, but a more widely accepted practice in China). For its feature-film adaptation, rapper-cum-actress Awkwafina plays Billi (the character based on Wang herself) and embodies the gray zone of a Westernized immigrant who struggles to lie to her beloved Nai Nai (grandmother), someone she feels close to even though they’ve barely seen each other in the past few years. Wang gets the best performance out of Awkwafina to date—one that touches on her strengths as a comedian but introduces a wider spectrum of emotions, many of which visibly work themselves out across the canvas of her face. (Watch on Amazon.)
Harriet (Kasi Lemmons)
Kasi Lemmons, who had previously directed the excellent Southern Gothic film Eve’s Bayou, brings that same spirit to her biopic about Harriet Tubman (played by Cynthia Erivo), a woman who was always communicating with God. Whether you believe that part of her legacy or not, it’s impossible to deny the many miracles around Tubman as she not only fled slavery herself but brought so many others to freedom. Lemmons’s film dramatizes Tubman’s heroic work and illustrates more nuanced dynamics, such as those between the free and enslaved black folks. Harriet at first seems like straitlaced, awards-sweeping biographical material, but it’s a bit more unconventional than it lets on. Unfortunately it has gone largely, unfairly ignored—now it’s high time to remedy that. (Preorder on Amazon.)
Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
The highs in Hustlers are some of the best you might experience in cinema this year—a gang of Robin Hood–esque scamming strippers who, sick of being exploited at work, take advantage of deep-pocketed Wall Street bros. There’s a twisted but fun sense of sisterhood and a cathartic, voyeuristic splurging voyage to boot. The expected comedowns are a little tough to bear, but the film, based on a 2015 New York Magazine article, delicately navigates the moral ickiness of it all without turning its subjects into easy feminist heroes. But back to those highs: in particular Jennifer Lopez (in an Oscar-deserving performance) as the ringleader, with Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and Constance Wu as the protagonist/protégée. Now if we could only get a cut with more screen time from Cardi B and Lizzo. (Watch on Amazon.)
Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)
Any new release of an Agnès Varda film is cause for celebration, even though this one arrived posthumously, a few months after her death this past March. There’s no overrating Varda’s massive influence on cinema; after all, she was in a league of her own as the only major female French New Wave director. Varda by Agnès is like a greatest-hits compilation, starring Varda ruminating on her impressive career in between clips of archival material (which, by the way, will have you either wanting to rewatch her entire oeuvre or discover it for the first time). As always, Varda provides plenty of hilarious quips and also shows what an empathetic documentarian she was (even her narrative films aimed to document an aspect of reality). RIP to the greatest. (Find showtimes.)
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Originally Appeared on Vogue