Female filmmakers don't often get the spotlight they deserve, especially because there are so few of them in the industry. Though I can't say I've seen every film directed (or codirected) by a woman this year (notably Liv Ullmann's Miss Julie), I've seen a good 50 or so. It doesn't seem like a lot compared to the number of films out there, but in a profession that's still difficult for women to navigate, 50 is a relatively large number. And it's enough to narrow down the cream of the crop.
To keep the list as tight as possible, I've (a little shamefully) stuck to narrative features rather than documentaries -- but Laura Poitras' Citizenfour, Petra Costa's Elena, and Lina Pliolplyte's Advanced Style are a few docs to view. I've also limited the list to ten, so here are some that just missed the bar: Lynn Shelton's Laggies, Susanna Fogel's Life Partners, Signe Baumane's Rocks in my Pockets, and Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness.
Here are 2014's ten best female-directed films, a couple of which won't screen in Miami for another few weeks.
Honorable mention: Transparent (dir. Jill Soloway)
OK, this is technically a TV series, but it'd be a crime not to include this fantastic series that essentially plays out like a five-hour film. If you haven't seen Jill Soloway's first feature, Afternoon Delight, you're missing out; however, Transparent is Soloway at her best (writing and directing). It's a genuinely affecting show about a family whose parent comes out as transgender. The decision impacts the way they see their relationships, sexuality, and gender identity for good. It isn't a show without issues (specifically a cis male cast as a trans female), but with Soloway (whose own parent came out in a similar fashion) and a collective of queer and trans cast and crew, you can put your faith in this awesome series.
10. Honeymoon (dir. Leigh Janiak)
In a genre that's typically sparse when it comes to female filmmakers, this year has been a pretty cool one for women working in horror. First up, there's Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon, which could arguably be compared to Antichrist in its quiet unsettling, as well as its small doses of body horror (although, in this case, it's much different from what Lars von Trier delivered). The film is simply about a couple who go off into a cabin in the woods for their honeymoon and everything begins to slowly, but surely, go horribly wrong. Plus, it stars the talented Rose Leslie of Game of Thrones, but you won't hear her telling Jon Snow he knows nothing.
9. Butter on the Latch / Thou Wast Mild & Lovely (dir. Josephine Decker)
It's a pretty impressive feat to release two films in one year, even if they aren't works that have wide appeal. Or, considering their limited release, something most audiences have seen. But, if you've got a Fandor account (which I'd recommend for any art film fan) or live in certain cities, it'd be wise to check out Decker's films. They're the kind of films that work beautifully for those who already dig mumblecore and while they admittedly might be too harsh for others to vibe with, Decker does a lot with the little she clearly uses. The first is a simple but sometimes unsettling tale of friendship with spots of fantastic brilliance and the second could easily be compared to Malick, albeit a work that's far less romantic and comfortable slipping into a place of messed-up thrills.
8. The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears (dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani)
It's impossible to say how much one director influences the other in co-directed films, but one thing is certain about this duo: they're awesome. Just as their last film, Amer, was a kaleidoscope of color, sexual maturity, and giallo thrills, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears is too. The difference, however, is just how experimental this work of art is (with editing loops, color shifting to B&W, stop-motion terrors, and more). It's a murder mystery of sorts, focusing on a man whose wife seems to have completely disappeared upon his return from a trip, but the paths that the film lays out for his journey - some of them hidden in plain sight - hardly lead where you expect them to. It's a crime that this didn't play in Miami - either at O Cinema or Miami Beach Cinematheque where it would have been at home best - but it's the kind of work you won't want to miss out on.
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)
There ain't no party like an Amirpour party because an Amirpour party has a Jim Jarmusch aesthetic, a B-movie sensibility, a Western Tarantino soundtrack, and the incredibly handsome Arash Marandi (who could and should whisper something Farsi in my ear). In all seriousness though, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an engaging debut feature. It's a B&W vampire romance that doesn't come across as juvenile as other movies in the subgenre (lookin' at you Twilight) and it all takes place in a city as seedy as one would expect from a film with a western flare. It's a stylish sort-of-coming-of-age flick that just so happens to feature a female vampire as one of the lead roles. Who'd want to miss that?
6. It Felt Like Love (dir. Eliza Hittman)
I've said it once and I'll say it for the rest of my life: there aren't nearly enough great coming-of-age films made for young women. Not that those for boys are all that great either (Stand by Me? more like ZzZzZ zZ zZ), but they're well-recognized and It Felt Like Love deserves to be on the list of the best. The film is almost entirely about a meek young woman's longing to be as sexually active and realized as her best friend seems to be, as well as the means she goes about to achieve that maturity. It's uncomfortable, it's raw, and it's a film that actually utilizes the female gaze pretty perfectly, to the point where you can practically smell (or lick) the sweat dripping off a guy's muscles. Those who dig Andrea Arnold's work, particularly Fish Tank, will not want to miss out on this one -- especially with its upcoming return to the Miami Beach Cinematheque.
5. Beyond the Lights (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood) & Belle (dir. Amma Asante)
So, I'm doing a little bit of cheating here, simply because both of these films are excellent romantic dramas that star the same talented up-and-coming actress: Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Not only are both films made by women of color, but they both depict black women actually getting the romantic narratives they deserve. Which is incredibly welcome when representation on screen is so sparse. Beyond the Lights takes place in modern day, with Mbatha-Raw starring as an R&B artist struggling to survive in an industry that is so clearly against her in a film that genuinely cares about its characters and the criticisms it's presenting. Belle, however, drops the actress into another time, placing her in a period drama that addresses interracial romance, the slave trade, and the place of a mixed-race woman in nobility. Both incredibly different, but both films no one should miss out on.
4. Appropriate Behavior (dir. Desiree Akhavan)
Classifying Appropriate Behavior as just another Sundance comedy set in New York about a struggling artist would be a massive mistake. But saying it's good simply because it's comedy about a bisexual Persian woman is selling it incredibly short. It's a film that's damn funny when it wants to be, heart-wrenching and sad when it needs to be, and a genuine depiction about emotional struggles of break-ups and bad relationships. Desiree Akhavan, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, is the kind of person that Sundance was made to spotlight, and this is the kind of film that anyone (especially all my queer folk out here) should go check out in Miami this January when it opens at the Cosford.
3. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)
The Babadook, a debut film which a surprising amount of folks have fallen head over heels for, is a damn great horror film. What makes it that? A lot of things. One of the best female lead performances in a genre film (or in general actually) this year by Essie Davis, who takes on the role of a single mother trying to deal with the death of her husband, an unruly son, and the dark presence lurking in her home. The best part might be its pitch perfect understanding that the most horrifying things aren't headline-worthy serial killers, rather they're casual thoughts that enter your mind on a near-daily basis. It's a film with a stunning and distinct visual style (reminiscent of many silent classics without the B&W photography of her short Monster), which isn't exactly something many horror films can boast, and it's definitely a must see for any fan of the genre.
2. Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
It's weird to admit that Obvious Child has become a sort of comfort film to me over multiple watches. To think that something billed as the first abortion rom-com would become that is kind of baffling, but it's all thanks to just how incredibly charming the film is from start to finish. Whether she's on an uncomfortable date, hanging out with her friends, or on stage performing stand-up Jenny Slate is impossible to take your eyes off of. She's a hilarious and charismatic lead, only emphasized by just how solid Robespierre's script is - even if she throws in a scene or two that aren't quite necessary. It's a bold little romantic comedy and one I wouldn't mind watching over and over for years to come.
1. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)
To say Selma is one of the best, if not the best, films made this year by a woman would be an understatement. It's one of the best films made this year period. Ava DuVernay's Martin Luther King biopic, which tells of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, is a film that's inspiring, outstanding, and most importantly, relevant as all hell. And it even marks the first time a woman of color has been nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes.
For all the great that King did in the past, Selma depicts a world that's scarily familiar to exactly what black individuals are living with right now. The comparisons to what's going on in Ferguson and across the country are impossible to deny, so much so that the credits song by John Legend and Common, "Glory", names the place itself. It's a film that doesn't shy away from the reality of King's situation, not showing him as a flawless individual, but rather a flawed man with determination. More importantly, it shows all the death, corruption of police and government, and the peaceful protesting that made the civil rights movement such a tense and important time. And once you watch Selma, you'll realize there was never a man as perfect to play Martin Luther King as David Oyelowo.
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