2019 was an exceptional year for women in front of and behind the camera. Exceptional, in part, because films made by talented female filmmakers found their way to the screen, whether big or small, and were backed up and supported by film lovers like never before. That is both exciting and a little bit depressing. Still, if 2019 is a portent of things to come, it’s a great sign that women in film are actually making inroads towards parity, that they might get hired to film more big budget, studio releases, and might also get more and more funding from places like Netflix, Amazon, and other alternate platforms. Let’s all hope this content bubble lasts long enough to create names for these amazing artists. Let’s also cross our fingers that audiences will show up in greater numbers than they did for wonderful, worthy films like Booksmart and Late Night. Getting the word out is absolutely key.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of great narrative features, along with a few wonderful documentaries, released in US theaters in 2019, in the hopes you will make an effort to seek them out. They are not only worthy of your time, but several may become longterm favorites. They are not listed in order of preference, although it’s no secret to those who know me that Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Nightingale, Tigers Are Not Afraid, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood are films I believe deserve awards attention, whether they’ve gotten it or not. Many have links to my reviews, or to the blurbs created as part of the Movie of the Week (#MOTW) or my interviews with filmmakers. Let me know if you’ve seen any of these! Here’s to an even more spectacular year for women in film in 2020!
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (written and directed by Céline Sciamma), about a young artist (Noemi Merlant) sent to a remote island tasked with clandestinely painting a portrait of a reluctant bride-to-be (Adele Haenel), is an intoxicating love story between two young women straining from societal expectations. Not only is the love story completely compelling, the powerful characters and the environments in which they interact, for queer and straight viewers alike, are the stuff of feminist dreams. (Opening wide in the US February 14th, 2020)
The Nightingale (written and directed by Jennifer Kent) is a revenge film the likes of which you’ve never seen, from the auteur filmmaker who brought you The Babadook. Lead actor Aisling Franciosi proves she’s a talent to be reckoned with as an Irish convict in 1925 Tasmania bent on killing those responsible for the violence and murder that led to the death of her family. She is aided by an Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) with whom she forges a mutual bond. The cinematography is gorgeous, and even if the story is full of difficult scenes, they are constructed from the female perspective, one which has never been voiced in quite this way before on film. (Now streaming on Hulu.)
Tigers Are Not Afraid (written and directed by Issa Lopez) has a fantastical quality that weaves through its blend of horror and dark coming-of-age tales of Estrella (Paola Lara) who navigates street life with a missing mother in urban Mexico. She encounters a band of homeless boys, and together they try to evade drug cartels out to kill them, all while the specters of the dead whisper to her. Are they aiding her or leading her to her doom? This movie is raw, magical, and moving. (Now streaming on Shudder.)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (directed by Marielle Heller) is yet another example of the Academy et al snubbing one of the best directorial performances, this time in 2019. She was also largely ignored for her work as director of 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Tom Hanks co-stars as Fred Rogers in a film about forgiveness and compassion, for ourselves and others. Heller’s work is masterful here, not least in the way she makes room for communication, trusting the screenplay and the actors to bring the emotional truth of the story to life. (still in theaters)
Clemency (written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu) In some of lead Alfre Woodard’s best work, the actor plays a prison warden struggling with playing a part in capital punishment, especially as it relates to an inmate of questionable guilt. That inmate is played by Aldis Hodge, who absolutely deserves to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
The Farewell (written and directed by Lulu Wang) not only further raises actor Awkwafina’s stock, it gives us all a look into the lives of one Chinese family, as they cope with the impending death of their matriarch, Nai Nai. Based on a true story, it goes from funny to bittersweet, sad, awkward, and back to funny, often within one scene.
Booksmart (directed by Olivia Wilde) is a delight from the first words uttered by co-leads Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, which is about two straight-laced high school students who aim to misbehave on the eve of their graduation. The screenplay and portrayals by Dever, Feldstein, and their supporting cast only get better with repeated viewing. It should have be seen more on its initial release, but no doubt time will do it justice, and make it the coming of age feminist classic it deserves to be. (Now streaming on Hulu)
Atlantics (written and directed by Mati Diop) Beautifully dressed in the finery of a love story, where visceral feelings and a pervasively languid visual language wash over you like warm summer waves, Atlantics entrances its audience while giving voice to issues of economic disparity, gender inequality, and the destructive nature of colonialism. (Now streaming on Netflix)
Honey Boy (directed by Alma Har’el) surprises both fans and detractors of Shia LaBeouf with his insightful writing and portrayal of his own alcoholic, narcissistic father, and Har’el captures his truth on film in this uncomfortable, funny, and sometimes uncomfortably funny examination of childhood trauma.
Queen & Slim (directed by Melina Matsoukas) will break your heart but soothe it as well, all within a story about racism, fear, and love. Queen and Slim, two (unnamed) people of color who meet on a date go on the run after a stop by a racist cop goes wrong. They fall for each other while trying to stay alive and becoming cult heroes.
Blinded by the Light (written and directed by Gurinda Chadha) To write a story that takes place 20 miles from London at the height of 80s anti-immigrant hate about a would-be writer Pakistani boy who falls in love with and is inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen and have it be so utterly charming, optimistic, and, at its core, devoid of cynicism, is a miracle that needs to be seen.
Frozen 2 (written and co-directed by Jennifer Lee) This movie is so much witchier than its predecessor! The whole story revolves around the 5 elements and the power Elsa must harness to come into alignment with them. It will probably sit at the top of the very short list of “Pagan Films released by Disney” forever.
Late Night (directed by Nisha Ganatra) More a strongly femme Broadcast News and less The Devil Wears Prada, new comedy Late Night offers a look at the challenges of working on a comedy talk show while female, and to hilarious effect. Written by Mindy Kaling and starring Kaling and Patron Saint of Smart Women in Film Emma Thompson, the female gaze is all over this cast and crew, and it shows.
Always Be My Maybe (Directed by Nahhatchka Khan) Netflix leans into the belief that rom-coms are viable, especially when they feature a diverse cast. There should be plenty of romantics and lovers of great comedy who will be here for it. Co-written by Ali Wong, the film stars Wong and Randall Park as childhood friends Sasha and Marcus, who meet and grow close again as adults, and there are lots of interesting characters and laugh-out-loud moments to be had.
Rafiki (written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu) is a lyrical love story about two teenage girls and first-time lovers who face judgement and bigotry, which has led to significant changes in its country of origin. In 2018, Kahiu discovered her film was going to premiere at Cannes Film Festival, a first for Kenya. Meanwhile, in her own country, where anyone found engaging in same-sex sexual activities can face up to 14 years in prison, the Kenyan Film Board banned Rafiki, for what it said was “legitimizing lesbianism”. After the Kenyan Supreme Court sided with Kahiu, the film was shown to sold out audiences everywhere it played. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
Rust Creek (directed by Jen McGowan) Watching this suspenseful escape thriller, a realization dawns at how rare it is to see a capable, strong everywoman work her way through a dangerous situation that has put her very life at risk. College-bound Sawyer Scott gets lost on the back roads of Kentucky, only to be chased into the wilderness by two men planning to cause her harm. (Now streaming on Netflix)
Abominable (written and co-directed by Jill Culton) features a lost child Yeti being taken home to the Himalayans by 3 plucky teens. The sweetness and charm of the relationships and the gorgeous Chinese landscape that was the result of lots of research come together to make it a creative, fun, and original animated feature.
High Life (co-written and directed by Claire Denis) Who that loves film doesn’t want to see science fiction and space ‘Denis-ed’, and in English? The filmmaker brings her curiosity about the value of life, and the ambiguity and subjective understanding of parenthood, sexuality, and gender to a film starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. What more do you need to know? (Now streaming online)
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé As if she needs to excel at absolutely everything, Beyonce has created a concert documentary of her own performance so inspiring, spirited, and thrilling, we can only watch it in awe. The superstar takes the world through the black experience, exposing everyone to the African-American culture through dance, performance, and sheer force of will. You don’t have to be a fan of hers to marvel at colossal undertaking that is Homecoming. (Streaming on Netflix)
For Sama (co-directed by Waad Al-Kateab) is an intensely emotional and visceral film co-directed by Syrian journalist Al-Khateab that will likely stay with audiences far beyond the viewing of it, possibly even for a lifetime. It is a chronicle of Waad’s daily life during the uprising in Aleppo. Dedicated to her daughter Sama, it is meant to convey the complicated experience of balancing being both a parent and a freedom fighter. (Watch on Frontline’s YouTube channel HERE. )
One Child Nation (Co-directed by Nanfu Wang and Jianling Zhang) The filmmakers say they created this film, which is banned in China, to counter the inevitable propaganda bent on changing China’s history books and collective cultural memory about its longstanding policy. Part investigative journalism and part personal history, and it is a valuable record of one country’s disastrous social experiment. (Streaming on Amazon)
Making Waves (written and directed by Midge Costin) Though Costin highlights some of the most important contributors to sound in film throughout history, many of whom are men, she also shines a light on the many women who are part of the industry, as well. Viewers can’t help but be educated and entertained, and will have a new appreciation for one aspect below the line in film. (At screenings across the country)
Knock Down the House (directed by Rachel Lears) follows four female candidates as they run for office for the first time, without the use of corporate donations. The documentary features a diverse group of women, including now-famous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin. Vilela, a passionate advocate for better health care, was driven to enter politics when a preventable family tragedy reinforced her belief that the health care system in the US is broken. (Streaming on Netflix)