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2018 Recap - Best Films by Female Directors (2018)

This post was originally scheduled for Sunday, but the Academy Award nominations dropped today, and I found them more out of touch than usual. The two most problematic big movies of 2018 were nominated for Best Picture (Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book). Ethan Hawke was snubbed big time for one of the most lauded performances of the year. South Korea remains without a single nomination even as Burning was so widely acclaimed. But the biggest snub would have to be the lack of a single female director recognized in that category. The only one who came kind of close was Marielle Heller for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, with nominations for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant (both well-deserved), but nothing for her. My 2018 resolution to watch more films by female directors and writers included some of the best movies of 2018, and if I, who am not in the film industry in any way, can recognize how great they are, then the Academy could have easily done so too. So here are my favorites in ascending order.

10) Private Life, dir. Tamara Jenkins, starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti

It took me a while to get into this movie since I found the character played by Kayli Carter so annoying and entitled but then I realized that was kind of the point. Trying to get pregnant can be a difficult and emotionally draining process, and this movie certainly shows that aspect, but it is also imbued with sharp humor about relationships and youth. Kathryn Hahn also delivers possibly the best performance I have ever seen her give in her career, and I always thinks she’s great, though I have really only seen her in comic roles.

9) Shirkers dir. Sandi Tan

The main appeal of this documentary about a young Singaporean woman trying to make an independent movie with her friends but ends us getting the footage stolen by her mentor is the camaraderie between Tan and her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique. The documentary kind of fell into the pattern I have seen of many documentaries, which is to make it a whodunit, but the way that Jasmine calls Tan an asshole is just priceless.

8) Leave No Trace dir. Debra Granik, starring Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster

Debra Granik basically set Jennifer Lawrence on the path to stardom with 2010’s Winter Bone, and I think Thomasin McKenzie is also being set on this path in this film about Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter (McKenzie) who live in the wilderness as a result of Will’s inability to be part of civilization for long, most likely due to PTSD. It’s easy to miss Granik’s influence but the performances that she is able to get out of these two and the way that she depicts the natural environment in its beauty and terror is matched only by a few.

7) The Rider dir. Chloe Zhao, starring Brady Jandreau

A movie of great empathy and soulfulness, which only could have been made by someone who really knew the people depicted. Though it is a narrative feature, The Rider flirts with documentary since Brady Jandreau really did suffer a rodeo accident in real life and Zhao also cast his real family and Jandreau’s friends. A lot of modern directors are inspired by Terrence Malick, but Zhao may have proven herself to be the best just with the scene where Jandreau is taming a horse. The way that the sunlight envelops the scene and the gentle but firm way Jandreau handles the horse is one of the most striking images of the year.

6) Zama dir. Lucrecia Martel, starring Daniel Gimenez Cacho

The colonization of the Americas is a rich subject for exploration, and Lucrecia Martel, the master of ripping apart social mores, brings her sharp eye to this subject. Zama (Cacho) slowly falls apart as he waits for his long-desired furlough in a foreign land. Continentalism is held up to a harsh light and the Creoles and colonizers become slowly more comic and grotesque as the heat and the environment gets to them. It’s a fascinating taken on a period of history that is either ignored or, worse, romanticized.

5) Can You Ever Forgive Me? dir. Marielle Heller, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant

I was predisposed to love this movie because I like literary movies about writers. Melissa McCarthy as writer is so acidic and antisocial, yet she is so funny, especially when she interacts with her drug dealer friend Jack (Richard E. Grant). It’s ultimately a dour character study, but Melissa McCarthy and Marielle Heller make Israel compelling and even the act of writing interesting, though writing is decidedly the least cinematic art form possible.

4) The Tale dir. Jennifer Fox, starring Laura Dern, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki

This movie about a filmmaker trying to get to the bottom of her sexual abuse at a young age is twisty and complicated, much like Fox’s own struggle to come to terms with what happened to her. Laura Dern gives a criminally underrated performance as a woman strongly in denial but slowly trying to reconcile with a horrible trauma. It was not well-served by its basically HBO-only release, but anyone who is concerned with the safety of women, young or otherwise, in this MeToo era needs to see this.

3) Revenge dir. Coralie Fargeat, starring Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz

The most badass tale of female empowerment and one gnarly-ass action picture with some graphic violence, yet some seriously gratifying moments as Jennifer (Lutz) miraculously survives being left for dead after she was raped by her rich boyfriends’ henchmen. Despite he wish-fulfillment aspect of this film, it’s very much grounded in reality and the climax is tense as all hell and incredibly tactile.

2) Madeline’s Madeline dir. Josephine Decker, starring Helena Howard, Miranda July and Molly Parker

Helena Howard stars as Madeline, a preternaturally talented young actress, which is not at all a stretch for her. Hers was easily the best performance I have seen from any young actor this year, but even film critics and cinephiles missed out on this movie. A film about a young actor in an avant-garde theater troupe who is dealing with a crippling mental illness is certainly a hard sell, but this film is so daring and weird and takes some huge swings, especially in the climax, that it demands to be checked out. Josephine Decker has always been an interesting director and while I didn’t care too much for her earlier films, there is definitely a lot of style and a unique, very female perspective on unique stories.

1) You Were Never Really Here dir. Lynn Shelton, starring Joaquin Phoenix

Even if this film superficially represents something like Taxi Driver, or other Paul Schrader penned or inspired works, this film couldn’t be far from it. It is definitely the least glamorous movie about a hitman that I have ever seen. The time that Shelton spends on just showing broken physically and mentally Joaquin Phoenix’s character is already distinguishes this movie, and the film as a whole has a much more ambiguous view on Phoenix’s actions than many male-directed movies would be. It’s just as dark and brooding as those works are but so much of this film is about seeing this man’s vulnerability as opposed to his bravado.

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