My Top Ten Films by Female Directors of 2019
Leading up to the 2020 Academy Awards, I look back on 2019, which has widely been regarded as one of the best years in movie history.
The Academy yet again failed to recognize any female filmmakers in the best director category though there was no lack of talent to choose from. The last time a female filmmaker was nominated was Greta Gerwig for her debut feature Lady Bird in 2017, yet the Academy didn't give her a well-deserved nomination for Little Women this year. Best Director is a competitive field and only about 300 people vote for the nominations, which means there will be a ton of overlap, which tends to consist of established filmmakers, nearly always White and male. It’s not like this year was the rise of the female director either. Last year, I did a top ten like this and I would have been happy to call those films my favorites of the year, and the same goes for this year. Honestly, the Academy doesn’t deserve these brilliant filmmakers, but too many people pay attention to the Oscars for anyone to completely dismiss them, so here’s my small contribution to shine a light on some of the best films of this year.
Honorable Mentions: Booksmart, The Nightingale, Wild Nights with Emily, Tigers Are Not Afraid
Directed by Mati Diop
Mati Diop has a considerable pedigree that she is associated with, as the niece of Djibril Diop Mambety, the director of the world classic Touki Bouki, and also appearing in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum. So maybe it’s not surprising that Atlantics, her first full-length feature, is an astonishing work of great originality. Set in Senegal, a group of construction workers on a big, modern office building have not been paid for months, so they decide to try their fortune overseas. Soulemain leaves behind Ada, who is betrothed to another man but loves Soulemain. The men are lost at sea, and soon, a mysterious illness starts to strike down people as, it turns out, the souls of the dead men are inhabiting the bodies of the people they left behind. It’s just as scathing an indictment of capitalism and colonialism as many “serious” movies, but it’s also deeply weird and moving in a fascinating way. Mati Diop has a great visual sense, especially with how she conveys the more fantastic elements of her story in simple ways. Yet she also can direct her actors with great care and draw wonderfully subtle performances from them.
9. High Life
Directed by Claire Denis
If you had told me that Claire Denis would make a prison movie in space with Robert Pattinson playing a convict and Juliette Binoche playing a mad scientist, I would have said, so what’s new? Less flippantly, Denis is one of the few directors who always surprises me with every single film she makes, no question. She takes genre tropes or common storytelling mechanisms and finds new way to express them or even question them in the filmmaking themselves. I never thought a movie in space would be so wet and dirty, with all kinds of bodily fluids coming out of people. It’s as if she’s making a science fiction Dogme film, yet somehow less precious and also much more soulful and questioning about the relationship between people and how they are far more than simply their usefulness to others.
8. Honey Boy
Directed by Alma Ha’rel
I surely must not have been alone at scoffing at the idea of Shia LaBeouf making a film based on his life in which he plays his own father. Yet rather than self-serving hagiography or pity porn, it’s a searingly honest examination of his life (lightly fictionalized) with a self-awareness and empathy than one would not have expected from his public persona. I don’t doubt that LaBeouf was talented enough to write the script for this film, but I think Alma Ha’rel’s studied compositions and dynamic imagery are crucial for this story unfolding as compellingly as it does. Just look at the first scene when Lucas Hedges (playing the older LaBeouf stand-in) is attached to a rig and then suddenly pulled back in what is clearly a Transformers substitute. Or how much is going on in the scenes between LaBeouf and his younger stand-in (the fantastic Noah Jupe). Those scenes remain dynamic and interesting without being showy. Ha’rel is clearly the important collaborator LaBeouf needed.
Directed by Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov
A documentary about Macedonian beekeepers may seem like a parody of an alienating choice made by an elitist, but anyone who’s seen Honeyland knows how far this is from the truth. The subject of Honeyland, Haditze Muratova, is a garrulous, warm woman who lives a hard life tending her bees, climbing high rocky paths daily to make her living. The crew for this film filmed her for three years, in which she befriends then is alienated from the Sam family, who quickly encroach on her livelihood. Yet the Sam family suffers their own share of hardships as well. The creators of Honeyland may have taken liberties in crafting their narrative, as all documentarians do to the some extent, but it is so beautifully shot that one can hardly breathe when beholding the beautiful sunsets, the stark compositions inside the inky blackness of Haditze’s house, and the harsh, chaotic life of the Sam family. No wonder this was nominated for both Best Documentary and Best International Feature at the Academy Awards.
Directed by Beyonce
This concert film has to be considered on the same level of Stop Making Sense or Sign o’ the Times. Beyonce’s great gift is to make any material profoundly her own, and her imprints are all over this glorious, two hour celebration of her music, Black culture, family, etc. The Beyhive may be intimidating in its unshakable conviction on the greatness of their queen, but they have a goddamn point when Lemonade is clearly one of the greatest albums of the decade and when we consider how impactful her presence in mainstream American culture has been.
5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Directed by Marielle Heller
Mr. Rogers strangely has mostly a supporting role in this film, but I think that was for the best. A straightforward biopic of a preternaturally kind man would have gotten boring really fast, and there had already been an excellent documentary covering the same topic. Yet hearing Mr. Rogers give advice and, more importantly, really listen to the reporter at the center of this movie, fulfills a kind of fantasy that few people got to experience in real life. This beautifully sincere film is childlike in its presentation, but it is no less sharp and skillful as Marielle Heller’s previous work who is able to tell deeply empathetic stories without sanding off the edges of any of her characters or filmmaking.
4. Blinded by the Light
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
As an Asian man with a more creative bent than most, I remember having the exact same, heated conversations that Javed has in this movie with his dad about his writing career. How the cultural barrier between us seemed insurmountable. Bruce Springsteen may not have been the catalyst, but the Beats, Salinger, Vonnegut, the Beatles inspired the same fervor in me that Springsteen does for the film’s main character. Chadha captures so well a picture of a youth that many of us once were that this movie resonated with me to the base of my soul and made me remember the youthful passion that has diminished over time. It’s not a perfect movie and there are definitely quite a few cheesy moments, but Chadha bottled lightning as far as I am concerned.
3. The Farewell
Directed by Lulu Wang
The real genius of this film is how it reveals how so much of what we do and say is predicated on lies. When those lies are old and practiced enough, it becomes tradition, culture, the norm, whatever you can call it. This is a real American story, despite what some voting bodies would think, in that being American is about having your identity constantly challenged, just like Billi’s is when she is faced with a family decision that she has no context for and struggles to understand. Many Americans resist this challenge, and it manifests as politely willful ignorance at its best and xenophobia and racism at its worst. The Farewell has a much more measured view of the situation, but it also has a profoundly human heart at its center.
2. LIttle Women
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig successfully made this the right Little Women for the moment and for many moments after its initial run. Some of the stronger aspects of this adaptation are that more attention is devoted to each sister so that each are fleshed out far beyond their archetypes. The constant switching between the past and the present brings out themes from the novel, which may not have been obvious when read in the chronological order in which they are presented. The greatest beneficiary of this treatment is definitely Florence Pugh’s Amy, who has, unfairly, been cursed by many readers as the eternal villain to the fearlessly independent Jo. Pugh plays Amy so well in all aspects; she is by far the funniest character, yet she manages to invoke the pathos of her character and the limits of her social mobility as well. Gerwig also manages to infuse the story with the modern struggle of women who must always fight to be taken seriously and resist being taken advantage of, yet she never loses the appeal of this story for the sake of moralizing. This is how to do a literary adaptation of classic material.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Celine Sciamma
Few movies really capture the nature of romance like Portrait of a Lady on Fire does. How romance is your image of the other person, and how sweetly that image is broken when your love is reciprocated and how cruelly lovely it is when someone lets you tear down your facade and reveal you for who you are. The fact that this is between two women is both incidental and crucial. Crucial in that their romance must be coded, beautifully coded with looks and loaded language. Incidental in that the depth of their passion for each other cuts through cultural and language barriers. It’s both transgressive yet gloriously old-fashioned and how Sciamma looks forward to the future while mining so heavily from the past is the crowning achievement of this film.