My Favorite Films of 2020 Directed by Women
2020 was a rough year for movies in general. Outside of film critic and cinephile circles, I can’t think of a single movie that captured the imagination of a lot of people who aren’t as rabid about film as I am. But even the crap year that 2020 was had a silver lining: the abundance of films directed by women and people of color. If even half the films that came out last year had come out in theaters and reached bigger audiences, it would have been seen as a true sea change. At the very least, I can recommend some of the ones that really struck a chord with me.
10 Never Sometimes Rarely Always (dir. Eliza HIttmann)
Regardless of your stance on pro-life vs. pro-choice, anyone can relate to the labyrinthine bureaucracy that Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) must navigate to get an abortion and just how heavily the decision weighs on her. It is deliberately muted for much of its runtime to reflect the frustration and almost existential dread that the protagonist faces, but the big moment when she finally breaks is unexpected and devastating and provides more insight to this broken system and its dehumanizing effect than countless documentaries could.
Available for online rental and Streaming on HBO Max
9 Quo Vadis, Aida (dir. Jasmila Zbanic)
I will admit that the Bosnian genocide was something that was limited to “grownup news” when it was happening in the 90s, but Quo Vadis, Aida brings this devastating war to life, amazingly, without graphic violence and restricting itself to one location, a refugee camp. Jasna Duncic plays Aida, a UN translator, who tries to save herself and her family after the Bosnian Serb army take over the city of Srebrenica. If you actually know what happened in Srebrenica, then this movie takes on an even greater urgency than what is already onscreen. Duncic should have been in the running for Best Actress because the movie hinges on her desperation and profound decency and makes the story hit even harder.
Available for online rental and streaming on Hulu
8 Lingua Franca (dir. Isabel Sandoval)
Perhaps no one could be more vulnerable than a transgender, undocumented woman of color and indeed, Lingua Franca mines this tension while also telling a tender yet complicated love story between Olivia (Sandoval) and Alex (Eamon Farren). There is also a profound empathy for all the characters, even when they are straight men acting badly, and Sandoval makes her character… a character. She is vulnerable but strong. She is a dutiful daughter but also a sensual woman with desire. Her film is just one of many convincing arguments that films about minorities need to actually be made by minorities.
Streaming on Netflix
7 The Half of It (dir. Alice Wu)
This Cyrano de Bergerac story set in high school in the rural Northwest is an immigrant, queer, coming of age film, but also a fun teen romantic comedy that manages to avoid a lot of the traps of this genre. Paul (Daniel Diemer), a jock, asks Ellie (Leah Lewis, a top student who is known for making money by doing other people’s homework for them, to help him woo a girl (Alexxis Lemire) who is out of his league intellectually. Though the general storyline is predictable, we see other unlikely stories evolve, such as Paul striking up a friendship with Ellie’s dad (Collin Chou) and Ellie slowly coming out of her shell, when she had been so driven to just get out of her podunk town. Alice Wu’s last film was over ten years ago, but I wish she had had the opportunity to make more films because she could have been the fresh jolt that the romantic comedy genre needed so badly.
Streaming on Netflix
6 Birds of Prey (dir. Cathy Yan)
Dare I say that DC films are slowly starting to grow on me. Marvel movies follow a template and that is their strength because they know exactly how to cater to mass audiences, but it also means that their movies can feel samey even with different directors at the helm. With DC, it’s much more of a crapshoot, but I’ve actually enjoyed the films that had distinct voices - Shazam, Aquaman, and now Birds of Prey. It’s certainly one of the most colorful movies, but also one that gives each character their own style of dress, fighting, etc. Plus, it’s pretty obviously directed by a woman since not even once does Harley Quinn or any other woman here feels like they’re being leered at. This film actually made me excited for future films set in this particular version of the DC Universe.
5 Time (dir. Garrett Bradley)
What stood out to me the most about this documentary was the quiet heroism of Sibil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich). Seeing how she not only raised her children while her husband was imprisoned for twenty years is a reminder that real heroism takes hard work and a lot of thankless, soul-crushing work. Yet Fox Rich also found time to be an activist against the prison system and an inspirational speaker. Garrett Bradley and her team beautifully interweave old footage taken from Rich’s own home videos with the modern story of Rich preparing for her husband’s return home. The movie is definitely a scathing criticism of the American prison system but it is couched very specifically in a human story about its other, forgotten victims - the family of the imprisoned.
Streaming on Amazon Prime
4 Babyteeth (dir. Shannon Murphy)
Babyteeth kept surprising me. Eliza Scanlen transitions from playing one famously sick person (Beth in 2019’s Little Women) to another sick person. This time she is a teen with terminal cancer. Cancer films can be notoriously maudlin and romanticized, but Babyteeth takes a hard left when Scanlen’s character becomes romantically involved with a drug dealer. The story keeps taking hard lefts as the boyfriend actually finds some acceptance with her parents (the excellent Essie Davis and Ben Mendelssohn). Babyteeth manages to be uncomfortable yet funny, especially when we see the normally liberal parents trying to understand their daughter’s pain while being uncomfortable with her reckless actions. Scanlen creates a memorable character in Milla in a movie that is idiosyncratic in its style and storytelling.
Available for online rental and streaming on Hulu
3 Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennell)
This would have been the film that could have stirred up so much controversy if more non-cinephile people had seen it. It’s already sparked fierce debate among everyone, even women critics who were victims of sexual abuse. For me personally, I admired its colorful aesthetic that clashed (and complemented) the dark material and Carey Mulligan’s performance. Mulligan has shown great range in not just her choice of roles but within her roles itself and here she has to play calculating and tough yet also vulnerable and hurt. I honestly think I got more from the discussions and reviews I read about this film, and I think just for that reason, this film deserves to be remembered for years to come.
Available for online rental
2 Saint Maud (dir. Rose Glass)
A film that I think (or at least hope) could really be remembered long after this season is over. I was kind of astounded that it took place in the modern day since it so expertly hails back to the tradition of older styles of horror. (It was only when Jennifer Ehle's character mentioned finding someone "online" that it clicked.) It's religious horror from an intensely personal point of view and a film that both respects the power of religion yet also criticizes it as an avenue of potentially harboring delusion rather than alleviating it. Morfydd Clark is so commanding in a really difficult role that requires her to be both self-righteous yet also traumatized.
Streaming on Hulu
1 First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
This Western (or, I guess, Pacific NorthWestern) features the gentlest heist I have ever seen, and a lovely portrait of a male friendship that is characterized by genuine care and the simple need to have enough to survive. It says plenty about capitalist society without blaring it to the rooftops. It also provides a gentle yet firm rebuke of the whitewashing and overmasculinization of American history. If anyone could make the Western a relevant form of film again (its influence has certainly not gone away) then it’s Reichardt with her unique viewpoint.
Available for online purchase