This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer spotlights great 2021 movies directed by women.
Here’s something cool: from 2019 to 2020, the percentage of top-grossing movies directed by women increased significantly! Here’s something less cool: that significant increase was from 12 percent of all top-grossing films to 16 percent. It’s historic, yet it’s still an impossibly small piece of the industry pie.
I made the first of these lists several years ago because statistics like those made me realize moviegoers could probably go a whole year without even watching a movie made by a woman, and that sucks. I suppose that’s not necessarily true anymore. Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland won three Oscars last year. And a small handful of this year’s major tentpole releases, including Black Widow, The Matrix Resurrections, and Eternals, had a woman in the director’s chair.
Still, progress towards gender equity in Hollywood is incremental at best, and the discourse around the issue hasn’t caught up to reality. None of the research about gender equity behind the camera seems to include statistics about non-binary and genderqueer directors, despite evidence that they exist and are making great films. The conversation about gender diversity in the filmmaking industry has to push forward. Good art won’t wait for Hollywood to get its shit together.
While not every person reading this can change the state of the industry, every movie fan can put in a little effort to make their viewing habits more inclusive. You’re all but guaranteed to find some new favorite films along the way. We’ll even help you get started. Here are 15 of the year’s best movies directed by women.
Nia DaCosta’s new vision of a boogeyman who embodies inter-generational racial trauma is a potent cinematic concoction. This Candyman is a direct sequel to the 1992 horror classic of the same name. It skillfully continues conversations the first movie started while opening up a whole host of new ones. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as a Black artist whose work becomes influenced by his visions of the titular urban legend. This new take on a familiar tale is hypnotic and unnerving. Candyman spins a tightly wound web of dream-like memories and legends that morph into harsh realities.
This horror movie by filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond takes place during the “Video Nasty” era of British cinema. During this period in the 1980s, gritty exploitation flicks were pulled from shelves over fears of inciting real-life violence. Straight-laced Enid (Niamh Algar) is a censor tasked with sifting through the goriest and gnarliest footage imaginable to decide whether it should be seen by the public. This is already largely untrodden narrative territory. But throw in the fact that Enid’s sister went missing during childhood in a situation that’s mirrored in one of the movies she watches, and the result is a unique, tension-soaked nightmare worth sinking into.
CODA is a heartwarming family drama for the type of person who usually hates heartwarming family dramas. Sian Heder’s film follows a high schooler named Ruby (Emilia Rossi) who is the only hearing member of her immediate family. And she is growing tired of interpreting for her parents and brother, but it is an essential part of their fishing business.
Ruby also harbors a secret interest in singing, one that her family has a hard time getting on board with. CODA is grounded and funny, and it sets itself apart with a talented cast. Daniel Durant and Marlee Matlin are excellent as Ruby’s brother and mother, but Troy Kotsur steals the show as her gruff, overly-blunt dad.
The Fear Street Trilogy
Leigh Janiak dropped not one but three great movies this year, each of them totally different from the last. The Fear Street Trilogy, which is based on a series of R.L. Stine books, is an excellent genre introduction for young horror fans. Thanks to its creative kills and scrappy misfit characters, it’s also entertaining enough for viewers of all ages.
These movies tell the story of a town cursed by Sarah Fier, whose spirit haunts residents and turns them into killers. Fear Street: 1994 is a nostalgic high school story with Wes Craven’s Scream in its DNA, while Fear Street: 1978 is a classic summer camp-set slasher. The final entry, Fear Street: 1666, is a Puritan-era saga that reveals the origins of the woman who started it all. Netflix made a smart move by releasing them all consecutively, week-after-week, last July, cultivating watercooler conversations and effectively inventing the summer of Fear Street.
Introducing, Selma Blair
This painfully honest documentary follows actress Selma Blair from the early days of her Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis through her risky stem cell treatment. It chronicles her everyday struggles and joys, plus moments of silliness and significance. Blair has the personality of a total star; she’s prone to comedic extravagance and faux-melodrama, but she also wears every genuine emotion on her sleeve.
It hurts to see someone openly sob about the idea of their own mortality, but for anyone who has ever done the same, it helps to see it, too. Blair’s story isn’t just about MS; it’s also about the emotional wounds she’s received from her mother, and the great lengths she goes to, even during the hardest time of her life, not to pass them down to her own son. Rarely has a documentary ever felt this raw.
Continue reading this list of great 2021 movies directed by women on the next page…
Related Topics: 2021 Rewind