Anyone who claims 2018 was a bad year for film clearly hasn’t seen enough movies directed by women. This year, a few well-deserving women-made projects have leaped over the indie wall and into the mainstream cultural conversation, while major studios have signed deals with women filmmakers that will hopefully lead to an influx of exciting new projects in the years to come. Meanwhile, there are dozens of lesser-known independent films directed by women that are worth seeking out, among them some of the best the year has to offer. Leave No Trace and You Were Never Really Here have proven themselves awards contenders with recent critics’ circle wins, while female-directed studio projects unfortunately still failed to crack the U.S. box office top 25.
On a personal note, this was the first year that I attempted to watch one female-directed film per week for the #52FilmsByWomen project. At publication time, I’ve seen 65 films with women at the helm this year, and can attest that reaching past what studios make easily available, putting in the extra work to find films that are representative of the world’s real demographics, has been an incredibly worthwhile practice. You don’t realize the importance of the on-screen perspective you’re missing until you finally have it, even if that perspective is your own.
Below, check out 18 of the best women-directed movies from 2018, plus an extra credit list for those who want to go above and beyond.
Free Solo (directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)
As a documentary, Free Solo feels as extreme as its title sport–mountain and cliff climbing done exclusively without gear. The film was clearly tough to make, as acknowledged in meta scenes during which filmmakers contemplate the reality that one distraction from them could result in climber Alex Honnold falling to his death. The result, though, is stunning. More an event than a movie, Free Solo is a vertigo-inducing, pulse-pounding attempt to capture the thrills Hannold experiences when he courts death through risky climbs. His attempted opus, a gearless climb of El Capitan’s sheer 3000-foot cliff face, is captured with all the fear and intensity expected, even as Honnold remains exhaustingly unshaken.
Where to watch: In theaters
I Am Not a Witch (directed by Rungano Nyoni)
A Zambian-set satire about modern-day witchcraft, Nyoni’s BAFTA-winning debut feature is a strange and satisfying cocktail of humor, magic, and spirit. In it a quiet young girl named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is accused of witchcraft and, failing to defend her reputation, is sent to a camp for other so-called witches. The women are a community of sorts, but they’re also tied down by long, flowing ribbons which bisect them, and they’re forced to do hard work. Shula, meanwhile, is ogled by tourists and VIPs who hope to get a glimpse of a witch and instead find a scared girl. There’s no reason a story that’s so uber-specific should work, but with Nyoni’s eye for arresting visuals and Mulubwa’s pint-sized, deadpan talent, it still does.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon
The Kindergarten Teacher (directed by Sara Colangelo)
Maggie Gyllenhaal has perfected the obsessive eye glint. In The Deuce, her character turns it toward filmmaking projects, but in Colangelo’s suspenseful drama, her protagonist has a more corruptible target. Gyllenhaal’s titular teacher Mrs. Spinelli becomes preoccupied early in the film with a precocious student who seems to be a poet at the tender age of five. She regards him not with a predatory eye, but a jealous one–as if by getting closer to the child she will somehow absorb his uniqueness into herself. As boundaries are crossed and Mrs. Spinelli’s relationship with the student becomes increasingly uncomfortable, viewers realize that the film is going in a different and more complex direction than expected. Does an adult’s purity of intention matter if their impact on a child is negative? That’s the dark question at the heart of this riveting drama.
Where to watch: Netflix
Leave No Trace (directed by Debra Granik)
PTSD is the unnamed villain that chases a stoic father (Ben Foster) and daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) out of civilization and through the wilderness in Leave No Trace. Their life spent in a tent in the dreary Oregon woods has a certain rhythm to it, their routines infused with easy familiarity so that when they’re caught and forced into the housing system, it feels less like a rescue than a punishment. McKenzie and Foster are a captivating duo, him simmering with restless anxiety and her clearly tempering her expectations on his behalf. As an outdoor odyssey set in an unforgiving landscape, this is a sort of companion piece to Granik’s previous film Winter’s Bone, although this time around there’s hope hanging in the quiet, wild air.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play
Let the Sunshine In (directed by Claire Denis)
Denis’ latest is about as French in its sensibilities as a film can get. Juliette Binoche stars as Isabelle, a divorced artist with a rotating lineup of lovers, each more disappointing and demanding than the last. Let the Sunshine In is charming, elegantly executed, and romantic at heart as it follows Isabelle through moments of passionate infatuation and heavy-sigh heartbreak. Binoche gives a singular performance, radiating light when she’s at her happiest and conjuring storm clouds when loneliness and dissatisfaction strike. Come for the atmosphere, stay for the dreamy, happy-making scene of Isabelle slow dancing on her own.
Where to watch: Hulu
Love, Gilda (directed by Lisa Dapolito)
The too-short life of comedian and original Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner was a roller-coaster, and Dapolito nails the soaring highs and tragic lows with ease in her lovingly rendered biographical documentary. No topic is off limits, from Radner’s romantic exploits to her eating disorder to her cancer diagnosis. In fact, it’s Gilda herself who does most of the talking in the documentary, coming to life through vibrant footage, voiceover narration, and diary entries that reveal a woman of interiority and poetic talent. The doc also includes interviews with Radner’s close friends and the new generation of comedians she’s inspired, who, like Dapolito, treat Radner’s story with the utmost respect for her talent, charm, and endless reserves of enthusiasm.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play
Madeline’s Madeline (directed by Josephine Decker)
The exquisite trailer for Madeline’s Madeline is a perfect representation of the film itself: wildly creative, offbeat, arresting, and format-busting. The movie follows Madeline (Helena Howard in an all-in debut performance), an emotionally unstable teen who’s caught in a tug-of-war between her inspiring yet manipulative drama teacher (Molly Parker) and her anxious mother (Miranda July). Like a more playful Black Swan, the movie dives deep into the performer’s psyche, or at least mimes doing so in theater exercises that blend Madeline’s reality with fiction. At points, the movie is like an excellent improv warm-up exercise, all rhythms and repetitions and strange little breaks from reality. As a send-up of exploitative artists, it’s right on the money, but Madeline’s Madeline itself is a work of art, too.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime and Kanopy
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (directed by Desiree Akhavan)
Between Akhavan’s understated yet powerful coming-of-age drama and Boy Erased, gay Christian conversion camps are having quite the year. Although Cameron Post flew under the radar, it’s by far the better of the two films. Set in the ‘90s, the Sundance Jury winning movie follows Cameron (Chloe Moretz), an introverted high schooler who feels adrift after being sent to God’s Promise camp following the outing of her relationship with her female best friend (Quinn Shephard). The cast of characters at God’s Promise include overly friendly square dude Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), two-spirit Native American Adam (Forrest Goodluck), and rebellious hippie chick Jane (Sasha Lane). Laser-accurate in its portrayal of both religious ambivalence and the found families that are built under pressure, Cameron Post is a hidden gem and a valuable entry to the new LGBT+ film canon.
Where to watch: Kanopy or Hoopla
Night Comes On (directed by Jordana Spiro)
Jordana Spiro is known for acting in series like Ozark, but Night Comes On is her first foray into feature filmmaking. And what a debut it is. The film stars Dominique Fishback (The Deuce) as a teenager named Angel who is released from juvenile hall near her 18th birthday. Angel’s post-incarceration to-do list is short: find her little sister, get a gun, kill her dad. Tatum Marilyn Hall puts in a surprisingly funny, authentic performance as Angel’s sister Abby. The film is imbued with rare visual poetry that’s quietly soulful and altogether incredible.
Where to watch: Kanopy or Hoopla