Late Night (directed by Nisha Ganatra)
Mindy Kaling works for Emma Thompson in this late night talk show spin on The Devil Wears Prada that manages to hit the comedy sweet spot. Kaling’s character is a chemical plant worker turned precocious “diversity hire” for a failing network series hosted by legendary figure Katherine Newbury (Thompson). Thompson is aces as a ruthless yet principled aging woman for whom no place in the entertainment industry exists, while Kaling’s Molly is more toned down and earnest than in her past roles. Kaling serves double duty as both lead and screenwriter, and the script doesn’t pull punches in evaluating the ways in which the professional landscape treats women and people of color. John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, and Ike Barinholtz are just a few of the supporting players that help this generous comedy transcend familiar feel-good territory.
Birds of Passage (directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
A sprawling Colombian epic that traces a family’s deterioration during the rise of the cartel industry, Birds of Passage was shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination last year. Divided into five chapters, the film, which is co-directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, tells the story of a family — members of the Wayuu indigenous tribe — that flourishes and then falls apart when the violence of the ‘70s drug trade insinuates itself in their community. Full of spare, surreal dream imagery and stark portraits of the aftermath of violence, Birds of Passage renders a haunting history for a region few have seen on film.
Knock Down the House (directed by Rachel Lears)
A record number of women (529) ran for Congress in 2018, including many non-politician citizens who felt morally called to step up and represent their communities. Knock Down the House follows four such women through the primaries; Nevada’s Amy Vilela, Missouri’s Cori Bush, West Virginia’s Paul Jean Swearingin, and the Bronx’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Already a natural leader and a force to be reckoned with, AOC is given the most screen time, but each of the other women has skin in the game as well. Swearingin is going up against coal industry titans, Bush was on the front lines in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting, and Vilela endured a family tragedy within the broken health care system. While not every woman here emerges victorious, director Rachel Lears still captures an undercurrent of radical hope that’s likely to inspire even the most cynical viewer.
Captain Marvel (co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)
It’s about damn time. Marvel’s first woman-led film features Brie Larson kicking ass and taking names as the titular hero, also known as Carol Danvers. A coordinated, vocal subsection of trolls attempted to derail the film’s building buzz, but Captain Marvel still crossed the one billion dollar mark at the box office and became the highest-grossing film ever with a woman at the helm, so we’ll mark that one down as a win. Co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the movie follows a superpowered Kree alien (Larson) across 1990s America as she attempts to understand her recovered memories of a life spent in the Air Force with her best friend, Maria (Lashanna Lynch). With all the social commentary, extraterrestrial makeup, and punchy heroes, Captain Marvel sometimes feels more like a Star Trek story than a recognizable part of the MCU, but so many parts of it — young Nick Fury, Goose the cat, that Nirvana song sequence — are memorable that it ultimately stands out as a film that isn’t afraid to set itself apart.
Someone Great (directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson)
Gina Rodriguez, DeWanda Wise, Brittany Snow, and Lakeith Stanfield star in Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s feature directorial debut, which she also wrote. While Robinson’s first project — the single-season campus vigilante series Sweet/Vicious — was a high concept delight, her foray into film is a meandering, talky, introspective take on female friendship. Think a Linklater movie but with New York City Millennials who like to get stoned and dance. The premise is this: Jenny (Rodriguez) is going through a bad breakup and is poised to move to the West coast, so she enlists her two best friends for one last night of festivities. As with Booksmart, the path to partying is littered with obstacles, but the brunt of Jenny’s struggle is internal as she relives the past nine years with her lover and grieves their relationship even as she clings to the idea that they might meet again. This all sounds heavy, but there are plenty of great comedy bits here too, plus a soundtrack to die for.
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (directed by Erin Lee Carr)
For many people reading the news, the USA gymnastics team scandal and trial of serial child predator Larry Nassar was simply too massive, too disturbing, and too seemingly endless in its developments to keep track of. It’s a story that needs to be told, though. Along with two other TV documentaries released this year (Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland), HBO’s At the Heart of Gold completes a trifecta of thorough and informative blueprints for spotting and understanding patterns of sexual abuse the likes of which have never been shared on screen before. Patterns of sexual abuse and manipulation, along with survivors’ psychology, have long-since been presented as too nebulous, complicated, or taboo to explain within the confines of a film. At the Heart of Gold and other works like it finally step up to show these realities plainly and in the light of day. In this case, director Erin Lee Carr captures the stories of brave and clearly emotionally exhausted women, their families, and the judge in Nassar’s case, among others. The result is a heartbreaking but necessary exploration of systems that, according to the documentary subjects, have historically devalued girls and safeguarded abusers.
Rafiki (directed by Wanuri Kahiu)
As FSR’s own Siobhan Spera wrote, “Stories that are hard to tell are sometimes the most necessary,” and Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki has been through its share of hard times. Kenya’s first lesbian film was initially banned in its home country due to anti-LGBT legislature, though the ban was briefly lifted to make the film award-season eligible. The story itself directly addresses anti-LGBT sentiments in Kenya by imagining a Romeo and Juliet-like romance between two young women whose fathers are political opponents. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) dresses like a boy and spends most of her time working at her father’s convenience store until she meets and falls for Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a girl with bubblegum-colored hair. The budding central romance is delicate and sweet, even as the community members around the girls become increasingly on edge as they observe the pair’s closeness.
Seen all of these? Here are even more 2019 releases by female directors:
Skye Borgman’s Abducted in Plain Sight, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang, Tina Gordon Chism’s Little, Catherine Hardwicke’s Miss Bala, Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe, Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?, Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store, Sophie Lorain’s Slut in A Good Way, Stacie Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Katt Shea’s Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, Emma Tammi’s The Wind, Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst’s Fyre Fraud, and more.