This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.
Last year, I wrote a year-end wrap-up much like this one, in which I pointed out that female-directed films were garnering award season buzz even as they failed to crack the top-most tiers of the domestic box office. In 2019, the inverse seems to be true: excitingly, three films with women at the helm (Captain Marvel, Frozen 2, and Hustlers) were among the 25 highest-grossing films of the year at the North American box office. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association stirred up controversy earlier this month when they failed to nominate woman-directed films, not just in the best director category but also in most other Golden Globes categories. The Critics’ Choice Award nominees look a little less dire, and the Oscar race remains to be seen, but only one woman has ever won Best Director in the award show’s 91-year history.
Does this mean there just aren’t very many films directed by women? The short answer is no! Certainly, unique barriers in funding and distribution make the journey from the filmmaker’s mind to your eyes more difficult for women than their male counterparts (check out the documentary Half the Picture or the research being done by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative for stats on this). But thanks to streaming platforms that are investing in diverse voices and an overall cultural shift toward stories that reflect viewers’ varied experiences, there are also more excellent films made by women at our fingertips than ever before. This year, I considered around 50 of them for this list and ultimately chose 25 that I think are excellent. The following films are all knockouts, worthy of your attention and, perhaps in a more reasonable world, serious award consideration.
Mati Diop made history this year when her directorial debut was the first by a black woman to be featured in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. Set in Senegal, the film is drenched in romance, mystique, and mythical storytelling. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is a young woman whose impending marriage to a wealthy man is complicated by her love for construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). When Souleiman and his fed-up, exploited coworkers leave in the middle of the night, the town falls under the spell of a mysterious fever that, once broken, will change Ada’s life forever.
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal
Erin Lee Carr’s expansive retelling of the pedophilia scandal that rocked the USA gymnastics team in 2016 is a gutting, nauseating, and in the end, empowering watch. Whether you read about serial abuser Larry Nassar’s slow drag to justice — allegedly impeded by his stellar reputation among powerful friends and colleagues — or avoided the headlines altogether, you’ll surely learn something from this doc, which interviews several women and girls who survived Nassar’s abuse. This has been a banner year for documentaries that unravel the institutions, psychological processes, and societal misconceptions that allow abusers to evade justice (see also: Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly), and At the Heart of Gold is no exception. The portrait that finally emerges isn’t one of corruption, though, but of the complex endurance of the women who chose to face Nassar in and out of court by speaking up.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Tom Hanks neither looks nor sounds like beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers, but through sheer talent alone, he successfully transforms into the man for Marielle Heller’s latest film. Rather than take the direct biopic route, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows a short period in the life of a cynical journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), whose attempts to find a bad guy beneath Rogers’ friendly exterior ends up changing the way he sees the world. Told imaginatively and deliberately, the story reflects the mind of its subject, thoughtful pauses and all. A deeply earnest film with a surprising amount of humor, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is almost participatory by its end, asking us as audiences to work through our feelings with Rogers alongside Vogel. With an all-star cast and a creative spin on a big-hearted story, it’s impossible to say no.
Birds of Passage
Cristina Gallego co-directs this Colombian epic, which sees an indigenous family’s fortunes rise and fall as the international drug boom hits their rural home region in the 1960s and 1970s. Sprawling yet specific, with rich shot compositions and lingering camerawork, Birds of Passage rewards attentive viewing. It exists in the vein of great gangster stories yet is set apart by its unique perspective and commitment to landscape and mood — celebratory, dangerous, tragic — above all else.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s collaboration is one of the most interesting underseen films of the year (it just so happened to premiere on Netflix the same week as The Irishman), but it deserves to be sought out. The film unfolds in real-time when a woman (Tailfeathers) leaving a doctor’s appointment encounters a young, pregnant woman (Violet Nelson) with fresh wounds standing barefoot in the rain. The woman, Áila, takes the girl, Rosie, to her house, where she tries to learn more about her and help her take steps toward safety. The film has gained some attention for its use of a simulated single shot, a technique that’s certainly noteworthy, but it’s the heartbreaking verisimilitude that makes it a standout. The two women talk about — and more often, around — partner abuse, motherhood, class distinctions, and their identities as indigenous women, and not a single note rings false. These are people who many of us have known, but few of us have seen on screen, making their tense, ever-shifting relationship easy to invest in and hard to shake once the credits roll.