How important has 2018 been for female filmmakers so far? Well, in January we witnessed the debut of the #TimesUp movement and the second global Women’s March in as many years. February saw female directors nearly sweeping the Sundance awards. March brought the biggest-budget film ever directed by a woman of color, along with a much-needed conversation about inclusion riders. In May, Cannes Film Festival was marked by two protests led by actresses and filmmakers demanding inclusion and diversity. And just this month, inequalities in the media industry were brought into the conversation once again thanks to both a damning research report by USC Annenberg and a feature-length documentary about this very topic, Half the Picture. So yeah, it’s been quite a year for women filmmakers.
The year has also already brought us loads of excellent films with women at the helm. So far, only four movies with female directors (A Wrinkle in Time, Blockers, I Feel Pretty, and Forever My Girl) have broken into the top 50 at the domestic box office, but that doesn’t mean the good work isn’t out there. Some of the best upcoming films, among them The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Tigers Are Not Afraid, I Am Not A Witch, and Night Comes On, have been making waves on the festival circuit but are still awaiting their theatrical release. Others have been relegated to super-limited theatrical releases, but it’s never too late to catch them on streaming services, VOD, or home media. Below, check out ten standouts from the first half of 2018.
The Rider (directed by Chloé Zhao)
A paintbrush-stroke pastel sky frames several scenes of The Rider, too perfect to be real, like something out of an Americana jigsaw puzzle. Yet the wonder of Zhao’s second film is that it is real, and so is almost everything else about this deeply affecting neo-Western. The rodeo cowboy with a debilitating head injury (Brady Jandreau)–a quietly tragic symbol of an unsustainable American ideal–is real and, along with his family and friends, played by the person who these events really happened to. It makes sense that these people are the real deal, more or less re-enacting their own life stories on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, because Zhao’s films hold more truth in a single sequence of verisimilitude than most do in their entirety. The casual authenticity of small-town life is revealed to us with tremendous care and understanding that makes other renderings of rural America seem like a farce in comparison. Pain and longing, decades or maybe centuries old, are held in gestures and communicated in fleeting moments. A cowboy goes to a pawn shop to sell his best saddle. Two men run through the motions of a complicated handshake, one leading the other who is immobilized by permanent injury. An animal is put down, while a human is knocked in the dirt, but breathes on. And all this, too, is America.
Outside In (directed by Lynn Shelton)
Shelton’s latest is a novel idea executed with incredible tenderness. Chris (Jay Duplass) is a newly-freed felon released from prison after twenty years served for a crime he didn’t commit. Both arrested in his development (now nearly forty, Chris travels by bike, gets a minimum wage job, and platonically pals around with a teenage girl) and made wise by his punishing isolation, the character strikes a fragile balance that an emotionally raw Duplass embodies masterfully. Fittingly, Chris tries to move beyond his long-muted life in the small Pacific Northwest town where he grew up, and its drizzly grey tones serve as an apt backdrop. We soon find out that he was freed by the tireless work of his former teacher (Edie Falco), and though their relationship makes up the bulk of the story, it’s Chris’ quietly moving day-by-day odyssey through post-prison life that makes the film a standout.
A Wrinkle in Time (directed by Ava DuVernay)
Big, bold, and beautiful, DuVernay’s adaptation of the classic kids’ book didn’t quite get a glowing reception upon its release. Still, there’s plenty to love about this ambitious adventure film, first and foremost its message of radical self-love and acceptance. Believe it or not, DuVernay pared down the stranger bits of L’Engle’s galaxy-spanning story of faith and family, opting instead for a hero’s journey that nails home the tear-jerking theme that nothing in the universe is more foundationally important than cultivating care for yourself. Storm Reid is a memorable newcomer as Meg, a strong-willed girl searching through space for her missing scientist father. Meanwhile, a trio of fairy godmother-types played by Oprah, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon brought us some of the most dazzling technical design–makeup, costumes, and visual effects–of the year so far.
Seeing Allred (directed by Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain)
This documentary is similar in structure and subject to another noteworthy woman-directed Sundance doc from this year: RBG. But while Ruth Bader Ginsburg is shown to be increasingly well-liked for her hard work and critical eye for the law, Seeing Allred’s subject, Gloria Allred, appears to be having quite the opposite experience. Throughout the documentary, Allred is frequently dismissed as sensationalist, greedy, and grating by pundits and politicians alike for her purposefully public work as a women’s rights attorney. With cohesion and ease, Grossman and Sartain take viewers behind the curtain, letting us see both the soft side of Allred and the private motivations behind her take-no-shit toughness. Ultimately, the film tells not only Gloria’s own life story but the story of an invaluable social movement. The recent American legal history that Seeing Allred unearths, from workplace sex discrimination to marriage equality to the legitimizing of victims’ rights, is often disheartening but always necessary viewing.
You Were Never Really Here (directed by Lynne Ramsay)
Heavy on the senses and light on dialogue, Ramsay’s latest is a powerhouse of cinema that should more than suffice to cement the We Need to Talk About Kevin director as a modern auteur. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a strange, haunted man who kills people with a hammer for money. The film is a kind of darkly hypnotic magic trick, circling around and around the traumas and violence at its center while withholding the full visual extent of their horror. It’s an assault of shadowy colors, unnerving sounds, and richly designed sequences, all of which come together to grip like a vice. Despite this, the plot also feels incredibly straightforward, like a gritty throwback in the best way. Joe loves his mom, kills people, and doesn’t do much else until an important young girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) goes missing, presumably kidnapped by human traffickers. What happens next is surprisingly subtle, but also wild and grandiose in all the right ways.