From blockbusters to unseen indies, 2018 was a damn strong year for women in cinema and not just those alongside leading men. 2018 was a year chockablock with movies founded on the female, whose existences are a blank slate of principal photography and production design without their women. Some are god-awful, and others are currently threatening the likes of Citizen Kane (1941) and Tokyo Story (1953), which is exactly what happens when everyone gets a fair shake. The shockwave of #MeToo ideology has reverberated throughout the nation and production studios have apparently realized that it isn’t just some zeitgeisty social trend. Film is actually better when everyone gets equal opportunity. [Owen Wilson voice] Wow! It’s as if the systematic oppression of an entire gender does not allow expression to flourish or benefit the societal whole. Would you look at that? As further proof of the obvious, here are 12 of the year’s best films led by women, of which I will be focusing on the performances therein. Like the list above, these 12 do not include films in which a leading man shared equal or greater importance. They are in no particular order.
Natalie Portman is a star. She’s truly one of Hollywood’s most radiant, creative, and impressive talents. But she is not Vox Lux’s standout performer. That title belongs to none other than English newcomer, Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Rarely does anyone get to play two distinct roles in any film, much less opposite Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Ehle, and Stacy Martin. But what is star power to a 16-year-old who’s already worked with Brad Bird, Yorgos Lanthimos, Tim Burton, and Robert Zemeckis, and performed significant roles alongside George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, and Colin Farrell? She introduces the film through her portrayal of the young, traumatized, yet composed and determined, version of Portman’s edgy pop star, Celeste. And when we think we leave Cassidy to time hop into Portman’s stellar performance an hour into the movie, Cassidy is surprisingly still there, doubling as Celeste’s daughter, Albertine, to remind us what Celeste once was and continue rocking her perfectly stunned performance. She was already someone to look out for, but with major roles in two wildly provocative films in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and now Vox Lux, Cassidy has proven she has terrific taste in screenplays and is up for any challenge. Without her, the film would have no heart.
Thoroughbreds is one of the most overlooked movies of 2018. It’s bizarre, engrossing, and it takes risks aplenty. It should be dear to everyone’s heart for cradling one of Anton Yelchin’s (a name worth breaking the Bechdel test for) last post-humous performances—and a very good one at that—but this film is ultimately nothing without the women who command it. Both relatively fresh on the scene, Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) and Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Ready Player One) drive the thrilling film from start to finish with tremendous intrigue. Cooke plays an emotionally unavailable (to put it lightly) ex-best friend with inhumane one-liners to boot while Taylor-Joy counters with her hypersensitivity and deep hatred for her step-father. Together they deliver a deliciously robust cocktail stirred with dark comedic bitters and the tiniest touch of sweet simple syrup.
Charlize Theron’s ability to physically morph her body for a role is uncanny. Less than a year before Tully premiered, she gave us the kickass, vodka-guzzling Lorraine Broughton of Atomic Blonde (2017) whose acrobatic tendencies were probably drawing the eye of Cirque de Soleil recruiters. In 2018, we met her as Marlo, an exhausted, bloated, bleary-eyed mother of two who just added a newborn to her laundry list of overwhelming responsibilities. In her second collaboration with Jason Reitman (Young Adult), Theron shines in her portrayal of fading enthusiasm, exponential exhaustion, dwindling hope, and aging fear—a deeply relatable humanity for anyone who can relate to the ever-growing and suffocating responsibilities of adulthood, and an even more relatable existence for those who know the mammoth responsibility of creating a life (or three).
15-year-old Elsie Fisher (Despicable Me; McFarland, USA) set the film-loving world on fire this summer with her endearing, hilarious, and important role as a middle school girl in 2018. She captures the distinct comedy of Bo Burnham as if she’d inherited it from birth, much like we all expected from anyone cast in the titular role of his first feature as writer and director. But she exceeded all expectations with the degree of genuine emotion, eager hope, and nearly transcendent self-awareness she put on display. You leave Eighth Grade just wanting to be good to people. What other movies seriously make us feel that way? So many try and fail, but this is not one of them. Fisher is an extraordinary talent who braves the emotionally turbulent world of middle school on screen just as she had the previous year in real life. Whether it propels her into career stardom or not, her performance in Eighth Grade is good enough to make the film biblical in its teaching—we are always growing and changing, and we must be kind, hopeful, and forgiving in the process because everyone else is, too. Gucci 👌🏻
The Kindergarten Teacher
One of the more underappreciated films this year, The Kindergarten Teacher is utterly unique in plot and absolutely flooring in performance. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger Than Fiction, Crazy Heart) might be a god, albeit an eagerly flawed one according to her role as Lisa Spinelli, a kindergarten teacher who falls in love with the poetry of one of her prodigious students. Balancing sincere appreciation with creepy adoration and beleaguering banality, she brings nuance and unconventional reality to the forefront in a role that 99.9% of the world’s acting pool wouldn’t know what the hell to do with. It’s a humbly marketed film that for whatever reason refuses to clue you in on its sagacity from afar, but it’s waiting for you on Netflix right now. And it will shock you.
Welcome, 2018’s most prodigious young actress, Helena Howard. If you haven’t witnessed her wonder on screen yet, Amazon is currently streaming it for you and it’s 93 minutes long so you have no excuse. If you have, you didn’t flinch at that opening sentence. Howard is, without question, a master of her craft. And she is 20. Madeline writer/director Josephine Decker stumbled upon Howard at a talent showcase she was judging and promptly wept while introducing herself, still overcome by the monologue Howard had just performed. The film they’ve put together this year is nothing like you have ever seen. I really mean it. Decker’s writing and direction are completely novel, and Howard’s performance matches it in its utmost acuity. Incredible accompanying performances by Miranda July as a helicopter mom and Molly Parker as a slightly kooky experimental drama coach make it that much more unforgettable.
Is it any surprise that one of the best female-driven films of 2018 is helmed by the eternally profound Laura Dern (Wild at Heart, Big Little Lies)? We already knew she feared nothing, yet every Earth-shattering project she commands makes that truth feel like a revelation all over again. This time she is accompanied by a stellar cast in Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burnstyn, and 15-year-old Isabelle Nélisse in a gut-wrenching memoir of sorts by writer/director Jennifer Fox that deals with the instinctual erasure and eruptive torment of reverberating trauma caused by sexual assault. Don’t go into this one lightly, but, more importantly, don’t miss it. Fox and Dern have given us a text on childhood sexual abuse and its effects that is vital viewing for those who have not experienced it themselves. You will shudder in disgust at the idea of doubting the next woman who bravely exposes the kind of destructive sexual trauma that so many females have faced in their lives. This is essential cinema.
Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman have given us one of the greatest gifts of 2018. The trio held nothing back in their triangular ensemble performance of deceit, jealousy, brutality, and comeuppance. Each of them embodies an inimitable persona. Weisz is an insistent, imposing, and wry political advisor/best friend to Colman’s Queen Anne, the tempestuous, romantic, and powerful monarch of early 18th century Britain. Stone plays a feverish, conniving, and dubious servant who will stop at nothing to achieve a more prolific status in the queen’s chambers. All three constantly test one another in their wittiness and devotion, making the film a straight two-hour romp of absurdity and juicy entertainment. The period drama needed a fresh, new style and tone, and this is so much more than what any of us expected.
Support the Girls
Casual, cool, and unpronounced, Support the Girls skated past everyone’s radar in 2018 and the film scene was worse without it. Lately, in the season of year-end lists, it’s bubbled up into prominence plainly because it deserves to be. Regina Hall (Girls Trip, The Hate U Give) plays Lisa, the manager of a Hooters-equivalent sports bar staffed with lovely ladies played Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle (a.k.a. Junglepussy), Dylan Gelula, AJ Michalka, and others. It’s an eclectic crew that ranges from blindly optimistic to sour and sarcastic, and Lisa is their commonplace queen. We follow Lisa for a day and find ourselves sucked into her world where she tries her best to handle all the banal drama brewing around her. It’s heartwarming, hilarious, perfectly performed across the board, and ultimately humanizing in a way that cinema needs more of in 2018. It manages to hold so many walks of life in its little 93-minute hand and it does them all (and all women, by proxy) supreme justice by leveling the playing field in its final scene.
Non-actor Yalitza Aparicio is the centrifugal force of one of the year’s most compelling pictures in Roma. It is the story of a meek Mexican maid, Cleo, of an affluent family in 1970s Mexico City. Wrapped up in revolution and familial friction, Cleo is dealt a difficult hand that brings her to the edge of humanity’s most basic instinct—survival. Aparicio showcases the wounds of an underprivileged woman with poise and power, never shying away from her professional or personal responsibilities, but brandishing all the fear that accompanies the unpredictability of the human existence. Nothing about her role feels produced or put-on, which makes for a startling mode of raw emotion that pervades the film. I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you, but you would be remiss not to watch it this very second even if, [sigh], your only option is a computer screen.
Though polarizing in the emotional effect it had on viewers, Widows is not attracting any dissenters for its performances. Led by a powerhouse performance from Viola Davis (Doubt, Fences), the film is overflowing with spellbinding performances by several women who face abuse or oppression in one way or another. Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo fortify a stunning supporting cast, while Jacki Weaver and Carrie Coon round out some bit roles. It is a feminist tale of redemption, freedom, and escape from captivity, all of which are granted to its focal women and none of which require the “strength of a man” to be won.
Last, but certainly not least, my favorite film of the entire year across all genders and genres anchored by my favorite performance: Natalie Portman as Lena, a brilliant biologist tenured at Johns Hopkins who cannot beat the bruising loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission one year prior. After randomly wandering into the house one evening, he quickly reveals that he is not himself anymore. Soon enough, Lena embarks on a pain-channeling trip into the extra-terrestrial phenomena, known as the Shimmer, that she discovers was responsible for his vanishing. She is equal parts philosophical, fanatical, fascinated, tender, and terse in her ethereal and timeless (yes, I’m calling this one early) performance. I’m tearing up just thinking about the vast scope it encapsulates. And it would be criminal to go without mentioning her diverse and original supporting cast in Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, and Sonoya Mizuno (as the mimetic humanoid). Everyone crushes their role and adds significant depth to the film for it.
Ocean’s 8, Proud Mary, Lara Croft, Red Sparrow, A Wrinkle in Time, Shirkers, Incredibles 2, Halloween, The Girls in the Spider’s Web, Crazy Rich Asians, A Simple Favor, Colette, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Traffik, Dumplin’, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Mortal Engines, Winchester, Lizzie, Book Club, Peppermint, Cam, Revenge, Bumblebee, Leave No Trace, Mary Poppins Returns, The Hate U Give, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Disobedience, Unsane, RBG, Mary Queen of Scots, Acrimony, Never Goin’ Back, Claire’s Camera, Gemini, Nancy, Love After Love, and many more.