This article is part of our 2020 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we highlight essential movies from 2020 directed by women.
It’s obvious by now that the gender of a filmmaker, writer, lead actor, or anyone else involved doesn’t determine a movie’s greatness. But it’s also obvious that women filmmakers still face industry hurdles that their male peers don’t — chief among them dramatic under-representation in the field — and that one way to combat this issue is by showing up consistently for talented women filmmakers.
It’s a shame that a year that seems to have produced more creative work from women filmmakers than ever is also a year that, for much of the world, didn’t involve a lot of going to the movie theater. There’s good news, though: we can watch great movies with women at the helm any day of the week from the comfort of our homes.
This list looks a little different than one might’ve imagined it would at the outset of 2020, mostly because of COVID-19’s impact on America’s release schedule. Several highly-anticipated new films like Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, and Janicza Bravo’s Zola are now expected in 2021. Meanwhile, already-beloved festival films like Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby and Zoé Wittock’s Jumbo haven’t been released yet, and one of the year’s biggest films, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984, will debut on HBO Max (as well as in theaters) on Christmas day.
All disclaimers aside, 2020 was still a hell of a year for women behind the camera. This list could’ve easily been several pages longer than it already is. Being a true film lover means always seeking out new and diverse on-screen perspectives, so let’s do that together with this list of twenty fantastic new woman-directed films.
The 40-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank’s black-and-white comedic breakout has a strong voice and a great sense of humor. The movie follows a New York City playwright, also named Radha, who struggles to make her mark while the shadow of her forties looms. The 40-Year-Old Version shows us many versions of Radha: the put-upon acting teacher, the tokenized playwright, the loving daughter, the prickly friend and lover, and the scrappy would-be rapper, RadhaMUS Prime. The film blossoms steadily over its two-hour runtime, but it grows into its own. By the end, you’ll be wishing for a sequel or TV series — anything to spend more time with Blank’s unique and unapologetic vision.
The 40-Year-Old Version is currently streaming on Netflix.
Kitty Green’s The Assistant builds like a scream in the back of your throat, the kind that dies before you can give it breath. It’s a movie about the Harvey Weinsteins of the world that never gives its monster a face; instead, it brings him to life through a series of haunting clues: a stray earring, a stained couch, a set of standard excuses. It answers the question “how could a woman work for someone like that?” with the most gut-churning truth imaginable, which is that even violence can be made routine and mundane. Julia Garner is fantastic as the producer’s new assistant, Jane, while Matthew Macfayden gives an excellent performance in one stunning integral scene.
The Assistant is currently streaming on Hulu and Kanopy.
Shannon Murphy’s unorthodox, indelible romantic drama sets fire to the teen-with-a-terminal-illness subgenre to imagine something more brutal and beautiful than any of its contemporaries. When chemo patient Milla (Eliza Scanlen) meets a displaced junkie named Moses (Toby Wallace), he quickly becomes the only person that can make her happy. Her distracted psychiatrist father (Ben Mendelsohn) and overmedicated mother (Essie Davis) humor her infatuation, and soon Moses becomes inextricably linked to the dysfunctional family. Babyteeth is a singular movie, full of surprising and evocative moments that will linger long after the credits roll.
Babyteeth is currently streaming on Hulu.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Cathy Yan’s take on DC’s most stylish punk-psycho is equal parts glitter and gore, and it’s also hands down one of the most fun movies of the year. The film benefits from a stacked cast, a wryly funny script, and truly epic fight choreography. Every inch of Birds of Prey also feels intentionally and thoughtfully feminist in a way that no other superhero film has, from a soundtrack featuring solely female artists to a plot that revolves around finding one’s agency after an unhealthy relationship to that now-famous scrunchy handoff scene. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is an unruly lady who basks in every aspect of her strong personality, even — maybe especially — the parts that piss off men like Romano Solanis (Ewan McGregor). Many DC fans were openly hostile to the film before it was even released, but those who love it love it hard, and it’s well worth watching for comic book lovers and laypeople alike.
Birds of Prey is currently streaming on HBO and HBO Max.
Black is King
Beyonce’s latest visual album didn’t garner the massive cultural response of past works like Lemonade and Homecoming, perhaps due to its release in the middle of the dog days of COVID summer, but it’s a rich text and a feat of visual magnificence nonetheless. The film, which is accompanied by songs from the artist’s album The Lion King: The Gift, tells the story of an African prince (Folajomi Akinmurele) who must reconcile his own identity with his role as an heir. Beyonce’s ever-sprawling vision is entrenched in African tradition and celebrates the history of the diaspora from ancestral times through to the modern-day. Every part of Black is King deserves a scholarly level of attention, but the segment “Brown Skin Girls,” directed by Jenn Nkiru, is especially transcendent.
Black is King is currently streaming on Disney+.