Our 22 Favorite Movies Directed by Women in 2016
Looking to support great female-directed films? Start here.
Over the years, we’ve heard from our readers that one of the most important things we can do is to help you discover movies that may have slipped by mainstream audiences. And often just as important, our readers ask that we highlight voices that are in the minority in Hollywood. While we’re known for not taking ourselves very seriously, we take this part of our work seriously. Because as many studies have shown, there are some voices that aren’t as well-represented as others. Them’s the facts.
Beyond that, our team has a passion for seeking out and celebrating films directed by women. This is where we often find, as you’re about to see in this list, some of the most unique and interesting stories in the whole of cinema. Another thing we hear often from readers is that there are no original ideas left in Hollywood. Well, Hollywood or otherwise, these women are making films that are original ideas.
So if you’re looking for original stories, unique voices in cinema, and crafty filmmakers who are creating films that deserve attention, start with these 22 films from 2016. It’s a nice bonus that we can also celebrate them as being directed by women.
Things to Come
Tomris Laffly: Easily one of the finest filmmakers working today, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve has been crafting her exquisite filmography and fine-tuning her confident voice for the last decade, telling deeply personal stories with a specific point of view. Inspired by her own family life, Things to Come (Hansen-Løve’s latest) is not only one of the best female-directed films of the year, but is also one of the best of the year, period. The story follows Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert, far superior here than in Elle, in a truly complex role); a French philosophy proffessor with marital troubles. Upon finding out her husband has been having an affair, Nathalie matter-of-factly accepts her new life chapter, and continues to seek fulfillment in the company of books, ideas, fellow intellectuals and family. Like all of Hansen-Løve’s films, Things to Come fluidly and serenely illustrates the passage of time, and traces its characters’ footsteps as they move from one place to the other, and from one hurdle to the next. Like many of Hansen-Løve’s thougtfully-written characters, Nathalie constantly moves on and forward, with her motion harmoniously in synch with the fluidity of time. This is a beautiful film that dares to reach deep inside an aging woman’s soul in order to unlock what so few storytellers bother with these days.
Angela Morrison: Uda Benyamina premiered her very first feature, Divines in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. She ended up winning the Caméra d’Or award for best first feature, and the film went on to be screened at TIFF 2016. Some critics have argued that her film is obviously the work of an amateur, and that the plot wanders off at some points, but I personally believe it is one of the best films of 2016. Starring the incredible Oulaya Amamra as the scrappy aspiring gangster Dounia, the film is about female friendship, ambition, and what it’s like to be a young woman living in a shanty town outside of Paris. Dounia’s friendship with Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) is the backbone of the film. The two girls do everything together – pretend to be rich people driving around picking up men in a Ferrari, dress up and go to nightclubs, spit on dancers rehearsing in a local theater, and deal drugs for the powerful criminal Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda). The film is aesthetically beautiful, and the camera privileges the point of view of the young female characters. The film ends tragically, but it does not take away from its joyful moments and its powerful portrayal of female friendship. Dounia is a unique character – she is funny, reckless, courageous, and loyal. I personally cannot wait for Benyamina’s next feature film.
Jake Orthwein: Andrea Arnold stood head, shoulders, and tightly cropped bangs above her peers in 2016. The Oscar-winning auteur behind Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights chalked up another episode of Transparent, along with a Jury Prize at Cannes for her coming-of-age road picture, American Honey. The film, which slid easily into my top ten list for the year, follows Star (Sasha Lane), a teenager from Oklahoma, as she escapes an abusive father and joins a ragtag band of traveling magazine sellers as they cross the country. Star takes up a romance with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a member of the “Mag Crew,” but her journey is her own. The romance serves not as an end in itself but a vehicle for Star’s maturation and self-discovery.
Arnold’s film is a masterwork of apparent contradictions. It is epic in length and emotional depth but intimate in scope and subtlety. The aesthetic is at once utterly spontaneous and sublimely poetic. And though the characters and soundtrack sizzle with youthful vigor, the themes are timeless – even primal. What makes the film such a marvel is the way it neither denies social realities nor exalts them as determinants of identity. The members of the Mag Crew sing songs, dance around bonfires, make love, start fights, share dreams, and stare in wonder at the stars. In short, they’re human beings.
Jamie Righetti: Last February, just a day before the Super Bowl, Beyoncé dropped a video single for “Formation,” the final song on her forthcoming album, Lemonade. “Formation,” directed by Melina Matsoukas, was stunning, showcasing a Beyoncé reveling in the beauty of Blackness, celebrating the resilience of New Orleans and calling Black women to her side, united. The video featured a powerful image of a young Black child in a hoodie holding his hands up in front of a row of police in SWAT gear, who held up their hands in return before flashing to a spray-painted message: “Stop killing us.” But Beyoncé was just getting started. With the release of Lemonade in April came an exclusive event on HBO, a visual album voraciously live-tweeted and immediately enshrined in gifs, with its many layers peeled back and examined in think-pieces and essays since. Lemonade boasts an impressive array of directors and artists working under Beyoncé’s direction to cultivate a lush tapestry of Blackness woven together with spoken word adapted the work of from Somali poet Warsan Shire. The stunning visual masterpiece is at once an intensely personal journey through doubt, discovery and healing, while also doubling as a love letter to the impenetrable strength of Black women. Lemonade is essential and truly beautiful viewing, filled with nods to Beyonce’s African-American and Creole roots, Orishas, the Yoruba people, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and the Black Lives Matter movement, among other things. It is a journey that centers and celebrates Black women, all while cementing Beyonce’s status as a cultural icon – not that this was ever in doubt.
Christopher Campbell: Many cinematographers make the leap to the director’s chair and bring with them lessons learned in their other career. Kirsten Johnson took that past work and experience and literally put it all on the screen in Cameraperson, one of the most original autobiographical documentaries ever made. It’s not just personal, though. It’s a global portrait, as well. Really, it’s just one of the most unique films ever made.
Christopher Campbell: There’s not always an easy split in terms of who did what on documentaries helmed by two people, and there’s no indication that Elyse Steinberg’s contribution to Weiner was any different than Josh Kriegman’s on a technical level. But she certainly brought to the film a different perspective, maybe one partly informed by her gender, though mostly one of an outsider compared to Kriegman’s past as an employee of Anthony Weiner. She brought a more general public viewpoint in her approach to the story. She also brought much more experience working in documentary filmmaking, albeit not of this sort. Together, the duo pulled off arguably the greatest political documentary since The War Room, which coincidentally enough was also directed by a woman and man team.
Paola Mardo: In 2013, six young schoolgirls were taken to a hotel and sexually assaulted by a school principal and a government official. When parents and their supporters cried for justice, the government executed a tactical cover-up campaign. This is not a synopsis for a television police procedural. This is a true story that unfolded in mainland China. The documentary Hooligan Sparrow follows activist Ye Haiyan, also known as Hooligan Sparrow, as she fights to bring justice to the schoolgirls and their families. Nanfu Wang is the film’s director, producer, cinematographer and editor. She’s also in the film running away from the secret police right alongside Ye Haiyan. She relentlessly captures Ye Haiyan’s story, and the stories of those involved in this dangerous mission, which involves protesting, being chased, getting arrested, escaping arrest and even some jail time. The situation is so dire that Wang has to somehow smuggle her footage out of the country. Though Ye Haiyan’s actions have caught the attention of celebrities like Ai Weiwei through social media, things have relatively died down for her since filming. But as Wang’s film gains considerable awards attention (it’s on the 2017 Academy Awards Documentary Shortlist), she continues to shine a light to the injustices she bore witness to while working with Ye Haiyan. Hooligan Sparrow is a must-watch visual testament of a fearless filmmaker’s dedication to telling an important story no matter the cost.
Jacob Oller: The resurgence of director Karyn Kusama was a welcome addition to 2016. After 2005’s Æon Flux and 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, Kusama’s made a name for herself with thorny genre blends that are smarter than audiences anticipate. Last year’s The Invitation adds to this oeuvre. Half comedy of manners and half slow-burn dinner party nightmare, tensions mount during a New Age-infested night of wine and conversation. A stunningly scripted film, The Invitation uses each word and architectural exploration as a bullet. Nothing is wasted, nothing is oversold. The best horror movies are the ones that convince you that you’ve creeped yourself out and The Invitation knows exactly how to wheedle into the most suspicious confines of your brain. Observationally clever and flexibly flashy, Kusama has a devotion to hand-picking complex projects that makes her one of the most exciting directors working today.
The Love Witch
Danny Bowes: Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is both film and film criticism, and manages to be sublimely entertaining on the first front while losing none of the incisive commentary of the latter. It’s a feminist read of late 60s-early 70s sexploitation horror films (an umbrella containing many discrete subgenres, some of which the broader heading may not fully cover) that employs a masterful command over technique and aesthetics to create an exact physical replica of the films under study. The Love Witch is a triumph on all levels, and should certainly put Biller, if she isn’t there already, on the radar of all movie lovers.
Fernando Andrés: One of the most exciting and provocative filmmakers to emerge in 2016, Elizabeth Wood knocked the wind out of unsuspecting audiences with her ferocious writing/directing debut. A semi-autobiographical effort, the film charts the romance that blooms between Leah, a white college student, and Blu, the black drug dealer across the street from her. But the pleasantries last only briefly; the film goes on to depict the despair and depravity that follow after he is arrested and she is left with the enormous amount of cocaine he was in charge of selling. A parable of sorts set in a New York that’s somewhere between Kafka and Larry Clark in its chaotic, seemingly meaningless bustle, White Girl is an erratic and unforgettable film about the dissonance between love and 21st century narcissism. Admittedly, the indie film scene is oversaturated with straight white male filmmakers attempting to cover these topics in their works, but only Wood has done so with this level of cinematic complexity and nuance. Here’s to whatever madly ambitious project she attacks viewers with next.
Ciara Wardlow: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann was one of the most unique comedies released in 2016, though at first glance it might not seem especially comedic nor original. After all, an odd couple pairing of an aging prankster and the straitlaced adult daughter with whom he seeks to reconnect sounds cliché at best, and hardly the kind of story to merit a nearly three-hour runtime. But Toni Erdmann is the sort of film that takes a concept that seems old and tired and makes it fresh and new again. Bolstered by brilliant performances, the characters of both father Winfred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) – alter ego, Toni Erdmann – and daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) are developed with incredible nuance, ultimately ending up light years away from the flat caricatures they could have easily become in a less well-crafted film. A distinctive cinematic experience, Toni Erdmann highlights the sort of day-to-day moments and interactions most other films would leave out interspersed with moments of hilarious absurdity, creating an organic ebb and flow that is paradoxically both reminiscent of real life and bewilderingly strange.
Siân Melton: I like to consider myself particularly informed about reproductive rights – my rights. After seeing Dawn Porter’s Trapped, however, I realized how very little I knew about the realities many women are currently facing in the United States. The documentary is about TRAP laws, which stands for “targeted regulations of abortion providers” and it is exactly like what it sounds: insane laws that basically act as a trap so abortion providers have no choice but to close. Porter weaves together personal stories and facts in a way that is both emotional and educational. She also makes a real connection with her subjects, which you can tell in the way they speak to her in their interviews. Trapped is one of those essential documentaries solely because everybody needs to be more informed about reproductive and women’s rights but outside of that it’s also damn good. (Bonus: I had the opportunity to write about it and other reproductive rights documentaries for Nonfics, which you can read right here.
Andrew Karpan: People in flyover country don’t talk a lot. Conversations veers toward crisp reportage, relaying experiences at grocery stores. And Kelly Reichardt, in her sixth feature, Certain Women, documents the chasms of rustling silence in between, where everything from hostage negotiations to heartbreak plead to take place against an immutable silence. The shots are impeccable like perfect hotel reproductions that her ambling set of Montana characters can’t escape. With little in common, least of all a tightly packed plot, Reichardt’s roaming small town camera might bring to mind the Austin of Richard Linklater’s Slacker or the dreamscape of his Waking Life but she doesn’t have any room for his hip noise. Drama is kept tight under the lid of her stunning cast: a dissatisfied law school graduate (Kristen Stewart) refuses to fall in love with a rancher (Lily Gladstone), a married mother (Michelle Williams) wants desperately to build a house. “You could talk about anything, talk about the weather, talk about your day, just so you put it in an envelope and put it in the mail,” a shit-out-of-luck sadsack (Jared Harris) begs of his lawyer (Laura Dern). It would be something to talk about.
Brad Gullickson: Amy Nicholson’s Pickle allows itself just 16 minutes to capture your wonderment, and either leaves you scratching your head at humankind’s capacity for animal adoration, or warms your pet collecting heart. Taking its name from the deformed fish that her father’s wife rescued from certain doom, Pickle appears simply as an illogical laundry list of fatalities. After liberating a chicken from a Purdue truck, Debbie discovered an endless supply of care for the world’s cast-off creatures. Each “saved” animal seems to only last a fraction of a moment on their farm, but this short film brilliantly captures Debbie’s boundless love affair with god’s loneliest beasts, and reflects our own desire for pets over people. Whether its Pogo the paraplegic possum, or Squeaky the tilted neck kitty, the film is Nicholson’s attempt to reckon with these horribly humorous stories of rescue and tragedy. Pickle acts as both familial catharsis, and a sociological evaluation.
Erica Bahrenburg: Maggie’s Plan might be the best Woody Allen movie that Woody Allen never made, and thank God for that. There are all the elements of a classic Allen rom-com with its eccentric and wry humor, but without the inherent creepiness of the filmmaker. It’s as much a love story to New York itself as it is about Maggie (played by queen of awkward comedy Greta Gerwig) figuring out how she can get what she wants. This time, though, it is director Rebecca Miller bringing a new sense of humor and quirky situations to the table. With Miller in the director’s chair, the female characters become more than just bystanders in their own story. They all have a strong sense of agency and wit to match. The film tells the story of Maggie who wants to have a child all by herself, but when she gets involved with a married man (Ethan Hawke) and his wife (an excellent Julianne Moore sporting a Danish accent), her plans go awry. Miller takes the niche genre of screwball rom-coms and totally flips it on its head where the most interesting relationship that comes from it is the ironic friendship that develops between the two women who just happen to share the same man. Maggie’s Plan is by no means a perfect movie, but Rebecca Miller offers a refreshingly female take on a genre so often directed by men.
Christopher Campbell: At first, Penny Lane seemed to be merely delivering a delightful animated folk tale of a Depression-era charlatan, complete with an old timey aesthetic in its drawings. Not that she meant for it to be insubstantial, but she also didn’t foresee it becoming quite so timely. Since its debut at Sundance a year ago, its relevance and resonance has grown and grown with the rise and election of Trump as well as the issue of “fake news.” Lane eventually did something remarkably unusual with her film, too: she provided an online appendix of notes for Nuts! laying out full transparency with eight levels of “truth value.” We need more filmmakers of any kind as fun and smart and honest as her.
The Edge of Seventeen
Max Covill: Usually it takes few movies to find your groove as a filmmaker. The Edge of Seventeen is a perfect example of a filmmaker who has all the talent in the world and just needed the right project to unleash it. While director Kelly Fremon Craig has cited John Hughes as an influence, it is unfair to take credit away from her and her talented cast. The versatile Hailee Steinfeld, plays Nadine, a typical teenager with so many unanswered questions. What really makes this film stand apart from its peers, is that Edge of Seventeen is for this generation. A sexually explicit text message leads to an extremely important emotional discovery. Hayden Szeto, a Canadian Actor of Chinese descent, gets to play a pivotal role. The student/teacher relationship between Steinfeld’s Nadine and Woody Harrelson’s Mr. Bruner, never gets creepy and shows how valuable that relationship can be in a teenagers growth. Even though the film is R-rated, the reality is most teenagers exist within a R-rated world. Most films of this nature coddle the audience and fail to show the multi-cultured, advanced world we live in. Kelly Fremon Craig has created a new template for what should be expected from coming of age films.
William Dass: Sophia Takal directed this film about the pressure she feels to be “feminine” – as defined by the world of man – and how to balance that with an obsession with success, accomplishment, and victory when everything that society says she should be is timid and deferential. That earnestness pours out of the strong, interesting and (to be honest) viciously mean characters that Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald explore. Their talent, combined with Takal’s direction and an outstanding script is sheer madness. When this came out, I watched it on VOD one night. I watched it again the next. I could not stop talking about it – to a fault, as I was correctly informed by my wife. It’s a fascinating, painfully earnest look at the pressure to be a woman in a highly competitive world that clearly believes it can tell you who you are. These two women have grown apart as one has found success while the other has found mostly frustration operating in a world run by men. As they try to repair their relationship at an isolated cabin in the woods, they slowly rip away the friendly facade until the truth is revealed. And oh my, that third act is a doozy. Davis and FitzGerald have two of my favorite performances of the year. Whatever gnarly project Takal’s working on next, I’m in.
No Home Movie
Daniel Walber: No Home Movie is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Chantal Akerman documents her mother’s quiet last days in her Brussels apartment. It’s almost nondescript, a careful repository for the physical and psychological accumulations of a lifetime. Yet the fullness of the traumatic 20th century lurks in the conversations between these two women. The bewildering desert tree of the opening shot is slowly revealed to be a weathered finger pointed at the scars of time. It is determined to peel back, if not resolve, the lingering legacy of Europe, its past and its living Jews. This is an act of concentrated memory, a cinematic shiva that mourns for itself, for its subject, for its maker and for us all.
Jamie Righetti: With her first documentary, 13th, Ava DuVernay gave viewers a searing look at America’s shift from slavery to the prison industrial complex that is both timely and, unfortunately, timeless. 13th explores how a single cause in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery except in instances of criminality, led to an instantaneous shift towards the mass incarceration of African-Americans, bolstered through media and press depictions that implied inherent criminality, and a bogus war on drugs that disproportionately shattered African-American and Latino communities. DuVernay walks viewers through this process decade by decade, beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation, utilizing archival footage to show how newly freed slaves were arrested en mass as a means to exploit the slavery clause and help rebuild the South following the end of the Civil War. From here, we see sensationalized news stories, as well as D.W. Griffith’s inflammatory Birth of a Nation, shaping public perception to justify mass incarceration as a necessity. As DuVernay shifts into the post-Civil Rights Movement, she dissects the growth of prison populations and the administrative policies of each POTUS from Johnson on that have led to the privatization of prisons and the war on drugs. These policies and their detrimental effects are best understood through insightful interviews with a variety of lawmakers, historians, social justice advocates and even former inmates who suffered first hand from harsh drug sentences. Finally, DuVernay shines a spotlight on the ugly 2016 Presidential election and in an eye-opening segment, she overlays words spoken by the President-elect about protesters with footage of battered Civil Rights activists. With the inauguration now looming at the end of the week, DuVernay’s 13th, as well as her future contributions to cinema, are even more vital than ever.
Sinéad McCausland: Lucile Hadžihalilović’s third feature film is a film that is hard to place into one specific category or genre. It could be a Bildungsroman, with the central character, a young boy named Nicolas (Max Brebant), existing in an alien world; an island where men seemingly don’t exist. The only people who inhabit this world are women and young boys; the young boys – including Nicolas – have to stay in a medical centre, where they are supposedly ‘cured’. As Evolution goes on, the viewer is submerged deeper and deeper into the unsettling – yet believable – world the director creates. Through Nicolas’ series of revelations, for example discovering the body of one of the boys from the medical facility, the film’s genres become blurred. Evolution is a Bildungsroman, a horror, a utopian nightmare, and a thriller. Most importantly, however, Evolution is captivating. Through Hadžihalilović’s and her cinematographer Manuel Dacosse’s vision, the colours of a dark, nightmarish sea fill the frame. With long shots often being used when characters are on the edge of revealing something and through the director’s ability to turn everyday objects into objects of fear, it often becomes hard to tell when we are out of the water.
Adult Life Skills
Siân Melton: I stumbled across writer/director Rachel Tunnard and her film Adult Life Skills when it premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. I edited an interview she did and based on her delightful answers, I decided she was the most amazing human ever and I would see her movie as soon as it opened in the UK. Fast-forward a few months and I was sat in a dark cinema watching the credits of her film roll in complete awe. Hilarious and heartbreaking, Adult Life Skills is the sort of film that has you laughing one minute and tearing up the next. It initially comes across as your typical, quirky sort of British comedy but it packs such a breathtaking, unexpected punch. The film is about a woman who has moved back home to live in her mum’s shed because of an early midlife crisis (as one does). Tunnard writes about being lost and the struggle to find yourself in such a meaningful, respectful way and still manages to squeeze a David Hasselhoff joke – a testament to her talents as a storyteller. Also I think you all need to know that the shed had a name it was “Dawn of the Shed.”
For more of the best of 2016, check out our #2016Review: