In a couple short months, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may award the Oscar for Best Picture to “The Irishman” (which faced controversy after actress Anna Paquin delivered only one line of dialogue), “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (which faced controversy after Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate only received a few lines of dialogue), or “1917” (which faced no controversy, but nevertheless only featured one female character, and only briefly). Other potential Best Picture nominees “Ford v Ferrari” and “Joker” featured only a few female characters between them. Neither passed the famed Bechdel Test (in fact, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is the only movie mentioned above that does, and only barely).
It’s more important than ever to highlight films that are either about women or made by women (serving as screenwriter, director, etc.). Below, in no particular order, are ten films that released in 2019 that I believe did the most to showcase the talents of the fairer sex.
Lulu Wang knew that someday she would write and direct this story, based on her family’s true-to-life experience visiting their ailing matriarch in China without telling her she was going to die. Shuzhen Zhao, in her American first film role, has earned a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination playing Nai Nai. Awkwafina, the Asian American actress and rapper (look up her stuff, it’s great) who broke out big in last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” plays the granddaughter who struggles with the idea of visiting her grandmother without telling her the full truth about her health. Both make “The Farewell” one of the year’s best movies, one anchored by the strength of the three women who brought the project to life.
Toy Story 4
Certainly, the “Toy Story” franchise has featured strong female characters before. Andy’s little sister never took any shit from her brother. When Jessie came on the scene in “Toy Story 2,” she was seen as a headstrong maverick. She was given a rich backstory, right alongside Woody. But it wasn’t until “Toy Story 4” that we saw a fully realized, utterly independent female character in Bo Peep. Yes, Bo Peep, who in “Toy Story” seemingly lived to woo Woody, who was so glued to her place in Andy’s sister’s room because she was actually part of a lamp. That she, of all characters, became the most free-spirited character in the franchise’s history makes it all the more exciting. Sure, it took 20 years to get us here (she was absent from 2010’s “Toy Story 3”), but we got there with the help of three female screenwriters.
Beyoncé made her directing debut when she brought this concert documentary to Netflix. “Homecoming,” which intercuts footage from her 2018 Coachella performance with backstage footage and interviews, has girl power written all over it. It’s the very definition of girl power. Who runs the world? Find your answer within.
“Hustlers” takes back control of the stripper narrative. Nine times out of ten, when you see a strip club in a movie, the movie is not presenting the most nuanced depiction of its female characters. “Hustlers” plays like one of Tarantino’s revenge thrillers, without as much blood. But writer/director Lorene Scafaria isn’t stooping for cheap thrills. Her film, based on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article, is well-acted (Jennifer Lopez deserves an Oscar nomination) and shot and edited with a gritty beauty. But above all, it shows four women who have full control over their actions. What a joy to behold.
Ready or Not
“Ready or Not,” on its face, seems like a pretty crappy pick for this list. Written by two men, directed by two other men, and centering around a massive “Most Dangerous Game”-style hunt where a beautiful young bride is the prey, “Ready or Not” could’ve been a sexist exploitation film. But Grace is given the physical and mental strength to overcome this adversity spectacularly, while still showing the vulnerable side that makes her realistic. Not pitiable, but empathetic.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, one of only a few black female directors with a theatrical release in 2019, “Harriet” tells the necessary story of Harriet Tubman. Harriet was a badass. It’s maddening to think of all the mediocre white men who got the big screen treatment before her. The next step: getting her face on the twenty dollar bill.
The second film on this list that finds a female writer/director mulling her own life story for narrative inspiration, “The Souvenir” tells the frustrating story of director Joanna Hogg’s college life, and early (and troubled) relationship with an abusive man. The film is gorgeously shot and beautifully acted by Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, and Tilda Swinton (in a smaller role).
Did “Booksmart” pass the opposite of the Bechdel Test, having two named male characters who talk about something other than girls? I’m not sure. But I am sure that few high school movies have ever spoken to the adult-me like director Olivia Wilde’s hilarious party comedy did. Was there a more female-driven film this year? Four female screenwriters worked together to give actors Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein some terrific material to work with.
Disney’s “Frozen II” takes Elsa’s story in the most natural direction, but also the one you’re most surprised to see. It’s a rare course of action from a studio who often takes the easy way out (because they can afford to). “Frozen II” is a more thoughtful and mature Disney movie than we’re used to, and Anna and Elsa’s character arcs are all the better for it. Plus, Kristoff gets the most wonderfully unexpected moment of feminism, letting his girlfriend and her sister take center stage without feeling jaded. For a Disney princess movie, a male character who is most decidedly not pushy and awful to women is a big win, in my opinion.
Knock Down the House
Director Rachel Lears’s documentary, about four women running for Congress in 2018, could have ended miserably, with a reminder that America remains unwilling to lift a woman to a seat of high power. And, in some ways, that is how the movie ends. But then there’s the exception–and what an exception–Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The message–that for one woman to succeed, she needs to work ten times harder than a man and sometimes see her female compatriots fail–is disheartening, but extends far beyond politics. For every list of movies directed by women, there’s a far longer list of female-directed projects that still lay in wait. Here’s to hoping Hollywood comes around sooner than later and gives more of these talented filmmakers a fighting chance.