2018 in Review: Outstanding Woman-Directed Films by Rebecca Pahle

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Every year, San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film puts out their “Celluloid Ceiling” report—a by-the-numbers rundown of the state of women creatives in the film and TV industries, both behind and in front of the camera. The stats in 2018 were dire: Only eight percent of the year’s top 250 films were directed by women, down from eleven percent in 2017.

If you’re scratching your head at the problem of lack of female representation among movie directors… there’s a movie for that! Half the Picture, directed by Amy Adrion, utilizes input from a slew of women directors—including Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Martha Coolidge, and Penelope Spheeris—to craft a deft primer on the ways in which Hollywood discriminates against woman directors.

The boy’s club mentality of Hollywood may try and keep women at arm’s length, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 didn’t give us some top-tier films by women directors. Alongside Half the Picture on the documentary side of things is Free Solo, co-directed by the husband-and-wife duo of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who also collaborated on the 2015 mountain-climbing doc Meru. Chin and Vasarhelyi returned to the great outdoors for Free Solo, documenting the journey of free solo climber Alex Honnold to climb the El Capitan Wall in Yosemite. “Free solo,” by the way, means Honnold’s doing the climbing without the assistance of ropes or safety equipment. One slip, and he dies. The film does an excellent job of building up to its subject’s final climb, lulling audiences with a false sense of security—oh, he slipped, but it was only a practice run, so he’s fine—before pummeling audiences’ nerves in the third act.

Director Sandi Tan turned in not just one of the best documentaries, but one of the best films of the year, with Shirkers. The film is highly personal: In 1992 Tan, with two of her friends, set out to make what would have been one of Singapore’s first independent films. Then her teacher/mentor, an older man named Georges who had glommed onto the trio while they were at school, took their footage and ran. Decades later, Tan tries to piece together what happened: Who Georges really was, who else he scammed, and what could have become of their lost film.

A specific premise is rendered universal—not to mention timely—because we all know a Georges: A narcissist who goes through life taking advantage of people with more talent than him, puffing himself as some sort of maestro because he knows that, deep down, he is a deeply mediocre man.

Another woman to bring a thoroughly modern vision to the screen is Kay Cannon, whose Blockers offered up a sex-positive version of teenage female adolescence. In the film, a trio of parents desperate to stop their teenage daughters from having sex on prom night come to realize that, actually, their teenage daughters have it handled and they should probably butt out. (Also, John Cena butt-chugs.) Blockers and Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before are both youth-oriented comedies (a rom-com, in To All the Boys’ case) that don’t try to be particularly artsy or deep. What they are, however, is representations of solid, brisk, fun films.

Two other women who brought coming-of-age stories to the big screen in 2018 are Debra Granik and Lisa Brühlmann, directors of Leave No Trace and Blue My Mind, respectively. In Leave No Trace, teenage Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, giving one of the year’s breakout performances) lives in a forest with her father (Ben Foster), a veteran who is emotionally incapable of being around people. By the end of the film, Tom has had to come to terms with the way in which her needs differ from those of her father. The protagonist of fantasy thriller Blue My Mind also has to traverse the boundary between adolescence and adulthood. She also turns into a mermaid.

These four coming-of-age/teen films—Blockers, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Leave No Trace, and Blue My Mind—are all quite different, representing the need for an increased number of women filmmakers willing to craft their own unique stories.

Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) directed one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films with Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Melissa McCarthy turns against type—and gives a near career-best performance (that honor still belongs to Spy)—as Lee Israel, a once-successful writer who turns to literary forgery when her own work fails to yield the financial resources and recognition of her talents she needs. Richard E. Grant is rightly being tapped as an Oscar frontrunner for playing Lee’s shifty-yet-charismatic best friend Jack Hock.

Andrea Riseborough turns in one of her three outstanding 2018 performances in Christina Choe’s debut feature Nancy, which eschews melodrama for nuanced character work and is all the better for it. Nuance is thrown aside in favor of balls-to-the-wall insanity in Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, in which a young woman (Matilda Lutz) embarks on a bloody quest for vengeance after she’s raped during a holiday weekend. Rape-revenge movies are nothing new, but Revenge sets itself apart by its lack of male gaze. Fargeat, who also wrote Revenge, focuses more on her protagonist’s strength than her sexuality. Bloody and brutal, Revenge is a welcome addition to the already-busting canon of horror films directed by women.

And the best for last. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay turned in yet another masterpiece with You Were Never Really Here, my choice for the best film of the year. Like her other films, You Were Never Really Here is about an isolated person searching for some type of connection. Here, that person is an emotionally stunted hitman, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), changed with rescuing the kidnapped daughter of a prominent politician. It’s a plot steeped in pulp, and the film has the action elements you’d expect—but it adds a sense of true artistry and immersiveness, aided by year-best sound design that perfectly conveys Joe’s dual sense of being overwhelmed by the outside world and yearning to be in some way a part of it. The better part of a year after its theatrical release, it’s still the 2018 film that has the profoundest emotional affect on me.