Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma

New Films by Women — March 6, 2020

From film critics and students to regular moviegoers, a lot of people I know are actively seeking films directed by women. While there are great historical compilations and year-end articles, I can’t find anything highlighting these films on a more regular basis. These movies rarely get the same platforms and advertising that films by men do. Even with a number of event movies directed by women this year, the majority are still being directed by men. An indie film or low-budget movie by a man is still more likely to see a wide release or awards campaign that lets the audience know it exists.

This feature is meant to be useful in a practical way – to help people choose what they want to see. That means it’ll cover what’s new and what’s still in theaters (based on U.S. release dates). Newer and expanding releases will be at the top.

I’m also aware of the impact of coronavirus. In the coming weeks and months, we might not want to head to theaters as often as we have. I’ve listed new and recent original titles on streaming services that are directed by women as well.

NEW AND EXPANDING

Emma.
directed by Autumn de Wilde

Director Autumn de Wilde has been a chameleon of a music video director for the last two decades. She’ll film in complicated sets and hard-to-use locations in ways that characters move through naturally. There’s an incredible amount of technical bravado in her music videos, which she hides smoothly so the performances in them can take center stage. Her most striking and sobering work is Florence + The Machine’s “Big God”.

She has a wicked sense of humor that’s well suited to a Jane Austen adaptation. She finds visual ways to quickly undermine or support characters. A tea party in a lake in King Charles’s “Mississippi Isabel” communicates the un-reliability of the singer’s narrative. On the other hand, consider how Sarah Silverman introduces a 1970s variety show version of Jenny Lewis performing “Rise Up with Fists!!” It mirrors how Lewis presents subversion and anger within a beguilingly traditional musical style.

Bringing these sensibilities to an adaptation of “Emma” is exciting. Watch the trailer and it looks exquisitely designed, but the characters all move through it naturally. This is a director I’ve wanted to see put up a feature for a long time.

“Emma.” has been in limited release for two weeks now, but is expanding into theaters on a larger scale this weekend.

First Cow
directed by Kelly Reichardt

If you know Kelly Reichardt’s name, it’s from character dramas that feel quietly real. They can be both affirming and heartbreaking. Her best known film is “Wendy and Lucy”, about a woman who’s living in poverty and loses her dog.

“First Cow” is about a cook and a Chinese immigrant in the 1800s. They start a business with a cow whose milk they don’t own.

Some directors can present entire worlds with all their loudness and complexity. Reichardt is a director who finds in quietness the world inside a character – worlds we may never know because we overlook the types of people her stories are about. Witnessing their daily lives communicates what should be an obvious humanity that we otherwise pass by and ignore in real life.

She’s often shown a fascination with frontiers, harsh living, the dreams and determination of people who live on the edge. She doesn’t glorify poverty, though. She just remembers the people who are often numbers and causes are still people – something movies are not usually terribly good at doing.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
directed by Celine Sciamma

Celine Sciamma delivers masterpieces. There’s no other way of putting it. I highlighted her film “Girlhood” as my third best film of the 2010s. Her films often address characters who are non-binary or gender-fluid. She’s a director who can deftly fold touches of magical realism into scenes in ways that feel so real and natural we don’t even think to question what just happened.

Her films seem to have heightened senses, storytelling patience, themes that constantly show themselves rather than being told to you. She delivers masterpieces, and there’s a strong argument she’s the best director working right now.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is essentially in limited release, but was still expanding into more theaters last weekend. It should still be in a number of independent and art house theaters.

Guilty (Netflix)
directed by Ruchi Narain

This is an Indian film by director Ruchi Narain. A songwriter’s boyfriend is accused of rape and what follows plays out both on a personal level and in the media. It’s a bit difficult to get as much information about the film as I’d like, but it’s supposed to look into aspects of victim-blaming. It’s advertised along the lines of a thriller over whether the accusation is real or not. That gives me some pause. I don’t know how it intends to handle an accusation like this. I’m wary of the potential of a twist that might undermine belief in the victim, though this worry could be unfounded just because of the “thriller” nature of how it’s being advertised.

Knives and Skin (Hulu)
directed by Jennifer Reeder

This is one of the stranger ones on here. At first it seems it’s straight out of the vaporwave horror movement. The trailer reminds me quite a lot of “Lost River”, which most critics panned and I loved. It’s also reminiscent of “It Follows” and “Donnie Darko”. That may be the trailer trying to capitalize on those connections, but it’s hard to tell if the satirical throughline is more openly comedic than in those movies. All these films take place in a heightened sense of a satirized reality, but they still take themselves seriously enough to be tense and frightening – and films like this usually don’t get the kinds of theatrical pushes they deserve.

RECENT RELEASES

Birds of Prey
directed by Cathy Yan

I’ve written extensively on what I think is the best superhero movie we’ve had out of the various ongoing extended universes. The film about villain/anti-hero Harley Quinn is subversive, colorful, and forthright. Director Cathy Yan gives us some of the most creative set designs and fight scenes in the genre, while Margot Robbie delivers a generationally great action-comedy performance.

If you want to know a bit more, read my review. If you’ve seen the film, read these articles that examine its influences and the backstory of its director and producer.

The Photograph
directed by Stella Meghie

I don’t know much about director Stella Meghie. She comes over from production and TV direction. “The Photograph” is a romantic drama that wraps two love stories together – one in the present and one in the past. A woman estranged from her famous mother learns of her death. She begins to learn about her mother’s life, while also falling for the journalist investigating it.

System Crasher (Netflix)
directed by Nora Fingscheidt

This is a German drama about a nine year-old girl who needs mental health issues addressed before returning to her mother. It was Germany’s entry for the Oscars under Best International Feature Film (previously the award was called Best Foreign Language Film). It earned nominations in the European Film Awards under Best Film, Best Actress, and the University Award (an award voted on by students).

The Assistant
directed by Kitty Green

“The Assistant” is director Kitty Green’s debut. It follows an assistant as she grows ever more aware of her boss’s sexual abuses. It’s only been in limited release in a few hundred theaters, and that number seems to be diminishing. If you can find an indie theater presenting it, I’ve heard that it’s a fairly harrowing and realistic take. It’s probably one of the last weekends you’ll be able to see it on the big screen.

Little Women
directed by Greta Gerwig

The most recent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel was nominated for six Oscars, including best film, screenplay, music, lead actres (Saoirse Ronan), and supporting actress (Florence Pugh). It won for costume design. Many felt Gerwig was in particular overlooked under best director. It’s still in many theaters if you want to catch it there.

Frozen II
co-directed by Jennifer Lee

The juggernaut that is the “Frozen” franchise continues. This was released in November last year and it’s still in a number of theaters. The franchise is luckily one of those things that children and adults can enjoy without rolling their eyes at the other one.

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