Written By: Morgan Roberts
Bio: Writer Morgan Roberts has been a film fan since birth. When she is not found at her local movie theater, she is probably talking about cinematography, “Xanadu,” or the new vinyls she bought. Other works can be found at In Their Own League and Filmotomy. Morgan is also the co-host of the podcast Untitled Cinema Gals Project (@CinemaGals). Her musings can be found on Twitter at (@msmlroberts).
Throughout the month of March, many have been celebrating Women’s History Month in various ways. My favorite way to celebrate is by watching films directed by women. It is still a struggle for women to make films - and even harder for women of color. So, celebrating the art they make, all of the work that went into championing their film is a fun way as a film fan to highlight women in the craft. So, here are 10 films made in the past 10 years to watch before the end of Women’s History Month.
1. The Novice (2021) dir. Lauren Hadaway
“The Novice” is frequently compared to films such as “Whiplash” and “Black Swan,” but this thriller about a perfection-obsessed rower has even higher stakes. Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a college freshman who joins her university’s novice rowing team. But where the films compared above have outside sources of stress and antagonism, Alex is both the heroine and villain of her own story. She is her own advocate and her worst enemy. The film is breathtaking. With exquisite cinematography by Todd Martin, director Lauren Hadaway possesses an incredible poise and vision in her directorial debut. Every frame feels purposeful. Everything builds upon itself until the tension becomes so palpable, you as the audience have a visceral reaction to it. “The Novice” is anchored by Fuhrman’s brilliant performance and it is evident that even with her own precise image, Hadaway gave Fuhrman the space to really go for it in every scene.
2. One Night in Miami… (2020) dir. Regina King
We are used to seeing films in the “male-gaze” but what happens when a film about four famous men is examined by a female director? What you get is the brilliant work found in Regina King’s directorial debut, “One Night in Miami…”. The film is about the true meeting of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) one evening in Miami. What unfolds is a postulation of the four men’s evening together; the conversations they had, the struggles and fears they expressed. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, Regina King uses the primary location brilliantly to allow her actors to convey their philosophies in a country which demonizes them. King has a strong eye on finding the humanity in each person in this hotel room. Adapting work from stage to screen is difficult, and King knocked it out of the park with her feature directorial debut.
3. Sword of Trust (2019) dir. Lynn Shelton
Like with other works by Lynn Shelton, “Sword of Trust” did not have a traditional screenplay. Instead, the screenplay is more of an outline of where the film’s structure and all of the dialogue is improvised. It’s typical of mumblecore, the film genre Shelton’s work has most been associated with. However, Shelton, who previously trained as an actor, knew how to assemble an impeccable cast. From comedian Marc Maron to “Saturday Night Live” alum Michela Watkins to comedic actress Jillian Bell, there is plenty of banter to go around. And the story itself is both absurd and grounded. Bell’s character inherits a sword from her deceased grandfather and a letter from him claims it proves the South won the Civil War. Bell then takes it to Maron’s pawn shop and their characters, along with Watkins who plays Bell’s partner and Jon Bass, whose character works at the pawn shop, go on a wild ride to sell this sword to people who believe in that nonsense. In addition to being funny, there are a number of heartfelt moments. Shelton was always a filmmaker who excelled at balancing multitudes of tone. It is a film that is equal parts heart and hilarity.
4. “Little Woods” (2018) dir. Nia DaCosta
Nia DaCosta’s neo-Western film “Little Woods,” tackles many of the struggles of women in the Midwest. Sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty. Ollie is trying to keep her mother’s house as a means to create financial security, but must come up with a huge sum of money before it is foreclosed upon. Meanwhile, Deb, already a single mother, has found herself pregnant and has to cross the border into Canada in order to terminate her pregnancy. DaCosta creates an ongoing air of tension throughout the film as the stakes continue to rise. She handles her central characters’ obstacles with delicacy and honesty. There is never a moment where the story shies away from the harsh realities of the area’s socioeconomics along with the gender-based issues Ollie and Deb face. It is a haunting and beautiful film about being both a damsel in distress and your own savior. Brimming with heart-wrenching performances and stunning cinematography, DaCosta’s feature film debut is a triumph.
5. “Yes, God, Yes” (2020) dir. Karen Maine
There have been plenty of films about high school boys and young men being horny. Those types of films have been made for years. But films about high school girls and young women understanding their sexuality are a little bit harder to find. In Karen Maine’s “Yes, God, Yes,” Alice (Natalia Dyer) is having a hard time understanding it all. Going to a Catholic school in the Midwest isn’t exactly the best place to receive any form of sex education. Maine’s film is funny and awkward and earnest. You are transported back in time not just to your own youth but to the early 2000s, when your parents would wonder why the first VHS tape of “Titanic” was played more often than the first. The film steers clear of shame, and instead deconstructs the absurdity of ignominy of female sexuality. Coming of age films aren’t new nor necessarily uncommon. But what that gleams normalize high school girls trying to understand their sexuality isn’t something seen on screen very often; and when it is explored, many times, it is done with a male-gaze. “Yes, God, Yes” is a reclaiming of that for teenagers and young women.
6. “13th” (2016) dir. Ava DuVernay
Documentary filmmaking is an artform of providing education through challenging status quo ideas. Ava DuVernay’s documentary feature “13th” explores America’s racist past and how white supremacy continues to permeate culture, education, and government. DuVernay’s film examines how the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution did not end slavery but evolved into new means of exploiting and imprisioning Black Americans. Historians, scholars, and activists break down the ways in which white supremacy has continued to oppress Black people. They shine light on the Reconstruction Era, Woodrow Wilson’s presidency and his admiration from the racist him “Birth of a Nation,” and goes into more recent history such as the Prison Industrial Complex, the War on Drugs, and much, much more. Coming off of 2014’s “Selma,” DuVernay allowed this documentary film to exist both as an educational tool and a cautionary tale - the latter of which America did not heed. It balances interviews, archival footage, and art to weave together an intricate story and perspective. It is an achievement in documentary filmmaking.
7. Nomadland (2020) dir. Chloe Zhao
“Nomadland” isn’t flashy. It is not a film you white-knuckle during twists and turns. Instead, it’s a nuanced and sincere look at real people existing in a space outside of societal constructs. They are going from campground to campground, gig job to gig job. They are nomads. All the roads they take look different but sometimes they’re joined at various crossroads. Director Chloe Zhao won an Academy Award for this film. Rightfully so. Zhao knows how to frame humanity. She sees how precious, magical, and complicated it is. With lead actress Frances McDormand, Zhao creates a film about healing and existence, about reconciliation and forgiveness. McDormand is sublime in this film. You really feel her earnestness and the care she has for her character. You get a real understanding that this film is more than gawking at people who choose nomadic lives, but a cinematic experience daring to join them, even if for only a couple of hours. It is a breathtaking movie that shines compassion and love on what makes people human.
8. In a World… (2013) dir. Lake Bell
Films that focus on an aspect of the industry are always interesting. It either shows a filmmaker’s blind spot in what is really happening, or, like in “In a World…” it sheds light on areas needing some improvement. The film follows Carol (Lake Bell) who is a dialect coach aiming to become a voiceover artist. After watching this film, you will start to ponder how often a commercial or trailer has a female voice. And the film is all about the female voice, the female perspective. Serving as writer and director as well, Bell has immersed herself into the work of voiceover artistry and how in that field - and many others - women’s voices are somehow seen as less than. And while it tackles sexism in the industry, Bell manages to balance humor and romance into the film as well. It is quick-witted one minute before the will-they-won’t-they duo duet “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” at karaoke. What makes this film additionally impressive is how effortless everything feels. Bell has a strong vision as she navigates tones and topics in a smart manner. It is hard to not fall in love with it.
9. The Farewell (2019) dir. Lulu Wang
Based on her family’s secret, director Lulu Wang brings to life this beautiful film about identity and love. When Billi (Awkwafina) learns her grandmother (Zhao Shu-zhen) has terminal cancer, she returns to China for a family gathering that is designed for everyone to say goodbye to Nai-Nai. The kicker? Nai-Nai doesn’t know that she’s dying. And with that, we join Billi as she struggles to understand the decisions of her family - not just in regards to her grandmother but in the choices that impacted the trajectory of her life. Billi is an Asian-American woman. She’s not white, so she’s not seen as being truly American, but due to her Western perspective, her Asian family regularly disregards her thoughts on the matter. It truly highlights a struggle for identity that I, as a white person, can only imagine takes place for people of color, immigrants, and children of immigrants. Even with that struggle and a young woman coming to terms with the inevitable death of her grandmother, Wang finds a way to pepper in moments of humor. Every inch of this film feels well-lived in. It makes sense. It’s a story close to Wang’s heart.
10. Obvious Child (2014) dir. Gillian Robespierre
Who knew abortions can be funny! In Gillian Robespierre’s directorial debut, stand-up comedienne Donna (Jenny Slate) learns she is pregnant after a one night stand. From Donna’s opening stand-up routine to a scene of her panicked brain trying to understand how she could be pregnant, these moments are all laugh out loud funny. But when Donna isn’t drunk calling her ex-boyfriend, leaving mini-podcast episodes in his voicemail, she is also having to navigate a scary moment. It’s refreshing to see a film where there is no struggle on whether or not she’s going to have an abortion. Instead, we see the realities of the cost of pregnancy termination, the waiting game if your pregnancy is still a little too early, and the emotional support needed to quiet that patriarchal representative in your brain. It is moving to see the people who surround and support her. And even in a comedic film about abortion, Robespierre manages to balance a sweet romantic arch into the mix. Every moment of this film feels purposeful. And you can watch it a million times and still laugh at every joke.
There are obviously so many other films made by women that add so much to cinema. In the changing landscape of film, where female voices are being added, it is always great to take a moment to celebrate the work they are doing. I know it can sound reductive to talk about “female filmmakers” and films directed by women, but when women are regularly recognized at awards ceremonies for their works or the entirety of female superhero films don’t rest on the shoulders of one woman, then we can quit using those terms. In the meantime, I will continue to use female filmmakers and talk about films directed by women, presenting them as badges of honor, that, despite the odds, their slice of cinematic magic was made. And while we’re at it, share with us the films directed by women that you enjoy.
Happy Women’s History Month!