Now that awards season has come and gone, one of the most notable deficiencies in the hubbub have been recognition of films by women. Despite the dismal statistics in the film industry for female directors, 2016 has been a powerhouse for female-directed films focused on diverse and complex women. Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann were recognized at the Oscars, but there were plenty more that made the circuits at independent film festivals and awards shows. Here’s five amazing, noteworthy films that you might have missed last year:
1. Certain Women
When it comes to the American independent film scene, Kelly Reichardt might just be one of its brightest and most ingenious voices, despite being nowhere close to a household name. Yet she’s been directing films since 1994, and has continually been challenging the conventions of film language for years. Her most recent film, Certain Women, is a triptych exploring the lives of four women in Montana, starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, and newcomer actress Lily Gladstone. Reichardt’s deftness as a director is on display here, juggling the loosely connected but distinct character portraits, all while weaving disparate themes and maintaining a consistent tone and atmosphere. (She doesn’t really work in a certain genre, so to avoid confusion, hope you don’t mind that I took any mention of genre out!)
From 13th to Fire at Sea, it’s been a riveting and groundbreaking year for documentaries. But one of the year’s quieter films, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, delivers a just as powerful emotional gut punch, felt for hours after the film’s conclusion. An opening title card from the director explains that this is a patchwork of clips from different documentaries she’s been a camera operator for over the years, and should be considered as a memoir. More accurately, though, it is a story of human experience and struggle, as she finds common themes throughout the many different locations and people she’s filmed. And alongside the director, you as the viewer discover the story as well — perhaps one of the most gratifying journeys one can take in a film.
3. Queen of Katwe
Mira Nair has been a working filmmaker since the 1980s, delivering powerful stories about the Indian and Indian-American experience with such groundbreaking films as Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!, which was nominated in 1989 for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. She returned last year with the highly anticipated Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyewolo, based on the true life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess queen. It’s a fresh, innovative take on the sports underdog narrative, with powerful performances from the two main leads.
4. American Honey
Though Andrea Arnold only has four features under her belt, that in no way undercuts her as a talented director. Her best known films are Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, the latter a modern take on the classic Bronte novel. Arnold tends to focus on displaced, poor or working class, and difficult-to-like teenage girls, which is the focus of her new film, American Honey. Star, played by Sasha Lane, joins a “mag crew,” a group of young adults who travel the country selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door to suburban homes. Shia LaBeouf stars as Jake, a love interest who also involves himself with another girl. The resulting film is a fascinating coming-of-age story and in-depth exploration of the forgotten towns of the American landscape.
5. The Bad Batch
The Bad Batch is only director Ana Lily Amapour’s second film, but already she’s exploded onto the American independent film scene with her ribald irreverence and uncanny ability to mesh two or three genres into a seamless story. Her first film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, is an Iranian vampire western, which is every bit as awesome as it sounds, and she takes her experimentation to new heights with The Bad Batch. Suki Waterhouse stars as our steely-faced protagonist dropped in the midst of cannibal territory, trying to return cannibal Jason Momoa’s daughter back to him. Along the way, Keanu Reeves makes an appearance as a charming but manipulative cult leader. Amapour dares to throw every possible crazy idea she has into this movie, and it really pays off — aside from being one of the weirdest adventure movies you may ever watch, it is, at its core, a heartfelt love story. (If you have a queasy stomach, however, beware — there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie where our heroine is amputated by said cannibals.)
With such a strong and diverse showing from newer and veteran female filmmakers in 2016, one can only be optimistic about the years ahead. We need stories that treat women like complex, complicated, three-dimensional protagonists of the messy narrative called life — which is what a female perspective so often lends. Since many female directors thrive in the independent film sector, be sure to keep an eye out for smaller films coming out in 2017, and go out to your local movie theater to support the women behind them!