Hunt for the Womenpeople: 2016 Films by Female Directors

Lots of 2016 top movie lists have been flying around the internet in the last couple of weeks. Me, I want to talk about the best movies that came out this year directed by women. Not a lot of women get hired to direct Hollywood movies – only about 9% of movies released are directed by women. And despite the work of those who do break through, few female directors are considered “auteurs” by the mostly male film critics who appear to decide such things.

Believe me, it’s not because women don’t make great movies. I made a conscious decision to watch more films by women this year. And I did, but honestly, it was annoying how hard it was to do so. I saw a lot of movies this year – 37 during the two weeks of the Vancouver International Film Festival alone! – and only 13 of the 2016 films I watched were directed by women. These are (for the most part) small movies with limited distribution. If you don’t live in a big city with a festival or an art house theatre, access is tougher and you might never have even heard of them.
The films listed below are not “women’s movies” or “chick flicks.” They may have been made by women, but they were made for wide audiences and represent a multitude of genres, perspectives and messages. These films are worth watching. Pay to see them if you can – they need the numbers more than the latest blockbuster.

1. Cameraperson – Kirsten Johnson
Compiled of unused footage from 15 years-worth of documentary cinematography and home movies, Johnson has essentially created a whole new documentary form – the visual memoir. For all its pieces and time jumps, it has a beautiful and coherent flow. This movie is brilliant. I laughed, I cried, I even forgot to breathe in one scene! Amazing, amazing, amazing. I can’t stop thinking about this film.

2. The Fits – Anna Rose Holmer
Coming of age film that captures that pre-adolescent combination of longing and fear related to growing up. A young tomboy joins a girls’ dance troop and one by one the girls succumb to a mysterious illness. The tension and mystery are the perfect metaphor for the cusp of adolescence and Royalty Hightower, the young lead, is extraordinary.

3. 13th – Ava Duvernay
Documentary examining the over-incarceration of African American men in the US. Traces this phenomenon from the 13th Amendment (the abolition of slavery included an exemption – forced labour was still allowed for anyone convicted of a crime), through Jim Crow, the beginning in the 1970s of political campaign scare tactics on crime and public safety that facilitated the targeting of poor, black neighbourhoods, and finally the explosion of the private prison industry in the US. I’m still blown away that she managed to tie all of these threads together in such a clear, coherent way. Must see. And on Netflix so it’s easy to find.

4. American Honey – Andrea Arnold
It’s no accident that she uses Rhianna’s “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” more than once in this soundtrack – this film finds beauty in some very ugly places. It’s kind of like Harmony Korine’s Kids on a roadtrip but less depressing. A little less depressing. You’re still watching a group of kids getting ripped off by their employer while they make questionable choices. There are some definite uncomfortable bits. But unlike Kids, there is joy and heart and empowerment too. Sasha Lane is amazing.

5. Toni Erdmann – Maren Ade
A father visits his workaholic adult daughter unannounced to check up on her. When he is worried she is unhappy, he stays on with a wig and false teeth and pretends to be a life coach to try to inject some humour and fun into her life. At first she is horrified, then begins to buy into the joke. Full of absurd comedy, but ultimately about an alienated and estranged father and daughter who find their way back to each other and to themselves.

6. Prevenge – Alice Lowe
Dark black comedy/horror about a pregnant woman whose unborn baby encourages her to kill people. She plays with so many tropes about pregnancy and womanhood and subverts all of them. Not for the squeamish but if you like very black comedy, you will dig this.

7. The Love Witch – Anna Biller
Talk about your female auteurs! Biller did almost everything on this film – writing, production and costume design, directing, editing… This is absolutely her own vision. Visually stunning, super campy, subversive film about love and relationships.

8. Things to Come – Mia Hansen-Love
This is a quiet film about change, loss, and resilience. Isabelle Huppert is genius and she gives us a beautifully rounded character who is strong and intellectual as well as compassionate and emotional. Nathalie is a philosophy teacher whose life is turned upside down by a number of major life changes that happen all around the same time.

9. Koneline – Nettie Wild
Some beautiful footage of parts of Northern BC most of us will never see in person. Wild wanted to take a more poetic, fluid look at the contested places and actors in a region where industry and the health of residents and the environment are often at odds, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about where they stand.

10. All This Panic – Jenny Gage
Dreamy camera work and frank discussions in this doc capture that period of discovery and uncertainty as three girls try to figure out who they are and what they want while under pressure to decide their whole futures by the end of high school. They escape into college or drugs or relationships and vacillate wildly between egotism and insecurity. Challenges our nostalgia and our ideas about the younger generation.

11. Sonita – Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
A documentary about a young Afghani girl whose family’s desire to sell her into marriage threatens her dream of becoming a rapper. We need more films like this to introduce us to the experiences of women and girls in other parts of the world. This film also shows us an interesting conundrum for filmmakers: if the subject of your documentary needs your help, financial or otherwise, do you help or maintain an observational distance?

12. The Invitation – Karen Kusama
A man and his girlfriend are invited to his ex-wife’s dinner party. Is something not quite right? Or is it all in his head? This is a very slow burn until the last 20 minutes but i think that contributes to how effective it is.

13. The Intervention – Clea Duvall
Fluffy Big Chill-inspired comedy/drama with a loveable cast. Scored points from me for reuniting But I’m a Cheerleader’s Clea Duvall and Natasha Lyonne – my favourite movie lesbian couple of all time.

Other 2016 movies directed by women that I haven’t seen yet but desperately want to:
Certain Women – Kelly Reichardt
We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice – Alanis Obomsawin
Window Horses – Ann Marie Fleming
The Bad Batch – Ana Lily Amirpour
Maggie’s Plan – Rebecca Miller
Queen of Katwe – Mira Nair
Weiner – Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman
Paint it Black – Amber Tamblyn