By Andrea Thompson
One great thing about 2018 was that women made a variety of spectacular films about a variety of topics, which varied from trying to lose their virginity, avoiding eviction, the effects of violence on the soul, or just growing up and growing away from a parent. The filmmakers below come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, as do their subjects. But they were all made with a skill and care that we felt warranted a place here on Film Girl Film’s best movies directed by women in 2018.
“Blockers” manages to do a lot with a premise the movie itself acknowledges is regressive, even as it just as swiftly points out how hard it can be for parents to be progressive about their daughters having sex. Because “Blockers” is in a very real way an anti-teen sex comedy, focusing more on the parents trying to stop their three daughters from gettin' it on once they accidentally discover they've all made a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. As the movie brings on the raunch, and somewhat formulaic zaniness, it manages to send a very progressive message about equality and how even the healthiest parental bonds can be strained by the simple facts of impending adulthood while also doing right by its male characters, showcasing established and emerging talent, and giving us a subplot with a lesbian love story. It's a tough balance for first time director Kay Cannon, who was mostly known for writing the “Pitch Perfect” movies. But she not only made it look easy, she kept the laughs coming the whole time.
9. Never Goin’ Back
Writer-director Augustine Frizzell's first feature film is a gross-out stoner comedy with a socially conscious heart that never demeans or stereotypes its teenage protagonists Jessie (Camila Morrone) and Angela (Maia Mitchell), two high school dropouts who make a series of increasingly idiotic decisions. The disastrous series of events is precipitated when they use their rent money to rent a house on the beach, assuring themselves that they can make up the money at their depressing waitress jobs in the even more depressing Texas town they reside in. Too bad their house gets robbed, the girls are arrested, and they lose their jobs. Rather than judge or focus on their lack of opportunities, Frizzell lets Jessie and Angela's friendship shine, allowing them to act like idiots in a genre typically reserved for men. Much like the rebellious duo it follows, “Never Goin' Back” refuses to offer any kind of reassurance that Jessie and Angela will make good and decide to do something with their lives, instead having them stumble on a decision that nevertheless has the potential to change them for the better and lead to better things.
8. The Tale
To say that the autobiographical HBO film “The Tale” is difficult viewing just might be the biggest understatement of 2018. Laura Dern plays the film's writer-director Jennifer, a documentary filmmaker who begins to reexamine a relationship she had in the 70s with her coach, Bill (Jason Ritter) when she was 13 and he was in his 40s. Jennifer had always considered it to be consensual, but as she reexamines her stories from the time and the course of her life since, she is forced to meditate on the nature of memory and how we survive trauma. Fox's writing is equal parts delicate, powerful, and nauseating as Jennifer graphically (but never exploitatively) relives her abuse, interviews people from her past, and comes to terms with the darkest time in her life, always refusing to allow her abusers define the narrative or herself.
7. Leave No Trace
Debra Granik's last narrative feature gave Jennifer Lawrence in a breakout role, and “Leave No Trace,” gives us another actress to watch in Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Tom, a teenager coming of age in a rural environment. She and her father Will (Ben Foster) are living an ideal, if mostly isolated life on a park in Portland, only to be discovered and taken back to civilization. Tom is able to adapt, but Will isn't, and he soon flees with her in the hopes of finding another secluded place to call home. More and more, Tom soon has to realize that her father will never feel her need for community, and she must finally follow a path that diverges from him. Granik brings their world to life, seamlessly incorporating the struggles of not only father and daughter, but other people living on the margins, many of whom are wrestling with addictions and traumas of their own.
6. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
After her first film “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” director Marielle Heller turns to another complex female protagonist in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Based on a memoir by Lee Israel, who is brilliantly played by Melissa McCarthy, Lee is a woman who has every right to be bitter. She's a writer who was once successful, but has fallen out of step with the 90s, the decade in which the film takes place. Or rather, she refuses to conform to expectations of female writers. She's middle-aged and uninterested in hiding it, a lesbian, and her look is stubbornly asexual. When she stumbles on an opportunity to make good by forging letters from deceased authors and playwrights, she decides to see how far she can go. And she is able to go quite far, aided by her only friend Jack Hock, a flamboyant petty criminal who is about as isolated as Lee. Heller and McCarthy know the stakes in Lee's story aren't very high, and they don't attempt to make Lee more likable or even remorseful in order to arouse our sympathy. What McCarthy and Heller would rather do is earn it, which they do, with a career-best performance from McCarthy that finds the vulnerability and humanity under Lee's prickly exterior.
When Sandi Tan was a little girl in Singapore, she was mesmerized by American movies and dreamed of making her own. In 1992 at the age of 20, she and a group of friends, along with her mentor and teacher, an American named Georges Cardona, decided to do just that, and “Shirkers” was born. A time capsule of the indie 90s film scene, Tan wrote and starred while Cardona directed, and she and her friends shot it using the scrappiest of filmmaking tools and styles of the young and hungry. Soon after, Cardona disappeared with the footage, leaving everyone devastated, especially Tan. Then the footage resurfaced 20 years later, only to find that the audio was lost forever. Accepting that her film “Shirkers” will never be restored, Sandi decided to revisit this time in her life and the circumstances around the making of the Singapore cult classic that never was. In the #MeToo era, there has been much rumination of the female filmmakers whose careers ended before they began, and Tan's life is a frustrating example of a young woman who never got to fully realize the dreams she put so much of herself into, mostly because she trusted the wrong person with them.
4. I Am Not A Witch
8-year-old Shula never utters the title phrase after she's accused of witchcraft, but it is a silent scream throughout. After she's blamed for an incident in her village, she's taken to a witch camp with other women who have been dubbed witches. Like the others, she is tied to a ribbon that's attached to a coil, and told that if she cuts the ribbon, she'll turn into a goat. In her feature length debut, director Rungano Nyoni, who was born in Zambia, wrings as much satire as pathos out of Shula's story. As Shula's status is exploited more and more, Shula first believes she can carve out a future for herself, only to see her hopes crumble as she witnesses every viable option devolve into a series of dead ends. Nyoni never condescends in her vision of Zambian society at any level, but her feminist vision and condemnation of a culture that seeks to blame its ills on unruly women shines fiercely throughout.
3. The Rider
Sometimes an outsider's perspective can make all the difference in making the oldest stories feel not just new, but heartbreaking. Chloé Zhao wrote, directed, and filmed this modern western on location in South Dakota mostly using non-actors, who play fictionalized versions of themselves. Zhao was born and raised in China, yet she is able to give a profoundly moving meditation on masculinity and meaning after Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) struggles to find direction and identity after he suffers a serious head injury on the rodeo circuit. Brady's quiet, measured performance is a wonder, speaking to the real struggles of a man devoted to his harsh yet beautiful home, the horses with whom he clearly has a gifted, almost magical touch. We don't want him to return to the life that nearly killed him, but we respect why he's drawn to it.
2. Madeline's Madeline
Teenage girls are getting to play more complicated characters on-screen, and breakout star Helena Howard takes on the teen experience and so much more in a gloriously layered role about a brilliant, troubled young actress whose performances in her theater troupe begin to spill over into her real life in myriad, painful ways. The climactic final scene where she attempts to take back control (or does she?) is one of the most memorable, awe-inspiring, and moving scenes of 2018.
1. You Were Never Really Here
If ever there was a righteous hero, it would normally be Joe (Joaquin Phoenix in a shattering performance). Not only does he rescue women and girls who have been trafficked, he's also a devoted son to his elderly mother. But director Lynne Ramsay has never been one to take a conventional storytelling route. So instead of another triumphant action story with a crusading hero, Lynne gives us a profound meditation on violence that has the kind of disturbingly intimacy that refuses to allow audiences to keep a comfortable distance that would allow them to vicariously enjoy the bloodshed. Joe is a traumatized, suicidal veteran who is struggling to cope not only with the violence he sees in his present, but the horrors of his past, which includes a childhood with a father who viciously abused him and his mother. In the end, Ramsay seems to indicate that sometimes a connection with another human being may be our only saving grace, however fragile that connection may be.