This year, not a single woman was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. I wish I could say that it was a disappointment: there has only been a woman nominee in five (!!) of the 91 years that the Oscars have existed, and only one winner. And this isn’t due to a shortage of talent behind the camera, because I had to make ten or fifteen painful cuts from this list. These ten films, directed fantastically by ten women, deserve some attention.
LEAVE NO TRACE by Debra Granik (Available on Amazon)
This one, for me, is the most galling omission. I don’t want to say too much about the plot of Leave No Trace, beyond that it revolves around a father and daughter living in the wilderness and subsequently being thrust into modern society. The joy of watching this film, apart from watching the terrific debut of Thomasin McKenzie, is seeing Debra Granik reveal new details about its scenario, never allowing you to feel just one way about this duo. This film possesses all the visual flair of Granik’s previous film Winter’s Bone but adds a substantial emotional core that wasn’t present before. The road to its heartbreaking ending (perhaps the most heartbreaking of the year) is paved with few elements and fewer words, building poetry only out of what is necessary: the mark of a master filmmaker.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN by Claire Denis (Available on Amazon)
The French title, like always, is way better. Un Beau Soleil Intérieur, meaning “a beautiful sun within,” is much more evocative of both the film’s plot and its ethos. Juliette Binoche shines as Isabelle, an artist in Paris who’s resumed dating after the dissolution of her marriage. It begins comically as a guided tour through the worst men in France, but evolves into a loving portrait of companionship and loneliness in middle age. Claire Denis’ touch has never been lighter, but the thoughtful gorgeousness of her frames (as well as her repeated use of the song At Last by Etta James) shines through. She directed this while killing time, getting ready to make this year’s High Life (which, by all accounts, is insane), and so it has largely earned the critical designation ‘minor’. That a film this terrifically funny, emotional, and insightful can be considered minor is a testament that Claire Denis is one of the most essential and exciting filmmakers alive.
MADELINE’S MADELINE by Josephine Decker (Available on Amazon)
In the six months since I saw this film at Fantasia Film Festival, I haven’t stopped thinking about its disorienting, almost seasick cinematography, and the boldness of its free-associative editing. Upon a re-watch, I realized that as glowing of a review I gave it, I was still underrating the performances. This film’s trio of conflicting women is just as prickly, codependent, and toxic as the one depicted in The Favourite. Miranda July and Molly Parker are both equal parts trustworthy and devious, always credible in their soul-sucking claims to Madeline’s identity. Helena Howard fully commits to her multiple volcanic expressions of stress and rage, but modulates them expertly between moments of quiet stewing and joyful dance. With apologies to Elsie Fisher, this is the best acting debut of 2018.
MILLA by Valerie Massadian (Available on iTunes)
Milla is the most under-discussed film of the year: a tender portrayal of a French couple squatting in a house by the beach. It is particularly unfathomable that people are ignoring Valerie Massadian’s superlative direction: she is always finding the exact right corner of a small room to frame her characters, the exact right light to cast them in, and expertly navigates her infrequent trips from realism into surrealism. This film’s slow pace and ascetic story (there are three characters, and nothing really happens in the first 45 minutes) probably alienated many people, but they are the exact right choice. This is the most empathetic and compassionate film of 2018, a year with no shortage of brilliant films about families on the fringe of poverty.
PEPE LE MORSE by Lucrece Andreae (Available on Vimeo)
My favourite short film of the year is this absurdly funny, stunningly animated French film about the peculiar mourning of a beach-bum grandfather. I don’t want to give away its jokes, so I’ll only say two more things: it’s fifteen minutes, and it’s free. Whaddya need, a road map?
PRIVATE LIFE by Tamara Jenkins (Available on Netflix)
Despite its newfound subject matter – the tribulations of middle-aged conception and adoption – at heart, this film is an old-fashioned New Work dramedy, with a large cast of character actors (Giamatti! Hahn! Shannon!) having passionate conversations rife with wit about topics big and small. Private Life’s witty and melancholy story bristles with intimate and minute detail, not just about the process of conception and adoption, but about life in changing New York, about family gatherings, about relatively obscure authors and playwrights, and the sum of these details is a film that feels more alive than any of the “universal” dramas nominated for awards.
THE RIDER by Chloe Zhao (Available on Google Play)
The most simple and elemental film on this list, Chloe Zhao’s modern western is hyper-focused on one man, newcomer Brady Jandreau, and one question about that man: will he get back on the horse after a head injury that might end his riding forever? Though it’s a narrative film, this exact thing happened to the real Brady Jandreau, and you can feel the authenticity in every frame. It’s stunningly composed, perfectly edited, and attuned so well to its small community of competitive riders that it’s almost unfathomable that Zhao isn’t a cowgirl herself.
WESTERN by Valeska Griesbach (Available on Amazon)
There are no cowboys in Western but there’s a horse, a village full of natives, a bunch of labourers, and a struggle between them. It’s just that the workers are Germans, they’re in Bulgaria building a power plant, and the tensions between them never erupt into a standoff at high noon. Like Leave No Trace, I don’t want to reveal too much about Western since the pleasure of the film is watching it redefine itself scene by scene, sometimes shot by shot. Its slow pace allows for ample time for themes to ruminate and tension to sizzle. It’s the most rich film of the year, one you’ll want to return to as soon as it’s over.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE by Lynne Ramsay (Available on Amazon)
Lynne Ramsay’s new fever-dream-revenge-film is as good an introduction to her style as you’ll get; somehow both minimalist, in that almost all exposition and connective tissue is omitted, and maximalist, in the sense that every image is mind blowing and every jump cut is like a punch in the face. Ramsay’s gaze typically frames ordinary objects in unfamiliar and uncomfortable ways, and her realignment of the traditional revenge story highlights both the brutality and the sadness of Joaquin Phoenix’s bloody quest. This is my favourite type of cinematic mindfuck: you’re never in doubt as to what’s happening, but you also cannot believe what you are seeing.
ZAMA by Lucrecia Martel (Available on Amazon)
I would’ve saved this one for last even if the alphabet hadn’t made me: this is the best directed film of 2018, constantly controlled and perfectly composed even as it takes wild left turns. The film follows the Spanish colonizer Diego de Zama in Guyana, but crucially does not share his chauvinistic perspective. The action of the plot follows his quest to get reassigned, which turns from irritating to existential as he “loses” more and more of himself to the land. Peer around the margins and you will always see the eyes of native people, judging and ridiculing him for his pathological entitlement and lust. It demands to be watched and re-watched and pondered over, with a jaw-dropping finale that re-contextualizes everything that came before. It’s also a fantastic entry point into Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s filmography: all four of her films are like nothing else I’ve ever seen, and they’re not even like each other.