Lunacy Productions’ Rust Creek is one of the best reviewed films of the new year, and we couldn’t be more proud of the great work from our talented director, Jen McGowan.
But before we say goodbye to 2018, we thought it might be fun to take a look back at our favorite films of last year directed by women. From indie darlings to female-centric comedies, award favorites to major blockbusters, 2018 was a great year for female filmmakers.
Here are ten that we highly recommend!
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Director Marielle Heller followed her 2015 indie hit, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, with one of the most critically-acclaimed films of 2018, Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Heller tells the real-life story of Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy), a failing writer who resurrects her career by forging letters from deceased celebrities. Richard E. Grant is along for the ride as Jack Hock, Lee’s partner in crime.
Heller brings out some wonderful performances from McCarthy and Grant, with McCarthy showcasing her dramatic range as an actress, and Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script balances dramatic and comedic elements. Heller’s next film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is a Mister Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks, set for a 2019 release.
Hal Ashby was one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 1970s, but as years went by, his name did not become as recognizable as some of his contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, or Robert Altman. Amy Scott’s 2018 documentary Hal explores the life and career of this under-appreciated filmmaker who is belatedly being recognized as one of the unsung geniuses of his era.
Scott delves into not only the career of Ashby, but also the changing world in which he worked. Hal examines the lasting legacy of Ashby’s 70’s films, The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There, many of which are now considered masterpieces. The film is both a tribute and portrait of an influential and tumultuous career.
Leave No Trace
Since her breakout 2010 film Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik has been working mainly in the documentary field. She returned to scripted narrative in 2018 with her Sundance darling, Leave No Trace (the second-most reviewed film to score 100% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Granik’s adaptation of Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment follows Will (Ben Foster), an Iraq War veteran with PTSD who lives in a Portland, Oregon forest with his young daughter (newcomer Thomasin McKenzie). Granik’s filmmaking is subtle, but it packs a punch, and Foster and McKenzie give brilliant performances. It’s hard to imagine Leave No Trace having the same emotional impact in the hands of another filmmaker.
Tamara Jenkins has only directed three features during her 30 year career. The Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and The Savages (2007) were both semi-autobiographical, anchored by phenomenal performances, and showered with critical accolades. Her latest film, Private Life, continues all those trends.
Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn star as a middle-aged couple who are trying desperately to have a child. In the midst of fertility treatments and adoption agencies, their relationship is further tested when their 25-year-old niece comes to stay with them. Jenkins portrays this struggle unflinchingly, masterfully balancing drama with sharp humor. Giamatti and Hahn have wonderful chemistry together as the couple, and Jenkins let’s them shine in their respective roles.
Born and raised in Beijing, China, Chloé Zhao has demonstrated an uncanny knack for showcasing often underrepresented aspects of American culture. Despite a respectable run on the festival circuit, her first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me, flew under the radar for both audiences and critics in 2015. Zhao’s follow up, The Rider, has been able to garner much more attention.
The Rider tells the story of Brady, a young rodeo cowboy who suffers from brain damage after a bronc riding accident. Living in poverty with his father and his autistic younger sister, Brady wants to continue riding despite his doctors’ warning of potentially fatal consequences. Zhao blurs the lines between documentary and narrative fiction, casting non-actors in the lead roles that they themselves inspired, and complimenting the performances with poetic cinematography reminiscent of Terrence Malick.
Set It Up
After directing a number of television episodes for shows like The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Claire Scanlon made her feature film debut with Set It Up, a charming romantic comedy about two overworked assistants who try to set up their tyrannical bosses so that they can finally have a personal life outside of the office.
Writer Katie Silberman’s original script is a welcome throwback to the popular New York City rom-coms of the 1980s and 1990s. With smart writing, assured direction, and the natural chemistry of the cast (especially the film’s leads, Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch), this Netflix Original is able to be fresh and entertaining in a genre known for stale cliches.
Jennifer Fox has been making documentaries for over thirty years, so it is no surprise that her work in that field inspired her first narrative feature. The Tale follows “Jennifer Fox,” the director’s fictional proxy, portrayed by Laura Dern, as she delves into her past to investigate a problematic adolescent relationship.
Fox’s film is brave, inventive, and compelling. It’s a meta-movie that gives an honest, troubling portrayal of the flaws of memory, perception, and the many ways we lie to ourselves. Fox does a beautiful job of exploring concept through the film’s writing and editing, and Laura Dern gives a phenomenal performance in the lead role.
This Is Home: A Refugee Story
Documentarian Alexandra Shiva’s prior critical successes such as Bombay Eunuch and the Peabody Award-winning How To Dance In Ohio tend to focus on overlooked or maligned communities. She returned to that familiar territory again in 2018 with This Is Home: A Refugee Story, a relevant and moving portrait of four Syrian families resettling in Baltimore after fleeing their war-torn homeland.
This Sundance award-winning documentary chronicles the refugees’ struggles to assimilate and rebuild their lives in America. Despite its topical subject matter, This Is Home manages to stay apolitical, focusing on the cultural and bureaucratic complexities of the immigration process. Shiva never portrays her subjects as victims or martyrs, and her warts-and-all approach pays off.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
For her sophomore directorial effort, Susan Johnson adapted this New York Times best-selling YA novel. The film tells the story of Lara Jean, a shy teenager who’s unsent love letters to five secret crushes are revealed to the entire school.
With it’s charming cast, flashy cinematography, and sharply funny script, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a throwback to the teen romantic comedies of the 1980s. The film’s characters and story are relatable not just to the current iPhone-obsessed millennial, but anyone who has experienced young love while braving the challenges of adolescence.
You Were Never Really Here
Since she came onto the scene in 1999 with her first feature film, Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsey has been regarded as one of the more visually stunning directors of her time. Her films possess a hauntingly poetic quality to them, on display again this year in You Were Never Really Here. This psychological thriller follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a traumatized war veteran who rescues trafficked girls for a living. When his latest job takes a dramatic turn, Joe finds himself trapped on a dark path of violence.
Ramsey’s film was met with unanimous praise when it premiered at Cannes in 2017, where Phoenix claimed the Best Actor award and Ramsey was honored for Best Screenplay. With her unique directing style, Phoenix’s committed performance, and Jonny Greenwood’s mesmerizing musical score, You Were Never Really Here is one of 2018’s most unjustly overlooked films.
There are so many other worthwhile films we could have included on this list. Kay Cannon’s Blockers, a female spin on the raunchy, teenage sex-comedy; Marina Zenovich’s daring bio-doc Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind; Coralie Fargeat’s ultra-violent action-thriller Revenge; film critic Sandi Tan’s directorial debut, the meta-doc Shirkers; and Josephine Decker’s trippy, mind-bending thespian drama Madeline’s Madeline.
In short it was a phenomenal year for female directors, and 2019 promises to be just as strong. Jen McGowan has gotten us off to a great start with the critically lauded crowdpleaser Rust Creek, “a thriller with a surprising streak of humanism” (David Edelstein, New York Magazine).