All this week, Women and Hollywood will run our own “Best of” lists to honor and celebrate the year’s best women-directed and women-centric movies and TV shows. See our previous posts on the “Best Women-Directed Documentaries of 2013,” the “Best Women-Centric Films of 2013,” and the “Most Popular Women and Hollywood Posts of 2013.”
Yes, 2013 was another terrible year for women directors, which makes the commemoration of great work by female filmmakers all-the-more important. We’ve compiled below seven great films from women this year, as well as five honorable mentions. Noteworthily, six of the seven films are about women — a sign that the gender of the person behind the camera is pretty damn important when it comes to what kind of protagonists and stories we see on screen. Also worth mentioning is that only two of the seven are American films — a reflection of the ongoing, entrenched sexism in Hollywood. But we also must note that another two films came from fairly repressive societies — Saudi Arabia and the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel — an indication of the feminist progress that goes around the world every day.
Here are our favorite women-directed films of 2013 in alphabetical order:
Enough Said – Nicole Holofcener is often accused of making films only about women of a certain class — a strange complaint, since she has consistently explored how friendships and communities are ruptured by class differences in Friends with Money, Please Give, and now, Enough Said. National treasure Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in her first-ever lead film role(!) as a divorced masseuse who’s dealing with an imminent empty nest, a new friendship with an absurdly glamorous poet (Holofcener muse Catherine Keener), and a romance with the ex-husband (James Gandolfini) of said absurdly glamorous poet. The film is filled with sly gags and belly laughs, thanks to Holofcener’s great script and Louis-Dreyfus’ cracker-jack comic timing. And the film speaks to and about a certain group of oft-ignored women (i.e., over 40) whose hopes, dreams, and realities are almost never portrayed on screen.
Fill the Void – Rama Burshtein’s arranged-marriage drama would have been a great human interest story no matter what. A member of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sect, Burshtein is the only filmmaker of her community to work with co-ed crews and screen for male and female audiences. The film’s plot could be something out of Jane Austen: 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) is pressured to marry her older sister’s widower to keep the family intact. (If the marriage doesn’t happen, he’ll marry a Dutch woman and take his child, Shira’s nephew, with him to Europe.) Shira’s dilemma between familial responsibility and personal hopes is an easily sympathizable one, and Burshtein fills her marvelously claustrophobic picture (if such a thing could exist) with beautiful music and rich visual texture.
Hannah Arendt – In a year laden with male biopics, Hannah Arendt stands out as a biopic about a woman and her towering intellect. Director Margarethe von Trotta wisely doesn’t try to make us “like” her subject, only to understand what it was like to be her at a time when there were very few female thinkers of her caliber. The film follows the philosopher and political theorist as she chronicles the 1961 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, during which she came up with her famous “banality of evil” phrase. A highlight of the film is Arendt’s friendship with writer Mary McCarthy — a beautiful portrait of female solidarity, as well as a refreshing contrast to the “only woman in the room” narratives we’re so often subjected to, as if there could just be one glass-ceiling crasher at any time.
In a World… – Writer-director-star Lake Bell is our guide to a community of people whose work we’ve all heard but probably never gave much thought to: voiceover artists. Bell’s dramedy, a passionate and subversive feminist film about the entrenched sexism in show business (imagine that!), never devoles into a diatribe. Rather, it wears its heart on its sleeve through the story of a father-daughter rivalry — one that Bell has stated in interviews is partly autobiographical. Continuing the small trend of actresses who write great parts for themselves (also see Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, Brit Marling in The East, and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight), Bell is a goofy, eccentric, and lovable leading lady. And she’s made sure we’ll never listen to the “sexy baby” voice the same way again.
Love is All You Need – There are too many romances about teenage girls with cancer, and too few about middle-aged women after cancer. Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier (In a Better World) helps fill in Hollywood’s current romantic comedy gap with her dazzlingly charming (but stupidly renamed) Love is All You Need. (The original Danish title is “The Bald Hairdresser,” which is closer to the tone of the movie.) A lovely Trine Dyrholm stars as Ida, a woman who learns soon after her last chemo treatment that her husband has been cheating on her all for years. That discovery turns out to be a blessing in disguise: she meets a far more dashing man in freckled businessman Philip (a salt-and-pepper-haired Pierce Brosnan), who, coincidentally enough, is the father of her soon-to-be son-in-law. The gorgeously shot Italian countryside, where Ida and Philip’s children will be wed, offers a beautiful backdrop to a gloriously human love affair.
The Selfish Giant – Director Clio Barnard’s narrative debut is brief and to the point: the world can be a monstrously unfair place. Set in Britain’s Midlands region, an area of decades-long economic decline, The Selfish Giant is a portrait of two ne’er-do-well middle-schoolers whose obvious entrepreneurial talents are wasted and unrecognized at school. Above all, the film is lamentation of the boyhoods Arbor and Swifty (played by riveting first-time actors Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) have lost to familial poverty and predatory adults. The Selfish Giant takes joy in the pleasures of wheeling and dealing (in scrap metal), but builds to a devastating climax that’ll break your heart and have you indignantly frustrated by the inevitability of it all.
Wadjda – The beauty of director Haifaa al-Mansour’s debut lies in its simplicity. Ten-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) desperately wants a bike, even though, as a girl, she won’t be able to ride it on the streets of Saudi Arabia. After her parents say no — they’re going through serious struggles of their own and Wadjda’s already in trouble at school for un-ladylike behavior — she invents various schemes to pay for the bike herself. The journey Wadjda sets on is wonderfully pleasurable, but the film’s poignancy comes from Wadjda’s growing understanding that she should cling to her girlhood, as little good comes after. Wadjda is so lovely and full of social insights that we’d be praising it to the skies even if al-Mansour didn’t make history by being the first female filmmaker to emerge from her country.
Honorable mentions go to Alice Winocour Augustine, a hair-raising exploration of Victorian psychiatry; Stacie Passon’s poignant Concussion, a lesbian take on Belle du Jour; Jenny Deller’s smart Future Weather, a global warming-themed coming-of-age tale; Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, a heartbreaking account of growing up into a world that might end at any minute via nuclear war; and Maggie Carey’s ground-breaking The To Do List, a fun, funny celebration of the Type-A personality.