Women and Hollywood’s end-of-year coverage includes our “Best Women-Directed Documentaries of 2014 (That We Managed to See)” list, with much more to come in the next few days.
The abysmal numbers for women directors in the film industry don’t seem to have improved much in 2014. And yet we at Women and Hollywood remain hopeful. That’s partly because it’s so exceedingly rare to have a year like this one, where there are two female filmmakers — Angelina Jolie and Ava DuVernay — in serious awards contention, and partly because there’s so much extraordinary new talent this year (four of the ten best women-directed films on our list are feature debuts).
Suffice to say, it’s important to support women directors because the odds are stacked against them and because nobody deserves to be discriminated against. And just as significantly, it’s women who write and direct movies about women (nine of our ten picks feature female protagonists).
So without further delay, here are the ten women-directed movies that we loved the most this year, in alphabetical order.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – Written and Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
The “Iranian vampire Western” that became many a cinephile’s obsession this year deserves all the praise and glowing reviews it’s gotten. A beguiling Persian soundtrack floats over a crumbling town as a lonely but powerful vampire (Sheila Vand) in a chador — which doubles as a superhero cape — restores justice in glorious bursts of violence.
The Babadook – Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent
One of the most honest commentaries about modern motherhood among this year’s film offerings lies in The Babadook, an unforgettably creepy horror movie about a single mom (Essie Davis) who fears that the monster her extraordinarily difficult young son (Noah Wiseman) keeps talking about might be real. But it isn’t the monster that frightens her most, but a mysterious pop-up book that foretells that she will kill her own child — a prospect that first-time writer-director Jennifer Kent makes all-too-empathizable.
Belle – Directed by Amma Asante
The usual Austenesque dilemma about which handsome gentleman to marry gains sky-high, possibly history-changing stakes when it’s a mixed-race lady who must choose. Based on the life of an actual Englishwoman, the impossibly lovely Belle tells a love story at once thrillingly different and swooningly familiar while exploring issues of gender, race, and class still relevant today.
Beyond the Lights – Written and Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
It’s hard to know what to praise first about Beyond the Lights: its utterly believable romance between a pop star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) trapped by fame and a cop (Nate Parker) with political aspirations, or its intelligent and compassionate exploration of the hypersexualization of women in the pop and hip hop industries. Featuring achingly beautiful musical performances, Beyond the Lights‘ tale of a songbird’s search for her true self isn’t just exceptional, but, especially in an environment with so few female protagonists of color, urgently necessary.
Gabrielle – Written and Directed by Louise Archambault
The coming-of-age story is given an unexpected twist in this Best Picture and Best Actress winner at the Canadian Oscars. Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) is a young woman with Williams Syndrome who is unable to live on her own or fully take care of herself. But she has the same desires as everyone else — a reality some of her minders refuse to accept. A poignant reminder of the sexuality of disabled people.
It Felt Like Love – Written and Directed by Eliza Hitt
There are too few movies about female teen sexuality — and even less that handle it with acute sensitivity and erotic longing. Eliza Hitt’s debut is the exception. Breathtakingly tactile, If Felt Like Love immerses us in 14-year-old Lila’s (Gina Piersanti) thirsty, uneasy summer in blue-collar Brooklyn as she comes of age into a girl who suddenly yearns, but doesn’t yet know how to reach out for what she wants without getting hurt in the process.
Laggies – Directed by Lynn Shelton; Written by Andrea Seigel
We have no idea why Lynn Shelton’s fifth film came and disappeared — it’s one of the year’s funniest and sweetest comedies, premised on the seemingly ever-popular trope of arrested development. Keira Knightley is an absolute delight as an almost-thirty woman who runs away from her fiancee in a panic quickly after getting engaged, while the film perfectly captures how bewildering and isolating it can be when all of your friends suddenly start getting married and having children.
Obvious Child – Written and Directed by Gillian Robespierre
Gillian Robespierre revived and updated the rom com for the 21st century with the charming and hilarious Obvious Child. Its politics are wonderfully contemporary, but it’s a movie — not a manifesto. Jenny Slate proves a brilliant standup (that probably improvised line about the danger of black panties still cracks us up), and Gillian Robespierre shows us she can write and direct the hell out of parent-child scenes in the beautifully touching scenes between Slate and her on-screen parents Polly Draper and Richard Kind.
Selma – Directed by Ava DuVernay
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Ava DuVernay or Selma. DuVernay became the first woman of color to receive a nomination for the Golden Globes’ Best Director prize (and might well contend in the same category at the Oscars), while Selma finally honors one of America’s most important historical figures in film while commenting on much of our current political corruption. But even without all this context, Selma is an achievement: a dazzling humanization of a man often reduced to a “speech and a statue,” in DuVernay’s memorable words, as well as a fascinating and dramatically exhilarating look at how progress is made in this country.
Zero Motivation – Written and Directed by Talya Lavie
In a year with so few female-friendship movies, Zero Motivation stands out not just for its complicated depictions of young women at a remote Israeli military outpost, but also for the bond between two slackers compelled into service. Winner of the Tribeca Film Festival’s top prize and the Nora Ephron award, the Israeli comedy doesn’t flinch from the urgent issues of casual misogyny and sexual assault, but it’s at its best when finding humor in the drudgery of office life — and the unexpected uses of office supplies.
We’d also like to briefly note Signe Baumane’s moving animated depression memoir Rocks in My Pockets, writer-director-star Cherien Dabis’ winsome family-reunion comedy May in the Summer, Steph Green’s hopeful caretaking drama Run and Jump, and Claudia Sainte-Luce’s warm and devastating melodrama The Amazing Catfish.