We need no reminders that the 2014-15 awards season didn’t fare
particularly well for women in front of or behind the camera. Among the eight
Best Picture Oscar nominees, none were about a woman, and Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” was the only work by a female filmmaker. DuVernay was eventually snubbed out of a nomination in
the Best Director category.
Awards nods, snubs and trends surely don’t come out of
nowhere. The crisis that leaves women out of serious conversations
is systemic, and the resulting awards are simply a symptom of greater
inequality imbedded within the industry. And this symptom generally comes into
sharp focus right around the fall film festivals, when one can take a brief look at
the on-paper Oscar hopefuls and get a rough lay of the land of which films will compete — and how imbalanced the landscape is for women.
So how did the Telluride Film Festival — which has screened all the Best
Picture winners since 2010 and has just come to a close this year — fare for women?
Bad news first. Among its full program of 46 feature films,
only four were directed by women: “Suffragette” by Sarah Gavron, “Heart of a Dog”
by Laurie Anderson, “Sherpa” by Jennifer Peedom and “Peggy Guggenheim: Art
Addict” by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. The last three are documentaries, so don’t expect to see an equal divide between male- and female-directed feature films come
But there is good news too. Unlike last year’s slate, female-led stories were in abundance at Telluride’s 42nd edition. Written
and directed by Jayro Bustamante, “Ixcanul” captivated audiences with the
story of a 17-year-old Mayan girl and her struggle in the face of poverty and
an unplanned pregnancy. As Guatemala’s submission for the Oscars, the Kino
Lorber-distributed film will play next at Toronto. Xavier Giannoli’s
“Marguerite” (co-written by Giannoli in collaboration with Marcia Romano), a
“Sunset Boulevard”-esque tragicomedy set in ’20s France following a talentless
opera singer (played by veteran Catherine Frot), became a word-of-mouth
favorite with an added screening on Monday.
Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” also
dazzled audiences with an increasingly suspenseful domestic drama and a
remarkable performance by its co-lead Charlotte Rampling.
Additionally, two of this year’s top-tier awards-bound films
included meatier-than-usual supporting roles for women, with characters doing a
lot more than “standing by their men.” Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” gave us an
excellent Kate Winslet playing the savvy marketing guru and Jobs’ confidant
Joanna Hoffman — a role she simply aces. The terrific investigative journalism
procedural “Spotlight” by Tom McCarthy was elevated by a pitch-perfect
performance from Rachel McAdams, playing the real-life journalist Sacha
Pfeiffer (as part of a remarkable ensemble) who helped blow the lid off the
systemic child molestations within the Catholic Church in 2002.
Beyond these, below are the four most prominent Telluride films
that are either directed by women or that have central/strong female characters
currently occupying awards chatters:
(directed by Sarah Gavron)
How it played: Checking
both the “female-directed” and “female-led” boxes, “Suffragette” was surely a title
all eyes were on prior to its world premiere on the festival’s first day. The
outspoken feminist Meryl Streep — who has a very short but crucial
role in the film — was in town for support, giving interviews with a feminist
angle. Yet the initial word on “Suffragette” (before it screened) was
cautionary, with concerns that the film might not live up to its powerful
Thankfully, Friday’s premiere helped ease the early fears.
“Suffragette,” a potent period drama about women’s voting rights set during the
suffrage movement in 1910s England, is indisputably powerful and effective. With
an inspirational, solid script from Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”), stellar work by an ensemble cast led by the always-great Carey Mulligan and sure-handed
direction from Sarah Gavron, “Suffragette” is an assured and important piece of
filmmaking and a rare treat produced, written and directed by women. Yet the word
on the ground is still mixed. But given how few films are made of this nature, “Suffragette” should still have legs outside the festival
circuit before it opens on October 23.
So far, lead Carey Mulligan looks like the surest bet for a nomination.
Yet, for a timely film that captures the feminist zeitgeist and relates to
contemporary times in profound ways, “Suffragette” is likely to play well with
audiences outside festivals, and loud-enough support around it might yield additional nominations. As far a stretch as it might be
currently, writer Abi Morgan, director Sarah Gavron and the picture itself
could be in the conversation as a result.
2. “Room” (directed
by Lenny Abrahamson)
How it played: Brie
Larson plays a young woman in captivity with her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob
Tremblay) in this stunning psychological thriller-meets-domestic drama.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the Toronto-bound “Room” is adapted for the screen by
Emma Donoghue from her own novel with the same title and unapologetically
conveys a female point of view through two mother-child stories. The screening
I attended had a long standing ovation for the cast (including Brie Larson and
Joan Allen), as well as the director, Jacob Tremblay and writer Emma Donoghue. I
have heard some complaints about the story’s second half, when Joan Allen enters
the picture, but overall, the word on the street (and in queues) was overwhelmingly
Once again, lead actress Brie Larson looks like the most likely nomination
here. Yet if the film finds an enthusiastic audience in Toronto and outside of
festival circles (with the inventive distributor A24 in charge), there is a scenario
where Joan Allen and writer Emma Donoghue could also go far as a result of a
3. “Carol” (directed
by Todd Haynes)
How it played:
Coming out of Cannes with almost unanimous praise, Todd Haynes’ “Carol” centers
on the love affair between two women (played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) in ’50s America. The film is simply gorgeous, with top-notch, heartbreaking
performances from both of its leads. “Carol” found buzz and
critical praise here at Telluride, too, but perhaps on a quieter and more
With a special Telluride tribute for the film’s young star, “Carol” distributor
The Weinstein Co. is prepping for a major awards push for Rooney Mara. Hollywood
Reporter’s Scott Feinberg predicts that she will be running in the lead
category, whereas Blanchett will be pushed for supporting. Among all the
noteworthy films with central female characters, “Carol” is the most likely one
to go beyond scoring nominations for its cast and bring its
writer Phyllis Nagy a nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category (the film
is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt”), as well as
nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best
Costume for Sandy Powell, who once again does exceptional work alongside the
costumes of “Cinderella” this year.
4. “He Named Me
Malala” (directed by Davis Guggenheim)
How it played:
First shown on the festival’s opening day at a private press and patron
screening, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary on Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner
and an influential activist for equal education rights for girls, made for an
emotional screening, with Malala joining the post-screening Q&A via
satellite. Yet the film ended up being a critical let-down. Guggenheim’s questionable
structure, which often jumps back and forth chronologically, unfortunately failed
to connect its incredible subject and rich material with the audience on an
emotional level, and played more like a glorified newsreel than a
complete and gripping character study.
Even though the critical reception of the film was underwhelming, there is
undeniable power in the film’s timely topic and its instantly relatable and unquestionably
loveable subject Malala Yousafzai. Helmed by Fox Searchlight, it is likely for
the film to surpass its poor critical response and score a nomination in the
Best Documentary category.
The upcoming Toronto and New York Film Festivals and the official releases of many more films will surely fine-tune and change the course of this awards season,
with female-centric titles like “Freeheld”, “Joy”, “Truth” and “About Ray”
still on the horizon, and early-in-the-year favorites like “Brooklyn” poised to continue their buzz throughout the fall. And while we will once again
undoubtedly have plenty of films telling the stories of “brilliant men doing
brilliant things,” this time, the female-centric titles in the funnel might
just give the boys a run for their money.
Tomris Laffly is a freelance writer and film critic based in New York. She writes for and has contributed to outlets such as Movie Mezzanine, Film Journal International, TimeOut New York and Indiewire among others, and has been covering both Sundance and Telluride Film Festivals since 2013. She frequents art houses in NYC (especially Film Society of Lincoln Center) and tweets from @TomiLaffly.