No year is a “bad year” for movies, but some years aren’t exactly too kind to certain subjects, genres, concepts and people. 2016, for all of its many negatives, has been a good year for film – and for its women, both behind the camera and squarely in front of it.
While female filmmakers are still struggling to be recognized in the same way as their male counterparts, the women who have broken through – from reliable auteurs like Andrea Arnold, Rebecca Miller, Kelly Reichardt and Anne Fontaine to rising stars like Maren Ade, Sophia Takal and Clea Duvall – did so in a very big way this year, thanks to films that spoke to their own talents and visions. Actresses also shown bright in 2016, from awards favorites like Natalie Portman, Annette Bening and Octavia Spencer to fresh faces like Kate Lyn Sheil, Ruth Negga and Sasha Lane.
There’s still a ways to go, but this is a very fine start.
More Complex Women
Throw aside your notions of “strong female characters” or “likable leading ladies” or “relatable problems” or other, similar buzzwords that so often push strong work into the kind of narrow frameworks they simply don’t belong in, and gaze upon the riches of 2016. Filled to bursting with truly strong characters, complicated ones, complex ones and much more, this year offered up not just compelling roles, but boundary-pushing features and performances worthy of recognition and attention.
Myth-making took center stage in two of the year’s best films, female-led or otherwise, thanks to Pablo Larrian’s “Jackie” and Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine.” Natalie Portman captivates as Jackie Kennedy post-JFK assassination in Larrain’s inventive, unique and ultimately hugely satisfying spin on the tired biopic formula, tracing Jackie as she both mourns and eulogizes her husband and the idea of “Camelot” she helped create.
For Greene’s latest, he and star Kate Lyn Sheil blend the boundaries of fact and fiction to unearth the story of TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who notoriously killed herself on air in 1974. Part documentary, part narrative, part history lesson, totally enrapturing.
Kelly Reichardt takes on her own complex women with her startling triptych “Certain Women,” which follows three lightly intersecting stories of different women in Montana. Bolstered by an all-star cast that includes Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, the film really shines when newbie Lily Gladstone appears as a lovestruck ranch hand with secrets to spare.
Elsewhere, women on a professional mission also had a strong showing in 2016, thanks to films like Maren Ade’s uproarious Cannes favorite “Toni Erdmann.” While it’s mostly content with the fraught — and funny! — relationship between its leads, a father and daughter pair for the ages, star Sandra Huller is also tasked with a major subplot about her character’s striving ambitions, ones that inform some of the feature’s best bits.
In Damien Chazelle’s charming “La La Land,” Emma Stone’s wannabe actress Mia finds tension between her desire to break out in Hollywood and her burgeoning relationship with Ryan Gosling’s Seb. The film is one of the year’s very best, but don’t sleep on its compelling notions about art versus commerce and love versus making a living.
On a darker note, Jessica Chastain turns in one of her very best performances in the challenging “Miss Sloane,” which sees her biting into the lobbying racket with some serious gusto. As the film’s eponymous character, Chastain navigates some tricky waters, ultimately emerging as one of the year’s most genuinely – and humanly – complex characters.
Some of Hollywood’s brightest stars took on roles loaded with challenges and expectations of a different kind, with Ruth Negga providing a humble center to the true-life story “Loving,” while the women of “Hidden Figures” (including Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) similarly worked to honor real women in their fact-based NASA outing, a strong contender for the most inspiring film of the year.
But no one was nearly as complicated and compelling as Isabelle Huppert, who used her 2016 to flex her prodigious acting muscles in both Paul Verhoeven’s wickedly original rape thriller “Elle” and Mia Hansen-Løve’s rich and wily drama “Things to Come.” Few actresses could pull off such roles with aplomb, let alone in the space of a single year.
Focusing on Female Friendships
Oh, and not just the warm and fuzzy kind. Whit Stillman’s long-gestasting Jane Austen adaptation “Love & Friendship” is predictably caught up in the weirdness of all kinds of social interactions, but the gossipy bond between Kate Beckinsale’s wild Lady Susan and Chloe Sevigny’s perpetually bemused Alicia Johnson gives the film seriously amusing bite. Other films took the idea of female friendship in an even darker direction, including Sophia Takal’s “Always Shine” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon,” which both confront ideas like jealousy and competition among women in the entertainment industry with juicy and unexpected results.
For audiences looking for more uplifting stories about female friendship, Anne Fontaine’s gorgeous “The Innocents” uses a true story to tell the tale of a French Red Cross doctor who was unexpectedly tasked with helping a group of desperate nuns in post-World War II Poland. The film is stirring on multiple levels, but the deep friendships forged by very different women are some of the best put on screen this year.
Even blockbusters embraced the concept that female friendships can be empowering and entertaining at the same time, as was the case in Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” reboot, featuring four fun ladies whose real power is supporting each other, even in the face of ghostly interlopers.
Celebrating the Pains (and Pleasures) of Motherhood
Motherhood may often serve as the most obvious catalyst for on-screen female evolution, but some of the best films of 2016 took that trope to enlightening and expressive new levels. Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” based on his own experiences with his mother, features Annette Bening in one of her finest roles yet, as her Dorothea struggles to reconcile her own way of living with her bursting-at-the-seams teenage son. Greta Gerwig toplines Rebecca Miller’s unique “Maggie’s Plan” as another floundering mom, a longtime singleton who takes child-bearing into her own hands, only to find that nothing is as she expected it to be.
Trey Edward Shults’ SXSW winner “Krisha” is a story about motherhood of an entirely different stripe, featuring Shults’ own aunt Krisha Fairchild in the explosive title role. The Thanksgiving-set indie follows a family on the brink of falling into total disarray, as incited by the reappearance of Krisha, and it’s got plenty of secrets and twists to keep it moving right along to an unforgettable finale. Happy holidays!
Both Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama “Arrival” and Babak Anvari’s Persian horror film “Under the Shadow” explore the boundless limits of maternal love through genre-specific frameworks that ultimately speak to the universality of those emotions. The festival favorites would make one hell of a double feature.
Unveiling New Coming-of-Age Tales
Stories about women coming of age – with all the emotion, drama, turbulence and self-discovery that entails – have long been a natural fit for cinematic interpretations, and 2016 provided not just a number of sterling examples as to the power of this sub-genre, but a wide variety to boot.
Kelly Fremon Craig’s excellent “The Edge of Seventeen” boasts one of Hailee Steinfeld’s best performances, a number of standout supporting turns (hello, Hayden Szeto and Woody Harrelson, both excellent in very different roles) and the kind of flinty honesty so often absent from high-school set features.
Both “American Honey” and “White Girl” also tapped into hard truths for their narratives. Andrea Arnold used breakout Sasha Lane as a conduit to tell the tale of uninhibited mag crews running wild across middle America in her Cannes winner; filmmaker Elizabeth Wood blew minds with her Sundance premiere, a controversial story about what happens when so-called nice girls try something new.
For the younger set, Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits” featured rising star Royalty Hightower navigating the rough waters between adolescence and teen life, made all the more difficult by the appearance of a frightening aliment that starts taking down her dance team comrades. And, speaking of rough waters, Disney’s latest animated adventure, “Moana,” put a Polynesian princess at its center and followed her as she fought to make her own way in a world populated by both familial expectations and actual fire monsters.
Showing the Twisted Side of Love
Love may be a many-splendored thing, but 2016 provided ample room for films willing to put a very fresh spin on that tired ideal. Director Anna Biller used her prodigious talents to literally build her “The Love Witch” from the ground up – she’s credited as director, screenwriter and producer on the project, in addition to seven other crafts credits – and the result is a singular feature that utilizes a Technicolor throwback appeal and some forward-thinking ideas about female identity that are both entertaining and enlightening in equal measures. Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” offers up another richly designed and detailed love story with its own twists.
Another female filmmaker who turned in a very personal take on the love story this year? Clea DuVall, with her directorial debut “The Intervention,” which follows some well-meaning friends who make some major mistakes when trying to help a relationship that might not actually need it. Both funny and sad, it handily angles for “new classic” territory with its “Big Chill” meets “Breakfast Club” feel.
And what year-end best-of list would be complete with Beyonce’s “Lemonade”? It’s one of the year’s best artistic achievements, all made possible thanks to packs of talented collaborators, the singer/songwriter’s most revealing album yet and Queen Bey’s unwavering vision to telling her own stories, her own way. Using her own relationship with fellow superstar Jay-Z to frame up a series of songs and music videos about love, marriage, respect, identity and everything in between, Beyonce made the political into something very, very personal.
Plus, More Female-Directed Standouts to Spare
In a year rife with so many wonderful female-focused offerings, there are a number of fine films that don’t neatly fit into even the most broadly defined of boxes – and how lucky are we for that? – including several features that span fiction and documentary, comedy and drama, the personal and the political, and everything in between.
Female filmmakers came out swinging on the documentary side of things, with Ava Duvernay making room in her busy blockbuster-building calendar to craft the eye-opening “13th,” which debuted as the New York Film Festival’s first-ever non-fiction Opening Night Film. Louise Osmond’s “Dark Horse” serves up one of the year’s most satisfying – and overlooked – fact-based stories about an unlikely champions racehorse, while Elyse Steinberg co-directed one of 2016’s most lauded docs, the fascinating and almost unbelievable “Weiner.”
Elsewhere, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s uproarious “Chevalier” chronicles the often-bizarre intricacies of male friendships, while Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe” delivers a crowd-pleasing true-life tale of perseverance. Both Julia Hart’s “Miss Stevens” and Sophie Goodhart’s use delayed adolescences to tell heartwarming and hilarious stories about growing up the wrong way (with good results). Meera Menon’s well-researched “Equity” features a standout performance from Anna Gunn, set against the complex world of American finance.
And few films released this year capture the intense humanity of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s deeply personal and extremely satisfying documentary, “Cameraperson.” It’s the kind of movie the reminds us why movies are filled with endless possibility — no matter who’s behind the camera.