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20 Female Directors Who Will Rule This Fall Festival Season, Including Agnes Varda, Greta Gerwig, Dee Rees, and More

From TIFF to NYFF to Venice, here are 20 female filmmakers set to bow exciting new work during the starriest of festival seasons.

Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.

The fall festival season has long been a harbinger of things to come, from the contenders that will consume months of awards season jockeying to bright new talents just making their first big splashes, and this year brings with it another glimpse of the future: one that’s filled with new films from a wide variety of female filmmakers.

From Venice to Toronto, New York to Telluride, this year’s fall festival circuit is filled with new offerings from from female filmmakers of every stripe, including 20 that we’ve hand-picked as the ones to keep an eye on during the coming weeks.

First-time feature filmmakers like Maggie Betts, Brie Larson, and the Mulleavey sisters are out in full force, along with the return of mainstays like Angelina Jolie, Lynn Shelton, and Susanna White. There are plenty of legends among these ranks as well, including Agnes Varda, who will screen her Cannes hit “Faces Places” (co-directed with JR) at both NYFF and TIFF, along with Lucrecia Martel, who is slated to show her “Zama” at Venice, TIFF, and NYFF, an enviable triple-whammy that any filmmaker would be eager to replicate.

Here’s who else will be joining them.

Agnes Varda Faces Places

“Faces Places”

From Sundance to the Fall

After debuting her first narrative feature, the period drama “Novitiate” at Sundance this past January, Betts turned plenty of heads. The film sold to Sony Pictures Classics for a reported seven figures during the festival, and just weeks later, Betts made the big jump to CAA for professional representation. While SPC has a packed awards-leaning slate, sending the film to TIFF for its international premiere signals that they’re eager to see how the nun drama will play to a wider audience. If it earns more fans at the festival — and it deserves to, the movie is roundly satisfying, and rife with strong performances from up-and-comers like Margaret Qualley and reliable winners like Melissa Leo. “Novitiate” and Betts may jump into the awards race.

Actresses Who Direct

Oscar-winning actress Larson has been eager to get back behind the camera since co-directing a pair of shorts in 2012 and 2013, and her TIFF world premiere “Unicorn Store” looks like the kind of dreamy, unique offering that could really stand out against the often heavier fare that dominates the fall festival season. Larson also stars in the film, alongside other big names Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, and Bradley Whitford, and while the plot has been kept mostly under wraps, we’re not discounting the possibility that it’s actually about unicorns.

Elsewhere, another lauded young actress is turning her attention to a different kind of gig, with Greta Gerwig bowing her solo feature directorial debut “Lady Bird” at both TIFF and NYFF (she previously co-directed “Nights and Weekends” alongside Joe Swanberg). Starring Saoirse Ronan, the film is reportedly loosely based on Gerwig’s own coming of age in Sacramento, California, punctuated by a Catholic school stint and a burning desire to get the hell out of town and take her tricks to New York City. Gerwig knows her way around sharp writing and wonderful characters, and Ronan continues to be one of our most talented actresses, so the pairing of these two alone is worth getting excited about.

"Lady Bird"

“Lady Bird”

TIFF

Multi-hyphenate Mélanie Laurent is also on deck for her own TIFF bow, with the world premiere of her drama “Plonger,” which follows a “restless” photographer who leaves her family to take up deep-sea diving. Laurent was last at TIFF with her exceptional teen drama “Breathe,” which showed off her ability to mine relatable situations and complex characters for insightful emotion. “Plonger” looks to hew very close to that mold, and should give Laurent a further boost in the filmmaking world, raising her stock even higher before her next feature, “Galveston,” arrives in 2018. That one, a Nick Pizzolatto crime thriller, is already in the can, and Laurent seems to be moving full steam ahead on the non-acting side of her cinematic career. 

Long-Awaited Returns

After a four-year absence, Clio Barnard returns to filmmaking with her dramatic thriller “Dark River,” recently announced as part TIFF’s lauded Platform section. The film stars Ruth Wilson as a daughter desperate to reclaim her birthright in a story that sounds positively Shakespearean. Barnard is one of our most exciting filmmaking talents, and her two previous features have made it clear just how versatile she already is, from the rich imaginative design of her documentary “The Arbor” to the heart-wrenching humanism of “The Selfish Giant.” “Dark River” sounds closer to the latter, but its placement in Platform hints that may have more to offer than just good, old-fashioned dramatic heartbreak. Platform will also host the world premiere of Lisa Langseth’s mysterious “Euphoria,” starring Alicia Vikander and Eva Green as a pair of estranged sisters embarking on a trip.

Angela Robinson will also arrive at TIFF after an absence of her own — though she’s kept busy in TV space, between “True Blood” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” it’s been over a decade since she’s directed a feature. That’s all going to change with the world premiere of her fact-based “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women,” the year’s other big Wonder Woman movie. This one tackles the wild true story of the creation of the beloved superheroine, thanks to the man and two women (his two women, as it were) who crafted her.

Like Robinson, indie mainstay Shelton has kept pretty busy with TV as of late, thanks to gigs directing “GLOW,” “Casual,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Love,” and many, many more, but she’s back on the festival beat with her new drama “Outside In.” The Orchard just picked up the Edie Falco- and Jay Duplass-starring film, which will have its world premiere in Toronto as part of the Special Presentations section. The film, which follows a teacher (Falco) and her former student (Duplass) who start up a romance after his release from a long stint in jail, is already slated for a 2018 release.

“Outside In”

“Mustang” filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s English-language debut “Kings” will have its world premiere at TIFF as well, where its potentially controversial subject matter seems poised to at least engender plenty of conversation. Set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the film follows a mother (Halle Berry) and her kids as they attempt to avoid the violence in a shaken city, apparently aided by a “recluse” played by Daniel Craig. It’s a tricky subject, and it’s still unclear if Ergüven is the right person to tackle such a complex and uniquely American story, but a Gala berth at TIFF will give it the chance to bow to a big audience.

White’s “Woman Walks Ahead” will also get the Gala treatment at TIFF, when the 19th century historical drama, starring Jessica Chastain as Brooklyn artist Catherine Weldon, “who travelled to the Dakota Territory and became the confidante of legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull,” has its world premiere. Another historical drama, Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father,” will also play at TIFF in the Special Presentations section just days before it hits Netflix. (It also rumored to show up at Telluride.)

From TIFF to NYFF

Netflix also has another festival heavyweight on its hands with Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.” The Sundance hit will play at both TIFF and NYFF, where the historical drama will likely pick up some steam before heading into awards season. The streaming giant picked up the film, Rees’ third after her lauded “Pariah” and the TV feature “Bessie,” at the festival in January for a reported $12.5 million, and seems eager to get the film in front of as many eyes before it hits release (both on Netflix and in select theaters) on November 17.

“Mudbound”

Other female filmmakers who will be hoofing it from TIFF to NYFF include a pair of Cannes breakouts, Chloe Zhao with “The Rider” (a 2018 release) and Valeska Grisebach with “Western.” Both filmmakers bowed their latest features at Cannes in May, where Zhao’s film — only her second feature — won the Art Cinema Award, the top prize at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. Grisebach’s third film, a timely drama about clashing refuges, played in Un Certain Regard and has continued to show at festivals like Jerusalem and Melbourne.

The Venice Touch

Elsewhere, the Mulleavey sisters, Kate and Laura, will screen their Kirsten Dunst-starring psychological drama “Woodshock” at Venice before it opens in the U.S. on September 22, and early trailers make it clear that the Rodarte founders are just as skilled behind the camera as they are in front of a sketchpad. Distributor A24 has been playing up the mystery of the film for months now — all we know so far is that it follows Dunst’s character after she takes a crazy drug — but the visuals that the company has unveiled so far have been stunning, and few actresses are as wonderfully adept at showing off the many facets of madness than Dunst.

Venice will bow another pair of intriguing new features from female filmmakers when it opens early next month, including Nancy Buirski’s deeply researched documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” The filmmaker’s followup to her “By Sidney Lumet” tackles the true story of a black 24-year-old wife and mother who was gang raped in Alabama by seven white men in 1944. It’s a tough subject, but the kind that Buirski, best known for her seminal “The Loving Story,” is well-equipped to handle.

"Woodshock"

“Woodshock”

For something entirely different, Venice will also debut Anne Fontaine’s latest, a runaway drama entitled “Marvin.” Starring “Nocturama” actor Finnegan Oldfield as the eponymous Marvin, the film follows him on his quest to become an actor, even if it means leaving his entire family (which, bonus, includes Isabelle Huppert).

And, last but certainly not least, Telluride has yet to unveil its annual schedule (traditionally rolled out mere days before the Labor Day weekend event), but it will likely also play home to a bevy of exciting female-directed works. Recent alumni of the fest include Robin Swicord, Aisling Walsh, Maren Ade, Mia Hansen-Løve, Sarah Gavron, and Laurie Anderson. Who will join them this year? And what will the filmmaking landscape look like after another year of compelling new female-directed works? Brighter, and bigger.

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