Note: This article was first posted over at Ms in the Biz at this link.
The story of what went on behind the scenes of Wadjda, a coming-of-age tale about a young girl desperate to buy a bicycle is nearly as compelling as the film itself. Al-Mansour was not allowed to interact with her (primarily male) crew members, so had to direct the film from a nearby van over walkie-talkie. As the first feature film by a Saudi female director – and the first shot entirely in the country – it’s a testament to Al-Mansour’s abilities that she did such an excellent job.
Campion is celebrated for her work on Top of the Lake, but has been directing since the 1980s. Anna Paquin won an Oscar at age 11 for Campion’s The Piano the story of a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her daughter (Paquin), who are sent to New Zealand due to an arranged marriage. Campion has always been great at building a natural tension and drama into her works, as is evident from her early days to more modern projects including the recent Bright Star.
Avante-garde French filmmaker Claire Denis definitely belongs on this list, even as her films often challenge Hollywood formalism. I first became enamored of her work upon seeing Beau Travail. The story of two soldiers in the French Foreign Legion, Beau Travailexplores how the conflict between these two men threatens to tear themselves – and each other – apart. Though the overarching story examines themes of jealousy, hate, and identity, the film itself is cinematically stunning. Cinematographer Agnes Godard works well with Denis, crafting a female gaze that explores a sensuousness of the male body that’s rarely seen on-screen. Denis’ other films – ranging from the darkly gruesomeTrouble Every Day to compelling family drama 35 Shots of Rum and many more – all explore interpersonal relationships in surprising and refreshing ways.
Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere thrust the future Selma director into the spotlight, as she took Best Director for it at Sundance. And, the accolades for this film are much deserved. DuVernay’s always shown a remarkable ability to get inside her characters’ heads, bringing them to life in original and moving ways. Here, Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, a medical student who drops out of school to focus on her husband’s incarceration. In the meantime, she starts having chemistry with a bus driver, who makes her consider leaving her husband. Gripping and heart-wrenching, and a great precursor to her equally compelling profile of Martin Luther King.
The fact that Debra Granik isn’t a household name throughout the country is a definite travesty. Her first two features gained more accolades than most filmmakers get in a lifetime. Down to the Bone, starring Vera Farmiga as a struggling drug addict, won Sundance’s director award as well as a jury prize for Farmiga. She later launched Jennifer Lawrence into the stratosphere with Winter’s Bone, the story of a young girl trying to hold her family together while searching for her missing, drug-addicted father. The film garnered four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Lawrence, and made nearly seven times its budget at the box office. Granik recently released documentary Stray Dog.
Thirteen was a surprise when it came out in 2003, as it gave distinctive honesty to the portrayal of two young girls coming of age and struggling with drugs, sex, and crime. The movie led to Hardwicke’s later work on Twilight and Red Riding Hood, both more fantasy/supernatural than drama. However, she’s returned to dramedy with her recentMiss You Already, a film that has viewers exploring a life-long friendship challenged by illness and family commitments.
Monster earned Charlize Theron a well-deserved Oscar, and should have made Patty Jenkins a household name. She took on the difficult topics of prostitution and serial murder with a dynamic gaze that made it hard to look away. Since then, Jenkins has directed some great TV, and is now on deck to direct the new Wonder Woman movie.
Well-known DP Reed Morano made her directing debut in 2015 with Meadowland, a film about two parents struggling to cope when their child is kidnapped. This is the kind of film that feels like we should have seen it eons ago, but somehow is just coming out now – and it’s incredibly moving. The actors (Luke Wilson and Olivia Wilde in the leads) feel especially well-cast. These are the roles we’ve been dying to see them take on, and they both do an incredible job of holding the line between sorrow and anger, as each grieves in their own way. The film is a definite must-see this year, and the director clearly one to watch.
Kim Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry remains a classic of LGBT cinema, and made Hilary Swank famous for portraying Brandon Teena, a young trans man whose identity causes problems his whole life, eventually culminating in violence and death. The performances are incredible, with Swank, Chloe Sevigny, and Peter Sarsgaard putting in heart-wrenching work. A masterpiece for a first-time feature director. Peirce followed this up with the underrated war drama Stop-Loss, and a remake of Carrie, obviously willing to explore other genres with the same daring she showed in her first feature.
Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a true masterpiece in the tone and style of dark dramas. Ramsay is so expert at creating a sense of discomfort, that I keep having to turn it off to break away from the darkness of the characters. The story follows a mother who struggles to love her son as he grows increasingly violent and disturbed, while she and her husband face their own marital discord. Ramsay is expert with tone and mood, managing to utilize each frame with precision. She showed the same aplomb with her gritty coming-of-age drama Ratcatcher, and is sure to be moving on to great things.