After the 2020 Golden Globes nominations were announced Monday, “Honey Boy” director Alma Har’el had a message for those disappointed to see not one woman nominated for best director: “Do not look for justice in the awards system,” she tweeted. “We are building a new world.” Days after her tweet went viral, she had more to say on the subject.
“When you see there are zero nominations for women scriptwriters, best film nominations” — none of the movies nominated for best motion picture were helmed by female filmmakers — “or women directors in a year like this one, it calls for a really good look at why we even take these award shows as something that can ever be inclusive,” Har’el wrote in an email.
For years, female directors have been building impressive résumés full of critically and commercially successful films, but they still can’t seem to break through the awards season glass ceiling. Marielle Heller made three acclaimed movies in the last five years, including 2015’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” 2018’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and this year’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which garnered a best supporting actor nod for Tom Hanks. But Heller has been largely ignored this time of year.
Female filmmakers are butting up against “unconscious bias,” she says, adding, “If there was a male filmmaker who had made these three movies in five years, there would be a lot more talk about me being some visionary genius, but instead I’m seen as a good filmmaker. We tend to view men as geniuses and we tend to view women as lucky to be there.”
Women made up only 8 percent of directors of the top 250 films (those that earned the most money domestically) of 2018, a slight drop from the year prior, according to a report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. The numbers dwindle further for directors of color. According to the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, across the 1,200 top films from 2007 to 2018, only 80 directors were black and just 42 were Asian. Of those, five were black women and three were Asian women.
“To be a black woman in this world you have to have hope, you have to imagine possibilities that are beyond the present reality,” says “Clemency” director Chinonye Chukwu. “That’s not just exclusive to being a black woman, but that’s part of being a change agent. You have to imagine that change and believe that it is possible.”
One way to effect change is to adjust our perspective. Instead of relying on awards shows to dictate which movies deserve attention, I asked seven female filmmakers to share their favorite films directed by women over the past decade.
The most recent film she directed: “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood”
“The one that came to mind right away was ‘The Rider’ from Chloé Zhao. I was just so struck by the craft behind the film. It feels almost like invisible filmmaking. You forget you’re watching a film, you just get to feel like you’re observing human nature and it’s so moving. I was blown away by how she filmed it. There are fires and rodeos and things that feel very real in it. I found it almost scary to watch. I also was just struck by the performances she gets out of people who are not traditionally actors, who have no history of acting, who give such deep moving performances that never feel false.”
The most recent film she directed: “Harriet”
“In the past decade, the three that really speak out to me are ‘Winter’s Bone,’ Debra Granik; ‘The Rider,’ Chloé Zhao; and ‘Selma,’ Ava DuVernay. But ‘Winter’s Bone’ is probably the one that was most penetrating for me. It was this incredible hero’s journey, this young woman who is trying to take care of what’s left of her family. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so exquisite. You can smell her desperation. … It’s a completely gripping performance. This one definitely continues to get under my skin.”
The most recent film she directed: “Honey Boy”
“I would say Clio Barnard’s 2010 debut film, ‘The Arbor.’ It remains a piece of cinema that will forever feel singular, perfectly executed and truthful. The film tells the story of teenage playwright Andrea Dunbar who was hailed a genius at 15 and died at 29. She grew up in one of the poorest and most notorious places in Bradford, [in the United Kingdom,] named the Buttershaw Estate. A place where addiction, child neglect, domestic violence and underage sex are part of everyday life. The film uses actors to perfectly lip-sync interviews with real people from Dunbar’s life and cuts between those stories to staged scenes from [her] play, ‘The Arbor,’ filmed in the actual streets of her neighborhood. As experimental as this sounds, it has a narrative flow and the film slips into you as you slowly discover how brilliant it is. I get excited just thinking about it.”
The most recent film she directed: “The Kingmaker,” a documentary
“‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ directed by Marielle Heller and written by the brilliant Nicole Holofcener. I think one thing that opens up when women are creating stories is not having such binary characters — good, bad, Madonna, whore. I liked the realism and complexity of Melissa McCarthy’s character. We’re so used to the convention of making our characters relatable and empathetic and likable, and I think it’s actually very freeing to have a completely different kind of character. I think the main character really creeps up on you in an interesting way.”
“When we started filming ‘All This Panic,’ I would ask the girls [who are the subject of the documentary] what sort of movies they liked, and the one movie that was consistent was ‘Palo Alto,’ directed by Gia Coppola. After watching it, I really understood why they loved it so much. ‘Palo Alto’ was the perfect portrayal of teenage ennui. You can count on both hands the number of films that are about young people that truly talk to them on their level and treat them as the intelligent, intuitive human beings that they are. I love the honesty [with] which it looked at decisions they made, some of them good and some of them bad, and it didn’t feel judgmental at all. I think that’s rare in a film about teenagers.”
The most recent film she directed: “Clemency”
“Lynne Ramsay’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ is definitely one of my favorite films in general — not just directed by a woman. The visual language in the film is absolutely delicious. The relationship between sound and image I thought was spectacular. Tilda Swinton’s performance is absolutely breathtaking. I just thought it was such a well-conceived film that was really kind of complex to tell. [Ramsay] really speaks to the human condition in ways that I’m drawn to. I think that she really empathizes with the different characters in her films, and that’s inspiring.”
The most recent film she directed: “Late Night”
“So many movies stand out to me. ‘Winter’s Bone’ by Debra Granik, ‘Circumstance’ by Maryam Keshavarz, ‘Pariah’ by Dee Rees, ‘Destroyer’ by Karyn Kusama, ‘Fish Tank,’ ‘Certain Women,’ ‘Enough Said,’ ‘High Life,’ ‘Queen of Katwe,’ ‘The Farewell,’ ‘Appropriate Behavior.’ I think women are making such incredible films right now — I couldn’t pick just one. [But] I am continually inspired by Debra Granik and her incredible filmmaking. She has such an eye for talent and for performance. There is not one false note in her movies — and that is a nearly impossible thing to pull off.”