More than ever, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been under fire this year the lack of diversity that flows through the sea of nominees for the Oscars, the highest honor in film. Along with the lack of recognition for people of color across the board, and particularly in the acting and directing categories, the Oscars are also continuously thumbing their noses at the efforts women put forth behind the camera. According to a study conducted by The Women’s Media Center, in the last ten years women have only received 19% of the non-acting nominations at the Oscars. That’s 327 nominations for women as opposed to 1,387 for men. That’s only one in five nominations. That, our film-loving friends, is unacceptable.
To make it easier on the Academy from here on out, we have compiled a comprehensive list of up and coming directors who deserve to be recognized. These women have directed compelling, wonderfully crafted films over the last five years, and not one has earned an Oscar nod. So, Academy, may we present for your consideration:
Though Desiree Akhavan’s feature film debut, Appropriate Behavior, was released just a year ago, it immediately established her as a compelling and vital voice in the American indie scene. Many critics drew easy comparisons to artists like Lena Dunham and Noah Baumbach, but Akhavan’s perspective is all her own. The semi-autobiographical film is about a woman named Shirin, played by Akhavan, who wrestles with her identity as a bisexual woman and an Iranian-American. Appropriate Behavior has an underexplored take on 21st century identity politics; rather than showing the trials and tribulations that come with being “too much” of something, it deals with the inner turmoil of being “not enough” of something. Akhavan may be presenting her own narrative, but it’s a narrative that is so rarely presented to begin with. And, more importantly, she does it with a wit and verve unparalleled by her contemporaries.
Early on in Wadjda, the young girl of the title is scolded for her supposedly obscene behaviour, “A woman’s voice is her nakedness”, her teacher remarks. This oppression informs the world of Haifa Al-Mansour’s film, as the real-world equivalences meant she was unable to be seen in public talking to male crew members in her country’s more conservative areas. It’s astounding that she is the first female Saudi-Arabian director, who during street scenes had to direct via walkie-talkie from a van nearby, but even more shocking is the fact that she made a film so warm and compassionate within those restrictions. Wadjda is alternatively frustrating, funny, and empowering, yet excels in what it could have forgone. Aside from its importance and personal resonance with women of all cultures, it is a film that puts empathy first and foremost. The director has said of the medium that “culture has to be developed, people have to embrace the love of film, and have to have a sort of understanding of their identity, where they stand on issues […] and then make a film based on that projection – where they position themselves”. And that’s what works so well with Al-Mansour’s approach – she is making a film that may have political ramifications, but is itself intently focused on identity, personal connection, and self-actualisation.
Ana Lily Amirpour
Hailed as the “first Iranian Vampire Western ever made,” Ana Lily Amirpour’s film is proof that filmmaking truly is an art. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is groundbreaking. It’s daring and gorgeous and weird, a film noir with hints of horror and romance, all shrouded in dark and intriguing picturesque shadows of the night. Amirpour is slated to direct The Bad Batch, an upcoming post-apocalyptic cannibal love story produced by Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures (a production company boasting co-production of films such as Her and American Hustle) and starring Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, and Jim Carrey. The Bad Batch sounds absolutely bizarre and amazing, and based on A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Amirpour is the only person for the job.
Ghanaian-British director Amma Asante’s beautiful historical film Belle established her as a major talent in America, and for good reason. Belle features the kind of character that children, girls in particular, need to learn about. She is the daughter of a British Naval officer, born out of wedlock, and raised by the noble Mansfield family as a dignified member of the household. Belle is an intelligent, strong black woman in a segregated, slave-owning white world, and the film is deeply thoughtful in the way it examines racism and classism. It’s an important film, and Asante handle major themes and complex characters and situations so carefully, so lovingly. That kind of warm attention to her craft points to amazing things to come. Currently, Asante is set to direct the upcoming film, A United Kingdom, a provocative racial drama that romantically pairs David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Great cast. Great director. It’s a match made in heaven.
By far the most recognizable name on this list, Elizabeth Banks is an A-list actor who is looking to apply the versatility and ingenuity she has displayed in her acting to an ambitious career in directing and producing as well. Her solo directorial debut was last year’s Pitch Perfect 2 after she took over the reins from Jason Moore, who directed the first film. Banks both directed and produced the sequel, maintaining the brand of humor and the powerhouse female cast, but enhancing it by ramping up the intensity at every angle. She went bigger with the cast, bolder with the music, and more ballsy than ever with the humor. The pitches will be back for Pitch Perfect 3, with Banks returning to the franchise in the driver’s seat again. The enthusiasm and fearless audacity she displays both behind and in front of the camera indicate the fire of Elizabeth Banks isn’t likely to burn out any time soon, as she’s even expressed interest in helming an entry in the Star Wars universe, so be on the lookout for whatever she decides to do next.
Between It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Mississippi Grind, Anna Boden, along with her directing teammate Ryan Fleck, has sharpened the surgical scalpel the team uses to explore emotional complexity in psychologically bruised and spiritually broken characters. The former film exhibited a graceful handling of a sensitive topic without stumbling to the inherent quirkiness of the common mental health narrative, and the latter film, undeservedly overlooked in last year’s critic and award discussions, proved that the first was no fluke. Boden and Fleck are actor-friendly directors, coaching their leads to speak fluently the language of the unstated, as evidence by their control of Galifinakis’ mania and in the way they captured the best performance we have seen from Ryan Reynolds since 2010’s Buried (and yes, I’ve seen Deadpool).
Standing as her most notable film to date, Whale Rider, a young Maori girl’s rise to chiefdom by transcending patriarchal custom, continues to carry itself as a successful novel-to-movie adaptation, a and a preview of Niki Caro’s directorial intellect. The latest addition to her collective, McFarland, USA, released last year reaffirms her capability in the intelaced family and community spheres. In McFarland, Caro again puts to the forefront the changing societal landscape by introducing a group of Latino high school students who shake-up the traditionally white cross country competitors. Caro’s family-focused storytelling brings drama without putting her characters through overblown life scenarios where the possibility of experiencing a similar situation boils down to a slim chance. She plants a seed of relatability which transforms into a unique plot. Her antagonistic players act as obstacles instead of fulfilling villainous agendas who immediately gain the disgust of audience members, in McFarland it’s the sneering rich boys in the meets. As a New Zealand native, as in her place of birth, Caro could have easily solidified herself in a comfortable niche focusing on New Zealand’s local cultures. With the decline of indigenous peoples, she would not be the sole filmmaker to take on the gargantuan task of preserving the world’s disappearing cultures. Instead, as she displays with McFarland, Caro goes beyond the sole purpose of entertaining and strikes within the inner complexities on the family front and the implications beyond those linked by blood.
Creating a film about marriage—the heartbreaking, wonderful, complex institution—is no simple task, and few are fit for the challenge like American writer and director Lisa Cholodenko. In The Kids are All Right, Cholodenko does the impossible: she writes realistic characters with intelligent, believable dialogue and pulls subtle, nuanced performances out of her cast. She expertly brings moments of humor to the most complicated of marital situations without ever making a mockery of its participants or its inherent value. While The Kids Are All Right earned a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture in a Musical or Comedy, Cholodenko has yet to earn the proper accolades from the Academy for her directorial efforts. Her masterful writing combined with her natural directing style makes Cholodenko’s career one to follow.
We were so certain Ava Duvernay would snag an Oscar nomination for her work on Selma that some of us had to check to make sure she wasn’t before adding her to this list, although the film was nominated for Best Picture. Though Duvernay wasn’t a household name until story of the march on Selma made such a impact, Selma wasn’t her first feature film. Her first, I Will Follow, received significant praise from Roger Ebert, and Middle of Nowhere earned her the Best Director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Duvernay makes bold statements and takes on controversial and delicate subject matters in her films, blazing the trail for black female directors. She doesn’t show any signs of slowing down either, with several future projects lined up. David Oyelowo will be joining her again for a film about an aspect of the social environment during Hurrican Katrina. And just this month, it was announced that Duvernay will be directing the screen adaptation of the beloved novel A Wrinkle in Time.
British Director Sarah Gavron started her career in documentary filmmaking, debuting her first narrative feature film in 2007 with Brick Lane, followed by 2015’s Suffragette. Gavron surrounded herself with the unheard of for her most recent film—a nearly all-female team behind the camera. This is pretty remarkable as there are so few women occupying behind-the-scenes roles that the U.S. government launched an investigation into the discrimination against women in the industry, directors in particular. Gavron’s film came at the perfect time. Suffragette tells the grueling battle women embarked on in the early 20th century to forever change their voting rights, told through the perspective of one average, working class woman. A hundred years later, this film is more relevant and important today than the women who paved the way could have possibly predicted. From the resurgence of threats and violence against women who continue to seek equality, to the backlash and retaliation geered toward women entering male dominated industries, Gavron’s Suffragette is not only aptly timed but framed in such a stirring, provocative way that it’s clear just how vitally important the women’s equality movement remains.
If you’re a documentary fan, you’ve probably seen or at least heard of The Queen of Versailles. The film follows a billionaire family from the height of their financial success and fabulous over-the-top lifestyle, to their fall from wealth during the economic crisis. As a character study, it’s a fascinating, engaging film. As a look at American culture as a whole, it’s damning. Greenfield doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. When she looks at wealth and excess in America, her take is somehow funny, humanizing, frustrating, and borderline exploitative all at once. It’s one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen, and it’s par for the course for Greenfield. In 2007, Greenfield directed Thin, a documentary that provides a direct and often horrifying look at the effects of anorexia. Up next, Greenfield will release Beauty CULTure, a film that’s nearly guaranteed to be as eye-opening and direct as Greenfield’s previous projects.
Sure, Twilight is fun to poke fun at, but there’s something to be said for a female director taking the helm of a major franchise, knowing exactly what the franchise’s fan base is looking for and delivering both in popular fan reaction to the film and financially at the box office. Hardwicke would endlessly impress me with her successes, regardless of whether I loved or hated Twilight. (In all honesty, I fall somewhere in between the two charged emotions. I was a Twilight fan when I was young so I totally DID love it then and I am not sorry.) Hardwicke’s most recent film, the critically well-received Miss You Already, tells a beautiful story of female friendship, which the cinematic world always needs more of. In the future, Hardwicke shows no signs of slowing down and will tackle another popular young adult book adaptation with Stargirl, a story that encourages the potential beauty of nonconformity.
This Californian writer, director, and actor took Sundance by storm last year with her film directing debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a frank, risqué, unapologetic story about a teenager who experiences her first sexual encounter with her mother’s boyfriend. This film watches like the hands that created it are experienced, confident, and unafraid to delve in to the messy, self-involved, existential world of a teen. Heller uses Minnie’s preferred creative outlet to infuse her drawings in the story, composing both whimsical and dark moments that complement the roller coaster of emotions she experiences throughout her affair with Monroe. There’s no news yet about what Heller’s next project will be, but the innovative, honest, and raw risks she takes with her debut film indicates she has plenty more to offer, and we can’t wait to see it.
2013’s It Felt Like Love is one of the most promising debut films in recent years, and a fascinating alternate take on the coming-of-age narrative we’re all so familiar with. It’s a film about adolescent female sexuality, and the myths and social performance that come with it. Lila (Gina Piersanti) wants to emulate the sexual exploits of her more experienced best friend, leading her to obsess over an older boy who will “sleep with anyone”. Her attempts to insert herself into his life are anxiety-inducing, and we are dropped into the alien situation with her – awkward as she struggles to start conversation, dreading the possibility of being caught and seen by others as something different. The most comforting moments are those when she successfully deceives herself, performing the role of a sexually-active, mature woman. Even Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), the object of her infatuation, never seems like he really is the hyper-sexual man Lila and others expect him to be. The moments that stuck with me were the lingering shots of Rubinstein, we really feel like we’re seeing the world through her eyes, through the female gaze.
Nicole Holofcener has been a filmmaker going back well into the 1990s, on both film and television, with episodes of Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and even Parks and Recreation to her credit. Though for perhaps more than few casual viewers the celebrated writer-director first became a household name following the release of her 2013 drama Enough Said, starring Julia Louise-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini in one of the actor’s last, and perhaps greatest, on-screen performances. Enough Said stands as the seeming culmination of all of Holofcener’s talents as a premiere filmmaker more than deserving of the Academy’s attention, as the film examines the intense desire to find love as a middle-aged divorcee on both sides of the gender spectrum. Louise-Dreyfus proves that she is so much more than Elaine Benes in a role that is heartbreaking, tenderly sympathetic, and uproariously hilarious in its perfect encapsulation of the humanity inherent to her character and associated gender role, though under Holofcener’s direction her apparent desperation is seen as a strength as opposed to a curse.
Australian director Jennifer Kent doesn’t have a lot on her IMDb page yet, but when your full-length directorial debut is as good as The Babadook, you’ve already proven that you’re a sharp and capable director. The Babadook is a horror film about a troubled child’s monstrous imagination and a mother’s psychological breakdown, and it’s scary on a number of nuanced and skillfully layered levels. On the surface, the film’s demonic presence terrorizing a mother and son is horrifying, but on a very real, very human level, The Babadook is as personal and well characterized as horror gets. Kent directs with the steady, confident hand of an empathetic expert storyteller. Though it’s unclear exactly what’s next for Kent, she reportedly has some solid options. Kent has at least two feature films in various states of development and she’s talked to HBO about working on a TV series, so hopefully we can look forward to a lot more from her in the future.
Morley’s debut film Edge was a melancholic exploration of memory and trauma that fit well with the wintery landscape of Dover, but it was in 2011’s Dreams of Life that Morley began to show her filmmaking prowess. In her fascinating documentary about a woman whose body was found in her North London flat three years after her death, she transitioned from talking-head interviews with the real people who knew the woman to compelling, almost wordless reconstructions of what her life might have been like. These scenes are not just flights of fancy but hypnotic moments that juxtapose with the interviews in a way that echoes the films central question of whether anyone truly knew this woman. 2015’s The Falling was an even greater step forward, one that sees young girls coming to terms with adulthood, sex, and death, captured in a mesmerising union of sound and image. While the film delves into the suppression of female sexuality, transition into womanhood, and the individual versus the system, the film’s real power is in its visceral punch, with three-frame images flickering into scenes, showing without telling. The Falling is the key reason to keep an eye out for Morley’s future projects, as it alone delivers a new experience each time it is seen.
Ginger & Rosa (2012) feels as spirited as a debut feature, yet with the wisdom of an illustrious career behind it. The titular characters are born at the same time in 1945 into a post-war England, and coming of age in an era of Cold War paranoia. Clear parallels are drawn between the shock of being thrust into an adult world and the fear of the world literally coming to its atomic end, but Potter’s dialogue never feels contrived or obvious. Instead she slips into the shoes of a teenage girl, with the weight of the world on her shoulders and no outlet for her grievances. Ginger’s growing detachment from her best friend and her rejection of her mother are made all the more painful by the director contrasting scenes of connection and isolation. Scenes between the two girls are shot with intimacy, close-up and empathetic, with the setting of dimly lit houses and derelict industrial complexes shot with a beautiful romanticism. Much attention is paid to Ginger’s eyes – how her soul is bared and where her gaze falls. Ginger & Rosa is the best film about female friendship since Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You, and demonstrates Potter’s effortless ability to construct poignant and beautiful images.
Iranian-born French citizen Marjane Satrapi is as courageous and interesting a director as you’re likely to find working today. If you enjoyed Ryan Reynolds’ performance in Deadpool, it’s time to put The Voices on the top of your watch list. It’s a twisted, hilarious dark comedy starring Reynolds as a well-meaning serial killer. I am in awe of this movie, and I’m fairly convinced that Satrapi is a directorial genius. The Voices is stylistic in a way that few directors can pull off, and her out-of-the-box filmmaking choices give the film a personality all its own. In 2012, Satrapi’s film, Chicken with Plums, tells a dreamy, melancholy tale of youth, longing, life, and death. Visually, it’s stunning and nothing like The Voices. In 2007, she made Persepolis, an animated, autobiographical film set during the Islamic Revolution. A hilarious black comedy with Ryan Reynolds in the lead, a dreamlike, winding exploration of life, and a politically charged animated film… I’m convinced that Satrapi can do anything.
Sciamma has made two films in the last five years: 2011’s Tomboy and 2015’s Girlhood. Both films deal with themes of transition, identity and social limitations, yet avoid being too bleak. Tomboy, a film about a young girl choosing to introduce herself to a new group of friends as a boy, doesn’t give us an ideal progressive household to permit it nor a tragic tale of prejudice. Instead Sciamma turns her camera to the gender roles we are faced with even as children and allows Laure to find moments of happiness and clarity as Mikäel. The opening scene of Girlhood shows us a group of women playing American Football, roaring as they play and laughing in jubilation afterwards. As they change into streetwear and head back to their estate the cheers become raucous chatter, then quiet conversation, as they they pass a gang of boys on either side of the path. In silence, they head to their separate homes individually, to take the expected path of motherhood. Girlhood approaches the harsh realities of the oppression faced by black women without indulging in the abuse and misery that comes with it. Sciamma is far more interested in group dynamics, how these women relate to each other, how they find expression outside of the small world built for them. Both of these films are non-judgemental, with plenty of scenes of joy and acceptance created from the director’s deep affection for the characters.
Featured Image: Every Secret Thing, Hyde Park Entertainment