The 2021 Sundance International Film Festival concluded with what we hope is a sign of long-awaited progress: The virtual event achieved gender parity, with 50 per cent of its feature films directed by one or more women. That skill is incredibly exciting to observe, and no doubt could send many films and filmmakers toward more acclaim when awards chatter begins for the 2022 season. As we close out Women’s History Month, here are ten of the best female-made films that could be challengers in the awards race next year.
Rebecca Hall makes her debut as a writer-director with this beautiful black-and-white drama, based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, about two biracial Black women handling the social and cultural complexness of passing for white. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play retired school acquaintances, but while Thompson’s Irene is married to a Black doctor, Negga’s Clare is married to a white man who’s unaware of her lineage. The random clash triggers a longing in Clare for the cultural life that playing white has rejected her, and as she entangles herself in Irene’s life and marriage, curiosity, paranoia, and despair haunt the latter’s psyche. As the daughter of biracial opera singer Maria Ewing, Hall takes care of this story, and though the pacing might be a bit slow in the middle, the joint power of Negga and Thompson’s executions creates a fascinating effect throughout.
This British psychological horror utilizes the backdrop of Thatcher’s government and the public spiritual debate over the rise and demise of “Video Nasties” to analyze trauma, censorship, and violence against women through the eyes of a film censor. Niamh Algar provides an alarming performance as Enid, whose job it is to study and rate films, but as the amount of harrowing exploitation grows, her horror in censoring it triggers memories worrying about the disappearance of her sister. Haunted by her past and paranoid about her present, fiction and reality begin to blur as gruesome images slowly escape the screen. Director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond builds an eerie world full of vintage composition for Enid to get lost in—one that viewers will be glued to even at its most gory and unsettling.
If you want to see what electoral fraud looks like. then director Camilla Nielsson has you wrapped with her damning investigation of the 2018 Zimbabwean presidential election. The governing party ZANU-PF had overthrown its questionable leader President Robert Mugabe with a coup and was pursuing to ensure control of the country through his substitute. Emmerson Mnangagwa. Accusations of government corruption had been rife for years, but when the election is called, the leader of the opposition MDC party, Nelson Chamisa, hopes to question the old guard. Nielsson follows Chamisa on the campaign, and through humour, heart, and humanity, exposes the various ways in which dirty politics can threaten democracy and leave humans collateral damage.
4.How It Ends
Co-writer-directors Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein re-team for this nihilistic comedy improved, filmed, and edited completely in lockdown last year. It’s the last day of truth thanks to a meteor hurtling toward Earth, and loner Eliza is scheming on getting high with the phenomenon of her younger self, played by Cailee Spaeney. But after a chance meeting with Nate, The One That Got Away, the two hatches a plan to get Eliza laid and some well-needed ending with family, friends, and exes. Though pretty thin on plot, How It Ends offers offbeat humour and cameos that deliver a sincere statement of self-love—one that feels very much needed right now.
If you’re into supernatural beings but roll your eyes at the Fantastic Beasts franchise, might I interest you in this animated alternative? Cryptozoo is the brainchild of husband and wife team Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski, a unique fantasy comedy set in a modern world motivated by Samborski’s all-female Dungeons & Dragons group, where mythical monsters called cryptids exist. When three women team up to rescue one magical beast from being used for scandalous human purposes, the nominal sanctuary comes under threat. The film’s dry humour is juxtaposed with the elegant hand-drawn animation, furnishing a visual feast. Cryptozoo is a welcome break from the Disney-Pixar aesthetic, and it’s a joy to see original animation delivered with adults in mind.
Knocking is a simmering psychological thriller by Swedish director Frida Kempff, modified by screenwriter Emma Broström from Johan Theorin’s novel. Brimming with claustrophobic tension, the film follows Molly, a mournful woman lately released from a mental health facility who’s fighting to convince her neighbours of a knocking sound in her apartment block. The film questions what is real and what is not as Molly woman becomes increasingly chaotic in her pursuit of truth while coming to terms with her trauma. Milocco’s trembling performance is quite amazing and leads to an explosive finale.
Debbie Lum yanks at the heartstrings with this documentary about the active world of higher education. Directing her lens on the students of Lowell High School, the highest-ranking public school in San Francisco, Lum pursues several senior students as they apply for Ivy League colleges but find that even their high test scores, AP classes, and extracurricular activities might not be sufficient to secure places at their top picks. The majority of Asian-American students are working against admissions discrimination that sees them more as machines than intelligent attitudes who are passionate about learning and following their dreams. Try Harder! is a candid and grounded film with a whole lot of heart.
Writer-director Nikole Beckwith explores the quest of parenting via a single father-to-be and his single surrogate, but this isn’t a romantic comedy. With the 17-year age gap between Ed Helms and Patti Harrison, it’s certainly invigorating that an older guy-younger girl romance doesn’t play out. Rather, a platonic relationship is celebrated instead. This comedy is enthusiastic and relatable, delving into the gender bias around parenting and singledom as we follow the growing bond between Matt and Anne over her three trimesters of pregnancy. Patti Harrison sends an emotional rawness we’ve yet to see from the comedian, an exciting portent of the dramatic performances we hope to see from her in the future.
Documentarian Jamila Wignot offers up an elegant portrait of iconic Black choreographer and dancer Alvin Ailey in this hurrying documentary. Ailey broke through race obstacles to become one of America’s most respected virtuosos, and Wignot uses archival footage and interviews to chronicle his life, career, and untimely death due to an AIDs-related illness in 1989. As the American Dance Theater, he created a 60th-anniversary celebratory performance, the people who knew him best disclose the darker side of his life as a Black gay man, as well as the mental burden of conserving lofty expectations as an artist whose name quickly exceeded his person
In her rooted drama, first-time writer-director Blerta Basholli gives voice to the women striving to make ends meet after the Kosovan War. Based on a true story, Hive is set in the small town of Krusha e Madhe, where Fahrije Hoti is one of many wives whose husbands have gone lost in the war. She thinks he’s dead and needs to move on, but her two children and injured father-in-law don’t—and resent her for trying to start a small business to deliver for them. Though the stranglehold of patriarchy threatens her tries to bring together the widows of the village, she nonetheless remains, even when her status and safety are threatened. Gashi’s achievement is quelled but spiked with sharp jabs of power that maintain an intense undercurrent in this slow-paced but entrusting celebration of female drive and unity.