What the Oscars Lack, We Find in This Year’s Women-Directed Films

The Oscars are a strange thing. They’re an institution that still define so much of the discourse around filmmaking, despite rarely representing the massive breadth of brilliant movies that come out each year. Take this year’s nominations, which dropped the ball when it came to recognizing films directed by women.

The Oscars has a storied history of ignoring the achievements and films of female directors, with only five women ever nominated for Best Director and with Kathryn Bigelow standing as the only woman to have ever won. This year, the only female director nominated for an award is Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, whose searing family drama Capernaum is up for Best Foreign Language Film. Meanwhile, once again, both the Best Picture and Best Director categories were filled exclusively with films directed by men.

This year’s Best Picture batch offered up the Oscar standards: a musical, a period drama, a political biopic, plus a couple of slightly more radical wild cards with Roma and Black Panther. It’s not that (some of) the films nominated aren’t worthy of the accolades, it’s just the potential for the category could been so much greater were the Academy willing to take women-directed movies seriously.

One film that feels like it would have been a shoe-in for a nomination were it directed by a man is Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. An atmospheric masterpiece that never exploits the violence that it presents, there’s something completely refreshing about this character-driven crime thriller about a broken man rescuing a young girl from the sex trafficking world. Ramsay never once leans into the romantic tropes that are so common in films about trafficking and men saving young women. There’s no Leon-esque love interest here; just a man trying to do what he thinks is right and a young girl who in the end isn’t the one who needs saving.

Similarly, we have Leave No Trace, another exercise in narrative restraint and epic storytelling and an intimate portrayal of a father and daughter that dealt with PTSD and isolation. Debra Granik’s drama tells an engaging and emotionally driven story and lives and breathes on the two incredible performances at its core—something the Oscars loves. In a time where stories about people living on the fringes of society are often exploited for political gain, there’s something incredibly thoughtful and empathetic about Granik’s portrayal of a man abandoned by society that deserves to be recognized.

Though the two central roles that anchor Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me were recognized at the Oscars, their film and director were not, despite its mastery of bleak, realistic humor and infinitely watchable and relatable characters—a recipe that made for dark magic. Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer offered up another subversion of what we’re meant to expect from women in Hollywood as Nicole Kidman fought her inner demons as a disgraced cop. The brutal intensity of Destroyer will likely see it go down in the history books as a cult film which should have been more appreciated at its release.

The realm of documentary was similarly disappointing when it came to recognizing the work of women. Sandi Tan’s brilliant and utterly unique film Shirkers could have brought an authentic and searing look at teenage girlhood, creativity, abuse of power, and art theft to the table. It’s got everything the Academy usually loves—intrigue, mystery, an engaging cast. Most of all it’s a film about making movies, something that the Oscars usually can’t get enough of.

But the fact that Shirkers came from (and told the story of) a bunch of teen girls creating a film in Singapore, rather than a group of men making a movie about Hollywood, means that it didn’t even make it onto the Best Documentary list.

And if the Oscars truly are about celebrating the medium of film and all that goes with it, then the experimental bravery and brilliance of Madeline’s Madeline should have made it a perfect candidate for recognition. An exploration of acting, performance, and the boundaries that we cross whilst trying to make art, this is a beautiful piece in which Josephine Decker offers an original story filled with honesty, confrontation, and hope.

But perhaps the most egregious snub of the year is that of Chloé Zhao’s The Rider. The searing portrait of a young rodeo rider whose career is sidelined by a severe brain injury never falls into the ableist tropes that Hollywood is so fond of, never becoming melodramatic or exploitative, instead offering a compassionate exploration of the risks we’re willing to take for our passions.

And yet, no nominations.

Images: Sony, Amazon Studios, Netflix, Oscilloscope

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