Considering that one woman has won the best directing Oscar in the entire history of the Oscars -- Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker -- it should come as no surprise that films about and by women are rarely nominated for best picture, let alone win the prize. In recent history, only Annie Hall, which is arguably as much Woody Allen's story as it is Diane Keaton's, Terms of Endearment, and Million Dollar Baby have earned the best picture award. Since the 2000s, Erin Brockovich lost to Gladiator, The Hours lost to Chicago (arguably about women, but still featuring a central heterosexual love story), and Black Swan lost to The King's Speech.
Perhaps the most egregious snub of all was that Todd Haynes's exquisite, critically-lauded Carol, wasn't even tossed in the ring for best picture in 2015 when there was still a slot available. The best picture category may feature up to 10 nominees, but the Academy chose to honor only eight that year. The snub was painful to queer women, many of whom felt wholly represented for the first time in a lesbian-themed film with megastar wattage, but it appeared that female desire in which men are superfluous was not appealing enough to the primarily older, white male Academy that year (because of #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the Academy made a significant push for racial diversity this year).
The following 10 must-see films released in 2016, in several cases directed by women, tell diverse stories of women primarily outside the mold of their relationship to men.
The disturbing true story of a Sarasota, Fla., television news reporter who shot herself on air in 1974, seems like a grim tale to tell, but Antonio Campos's film gets to the heart of timely issues around sensationalism and gore in the media. British actress Rebecca Hall (The Town, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is unrecognizable as Christine Chubbuck, a driven workaholic vehemently opposed to the "if it bleeds it leads" form of journalism that was on the rise at the time. Portrayed as a serious woman with little room for social niceties, it's hard to know if the Christine of the film was an intentional proto-feminist or a woman with agency who was wholly unaware of the political implications of her decisions. Hall's mesmerizing turn deserved an acting nomination across the board but she was overlooked by every awards show. The film costars Maria Dizzia (Orange Is the New Black), Michael C. Hall (Dexter), and Tracy Letts.
If there were a genre devoted solely to stories of women and their relation to the land and open spaces, Kelly Reichardt would be its premiere auteur. An indie film darling, Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff (both star Michelle Williams) met with critical acclaim, as did Certain Women, based on Maile Meloy's collections of stories entitled Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. The subtle film stars Laura Dern as an attorney dealing with a troubled client in the first story, Williams looking literally and metaphorically to rebuild her home in the second, and a perfectly understated Kristen Stewart and newcomer Lily Gladstone performing an unspoken pas de deux in the final segment. Reichardt and Gladstone earned Independent Spirit Award nominations.
Things to Come
Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert won the Golden Globe and earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a rape survivor who seeks revenge on her attacker in Elle, but for those for whom that subject matter is unappealing, or even possibly repellent, she also made the excellent Things to Come from director Mia Hansen-Love. Huppert plays Nathalie, a philosophy teacher and textbook author coping with the end of her 25-year-marriage while also caring for her ailing mother (and her mother's cat). Only her former student and mentee Fabien appears to pull Nathalie out of her quotidian life, luring her to the countryside with his girlfriend and friends for talk of philosophy and revolution. Huppert waxing on about philosophy and bonding with her mother's cat is worth the price of admission alone.
20th Century Women
Annette Bening turns in another stellar performance as a single mother raising a son amidst the shifting political and social landscape of the '70s in Mike Mills's (Beginners) semi-autobiographical film. Bening's new-age-influenced Dorothea raises her teen son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in their Santa Barbara, Calif., home she also rents out to boarders. She concludes that as Jamie comes into himself sexually that he needs influences besides her and enlists the help of one of her boarders, a wildly spirited and excellent Greta Gerwig, and Jamie's best friend and crush (Elle Fanning). Billy Crudup stars as another of the boarders who adds male influence to Jamie's life.
An Oscar-nominated tear-jerking crowd-pleaser and box office smash, Hidden Figures is the story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, whose remarkable contributions to their country as NASA engineers during the dawn of the space race have finally been given their due. Taraji P. Henson (Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Vaughan), and Janelle Monae (Jackson) deliver spot-on performances that are at once heart-rending and crackling with keen wit as they manage their jobs and family while under the societal constraints of the '60s. Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, and Kirsten Dunst lend excellent support in this movie that should be required viewing.
Young men were so terrified that a female Ghostbusters would shatter their childhood fantasies of the original that they flooded the comedy with negative online reviews even before they could have seen it. But anyone who saw the reboot that stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon, knows that director Paul Feig delivered a faithful, funny adaptation of the story of a group of people coming together to chase paranormal activity. Ghostbusters is solid, silly entertainment featuring four women supporting each other, and in that way, it did its job.
The psychological interior of a woman, let alone one as publicly scrutinized as Jackie Kennedy, has never quite been turned outward by the camera as effectively as in Pablo Larrain's fascinating anti-biopic Jackie. Likely not a crowd-pleaser with Kennedy/Camelot myth purists, Jackie depicts the week following John Kennedy's assassination, during which Jackie publicly and privately grieved while also securing the Kennedy brand. Natalie Portman is a tour de force in the role; her chain-smoking, self-medicating Jackie teetering on the brink of a metaphorical cliff. Greta Gerwig lends sweet support as Jackie's friend and confidant while composer Mica Levy's score is both mesmerizing and jarring.
Queen of Katwe
Viewers will no doubt flock to the theater in droves for Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast, but the studio's Queen of Katwe is the inspirational story young girls could really use. Based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young female chess prodigy growing up in an impoverished Ugandan town who becomes a world-class champion. Acclaimed director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding) helms the film that stars Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, Lupita Nyong'o as her mother, and David Oyelowo as her mentor.
Director Anna Rose Holmer explores gender as performance all wrapped in a bit of a mystery in her outstanding first feature that kicks off with what appears to be a fairly standard coming-of-age story about Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old girl whose days are spent at the local recreation area where she boxes with her brother but yearns to join the enigmatic dance troupe, The Lionesses. Toni lands a spot on the dance team just as some of the older girls begin dropping into mysterious seizures on a daily basis. The critically-lauded film earned Holmer the Someone to Watch award at the Independent Spirit Awards.
In its review, The New York Times referred to Kirsten Johnson's stunning non-linear documentary as "... a scrapbook, a found poem assembled out of scraps and snippets of truth." Cameraperson incorporates pieces of film from Johnson's prior work as a cinematographer that otherwise may have never made it to the screen -- those moments when the scene is cut and the camera continues to roll. From 9/11's ground zero to Darfur and Bosnia, Johnson's camera captures humanity in the aftermath of horror, and all through the gaze of a woman.