Women’s perspectives matter — but with movie casts and crews dominated by men, Hollywood has long suggested otherwise. One way to fix this: support female filmmakers. Here’s a curated list of picks from writer, actor and activist Naomi McDougall Jones.
The good news: a greater number of women were nominated for Oscars this year than in previous years. And the bad: a wide gender imbalance still exists. Despite #TimesUp and other initiatives to achieve greater representation, the percentage of female nominees has grown only slightly — in 2018, 23 percent of the nominees in the major non-acting categories are women, up from 20 percent in 2017.
Naomi McDougall Jones, a writer, actor, producer and activist, believes the lack of representation affects all of us, by shaping who we empathize with, what roles men and women “should” play and, ultimately, who we value. We may not realize how biased moviemaking is because the status quo is all we’ve ever known. “If you have watched mostly American movies in your lifetime, 95 percent of all the films you have ever seen were directed by men. Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all of the leading characters that you have ever seen were men,” says Jones in her TED Talk (What it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood). “And even if we just talk about the last five years, 55 percent of the time that you have seen a woman in a movie, she was naked or scantily clad.”
How can we change this? We can support female directors by seeing their work, recommending it to others, and investing in The 51 Fund (which Jones co-founded) and Gamechanger Films, or donating to Women in Film, groups that support films written, directed and produced by women. Then, whenever we watch a movie, we can pay attention to how many female characters there are, what they wear, what they talk about, and how realistically — or not — they’re portrayed. Here, Jones shares 10 of her favorite films by female directors (listed in chronological order).
1. Jesus’ Son (1999)
Directed by Alison Maclean
Set in the early 1970s, this film is a series of linked yet discrete stories that chart the to-hell-and-back journey of a young man. Told in the way you might share a series of anecdotes over a drink, it offers a stunning glimpse into the workings of one man’s heart and mind. And although it’s the story of a man, Jesus’ Son somehow feels like the female answer to all those classic ’70s male-directed films to which so much credit is (rightly) given. Watch this for Billy Crudup’s performance or for nostalgia’s sake — or at the very least, watch it because it’s just a hell of a good film.
Currently available on Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube
2. Brick Lane (2008)
Directed by Sarah Gavron
A young Bangladeshi woman arrives in 1980s London. Trapped within the four walls of her flat and in a loveless marriage, she fears her soul is quietly dying. Her sister, meanwhile, continues to live a carefree life back in Bangladesh. There’s a lushness of imagery and life in this film that lingers in my brain, even though it’s been years since I first watched it. Sarah Gavron deftly unwraps the intimate story of a woman trying to find happiness within the limited structures available to her.
Currently available on iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, Vudu
3. Take This Waltz (2012)
Directed by Sarah Polley
When a happily married young woman meets the handsome artist across the street, their mutual attraction is undeniable. I think Sarah Polley is one of the great directors of our time, and this film is her at her best — sweet, funny, raw and devastating. Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen give wonderful performances, and together they play out one of the most honest portraits of modern marriage that I’ve seen. The radical nature of a film about a woman acting on her lust — as we have seen men do on film since its inception — also rings all my little feminist bells.
Currently available on Netflix, RedBox, iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, Vudu, YouTube
4. Electrick Children (2013)
Directed by Rebecca Thomas
Rachel, a teen born and raised in a Mormon community, believes that she has been impregnated by listening to music and must get to Vegas to find the “father” of her miracle baby. I’m a total sucker for the conceit of this movie. It’s such a delightfully weird and wonderful examination of the ramifications of blind religious belief and “abstinence-only education.” Electrick Children is not a preachy movie at all, though — the larger themes dance lightly beneath the surface — and it’s an unusual story about an unusual girl that every girl and woman (and many boys and men) will relate to. The film is driven by a captivating performance from actress Julia Garner, who you’ll recognize from Netflix’s Ozark.
Currently available on iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, Vudu
5. It Felt Like Love (2014)
Directed by Eliza Hittman
On the outskirts of Brooklyn, a fourteen-year-old’s sexual explorations take a dangerous turn when she pursues an older man and tests the boundaries between obsession and love. I love the simple and effective, yet unpretentious, nature of the acting, filmmaking and storytelling here. Eliza Hittman explores the impact of the cultural forces that present young girls as sex objects, but does so through the eyes of a young girl herself, who moves through the film as an entirely empowered agent of her own choices. At the same time, the film poses the question of how much her actions are truly her own. It’s well-worn coming-of-age territory but like you’ve never seen it before.
Currently available on Netflix, Fandor, Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube
6. The Farewell Party (2014)
A resident in a Jerusalem retirement home constructs a machine that will allow a friend to self-administer a fatal dose of tranquilizers. Yet when the resident’s wife begins to face a serious health issue, his feelings about his new contraption become increasingly complicated. This may actually be my favorite film of all time. It got woefully little play in the US (I saw it at a festival), but luckily for us, it’s available on streaming services. This film made me laugh until my ribs ached — and then made me weep while my heart ached. It takes a skillful hand to balance a film so delicately between comedy and drama. Please watch this movie and please tell your friends about it. It’s a crime that it didn’t get more attention outside of Israel, where it won many awards.
Currently available on Amazon, YouTube, GooglePlay
7. Imagine I’m Beautiful (2014)
Directed by Meredith Edwards
In this psychological drama that dissects the fine line between self-invention and destruction, a woman named Lana moves to New York to start anew but ends up moving in with the troubled Kate. The two gradually bond until one of them makes a discovery that will alter their relationship for good. Yep, I’m going to go ahead and select a movie I starred in and wrote, because I think Meredith Edwards is a true visionary and talent who belongs on this list. With a sophistication and craft that is startling for a first-time feature director, Edwards subtly pulls viewers down the rabbit hole until they suddenly look up and realize that they are definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Currently available on iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, Vimeo-on-Demand, YouTube
8. The Babadook (2014)
Directed by Jennifer Kent
In this terrifying thriller, a mother must protect her son from an evil, supernatural entity that has escaped the pages of a children’s book and is lurking in their home. For anyone who thinks women can only direct chick flicks, check out this gem. Not only is it one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, it’s also one of the smartest. The central performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are extraordinary, but it’s the masterful directing that will keep you up at night.
Currently available on Netflix, Amazon, Showtime, Amazon, GooglePlay, iTunes
9. Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2016)
Directed by Chloe Zhao
This movie is a compelling and complex portrait of modern-day life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that explores the bond between a brother and his younger sister, who find themselves on separate paths to rediscovering the meaning of home. Chloe Zhao uses a fascinating technique in her work — she uses only non-actors and gets performances that are refreshingly honest and free from the sometimes overly controlled work of “great actors.” What’s even more amazing is the depth that Zhao pulls forward, somehow blending the true-to-life simplicity of a documentary with the craft and structure of a fictional narrative. The result is entrancing and revelatory.
Currently available on iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, GooglePlay, Vudu, YouTube
10. Mudbound (2017)
Directed by Dee Rees
Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s farm in the Mississippi Delta, a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family’s struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. I cannot express how urgent it is that you go watch this movie. I’ve done a fair amount of yelling about the fact that this film has gotten so little play in this year’s awards season [Editor’s note: Mudbound was nominated for four Academy Awards but did not get a nomination in the best director or best picture categories.] Never have I seen such a wrenching, uncomfortable, honest — and at times, laugh-out-loud funny — look at historical (and not-so-historical) tensions between whites and blacks in the US. At this particular moment in our social and political landscape, everyone should go watch this movie immediately, not because it tells you what to think but because it brings our racial history down to the level of people and their families. Dee Rees is an exceptional filmmaker, and the performances are deeply moving. There are moments of great humanity, humor and even fun. I love this movie, but even more than that, it’s important.
Currently available on Netflix
Watch her TED Talk, which was given at TEDxBeaconStreet: