A note from the editor: Screen Queens has been supporting and discussing women-made films for six years of this last decade. This year has seen many women-led features grace the top spots of ‘best of’ 2019 lists, but their contributions have often been omitted from ‘best of the decade’ discussions circulating online within the last few weeks.
Through a rigorous voting process, our 30 Screen Queens staff writers have added their voices to the mix, putting forward 50 films from women film-makers that we would consider essential viewing for any cinephile wanting to consume more women-made work. This list depicts a strong mix of blockbuster, indie and made-for-streaming films that each play an important role in the advancement of the portrayal of women’s stories on screen, the female gaze and the inclusion of women behind the camera.
As a publication, Screen Queens relies completely on the work of volunteers – largely working-class students, who do not have the access and opportunities available to them to regularly attend festivals, London or New York based screenings, or even access to independent cinemas. Our list is very reflective of this. Many of these films enjoyed a mid-to-wide release in multiplex cinemas, were made for Netflix, or became available on there very soon after their general release. We cannot deny the importance of the superhero blockbuster or the online release in getting these women-led stories out to the world, and how they are changing the landscape of film and the level of accessibility these potentially marginalised films can now achieve.
In the future, we hope that even more of these stories get to be told, by even more marginalised film-makers, and that the critics who see their lives reflected in those stories are given the opportunity to write on them. Think of this list as a 2010’s Women in Film 101; the work begins here. – Chloë
Private Life (Tamara Jenkins, 2018)
No matter how well-read, over-educated, and artsy New York couple Rachel and Richard are, they cannot seem to figure out how to have a baby. Tamara Jenkin’s 2018 film Private Life is painfully funny, and sometimes just straight-up painful, as the pair of forty-somethings find themselves deep in the agonising throes of infertility. After gruelling attempts and crushed hopes, they grow more creative and more desperate—which leads them to exploring Richard’s step-niece, the college-aged Sadie, as a potential egg donor. Despite the film’s privileged highbrow setting (Rachel is a writer, Richard is a theatre director), it never feels pretentious; the characters burst forth with relatable energy and make all their flaws visible. What results is a brutally funny, deeply moving glimpse into the private battles and joys of a family just hoping to add another dysfunctional human to the mix. – Katie Duggan
Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)
Beauty queen Jackie lives with her husband David Seigel (who made his billions in time-share holiday homes) and their 8 children live in what many would call a mansion. However, they aspire to own the largest single-family home: one modelled on the palace of Versailles. Lauren Greenfield captures the family at a turning point in their lives, and at a crucial moment in recent socio-economic history: the 2008 crash. Almost a fly on the wall, Greenfield captures the extraordinary quotidian of the Seigel families every day.
Moving past the outrageous gaudiness and sheer size of The Seigel family home, (everything from golden ceilings to polar bear rugs) Greenfield’s documentary encapsulates an essential moment in American history, a story of excess, emptiness, indulgence and ruin. This compelling meditation is a complicated and intimate story. A take on the topic that has driven American literature for the past century – the inevitable collapse of the American Dream – through a feminine and 21st century lens. –Reba Martin
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2015)
In a stunning debut by Anna Rose Holmer, The Fits tells the story of a tomboy struggling to fit in with an all-girl dance group— but what begins as a drama quickly turns into a mystery, as the dancers start to have sudden fits during practice. Lacing coming-of-age themes into an unsettling plot, Holmer successfully makes her mark on the cinematic landscape.
Impressive in and of itself, the production history of the film demonstrates the value of funding through cinema initiatives; Holmer made the film after being awarded a €150,000 grant from the Venice Biennale Cinema College. In the age of the billion dollar franchise, The Fits is a brilliant example of a critically appreciated, culturally valuable low-budget film. – Megan Christopher
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson, 2017)
Featuring three electric performances from Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women explores the kinky origin story behind one of the most beloved comic book heroines. Creator and psychologist William Moulton Marston was allegedly part of a poly-amorous relationship with his wife and former student. Their sexual dalliances and Marston’s respect for his lovers’ feminine power and strength were the inspiration for the lasso-twirling goddess. Robinson’s film has a transfixing power in its erotica and liberal approach to an unconventional relationship. The love scenes have a tasteful and seductive aesthetic with the dramatic use of silhouette and golden hues. Robinson’s powerful script explores the fascinating dynamics between the three lovers and the social mores of the era that castigated their relationship. – Caroline Madden
Sleeping with Other People (Leslye Headland, 2015)
With Sleeping with Other People, Leslye Headland created a thoroughly modern rom-com that sees both men and women on equal playing fields, in love, sex and being utterly awful people. Lainey (Alison Brie) is a sex addict and serial cheater, Jake (Jason Sudekis) is an unstoppable womaniser. Funnily enough, they lost their virginity to one another 12 years ago. After a chance encounter the pair are suddenly reunited and enter a platonic relationship to try and sort through both of their sex and relationship issues, but obviously sparks fly and the pair are forced to confront their feelings.
Headland plays with the age old idea of ‘can men and women just be friends?’ but refuses to paint Lainey as a typical romantic woman desperate for a man to keep her. Lainey and Jake are equally as stubborn, and equally as funny. Its a sharp and witty rom-com that deserves way more love. –Chloe Leeson
Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2016)
From the only woman ever win an Academy Award (for her 2008 war drama The Hurt Locker) comes a film about hate, police corruption, and violence against black people just for being black. Brutal and unforgiving, it’s another Kathryn Bigelow special. Detroit. 1967. One of the biggest race riots in American history is shown in blunt real-time, through the true story of a police raid on a motel. Looking for a sniper, but without any evidence of the culprit or that there was even a sniper there to begin with, three police officers terrorise the young guests, resulting in the deaths of three black men and torment of nine other people.
Significant for its unflinching ability to stare its horrors in the face, Detroit is a study of intimidation and alienation, eerily timely for its release around the rise of Trump-fuelled hate crimes. It’s an outspoken portrayal that only Bigelow has the skill to pull off. While some mock her for her ‘masculine’ approach to film-making, there’s no denying that she isn’t afraid to speak up. – Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Blinded by the Light (Gurinder Chadha, 2019)
“Even the plates!” I exclaim when I talk about the profound impact this film had on me. Living near Luton, and growing up a British Muslim, Gurinder Chadha recreated so much of my household, down to the little details. Much like her previous hit Bend it Like Beckham, we follow a young brown kid, following a passion that clashes with their culture. As Kathy Li elaborates in this SQ essay, Chadha doesn’t demonise the overly protective immigrant parents, instead exposing racism, like that of the National Front as the true villains.
On this occasion, Javid, an aspiring writer, is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen, and finds his teenage angst and alienation suddenly articulated. It shows how good art speaks to so many: both the Boss’ words to Javid, and, in turn, Javid’s experiences to the viewers. Blinded By the Light was the feel-good summer hit Britain was waiting for, and one that didn’t compromise on its unique identity in doing so. – Fatima Sheriff
The To-Do List (Maggie Carey, 2013)
Director Maggie Carey’s 2013 comedy, about a studious, uptight prude devouring her way through men before she gets to college, is one of the best and funniest movies about female sexuality – also, ironically, one of the most underrated. The film (starring the always-perfect Aubrey Plaza) is both an embrace and take-down of sex; a critique of the way we venerate sex as an important and intimate act, a championing of its meaninglessness while accepting that sex can be both all-encompassing and insignificant at the same time. It also stars Bill Hader (hot), Donald Glover (hot), Alia Shawkat (hot), Rachel Bilson (hot), and Andy Samberg (hot). It’s a playful, lighthearted look at the way we treat sexuality, and also just a great film about women being horny. More films about women being horny, please! We are very horny!!! – Brianna Zigler
Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, 2015)
You may have heard the names of Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala floating around this last year, their latest film The Lodge premiered at Sundance back in January. But before they hit the US festival circuit, in 2014 they released their first feature, Goodnight Mommy.
A delectable slice of washed-out and twisted Euro-horror, Goodnight Mommy follows a pair of twin brothers whose mother returns to their home after major facial surgery, completely bandaged. As soon as she returns the their home the boys are not convinced that she is their actual mother after all. The film forgoes the typical horror desire to remain in the dark, instead revelling in the tranquillity of the Austrian countryside where the family lives, in their minimalist, white modern house. The almost ethereal nature of the boys and their surroundings makes the events that eventually occur in the house all the more difficult to watch, its a stomach churning exercise in tension and pain with a killer twist to boot. –Chloe Leeson
Frozen (Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, 2013)
Disney’s biggest hit of 2013 was Frozen, the animated musical about a young princess, Anna (Kristen Bell), who goes searching for her runaway sister, Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), after her magical powers accidentally trigger an eternal winter in their kingdom.
Co-directed and written by Jennifer Lee, the film has enjoyed its fair share of accolades. Not only did it win 37 awards, including two Oscars, but it also reigned as both the highest-grossing musical film and highest-grossing animated film of all time, until The Lion King (2019) knocked it off the top spot. Frozen’s legacy is not just cemented in its commercial success, but also in what it brought to the table. With no romantic involvement whatsoever, Elsa’s identity is the focus of her story. It’s a journey of self-discovery, of Elsa learning to embrace her powerful true self despite being told to conceal it her whole life. Having a woman director and screenwriter at the helm of such a narrative undoubtedly gives it a leg-up over other Disney princess films in terms of authenticity. – Holly Weaver
Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle, 2018)
Crystal Moselle burst onto the indie scene with her 2014 documentary The Wolfpack, an insightful, strange, and intriguing real-life tale of secluded brothers in New York who lived fervently through cinema. The documentary is one of many unique stories in New York, and in her follow up film she does it again. She sets her sights on a group of skater girls living vibrant lives in the shadows of New York’s bustling inhabitants. Moselle has a keen eye in discovering stories from people who would go otherwise unnoticed by the mainstream. The story follows the camaraderie of Skate Kitchen, the real-life skater crew who are playing themselves. The film is candid, charming, and strikingly close to their real lives, which makes this a must-watch coming-of-age film. The film was such a success in having us explore and fall in love with this wonderful world, that it is getting a television show at HBO. Before you ask, yes the girls will be back! – Ferdosa Abdi
Unicorn Store (Brie Larson, 2017)
It took over a year and a half for Brie Larson’s directorial debut, Unicorn Store, to be picked up after its premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, but it finally made its way onto Netflix this year. Written by Samantha McIntyre, the film explores the conflict between dreams and reality through one woman’s quest to fulfil her childhood fantasy. Kit (Larson) is a whimsical young artist stuck in a dead-end job that she hates. She was kicked out of art school for her unique and unconventional work and has since moved back in with her parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford). Her life begins to look up, however, when a mysterious figure known only as The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) invites her to ‘The Store’. He offers Kit the chance to have her very own unicorn, providing that she can prove that she’s able to care for it.
Unicorn Store champions imagination and ambition while highlighting the struggles of being a woman who wants to stand out in a male-dominated world. Kit isn’t taken seriously at art school or at her job, but her self-belief, passion and creativity drive her towards getting what she wants in life. – Holly Weaver
The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)
One hundred minutes of pure dread and paranoia manifests itself as Karyn Kusama’s 2015 film The Invitation, an expertly crafted horror/thriller about trauma, healing, and trust. When Will (Logan Marshall-Green) brings his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to his ex-wife’s dinner party with her new boyfriend, he finds himself reliving the accidental death of their son as he tries to piece together what he believes are her ulterior motives. After recovering at a grief support group, Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) finally reunites with her old friends for the first time in two years with a new outlook on life – one which is disconcerting mostly to Will more than anyone else. The film is a delicious slow burn with a wholly empathetic and logical protagonist, reacting to the situation how we always wish our idiot slasher film victims would. But Will still finds it in himself to give someone once so close to his heart the benefit of the doubt, and The Invitation works wonders as an incredibly tense, bloody, and heartbreaking portrait of grief and growth – or lack thereof. – Brianna Zigler
Revenge (Coralie Fargeat, 2018)
With her debut feature Revenge, French director Coralie Fargeat changed the face of the rape revenge genre forever. Her distinct and unwavering female gaze challenged notions of voyeurism in the controversial horror sub-section through the story of Jen’s survival after a rape at the hands of her boyfriend’s friends.
Painted in the least sensationalised and un-sexy way possible, Jen’s rape is barely shown on screen, the focus remaining completely on her face to remove the male gaze that so often caresses women’s struggling bodies. Instead, Fargeat allows Jen to be reborn after being left for dead by the men, her camera focusing in Jen’s physical strength and unrelenting pursuit of her rapists, delightfully and violently picking them off one by one.
With its pink and blue drenched visuals rife with symbolism amongst the desert backdrop, volumes of books could be written about every aspect of Fargeat’s unbelievable film that hands the power back to the survivors. –Chloe Leeson
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (Beyoncé and Ed Burke, 2019)
No one embodies Black excellence quite like Beyoncé. In fact, she wears it as her armour and her crown. Queen B is a warrior for exceptionally talented women who will not settle for anything less than perfection. We all know that Beyoncé is one of the hardest working women in the music industry, but this film (told from her perspective and vision), is a glimpse at the inner workings of a genius —and in no way is this hyperbolic. She takes us on a journey that many will call a moment of a lifetime, and you don’t get that level of spectacle without a true visionary pulling all the strings. Beyoncé respects excellence and Homecoming is a beautiful showcase of that. She understands and recognises that she cannot do it all, so she collaborates, listens, and elevates other talented Black people. She is as much an inspiration to those she works with as they are to her, which is truly evident in the film. Homecoming is a display of the beauty within the Black community coming together to share their art and voice. Beyoncé is an icon, but ‘Beychella’ was bigger than herself —it was a cultural moment that she cultivated to perfection. – Ferdosa Abdi
The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
The Love Witch is the second feature film from Anna Biller, who wrote, directed, produced, scored and edited the film while also creating the costumes and sets. The film follows white witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) who uses love potions to get men to fall madly in love with her and is obsessed with her search for eternal devotion.
Shot on 35mm and seen as a homage to the camp technicolor melodramas and exploitation horror films of the 1960s (that were almost always directed by men), this style and tradition is subverted through a feminist perspective that explores contemporary modern gender roles, love and power dynamics. The Love Witch was an incredibly successful and much welcomed feminist reworking of a specific cinematic tradition that had long been dominated by the male gaze. Biller, evidently passionate about these films from a bygone era, perfectly captures the style and feel of these films without us laughing at the absurdity of that era. And, combined with a hypnotic performance by Robinson, creates a three-dimensional interpretation of the archetypal, and usually highly sexualised, monstrous feminine. – Madeleine Sinclair
High Life (Claire Denis, 2019)
Beloved auteur Claire Denis crafts a maddening, horrific, and titillating film of intergalactic magnetism. In the near future, prisoners are sent to space to become subjects of a human reproduction experiment while they make their way towards a black hole. Denis vision is incomparable, with striking images of the cold, starkness of space against tactile close-ups of slippery, succulent flesh. High Life has an overwhelmingly powerful mood with truly haunting moments and visuals. It is a physiological cinematic experience that will never be forgotten. – Caroline Madden
Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011)
Celine Sciamma frequently focuses on the lives of young people with a tender, sincere eye. Tomboy is no different. The film centers on 10-year-old Laurie who moves and deliberately presents herself as a boy named Mikhael to the children in her new neighbourhood. Sciamma carefully observes her subject without resorting to melodrama or comedic effect. Her simplistic, low-key approach to the complex issue of gender makes for an absorbing film experience, one that deeply delves into the perspective of a little girl who is merely experimenting and measuring her turbulent feelings with grace. – Caroline Madden
Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)
Dee Rees’ 2011 coming-of-age drama Pariah poetically captures the feeling of being on the outside looking in, trying desperately to find your place in this world. Alike, or “Lee” as she is more often known, is a black teenager in Brooklyn slowly coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. She struggles to express her sexuality: she hangs out at clubs but watches from afar as her out lesbian friends flirt confidently on the dance floor, and she experiments with wearing a strap-on but feels awkward and embarrassed. As Lee eventually pursues a romance with Bina, a girl from her church, her world starts to open up little by little, but then she also finds herself caught in heartbreaking conflict with her parents. Rees’ film powerfully dramatises a teenager’s tug-of-war with her community and herself, capturing in stunningly vibrant cinematography the varied experiences of queer black womanhood and the search for acceptance. – Katie Duggan
Faces Places (Agnès Varda, 2017)
This was Agnès Varda’s penultimate film, and its release was accompanied by a whole film season of her incredible career, entitled ‘Gleaning Truths’. Many cinephiles, myself included, learnt so much about her work through the pieces that outlets including ours produced, so in this sense, the retrospective of her whole career has been a huge part of this decade’s cinematic landscape. Faces, Places is a glorious combination of human connection and artistry. Varda, 90 at the time, travels with JR, 35, an enigmatic photographer who always wears sunglasses and a signature hat. They begin their journey with a woman standing her ground as long as possible before her street is demolished. They let her tell her story and paste her resolute portrait upon her building.
From small towns to enormous factories, this film epitomises Varda’s unique interest and admiration for every person she met, actualised by JR’s brilliant installations. In the process, the pair learn more about each other in an artistic intimacy that is a joy to watch. – Fatima Sheriff
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018)
Initially banned in Kenya for daring to portray a lesbian relationship, Rafiki nevertheless won great acclaim, as did its director Wanuri Kahiu for her bright, bold and challenging vision of two love-struck teenagers whose romance blossoms behind the backs of their politically-opposed families. Despite its controversy, Rafiki has made unprecedented progress in bringing visibility to the LGBTQ community in Kenya and other nations with similarly oppressive laws. Though homosexuality is still illegal in Kenya, and Kahiu does carefully illustrate the unjust hatred and violence, Rafiki remains above all a film about hope, persistence against the odds, and the inevitability of true love. – Megan Wilson
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
Hard to explain this as anything other than simply ‘The Coolest Film Ever Made’. Ana Lily Amirpour made the strongest debut with this black and white gender-bending vampire tale. Giving a synopsis feels almost reductive because this is such a mood piece, and in this case going in partially blind works so much better. All you need is the image of a female vampire, in a chador, riding a skateboard through the city at night.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is uncanny for many reasons, one is that it feels like both a film you have never seen before, and a film you have seen a thousand times. A slow burning crockpot of noir, horror, and art house references, Amirpour plays with visuals rather than words. There is such a richness and care in this film, you can tell Amirpour is a massive fan (just like us!) who truly loves the type of bizarre type of movies she makes, and that she just loves making movies. –Reba Martin
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014)
Praised for its honest depiction of abortion and the realities of unplanned pregnancies, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child put the ever-delightful Jenny Slate firmly on the map. Slate plays Donna, a stand-up comic who has a bad break-up and resorts to sleeping with a stranger to overcome her depression. This one night stand unfortunately leads to an unplanned pregnancy which Donna confidently wants to terminate.
The film grapples with the complexities and shame that can often be attached to abortion, especially when the father of the fetus finds out. Robespierre handles the topic with grace and sincerity, with a good dose of humour and a surprisingly happy ending. –Chloe Leeson
Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 Blackfish is a call-to-action documentary about SeaWorld’s immeasurable orca whale problem. The main focus of the film is Tilikum, an orca responsible for the deaths of three people — what Cowperthwaite highlights so eloquently is how troubled the life of Tilikum really is. These giants aren’t meant for the tiny containers they’re kept in, and through heartbreaking details about the many torturous practices implemented at SeaWorld, we get a real understanding of how bad the situation is. For example, one of the saddest bits of the documentary is about the orca families: SeaWorld separates mother orcas from their babies so they won’t be distracted during performances. In the film, we get to hear sound clips of mothers crying out for their babies. Cowperthwaite was nominated for a BAFTA for Blackfish, and went on to direct Megan Leavey in 2017. – Fletcher Peters
Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)
Inspired by a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers is the film we all want to watch: clever women getting the best of some rather unpleasant men. The fifth outing for writer, producer and director Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers starts in the early 2000s when Wall Street traders have money to burn and the US economy seems unshakeable. Destiny, a young, new stripper, is taken under the arm of Ramona, the clubs most popular dancer. But after the 2007 financial crisis the money stops flowing and the women decide to take matters into their own hands. They proceed to run a scam where they drug men and steal as much of their money as they can get away with. Women are many things, and Hustlers gives these characters a chance to contain contradictions and multitudes. It is a heist movie with real women behind the glitz of their costumes. – Mia Garfield
Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, 2014)
In Céline Sciamma’s Bande de Filles there is a scene where Marieme (Karidja Touré), Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Marietou Toure), and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) dance and lip-sync to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”. During this moment it does not matter if they make questionable choices to feel alive and survive. In this brief moment in time they are four Black girls basking in the glow of sisterhood, and this is the scene best remembered from the film. Sciamma’s film is challenging and is worthy of both the praise and critique it has garnered. At the base is a story about the ever-increasing difficulties between the journey from girlhood to womanhood, but it’s also a story about marginalised Black girls, which requires a sensibility that Sciamma (as well-intentioned as she may be) does not have. Despite this, her film is a moving and devastatingly beautiful story that is worth watching and critiquing. It earns a spot on this list because there is a myriad of things that work, one of them being that Sciamma is keenly aware of her limitations and doesn’t push them. – Ferdosa Abdi
Ruby Sparks (Valerie Faris and Joanathan Dayton, 2012)
We can thank Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano for their writer/director collaboration on last year’s Wildlife, but before Wildlife was Ruby Sparks. Directed by Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks, written by its star Zoe Kazan, is a hidden gem that plays with the obsessiveness of the male gaze. When author Calvin (Paul Dano) begins writing a new protagonist, she suddenly shows up in real life. Ruby Sparks follows his every word, via typewriter — only, she doesn’t know that he’s controlling her every move. On top of its nuanced understanding of female protagonists, it’s also a wonderful testament to lonely writers. Kazan and Dano, as always, are a delight on screen — especially together! – Fletcher Peters
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
Nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film about some teenage sisters in conservative Turkey, is an essential and eye-opening peek into the lives of one particular set of young women outside of our typically-explored western ideals.
These sisters in question are near-enough housebound by their grandmother, who is desperately trying to find them all husbands for an arranged marriage. They stay in the house to learn domestic chores and are punished for being improper. Some of the sisters are happy to abide by these traditions for the sake of the family, and others dream of a bigger life for themselves. One thing that unites them all is their solidarity with each other and the decisions and sacrifices they have to make to get there.
With an airy, dreamlike aesthetic similar to the likes of The Virgin Suicides, Mustang delivered an essential message about cultural differences and differing experiences of teenage girlhood on a more global level than most of us western audiences are used to, made with a punch of healthy rebellious spirit. –Chloe Leeson
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018)
Based on the true story of a father and daughter living illegally in a vast forest outside of Portland, Oregon, Leave No Trace is the tender account of a man trying to escape the world and a young girl curious to be a part of it. Granik’s nomadic narrative provides an arborous backdrop for an intimate character study of Will, an army vet who suffers from PTSD, and 13-year-old Tom, who has lived most of her life in the wilderness. When their campsite is discovered and social services intervene, Will is forced to reckon with his fears of integrating back into society whilst trying to provide Tom with the stability she needs. Exploring complex themes of home, family, and mental health, Leave No Trace feels authentic and unobtrusive, leaving the spectacular scenery and profound lead performances to reach their full potential. – Megan Wilson
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)
It goes without saying why Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman deserves a spot on this list. The first female-led superhero film directed by a woman as the sole director. Grossing over $800 million dollars worldwide, Wonder Woman proved that we do, in fact, want superhero films spearheaded by women. Princess Diana leads a relatively idyllic life on the island Themyscira, raised by the tribe of warrior women known as the Amazons. Yet when an American spy named Steve Trevor crash lands on her home, she learns of the war to end all wars. Believing it to be her duty as an Amazon to put an end to the tragedy and death, she sets out to save humanity. Jenkins’s film takes the best of the iconic character to create a heartfelt, inspiring, ode to the power of empathy. – Mia Garfield
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
Winner of the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize as well as a four-time Oscar nominee, Winter’s Bone is well worth an inclusion on this list. Known to most as the film that almost won Jennifer Lawrence her first Oscar, Winter’s Bone is an unflinching, honest portrayal of the lives of three children in the Ozark Mountains. Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly lives with her mentally ill mother and cares for her two younger siblings. They survive mostly on what they can hunt and scavenge in the wilderness. When Ree’s father is arrested for cooking meth, she learns that their house was part of the bond, and if she doesn’t find him, her family will become homeless. So she sets out on a quest which leads her from relatives, to her father’s criminal associates, to complete strangers, trying to discover what happened to her father. Love or hate Jennifer Lawrence, this film is breathtaking in its commitment to showing a family in poverty in rural United States. This film won an impressive 63 awards across its festival run and director Debra Granik has shown that she is a force to be reckoned with. – Mia Garfield
Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2018)
When given the chance (which isn’t as often as we would like), Black creatives are capable of making art that moves us, challenges us, and quite simply brings us to tears. Director Dee Rees, paired with Rachel Morrison’s stunning cinematography, tells the impactful tale of two interlocking stories about two families in rural America during and after WWII. A tale that could have been two-dimensional in its depiction of the racial and economic divide between the families, was raised to be a complex story that demands our attention. One can go to great lengths to discuss the nuance and care Dee Rees enveloped this film with, but let’s just say that she truly did make a masterpiece. – Ferdosa Abdi
Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018)
Sandi Tan’s 2018 Shirkers is her feature debut. But it’s also not her feature debut. The original Shirkers, as we come to know it in the new version, was a film Tan shot as a teenager in nineties Singapore. After she entrusts the footage to her film professor, Georges Cardona, it disappears. In an attempt to trace the history of what once was lost, Shirkers tangles Tan’s found footage with an expository documentary about the phenomenon. Tan’s meditation on film-making and finding closure is intimately shared through interviews, self-reflection, and soundless ghost shots from the original Shirkers. Tan unpacks her confused emotions on the line to make this stunning documentary, retracing painful history and emptied nostalgia. Shirkers won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award, with Tan as the second Singapore-born filmmaker to win the award. Tan won’t give up on fictional film-making: coming soon, she’s set to direct Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. – Fletcher Peters
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019)
I’ll admit, it took too long to get here, but the MCU’s first female-led movie didn’t disappoint. By the end of the punky and, surprisingly, grounded Captain Marvel, our hero Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) knows her worth and doesn’t need to prove it to anyone but herself. Another 2019 celebration of female friendships, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck gave Danvers a real family in Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar). After the events of Avengers: Endgame where the team were introduced to her unfathomable power, I can’t wait to see her on our screens again – this time with all her superheroine peers. – Millicent Thomas
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut was lauded by critics and gained enormous attention when it premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2014, and went on to gross $10.3 million on a budget of just $2 million. The film follows Amelia (Essie Davis) struggling to cope after her husband’s death left her a single mother to the erratic son that she blames for his death. It explores ideas of motherhood and mental illness that, although particularly prevalent in the horror genre, are represented in a more sympathetic and understanding way. It shows us what motherhood is and busts taboos surrounding what it shouldn’t be. The film has also been noted for its exploration of depression and the pervasive impact grief has on us, with many seeing the Babadook as a metaphor for the inescapable and destructive power of grief. – Madeleine Sinclair
Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)
There is a line in Ava DuVernay’s MLK biopic Selma where Lorraine Toussaint’s Amelia Boynton Robinson is speaking with Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King and is offering some reassuring words. She says:
“I know that we are descendants of a mighty people, who gave civilisation to the world. People who survived the hulls of slave ships across vast oceans. People who innovate and create and love despite pressures and tortures unimaginable. They are in our bloodstream. Pumping our hearts every second. They’ve prepared you. You are already prepared.”
As soon as these words left Toussaint’s lips I felt tears running down my face. To watch a film about Black people and our struggle to merely exist told from someone who truly understands is quite an emotional journey. From the harrowing opening scene to the end of a triumphant journey, DuVernay imbues this biopic with nuance and care that any other director might have failed to provide. Her characters are humans first, ideals second. Her heroines are more than decorative wallpaper to our male protagonist’s story, and it is safe to say that less would have been given to them if a Black woman was not at the helm. Selma is a triumph in many regards, but the heart of the reason why it resonates so strongly is that Ava DuVernay was the visionary behind it. – Ferdosa Abdi
13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)
If you’re looking for a masterful and engaging tutorial on how American racism becomes institutionalised and ingrained in its culture, Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary 13th is essential viewing. Fresh from the success of her Martin Luther King biopic Selma, DuVernay challenges any belief that you may hold that we’re a world away from the struggle for civil rights. The title refers to the 13th Amendment (Abraham Lincoln’s last act of abolishing slavery from the United States) that, in an uncomfortably hard-to-stomach truth revealed by Duvernay, only served to change the shape of American slavery. From Reagan to the Clintons, DuVernay holds no reservations in demolishing any false Gods in American politics in displaying how they played a role in the creation of a prison industrial complex that targets African Americans for unpaid labour. Critics of 13th have claimed that DuVernay has ignored the existence of genuine crimes, but DuVernay’s consistent passion for highlighting systemic racism in her films finds itself incredibly difficult to argue with. – Bethany Gemmell
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)
Nadine, our protagonist in The Edge of Seventeen played brilliantly by Hailee Steinfeld, is impulsive, selfish and mean – and exactly how teenage girls should have their stories told. Nadine is an endlessly compelling character, a real young woman who deals with friendships, family, boredom and acne. In a spectacular sophomore outing from writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, Steinfeld gets the opportunity to properly show off her acting chops and knack for comedy, and a special thank you should also be offered for introducing us to the star that is Haley Lu Richardson. Craig’s next work is the screenplay for Scoob!, a film whose trailer is already getting good buzz. I say, bring on the scooby snacks and well-written women characters! – Millicent Thomas
Capernaum (Nadine Labacki, 2018)
With breathtaking ease, Nadine Labaki captures a harrowing performance from her young non-professional Zain Al Rafeea. Rafeea stars as a gutsy, streetwise child who flees his horribly negligent parents. The lonely boy eventually finds refuge with an Ethiopian migrant worker named Rahil, and he agrees to care for her baby son Yonas in return for shelter and food. Later, Zain is jailed for committing a violent crime and he sues his parents for neglect. Labaki’s Capernaum, or ‘Chaos,’ boldly exhibits shocking and disturbing domestic conditions in a brutally honest manner, but she also layers the film with numerous sweet, kindhearted moments that speak to the resilience of childhood wonder. – Caroline Madden
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Susan Johnson, 2018)
The Netflix original that took the internet by storm, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (based on the 2014 novel of the same name) tells the story of high school student Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) as her love letters are accidentally sent to the boys they are addressed to.
Susan Johnson directs breakout stars Condor and Noah Centineo in this by-the-books teen rom-com with a reception that was anything but. The film blew up on Netflix, with over 85 million views by the end of the first month of streaming. People were thrilled to see a woman of colour fronting a rom-com, with Vietnamese-American Lana Condor portraying the protagonist originally written by Korean-American author Jenny Han. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was a smash hit with audiences and critics alike, so it’s no surprise there are two sequels on their way, or that it made it onto our list. – Georgia Carroll
Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2017)
Released in 2016, Raw follows a first year veterinary student during her radical transformation from moral vegetarian to twisted cannibal; what unfolds is nothing short of traumatic. Raw does more than disturb.
Presenting itself as a gore-fest, the real horror lies in the symbolism. Raw isn’t just a horror film, it’s an unapologetic coming of age tale. It grabs your primal instincts by its claws, provoking that gut wrenching feeling of angst and unease we all love to avoid. Showcasing the true repulsions of the young female experience, debut writer-director Julia Ducournau knew what she wanted to say, and used every shot, every colour, and every minute to say it. Raw is original, it is unforgettable – whether you want to remember it or not – and it refuses to go unnoticed. Claiming its place as one of the best films of the past decade relies not upon the cinematic impact of the film, but rather the emotional aftermath it leaves you with. – Kelsie Dickinson
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017)
While Film Twitter argued over the run-times of Endgame and The Irishman, this film has made its way into the hearts of critics with its lean-cut 90-minutes. The protagonist is Joe, a hammer-wielding hit-man with a darkness to him that director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t shy away from nor romanticise. He is sent to rescue Nina (the daughter of a senator) from a seedy trafficking ring, and we follow his fracturing psyche into the abyss.
Though the Takens and John Wicks of the world have their place, this is not the action movie this synopsis could suggest. With little dialogue, the story is told through imaginative cinematography, Jonny Greenwood’s eclectic score and Joaquin Phoenix’s expressive performance. Altogether, Ramsay’s consuming character study dissects Joe’s masculinity and trauma, with a piercing gaze that sees both his vulnerability and his violence. The nuance is profound and deserved more recognition. – Fatima Sheriff
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a heart-wrenching deep dive into the aftermath of a high-school killing, from the point of view of the killer’s mother (Tilda Swinton). The film was adapted by Lynne Ramsay from the highly-acclaimed book of the same name, and released in 2011. In the canon of women-directed films, this movie is not often mentioned in the same ranks as Wonder Woman or Zero Dark Thirty. However, Ramsay’s directorial efforts are an important addition to the canon, due to both the subject matter of the film and her almost faultless execution of it. The film inspects parenthood, the concept of unconditional love and the perennial question of ‘nature vs nurture’ through a unique and focused lens. It is an example of subverting traditional gender norms and the role of the woman as mother. Ramsay’s film captures the nuanced complexity of Swinton’s character, Eva, which causes us to question our attitudes towards motherhood. Most importantly, the film manages to maintain the raw and honest tone of the book; a feat not many adaptations succeed in doing. –Aleena Augustine
Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019)
A mashup of Superbad and Bridesmaids, actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial feature debut is an ode to girls who are smart and fun (i.e. all girls). Screenwriter Katie Silberman puts a fresh take on high school sex, drugs and puking as BFF’s Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) decide to go wild on the last night of high school, having spent years hitting the books and ignoring any social gatherings. It’s no surprise that a film about two normal looking, unapologetically ambitious teenage girls having fun and going wild, connected with so many.
On paper it’s another ‘one last night to do something cool!’ trope, but it’s the understanding of the 2019 teenager that makes this film feel fresh and much needed. With drug-induced stop motion, dinner party skits and a hilariously realistic lesbian sex scene, Booksmart just gets it. Sharply directed with a relevant soundtrack and a believably diverse cast, Booksmart is the film I wish I had when I was a teenager. – Amelia Harvey
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018)
Melissa McCarthy finally found a role to indulge her more dramatic talents. In Can You Ever Forgive Me? she plays celebrity biographer Lee Israel, who turns to forgery when the book commissions dry up. Lee is angry, lonely and unapologetically charmless alongside her dandy drinking buddy Jack (Richard E Grant in his best role in years). Together, they represent the people left behind in big cities.
Directed by Marielle Heller and written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty Lee, the team bring out the best in McCarthy, an actress whose career has been defined by brash comedic roles. She’s funny yet poignant as Lee, a lonely and curmudgeonly cat-lady whose characteristics are only heightened by her marginalisation. The friendship between Lee, a middle-aged lesbian and an ageing homosexual is a rare one for the big screen, the non-sexual chemistry and sharp wit better than most recent cinematic duos. You’ll come for the heist and stay for the profoundly relatable tale of loneliness. – Amelia Harvey
American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)
American Honey is, for many, Andrea Arnold’s magnum opus. With a breakout star in Sasha Lane, the breathtaking cinematography of Robbie Ryan and Arnold’s own masterful direction, any best of the decade list which doesn’t feature this epic road movie likely deserves a rethink. As a character study, American Honey takes 18-year-old protagonist Star into the wilderness of newly found independence. As an investigation into deprivation, the film showcases the widening gap between rich and poor in today’s America with a startling intimacy. But it is the combination of the two that gives American Honey its greatest strength – through Star’s eyes, we see the trajectory of the working class youth, with all its pain, trauma, contentment and hope. – Megan Christopher
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan, 2018)
Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, might be the funniest, most heart-warming and relatable film about gay conversion therapy you’ll ever see. Akhavan’s depiction of teens finding friendship in the shadows of oppression has a truly timeless quality that quietly and resolutely assumes its place in the LGBTQ canon. I challenge you to watch this film then listen to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” without feeling the urge to sing into a potato masher and take on the world. – Megan Wilson
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire may be Celine Sciamma’s first deep-dive into the adult subject, but the prolific lesbian director more than proves herself with this gorgeous examination of temporary love. Set in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, Portrait follows the emotional entanglement of a painter, Marianne, and her subject, Heloise. A refreshingly sparse plot allows Sciamma the room to slowly reveal their affections for each other, in a slow-burn romance which truly earns its label. What makes Portrait special, however, is the distinctly lesbian gaze with which the camera traces these lovers; in refusing to include gratuitous nudity, Sciamma only adds to the sensuality of the film. In its emotional honesty, Portrait declares boldly: here is lesbian desire, depicted on screen – and it is beautiful. – Megan Christopher
The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019)
The buzz for Lulu Wang’s The Farewell began around Sundance Film Festival in early 2019, with a UK release not until late September. And yet, even so late into the decade, it is undeniably well-deserving of second place in this list. Billi (Awkwafina) is an American-Chinese writer living in New York who, in one day, is rejected from a fellowship, finds out her Nai Nai (grandmother) is dying, and that her family intend to say goodbye without actually telling Nai Nai herself. Making the trip to China despite her parents’ disapproval, Billi grapples with the culture clash as well as her impending grief.
Wang can – and should – boast her entirely Asian cast, her female cinematographer, as well as her stunning work with Awkwafina, who is finally given the opportunity to play a role both humoured and vulnerable. But most of all, The Farewell a showcase of Wang’s own storytelling ability. The heart of the piece is its exploration of Chinese collectivism vs the Western canon of individualistic values, and its triumph is the fact that Wang doesn’t pass judgement on either but instead captures what it’s like to belong to multiple, and sometimes conflicting, cultures. – Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) wants more from life. She dreams of the big city – somewhere with culture – but has to get through high school relationships and clashes with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) during her senior year first. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig in her directorial debut, Lady Bird’s portrayal of adolescence and a perfectly identifiable family captured the attention and hearts of viewers from the get-go. It is a beautiful story of family, and of finding the balance between appreciating where you came from and dreaming of something more.
Lady Bird garnered five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director for Gerwig herself – making her the fifth ever woman to be nominated for the award. Though it did not win any of its nominations, it most certainly won our hearts. It also won the number one spot on this list, which, in our own humble opinion, is almost as prestigious as the Academy Award itself. – Georgia Carroll