Recently, there was an article in Yahoo Finance that proclaimed that 2020 was going to be the banner year for women directors due to a handful of the biggest blockbusters. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), Black Widow, Mulan, Wonder Woman 1984, and The Eternals. Indeed, these five films, were expected to make up half of the top 10 box office grossers, but COVID-19 had other plans. It is sad to think that a global pandemic is what prevents us from witnessing this rather unprecedented win for women directors, it’s even sadder when you think that this should have been a norm by now. However, let us not get weighed down by this downer year, because it was honestly a great year for women regardless of theatre closures.
There were a ton of great films released this year by women, which includes an incredible number of first features that are all deserving of praise and recognition.
So, here are 20+ feature directorial debuts you should all check out.
Alice dir. Josephine Mackerras
Write and director Josephine Mackerras tackles the never ending trials of being a woman and mother in a society that is not set up to watch us succeed. The story follows Alice who seemingly has it all, until her partner cheats on her with escorts. Her and her son’s well-being is at risk, and the once judgemental Alice finds a a ray of hope, in escort work. What follows is a film that tackles the social and legal double standards imposed on women.
Alice is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime for UK audiences. Keep an eye out for it if it finds its way to your region.
Amulet dir. Romola Garai
This gothic horror from Romola Garai is many things, but most importantly, unsettling. It weaves a tale that delicately balances various timelines, trauma, criticism of gender norms, and healthy dose of classic haunted house tropes. Amulet is a handsomely made and a staggering achievement for any first time director. Garai proves to be quite the talent behind the camera, hopefully she builds her own little horror empire.
Amulet is available to stream on Hulu for US audiences and can be rented/bought in other regions.
Babyteeth dir. Shannon Murphy
Yes, this is a “dying girl” movie, and that can be a tough watch for many. However, Shannon Murphy’s debut based on on Rita Kalnejias’ screenplay is filled with a vibrancy, vulnerability, and humour. It avoids many of the trappings of your typical film of this nature. It is a studied look at how humans respond to the unexpected, the tragic, and the burst of joy that come from a rather dark place. It is a film about love and that is what shines through the most. Also, Eliza Scanlen proves yet again that she is a star.
Babyteeth is available to stream on Netflix in Canada and the UK.
Beans dir. Tracey Deer
Currently the Canadian film industry is facing the reckoning of knowing what it means to be Indigenous, and who holds the power to tell Indigenous stories. As the industry is rocked with learning that space has been given to those who dubious connections (putting it mildly) it has become increasingly more important to embrace creatives who are out here doing what the can to tell their stories in the most authentic ways. Beans is a harrowing coming-of-age tale that shows us what the Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke Mohawk communities have gone through maintain their way of life, through the eyes of a young girl Beans (Kiawentiio). For her feature debut Tracey Deer lays it all out there presenting a story close to her heart with tender care and a critical eye. Her work is important as well as an opportunity to bask in her gifts as a director.
Blow the Man Down dir. Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy
Many have attempted redo what Fargo did many years ago. Small-town crimes, a cast of zany characters, and an unrelenting dark humour that teeters on the edge. Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s first feature does what so many have tried. While Blow the Man Down has exactly what you need from students of the Coen Brothers, such as; ordinary people, amateurish mistakes, macabre crimes, and dark, subtle humour, Cole and Kurdy take it one step further. This is also a careful study of how the women in this fishing town operate, what social norms do they adhere, what rules they’ve crafted do they live by. It is fascinating from beginning to end.
Blow The Man Down is available to stream on Prime Video.
The Broken Hearts Gallery dir. Natalie Krinsky
A good romantic-comedy should feel like a warm weighted blanket wraped around your body. Comforting and secure. That is what The Broken Hearts Gallery is. It is a sincere, delightful film, that lacks cynisim and embraces the a very sweet sentiment. Led by the ever charming Geraldine Viswanathan, the film is an utter delight that can be enjoyed by anyone.
Bulbbul dir. Anvita Dutt Guptan
Anivita Ditt’s Bulbbul is visually astounding and a carefully crafted gothic horror that gets to the heart of its story quickly without sacrificing any of the powerful imagery along the way. It is a tale of a woman wronged by all those around her, and society. With exceptional performances across the board, especially from lead actress Tripti Simri, Bulbbul take the conventions of a fairytale and skillfully warps it into a damning critique of the patriarchy in a horror packaging.
Bulbbul is is available to stream on Netflix.
Cuties dir. Maïmouna Doucouré
Maïmouna Doucouré’s feature debut has been through quite a year. Marred by unnecessary controversy, the film’s message got lost in the shuffle. This film is open and honest coming-of-age drama about a young girl trapped between traditional expectations and hypersexualisation via the Internet. Both worlds push and pull at young Amy, who only wants to be a kid. Doucoure’s film is an interrogation of how young girls are objectified and marginalized twice over, in the home and by society. Whether they be at odds with each other both worlds aim to control Amy’s body and choices. The film is uncomfortable, but most things the confront tough issues are. If you are willing to give it a shot with an open mind, you can find the film on Netflix in most regions.
Cuties is available to stream on Netflix.
Definition Please dir. Sujata Day
We love a woman who can do it all. Sujata Day produced, wrote, directed, and starred in her own feature film debut, and she excelled in every way possible. Definition Please speaks to that anxiety we all struggle with. That fear that we haven’t accomplished anything important or that we may disappoint our parents. Day’s film is a fresh of breath air in the indie space, as it centres an Indian-American woman who is free from tropes and lives a fully realized life. She is a person not an idea. Day’s filmmaking is charming, emotional, hopeful, and most importantly honest. She has a bright future ahead of her, and I cannot wait to dive into all that she has to offer,
Alina Faulds writes in her review, “Through her film, Sujata Day urges other Asian artists to create the content that they want to see. You don’t have to wait for Hollywood to catch up with better roles, the films are better when we write them ourselves anyway.”
Emma. dir. Autumn de Wilde
Emma. is a decadent, delightful, and quirky adaptation of a beloved book. Autumn de Wilde deploys all of her expertise as a photographer to capture the sumptuous environment in which Emma reigns supreme. From the costuming to the production design to the picturesque settings, Emma is as much a feast for the eyes as it is a feast for my Austen loving heart. It is all you could want and more.
Emma. is available to stream on HBO Max.
Farewell Amor dir. Ekwa Msangi
Farewell Amor is an incredibly powerful and insightful look into the immigrant experience in America, through the Angolan perspective. It is personal, empathetic, and honest to the conflicting feelings one has through this process. Holly Weaver writes in her review,
“Confidently and masterfully crafted, Farewell Amor is a stunning feature debut that undoubtedly secures Ekwa Msangi as one of the most talented up-and-coming filmmakers in the industry right now.”
Farewell Amor is available to stream on MUBI in the UK and available to rent/buy on Apple TV in most regions.
The Forty-Year-Old Version dir. Radha Blank
The Forty-Year-Old Version is one of the few films this year that tackle the process of making art. Radha Blank writes, directes, and stars in a fictionalized version of a personal story about the creative process and the unfair racial and gendered expectations. There are many films and TV tap into the difficulty of artistic expression, especially when the expression is stifled somehow. However, Radha Blank sheds light on the peculiar nature Black women find themselves in. The Forty-Year-Old Version is candid, funny, honest, beautiful shot, and thrilling. A truly great first feature for this star.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is available to stream on Netflix.
Jezebel dir. Numa Perrier
Numa Perrier’s first feature film is explosive. With stellar performances across the board, to the evocative lighting and cinematography, to the beautifully constructed narrative, Jezebel in many regards is perfect. She is able to ground the story about a an older sister training her younger sister in sex work into a reality that neight places judgement or chastise either. Especially, when Tiffany, played by the brilliant Tiffany Tenille, begins to find power and a voice as her popularity rises. A film like this could not succeed without an empathic and personal motive, and also balance.
Jezebel is available to stream on Netflix.
Lucky Grandma dir. Sasie Sealy
Graciela Mae writes in her review, “Sealy, and co-writer Angela Cheng, reinvent the immigrant story; diminishing the emotional and heart-wrenching tropes we have grown accustomed to associating with such narrative themes. Rather, they have crafted a film which reinvigorates the theme with so much life, redefining the roles elderly actors — more specifically Asian women — get to play along the way.”
Lucky Grandma is available to stream on on Fubo and Amazon/Showtime in the US. Plus, it is available to rent in various regions.
Miss Juneteenth dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples
Channing Godfrey Peoples gifted Nicole Beharie the leading role that she always meant to play. With such a powerful and graceful lead, Peoples film is one that is embraces the beauty and strength of Black women. It is affectionate, honest, and totally demanding of our attention. A film that is overflowing with a sense of love and hope.
Miss Juneteenth is available to stream on Kanopy, Fubo, BET+ via Prime Video, and Philo in the US.
Monkey Beach dir. Loretta Todd
Monkey Beach is based on a novel of the same name by best-selling author Eden Robinson. The story is one that is based in mystical and traditional folklore from Haisla culture. It is a heart-warming (and heart-wrenching) story about a woman embracing her gifts, her love for her family, and the trials she is yet to face. Loretta Todd’s film is a testament to the strength and grace of Indigenous women, and the power that lies within them.
One Night in Miami dir. Regina King
When Regina King attempts anything, you should always expect perfection. She is just that good. Now, she is behind the camera for feature filmmaking, and I could not be more excited for everything she sets her sights on. In my review, I wrote,
“One Night in Miami is an exemplary piece of work that solidifies its place amongst important Black cinema. It is an exceptional example of having a truly fantastic ensemble, the power of dialogue, and most importantly, character development. By the time this ends, you too will feel a kinship with these heroes.”
One Night in Miami had a limited theatrical release and is set to premiere on on Prime Video January 15.
Promising Young Woman dir. Emerald Fennell
Now, this is one the most buzzed about films of the year. It is the type of film many will be thinking about and discussing for years to come. The debut film from Emerald Fennell is shocking. It is revenge story that centres on a woman who has been so scorned by men who abuse their power and the complicit environment that enables that behaviour. So she seeks to burn it all down, but not before she holds a mirror up to those who think they are one of the good ones. If this becomes available watch, be warned that this film is rather unflinching in how it portrays sexual assault. If you are sensitive to that, do some extra reading to make an informed decision.
Promising Young Woman had a limited theatrical run starting December 25th and will expand as theatres open up again.
Relic dir. Natalie Erika James
This is a horror that is best to not know a thing about. Natalie Erika James’ really puts us through a deeply profound and emotional journey for her first feature. In Caroline Madden write sin her review,
“Relic has a remarkable pace, moving from the slow-burn of a domestic drama into an elaborate chamber of horrors, then ending with an emotionally gut-wrenching finale that twists a knife in your heart. James’ nimble transition from tense, pulse-pounding terror into a genuine moment of piercing heartache is truly exceptional.”
Relic is available to stream on Netflix Canada, and can be rented/bought in some markets.
Saint Maud dir. Rose Glass
Saint Maud is hotly anticipated and sadly did not get a wide release due to the pandemic. The less said about it, the better, because it is truly a treat for all horror fans! In Ariane Anantaputri’s review, she writes, “Saint Maud blesses us with its unforgettable descent into madness.” So true.
Saint Maud‘s release…is complicated.
Sea Fever dir. Neasa Hardiman
“Sea Fever is a film that will have you clamping your hands over your mouth in surprise on certain occasions, and it will certainly leave you wondering just what could be lurking out there the next time you are near the sea.” Exactly! Kacy Hogg nails in her review for Sea Fever. Neasa Hardiman’s Irish thriller is a layered film, weaving a range of themes that ultimately make for a nuanced and fun creature feature. Word of advice, do not eat anything while you watch.
Sea Fever is available to stream on Hulu.
Selah and the Spades dir. Tayarisha Poe
Tayarisha Poe’s high school drama is the perfect combination of gang war politics, greek tragedies, and Black Girl Excellence. Selah and the Spades is perhaps one of the few high school dramas that envisions Black characters as leads and as more than stock archetypes that delve into stereotypes. The Spades is imaginative, exciting, and President Obama liked it! Win. In my review I wrote,
“All in all, Poe has quite the eye. Her debut is self-assured and unique. From her brilliant casting choices to how she deploys every convention normally used for crime dramas about mafias/gangs for a high school drama about teen debauchery and treachery makes for a compelling watch. Both she and her charming cast have very bright futures ahead of them.”
Selah and the Spades is available to stream on Prime Video.
Shiva Baby takes all of that angst and awkwardness from your typical coming-of-age drama and doubles down. Despite it being rather comical and witty, Shiva Baby is the kind of movie that will have you develop a fear of “second-hand embarrassment” It is unrelenting, but you can’t look away. In the end, you get a very sweet and honest portrayal of Gen Z life. Saffron Maeve writes,
“Shiva Baby neatly juggles queer identity, power dynamics, sex work, religion, and the ethos of family all within a 77 minute runtime. It’s remarkably effective at submerging you in Danielle’s hellscape without prodding you to pity or idealise her. And while grounded in today’s distinctive cultural onset of girl bosses, lukewarm relationships, and sex delivered to your doorstep, Shiva Baby’s takeaways about femininity and power are sure to hold up even when it becomes a period piece. Genuine, passionate portrayals of Gen Z may be sparse, but with ones like this in circulation, I can’t complain.”
Oh, Summerland. In my review I wrote:
“The film comes in at under 2 hours, and every moment is chock-full of fine costume and production design, a moving score, excellent performances from the entire ensemble, and a clear example of an exceptionally talented filmmaker behind the lens. Swale’s debut is a rousing success in every regard, with such a clear and focused vision and the ability to get the absolute best from her actors, Swale proves that she has a promising future in film.”
Jessica Swale already proved to be a talent in theatre and now she is taking over emotional period dramas, please. I need more, and keep casting Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Thanks!
Summerland is available to rent or buy in various regions.
Yes, God, Yes
This film is incredible. A sensitive and humour look at the awkward phase in our lives when we have all this pent up sexual angst and nowhere to safely express it. Caroline Madden describes Yes, God, Yes, best:
“Yes, God, Yes is one of those films that shines because of the author’s particular autobiographical influence. Maine beautifully expresses her own specific, individual experience with an unflinching sincerity and charming sense of humour to capture a particular era, way of life, and significant time in a young woman’s coming-of-age. Maine has given recovering Catholics a film they can deeply relate to and champion. But most importantly, she presents self-pleasure as the gateway to Alice’s awakening, not heterosexual sex with a man—unfortunately a liberating concept in cinema today. Yes, God, Yes is a thoroughly cathartic and unabashedly buoyant film that renews the viewer with a stronger sense of the importance of self-love, an understanding of sexuality’s beauty, and the rejection of any ridiculous fears and limitations based on religion.”
Yes, God, Yes is available to stream on Netflix in some regions.
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.
Categories: Anything and Everything