How 2020 Became an Exciting Year for Female Voices in Film

We know the oft-repeated stats. Five women have been nominated for Best Director. The first was Lina Wertmüller in 1976 when she was recognized for the mostly forgotten but no less brilliant Italian film, Seven Beauties. (Wertmüller received an Honorary Oscar in 2019 for “disruption of political and social norms.”) It would be nearly twenty years before another woman would join her when Jane Campion was nominated for directing The Piano in 1994. (Campion did win the prize that year for her original screenplay.)

Marlee Matlin won the Academy Award for Lead Actress in CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (1986) by Randa Haines

Nestled between Wertmüller’s and Campion’s recognitions, the Academy nominated its first female-directed Best Picture when Randa Haines’ Children of a Lesser God earned five nominations, including a statue for Best Actress Marlee Matlin. Haines was not among the lineup of directors, whereas David Lynch earned a spot and his film, Blue Velvet did not. The same would happen in 1990 and 1991 when Awakenings and The Prince of Tides were nominated for Best Picture but directors Penny Marshall and Barbra Streisand were not.

The “lone director” was not an unusual occurrence, especially when there were only five slots for Best Picture. Notable directors like Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility), Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) were similarly excluded. Sometimes it feels egregious. Often, they are decried as snubs and sometimes they probably are. But when there are only five slots for hundreds of eligible candidates, disappointments will abound.

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of Oscar-winning film THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

But it is still worth noting that more than 4000 films have been nominated in the 92 years of the Academy Awards and 313 have been directed by women — most of which were short films. It is also important to point out that while 5 women have been nominated for Best Director, 14 films directed by women have been recognized as potential Best Pictures. Only The Hurt Locker and Kathryn Bigelow have won the top prizes.

Some like to claim that women just aren’t as good at directing as men, as if their films miraculously appear, fully formed by chance. And year after year, great films are overlooked, ignored, or dismissed, even while some of the greatest and most loved films in history were directed by the likes of Penny Marshall, Amy Heckerling, Ava Duvernay, Jennifer Kent, Lone Scherfig, Agnes Varda, and more.

This year, an astounding number of female directors have had the opportunity not only to make great films, but to find audiences to celebrate their work. There will be more female-directed movies on top ten lists this year than ever before. The Best Picture lineup may include more movies from women than ever before. (The current record is two, when both The Kids are All Right and Winter’s Bone were nominated in 2010.)

Frances McDormand stars in NOMADLAND from director Chloé Zhao — Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Three of the most talked about titles this year are, of course, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland and the feature film debuts of Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) and Regina King (One Night in Miami). All three have earned staggering praise from critics, are highly anticipated among cinephiles, and have found their way into numerous prediction lists.

Early in the year, some favorites emerged, including Kelly Reichardt’s best received film, First Cow. Reichardt has been a respected presence in the industry, although her films have long been overlooked for love from Oscar voters. Other early indie favorites were Eliza Hittman’s poignant drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Channing Godfrey Peoples’s lovely mother/daughter story, Miss Juneteenth.

Another exciting debut, Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version was a Sundance hit, winning the directing prize and scoring a Grand Jury nomination before being snatched up by Netflix. It was also a great year for female-centric biopics Shirley by Josephine Decker, The Glorias, a divisive film from acclaimed director Julie Taymor, and Marjane Setrapi’s Marie Curie film, Radioactive.

Oscar nominee Sofia Coppola’s father/daughter drama On the Rocks from A24 and Apple TV+ has quietly crept into the hearts of viewers. Julia Hart’s impeccably designed crime film I’m Your Woman is a celebration of early 70s craftsmanship. And Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself, a hopeful story of rebuilding a life, is coming soon to Amazon.

The year has celebrated big, high profile action films from Gina Prince-Bythewood with The Old Guard, and the upcoming sequel, Wonder Woman 1984 from Patty Jenkins. Cathy Yan turned heads with the dazzlingly cathartic Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). And it has been a great year for horror, like Natalie Erika James’ Relic and The Lodge, co-directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala.

Kitty Green’s #metoo movie The Assistant has earned a lot of buzz and early awards love. Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy debuted the entertaining and nearly forgotten seaside mystery Blow the Man Down. And Autumn de Wilde dazzled audiences with a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved Emma.

Ekwa Msangi’s lovely family drama, Farewell Amor, is an important story of commitment and love. Tara Miele’s Wander Darkly is a dreamlike drama that explores love and commitment in a very different way.

This, of course, doesn’t even begin to account for the many international and documentary features women have given us this year. Dramas, comedies, deep examinations of systemic bias and the toppling of patriarchal structures. Women have been making great films since the beginning of the medium. But it has been many decades since so many of the year’s most talked about have included so many filmmakers that were not men. What a gift we have in 2020. And what an opportunity for the Academy to celebrate the contributions of so many deserving and underrecognized voices.

What are some of your favorite films directed by women in 2020?

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