Women filmmakers are making inroads into the old boy’s club of Hollywood moviemaking, but you couldn’t tell from last week’s Oscar nominations. Not one single woman was nominated for directing, although five of my eight favorite movies of 2019 were directed by women! (Can #OscarsSoMale be far behind?) If you’re looking for alternatives to the Oscar-annointed, check these out:
PAIN AND GLORY Pedro Almodovar directs this wonderful, semi-autobiographical movie about a Spanish filmmaker looking back on his own life and career, and the people and events that shaped and inspired him. It’s my favorite movie of the year! It may not look like much plot-wise, but watching this movie unfold onscreen is rapturous. And star Antonio Banderas is riveting in every single frame—you can’t take your eyes off him.
YESTERDAY In Danny Boyle’s audacious what-if movie, a struggling singer-songwriter (Himesh Patel) is the only on Earth who remembers the Beatles, whose entire song catalogue is suddenly his to plunder. Detractors claim Beatles songs would never be so huge if separated from the context of the band and its era. But here’s why I (still) believe in Yesterday: It’s not that the songs are supposed to be the best ever written (although you could certainly make a case for some of them), but that there are so many of them, in so many diverse styles, that an unassuming young man of color is able to produce seemingly out of the blue—capturing the public imagination, much as the working-class lads from industrial Liverpool did with their cheeky attitude and funny haircuts. Boyle turns it into a sly morality play about fame, honor, and sacrifice, with a 4/4 beat and a larky sense of fun.
HARRIET The times have finally caught up to the amazing life of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who led many others to freedom in the North, via the Underground Railroad, armed with little more than raw courage, and a flintlock pistol. Filmmaker Kasi Lemmons explores the woman behind the historical footnote, played with bristly moral conviction by Cynthia Erivo.
SWORD OF TRUST An aging hipster confronts the dark heart of extreme Southern yahooism in Lynn Shelton’s very funny culture-clash comedy. Marc Maron is all dry wit and scruffy sarcasm as a pawn-shop owner tasked with selling a Civil War sword that supposedly “proves” the Confederacy won the war. The sharp, funny conversations (largely improvised) had me laughing out loud.
THE MUSTANG Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre sets her tale of wild horses, regret, and redemption in a high-security prison out in the Nevada desert. Inmates are chosen to break and train wild mustangs for auction, and Matthias Schoenaerts delivers a towering, if taciturn performance (it’s all in his eyes) as a prisoner who learns tenderness by bonding with his animal.
RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS Six-foot-tall Texas progressive Ivins, the smart, savagely funny political journalist, was not gifted with conventional proportions, so she felt entitled to hold outsized opinions expressed with outsized gusto. There’s plenty to laugh at—and get riled up over—in this Janice Engel documentary, celebrating all the hell Ivins raised as a pioneering woman in a world and profession run by good ol’ boys.
WAVES This intense domestic drama from Trey Edward Shults encompasses euphoria, tragedy, and everything in between, depicting a middle-class black family in South Florida sliding in and out of crisis. Some incidents seem torn from screaming headlines, yet Shults humanizes everything with careful attention to the personal relationships that guide our lives—between parents and children, siblings, and couples.
LITTLE WOMEN Greta Gerwig combines the adventures of Louisa May Alcott’s fictional March sisters with Alcott’s real-life journey to publication. Through Alcott’s surrogate, Jo (Saoirse Ronan, who is absolutely wonderful), Gerwig inserts the author’s early writing career and her tribulations with her patronizing male publisher. If the elliptical time frame becomes confusing toward the end, the movie’s exuberance and heartfelt goodwill is irresistible.