I’m tired, you guys. It’s the end of 2018 and we had an absolutely stellar year in terms of film, but here I am having the same damn arguments like clockwork. The Golden Globe nominations were announced and, shock horror, no women directors were present, nor were any of the films nominated for Best Drama or Best Comedy/Musical directed by women. The Critics Choice Awards pulled the same trick too. Things have fared marginally better in various critics circle awards but the gap is still impossible to ignore. In a year where films were so varied, boundary pushing, daring and entertaining, all too many of us are preparing for the likelihood that the Academy Awards will once more be devoid of female directors.
Five women across ninety years have received Oscar nominations for Best Director: Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Greta Gerwig, and the one sole winner from this crop, Kathryn Bigelow. All of these women are white. They were always the only woman nominated in their respective categories of each year. With each nomination, a slew of headlines followed that insisted the glass ceiling had been broken, but then the next year’s show would come around and it would be back to business as usual. And every year, I hear the same defences: Women just didn’t direct that many movies this year; the women directed films weren’t really part of the awards conversation; it was just too crowded a year and other films - read, the ones directed by white dudes - got all the love.
It is always a stone-faced lie to claim that women simply didn’t direct any movies in a given year. Women directors may not be receiving the same number of opportunities in the industry but they are most certainly still working. They’re scraping their way up from the dregs of the indie scene and they’re fighting that fight often as the only one in the room (a struggle that is far more difficult for women of colour entering the industry). The problem is that all too often we hear these wonderful stories about first time women filmmakers who premiered on the festival circuit to much acclaim before suddenly disappearing from the conversation. Meanwhile, their male contemporaries are plucked from the crowd by studio executives who see themselves in these hot-shots and think nothing of giving them a $150 million tentpole blockbuster for their sophomore effort.
Women are always directing films, but it is true that they’re not always part of the awards conversations, but that justification holds little water in 2018 for several reasons. First, it is tough to claim the exclusion of women directors from such projects is merely meritocracy in action when we know how the system consistently denies them such access. Catherine Hardwicke famously talked of wanting to direct The Fighter, a prime awards bait story, but being told the producers wanted a man to do it (said man was noted bully David O. Russell, who indeed landed a Best Director nomination for his efforts). As much as we would love to believe that awards season is exclusively dictated in terms of merit and quality, we know it’s not and it matters when the films that come in fresh with this pre-ordained narrative of prestige and expectations are told by the same handful of figures.
But here’s the thing: This year, women were making films that were part of the awards conversation. It wasn’t just one or two of them either. There were many. So many films directed by women in 2018 were doing everything that is supposedly required of them: They did the festival circuit, they garnered rapturous acclaim, they made money, they were nominated for awards by critics groups, they told stories that are consistently framed as prestigious and awards worthy. The arbitrary rules were obeyed, often above and beyond the call of duty, but time and time again we see that 2018’s awards narrative continues to deny women directors their rightful place.
And I know what you’re thinking: Why does this matter? Surely if these women directors made great films then that’s all that matters, right? Wouldn’t you rather they make great films that don’t win awards than mediocre ones that do? We have the same arguments every year over how awards are meaningless and seldom indicative of what are and are not the best films of the prior twelve months. So, why get so wound up about this?
Because these awards reflect the status quo and are a symptom of the industry’s systemic issues.
The cycle will only continue if we dismiss how something so seemingly petty as a small gold man statue can dictate the long-term direction of an industry that is increasingly narrowing its focus to superhero movies and Oscar bait. Our notions of what stories are worth telling are heavily defined by the industry’s abilities to make money and win awards from them, so of course it matters when we have a year of incredible female excellence in cinema and the same six majority white men get all the credit for it. Awards season remains a major means of promotion for those films too, with general audiences who may only see six or seven films a year at the cinema - most of which will probably be mainstream blockbusters or family films - finding new gems through this scope of prestige.
Besides, something just looks fundamentally wrong with our cultural landscape when the Best label is only ever applied to one demographic. That only encourages notions that some people are inherently better than others and that’s the last thing we need right now. It’s a ridiculously easy to fix problem too. The industry, those who report on it, critics and fans alike can all make simple changes to the way they participate in this discourse and help to make a paradigm shift. When a film is written off as not being awards material despite its high quality, question why that assumption exists and force a change in the conversation. Instead of lamenting that something you love will get shut out by every awards body, place it into that narrative where it deserves to be. We may be about to see the first superhero movie land a Best Picture nomination so it’s clear that times are a-changing, meaning the lack of women at the table is more glaring than ever.
And now, to prove a point, here are a mere handful of films released in 2018 that garnered hugely positive reviews, won various critics awards, made waves on the festival circuit, and would be considered Oscar front-runners if things were fair (or, if we’re being honest, they were all directed by Bradley Cooper). This isn’t a comprehensive list, as this only covers ones that fit the typically agreed upon criteria of an awards worthy film. Feel free to share your favourite films directed by women in 2018 in the comments!
You Were Never Really Here (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)
Leave No Trace (Dir. Debra Granik)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Dir. Marielle Heller)
The Rider (Dir. Chloe Zhao)
Destroyer (Dir. Karyn Kusama)
Private Life (Dir. Tamara Jenkins)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Dir. Desiree Akhavan)
Madeline’s Madeline (Dir. Josephine Decker)
Shirkers (Dir. Sandi Tan)
Happy as Lazzaro (Dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
Capernaum (Dir. Nadine Labaki)
RBG (Dir. Betsy West and Julie Cohen)
On the Basis of Sex (Dir. Mimi Leder)
Header Image Source: Getty Images.