2019 has been a record-breaking year for female directors, especially at the box office. Women have more than proven themselves worthy and capable of bringing in a massive, money-making films that reach audiences, and even creating films that satisfy the demands of increasing exclusivity in the niche market of film critics. Here is a list of the biggest money-making movies mad by women so far this year:
- Frozen 2 (co-directed by Jennifer Lee) – $438 million
- Captain Marvel (co-directed by Anna Boden) – $427 million
- Hustlers (directed by Lorene Scafaria) – $105 million
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (directed by Marielle Heller) – $57 million
- Little Women (directed by Greta Gerwig) – $50 million so far
- Harriet (directed by Kasi Lemmons) – $43 million
- Queen & Slim (directed by Melina Matsoukas) – $41 million
- The Farewell (directed by Lulu Wang) – $17 million
It’s an impressive array of profitable films at every budget level, created by women and women of color. Notably, Boden, Scafaria, Gerwig, and Wang also wrote or co-wrote their screenplays.
Among these films, the one that has consistently grabbed the attention of early critics awards would be The Farewell, which hit the AFI top ten and landed at the Golden Globes in Best Foreign Language Film. When Little Women was shut out of the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay and failed to make a showing at the SAG awards for any acting nominations, it set off a firestorm in the press which has became one of the biggest stories of the year. Since then, the profile of Little Women has begun to climb, although it didn’t win a major award until the Boston Film Critics gave it top honors. Today, the National Society of Film Critics gave Greta Gerwig their award for Best Director.
Little Women has made $50 million since Christmas and will likely sail past $100 million. It should land a Producers Guild nomination and perhaps get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Greta Gerwig was nominated for a USC Scripter Award and is likely going to earn a WGA nomination and an Oscar nomination in Screenplay. Beyond that, though, Little Women’s fate is unknown. It’s hard to say whether the hashtag #VoteForWomen will be successful now that it’s clear that one woman is poised to reap the rewards from it. And frankly, the only way that any woman can get in is if voters coalesce around one woman — as we found out last year when the critics split up their support among several different women and, thus, none were able to build a big enough consensus to crash the awards race.
Well, that consensus appears to have arrived for Gerwig, the same way it did — maybe not to the same degree — for her Lady Bird. As her profile begins to rise in the 11th hour, her ascension is happening the same year as her partner Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is also in the awards race, meaning they will face off in major categories. No one knows where either movie will land when Oscar nominations are announced.
There is no question that it requires a consensus to elevate a movie by a woman. The people in the best position to do that are critics, and they seem to have rallied in the final days of the race behind Little Women.
Personally, the best film I saw directed by a woman this year was Queen & Slim by Melina Matsoukas. It was lauded by a handful of critics when it premiered, but did not get anywhere near the same support by the bigger film critics groups. Written by Lena Waithe, it’s a wholly original film featuring a vibrant, unique woman who’s a lawyer, depicted with enough complexity to include personality problems. One of the many things I like about Queen & Slim is that it comes from an original place, brings us original characters, and takes risks in its storytelling.
I loved the mood of Queen & Slim. I loved the sensuality of it. I loved the unpredictability of its two lead characters: the young couple on the run (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) come together in their effort to escape law enforcement. I loved Waithe’s dialogue and I loved Matsoukas’ confident eye. I loved how she sees these characters with sensitivity and clarity, and the way the film is lit. Mostly, though, I found it eye-opening to witness how different it is to run from the law when you’re white compared to when you’re not. It’s hard hitting, without a doubt. It comes to a dramatic, violent close like so many of the best films this year. It is uncompromising in its message and its style. It is by far one of the best films of the year.
Another film directed by a woman that has stayed with me is Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el. It’s the raw confessional story of Shia Labeouf’s upbringing at the hands of his complicated and abusive father. Both of these films tell their stories with unforgettable imagery and in ways that made them stand apart from the rest. Unfortunately, neither of them seems to have sparked the interest of the sort of voters who can launch movies into the race.
Almost no one will complain if Little Women makes it into the race, because otherwise the Oscars would be looking at an all-male lineup — and no one wants that to be the big story on nominations morning. Little Women and Hustlers are strong enough to get in on the basis of box office alone. Female directors have to build power the same way men do: by continuing to come back and make movies throughout their careers, whether or not they are always successful.
No matter how this year turns out, I hope that people remember that no woman wants to succeed simply because she is a woman. Where’s the sense of accomplishment in that metric? At the same time, we know that plenty of films that aren’t so great make it into the Oscar race every year, just because voters are fans of the director or they simply enjoyed the movie. Fandom and entertainment value are fine. But ultimately, the best and most enduring Oscar winners are those that bring home the gold because they’re truly the best.