Oscars 2023: 10 women directors deserving attention
By Glenn Whipp
Shortly after the Golden Globes nominations were announced earlier this month, the advocacy group Women in Film took to social media, decrying the “shocking” omission of critically acclaimed female directors, citing Sarah Polley (“Women Talking”), Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”), Chinonye Chukwu (“Till”) and Maria Schrader (“She Said”).
It might be more surprising that anyone is still taking anything the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. does seriously these days after years of scandal and upheaval. But let’s put that aside for now. The Women in Film List is fine but incomplete, overlooking the directorial work of several women behind the year’s most acclaimed movies. Not all of these films have gone into wide release — most of them never will — but they should be available to Oscar voters as we enter the winter break, home-viewing discovery phase of the awards season.
So here’s a list of 10 exceptional movies from women directors this year, all scoring higher on review aggregator Metacritic than the films from Golden Globe-nominated directors James Cameron (“Avatar: The Way of Water”) and Baz Luhrmann (“Elvis”).
Chinonye Chukwu, “Till”: Making this movie about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose 1955 Mississippi murder helped spur the civil rights movement, Chukwu made the crucial decision to focus on the maternal love of Mamie Till-Mobley. The film’s screenplay doesn’t always transcend its biographical drama trappings, but Chukwu’s thoughtful staging and her strength in getting the most out of her actors elevates the movie into an unflinching portrait of grief and resolve.
Claire Denis, “Both Sides of the Blade”: Denis made news recently when her 2000 masterpiece “Beau Travail” made a thrilling leap into the top 10 in the decennial Sight and Sound critics poll of the greatest films of all time. “Both Sides of the Blade,” a sexy, playful relationship drama that gives us another glorious turn from Juliette Binoche and a shadowy soundtrack from Tindersticks, a frequent collaborator, shows us she still has plenty left to say about the human heart.
Alice Diop, “Saint Omer”: France’s entry in the international feature Oscar race, “Saint Omer” is Diop’s first feature. Her background as a documentary filmmaker is evident in her immersive depiction of the trial of a young Senegalese Frenchwoman accused of murdering her baby. Diop’s austere approach — long takes captured by a fixed camera — requires patience, but the reward is an intimate film that destabilizes the audience’s preconceptions as it delves into the knotty, inscrutable actions of its protagonist. It’ll be in theaters next year.
Audrey Diwan, “Happening”: Diwan’s fearless film about a gifted student dealing with an unplanned pregnancy in 1963 France won the Golden Lion award at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival and then arrived in theaters in May, just as news leaked that the Supreme Court was going to overturn Roe vs. Wade. It’s both an intimate, direct portrait of a life upended and a searing indictment of a world that limits a woman’s freedom to choose her future.
Mia Hansen-Løve, “One Fine Morning”: Like so many films on this list, Hansen-Løve’s drama gains its richness in the accumulation of details — in this case, the day-to-day life of a French single mother (played by the wonderful Léa Seydoux) trying to balance the demands of work, parenting and a love affair while helping care for her aging father, a professor diagnosed with Benson’s syndrome, a degenerative disease that’s stealing his memory and sight. Hansen-Løve’s unadorned presentation lends the movie a poignancy in the way it looks at the inevitability of loss in our lives.
Laura Poitras, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”: No documentary has been nominated for best picture, but Poitras’ rich collaboration with photographer Nan Goldin merits consideration. Already a heavy favorite to win the documentary feature Oscar, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” weaves together a revealing look at Goldin’s outsider art with the guerrilla campaign she launched against the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, the drug company largely responsible for the opioid epidemic. Poitras’ impressionistic blending of the personal and political results in a work of art every bit as vital as its subject.
Sarah Polley, “Women Talking”: Polley’s searching study of a community of women coming to terms with trauma and debating how to move past it premiered to acclaim at the Telluride Film Festival and will finally arrive in select theaters on Dec. 23. It’s Polley’s fourth film and first in a decade, and its challenging, provocative examination of faith and forgiveness marks a welcome return from one of the most gifted filmmakers working today.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, “The Woman King”: The flair for action Prince-Bythewood demonstrated in 2020’s “Old Guard” is writ large in this historical epic, which boasts awe-inspiring battle sequences that exult in the bonds between the dynamic Black warrior women of Dahomey. That alone makes the movie groundbreaking and a cause for celebration, and Prince-Bythewood’s understanding of the story’s emotional core takes it to the next level.
Maria Schrader, “She Said”: Schrader handles the widely known origin story of the New York Times’ investigation of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct with an astute sensitivity, showing the bravery of the women who came forward and the toll it took on their lives. It offers a playbook for empathy, both on screen and off.
Charlotte Wells, “Aftersun”: The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. recently gave “Aftersun” its editing prize, a testament to the way Wells and film editor Blair McClendon create a mosaic of memory in this story of a young father (Paul Mescal) taking his 11-year-old daughter (newcomer Frankie Corio) to a run-down beach resort in Turkey for an extended holiday. Wells eventually reveals that the trip took place two decades ago and what we’re seeing is filtered through sun-drenched recollections of a time that the now-adult woman views with a bittersweet understanding she couldn’t possibly have possessed at the time.