10. Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)
Based on the juicy New York Magazine article ‘The Hustlers at Scores’ by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers follows a group of strippers as they turn the tables on their frequent Wall Street clientele following the financial crisis of 2008. Not only is the story riveting and entertaining, but its led by some powerhouse performances from both Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez. For the latter, it was easily a career-best that showcased her incredible range when it comes to acting.
The beauty of Hustlers, and why it made this list, is it’s also an excellent example of the power of the female gaze. Lorene Scafaria uses music, lighting, and precise camera angles to truly capture the important aspects of the story — putting the focus on the women involved instead of their bodies. For example, the moment Janet Jackson’s “Control” kicks in the second the movie starts, audiences know what they’re in for. Much like the song proclaims, this is a story about women regaining control in a world that looks down on them, and Scafaria’s passion for telling this story properly radiated through every show-stopping scene.
9. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
A film loaded with humor and heart, Maren Ade’s comedy was a Palme D’or contender at the Cannes Film Festival and even went on to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Toni Erdmann is a joyous journey of a practical joke-loving father attempting to lighten up his hardworking businesswoman daughter. As simple as it seems, there’s so much more under its surface.
The relationship between a father and adult daughter is one that’s rarely explored in film, but Ade’s film manages to dig into the awkward complexities of it all with an abundance of humor. The lengthy runtime gives the leading actors, Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, plenty of time to sink their teeth into these roles and take advantage of every aspect of their characters’ personalities. And all of it is beautifully topped off with Ade’s ability to mine the purest of moments from what appears to be just a simple comedy.
8. The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019)
This film took the world by storm following its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Loosely based on Lulu Wang’s own experience with her family, The Farewell tells the story of a Chinese family who, upon discovering that their grandma doesn’t have long to live, decide to keep it a secret and put together a family event for everyone to get together and see her before she dies.
There are a number of reasons why this film received so much praise from critics and audiences alike. One, Awkwafina’s captivating performance astonished theater-goers the world over. She proved that she can tackle a dramatic role just as much as a comedic one, and it was an impressive first foray into the genre. And two, the film explored the Asian American experience, cultural differences, and dealing with death in a way that hasn’t been seen yet in cinema. Wang’s direction was bold, compelling, heartfelt, and honest, and proved that audiences want to see more stories like these being made.
7. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” This haunting line carries so much more weight than just the monster looming behind it. Jennifer Kent’s Hitchcockian psychological horror film took the world by storm, and not just as a viral meme, but largely because of its complex and layered story. Essie Davis stars in the film as a widowed mother raising her six-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). But, after Sam finds an eerie pop-up book from which the film is named, chaos ensues.
What makes this film so jarring is how masterfully Kent flips the horror genre on its head. As the story unravels, it slowly shifts into the mother’s journey with parenting and struggle with mental illness. The Babadook becomes an embodiment of personal fears and trauma, and Davis captivates audiences with every scene she’s in as the paranoia grows. Is the monster real? Kent’s direction allows viewers to ruminate on that question all the way until the credits roll.
6. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017)
Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 drama was one of the best of the year. It was truly shocking it didn’t receive any Oscar nominations, especially for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. The film centers on a veteran named Joe (Phoenix) plagued with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who spends his time tracking down missing girls. But, one job involving a high-end New York City prostitution ring is the one that causes him to unravel, for better or worse.
The beauty of You Were Never Really Here is how Ramsay flips the brutal and violent content that’s often normalized in the thriller genre on its head. Ramsay’s directorial choices force the viewer to observe Joe’s violence in a way that most movies like these don’t always do with their protagonist — a character study of his actions. The lens approaches the story from a psychological viewpoint — a decision that sets this film apart from those similar to it. That’s one of the many reasons why Ramsay is such a phenomenal director, she’s unafraid to flip the script and boldly go forward with what she believes is best.
5. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
Before Jennifer Lawrence took the world by storm as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games franchise, her true breakout role was in Debra Granik’s 2010 noir, Winter’s Bone. Portraying a young woman named Ree Dolly, the story follows Ree as she attempts to track down her drug-dealing father in the Ozark mountains of Montana.
As dreary and dismal as this world appears, there are small glimmers of hope that shine through its story. Granik’s specialty is truly finding the light in the darkest of places. Ree is a survivor that proves time and time again that she’s completely willing and able to stand her ground, and Lawrence’s performance is as unforgettable and captivating as the character she played. The film went on to score four Oscar nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Performance by an Actor and Actress, along with Best Picture. Not only that, but this film solidified Granik as an exceptional talent behind-the-camera.
4. We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
Once again, Ramsay returns to the list with another fantastically executed film. We Need to Talk about Kevin, based on the book of the same name by Lionel Shriver, tells the story of a travel writer named Eva (Tilda Swinton) who gives up her career to have a child with her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly). But, once Eva gives birth, she finds that she can’t truly bond with her new son, Kevin. As time passes, Kevin (Ezra Miller) grows up into a sociopathic teenager who commits a horrific act in his school and is then sent to prison. Eva is then forced to come to terms with her son and what he did.
As if that storyline isn’t gripping enough, the acting from both Swinton and Miller is so electric and compelling that they fully embody the lives and emotions of these characters, no matter how horrific they are. These performances are all the more elevated by Ramsay’s direction, non-linear storytelling, and expertly executed camerawork. Each scene captures such heightened emotions that take viewers on an endless roller coaster as Eva meditates on her grief. It’s rare to experience cinema like that, and Ramsay relishes in fully capturing every inch of a story’s essence.
3. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
The number of coming-of-age stories in the world is seemingly endless, but very rarely do they make as much of an impact as Greta Gerwig’s beautifully-told Lady Bird. Starring Saoirse Ronan as the iconic titular character, the film follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson as she struggles with first loves, the trials and tribulations of college, and family problems in a post-9/11 world.
Ronan’s performance as Lady Bird is authentic and filled with curious and wild energy, further enhanced by Gerwig’s punchy and whip-smart script. Not to mention, Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mom serves as an electrifying opposite to her daughter’s fierce independence. Not only do audiences get to watch Lady Bird’s life unfold as she transitions into adulthood, but they also get to see the beautiful complexity of her relationship with her mother. It’s a story that doesn’t focus on a young woman’s love life as she grows older, but rather centers on the ups and downs of growing up and experiencing the world on your own. This alone is what sets Gerwig’s film apart from the rest, and solidifies her as an exceptional talent.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
Following her Oscar win for The Hurt Locker, Bigelow returned to form in spectacular fashion with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that chronicled the decade-long hunt to find Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks, led with a ferocious performance by Jessica Chastain as a CIA analyst named Maya. What makes this film so interesting, though, is that Bigelow tells it in a very matter-of-fact fashion. The story, in a way, allows the viewer to step into Maya’s shoes and experience the chaotic ups-and-downs that she does while tracking down bin Laden. Even by the end, once he’s killed, Maya appears almost expressionless, giving the viewer an opportunity to make of the story what they want to.
As expected, the film did go on to receive multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Original Screenplay, Best Achievement in Film Editing, and won for Best Achievement in Sound Editing. Bigelow knows how to tell a story, especially an important one that truly defined a decade, through a necessary lens. It’s a rare gift for filmmakers to have, and her numerous accolades are proof she’s an impeccable talent.
#1 Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)
It’s difficult to make a list like this and not include Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’ feature broke numerous records for female filmmakers, and remains one of Warner Bros. and DC’s best. Not only was it the first superhero film to be directed by a woman, but she also holds the record for the largest opening of all time for a female director. As if that wasn’t already groundbreaking, the director then took a sledgehammer to the glass ceiling when she fought to be paid as much as her male counterparts for directing the sequel, and got it. She’s now the highest-paid female filmmaker in history, and for good reason.
Wonder Woman was monumental for a number of reasons. Jenkins unapologetically brought an ambitious, compassionate, and strong-willed female to the forefront and showed that women like her can be admired and trusted. She was equal to those around her, and that’s proven the moment she walks out onto No Man’s Land. She’s able to look at Steve and say, “this is what I’m going to do,” and step out on her own. This moment alone spoke a world of truth to female viewers all over. You can lead with love and still set your limits.
Source for this Top List is Collider’s article.