Because of the pandemic, and the closing of theaters, this was a year for great cinema, especially for those underrepresented onscreen. Blockbuster films took a backseat to indie gems. My kind of movie year. Of course, nothing beats the theatrical communal experience. I loved my experience at Sundance this year, which was such a special gift since we probably won’t have that kind of festival experience for awhile. But virtual festival runs gave the opportunity for independent films to reach a wider audience, which means I was able to see more this year then I have ever before.
These top 50 films were chosen for Cinema Femme with the following criteria: (1) films that had a strong female-identifying presence in front of and/or behind the camera (2) they drew me in with their cinematic story, and (3) not for all of them, but there are many on this list that are a reflection of our times in 2020, whether it’s #BlackLivesMatter, or #MeToo, or the threats to our current democracy. All the films chosen are feature-length, and are currently streaming or will be coming to streaming later this month or next month.
Honorable mentions not included in the list (in no particular order) are “Athlete A” (Netflix), “The Old Guard” (Netflix), “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Prime), “Selah and the Spades” (Prime), “Desert One” (streaming on major platforms), “Enola Holmes” (Netflix), “Becoming” (Netflix), “A Secret Love” (Netflix), “Birds of Prey” (HBO), “On the Record” (HBO Max), “The Painter and the Thief” (Hulu), “Miss Americana” (Netflix), “Inez & Doug & Kira” (streaming on major platforms), “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” (HBO), “Sound of Metal” (Prime), “Sibyl” (streaming on major platforms), “And Then We Danced” (Prime), “Beanpole” (Prime), “Crip Camp” (Netflix), “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel” (Lifetime), “Beyond The Visible – Hilma af Klint” (streaming on major platforms), “Indigo Valley (Apple TV), “Wolfwalkers” (Apple TV), “Stray Dolls” (Vudu), and “Blow the Man Down” (Prime).
I did not include TV shows in this list, so I wanted to mention the following series that fit my top criteria that came out this year (in no particular order): I May Destroy You (HBO), Hillary (Hulu), I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO), The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), We Are Who We Are (HBO), Mrs. America (Hulu), Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (Starz), Lovecraft Country (HBO), Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu), The Great (Hulu), Pen15 (Hulu), The Crown (Netflix), Insecure (HBO), Love Fraud (Showtime), I Am Not Okay with This (Netflix), City So Real (Hulu), The Undoing (HBO), Killing Eve (BBC America), and The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix).
Also, I did not include short films, but I do dedicate a lot of our events and my writing to them since our audience is geared towards emerging filmmakers. Follow our site and socials (@cinemafemmemagazine IG and FB, @cinema_femme twitter) to read about the latest in short film.
If you feel there are some gems missing in this list, it’s possible I didn’t see them or I should take another look. Feel free to comment or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions, and I’ll make sure to watch and share.
#50 “Finding Yingying” – directed by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi
A powerful story of the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese student when she comes to the University of Illinois to study. Another story of a girl who had such ambition and intelligence and promise and it was snuffed away. If you don’t know the story, like I didn’t, don’t read about it before you watch. Kartemquin, who produces docs by Steve James and Bing Liu, is behind the film. The director is newcomer Jiayan “Jenny” Chi, and I’m excited to follow this emerging talent.
“Finding Yingying” is playing now at virtual cinemas.
#49 “Troop Zero” – directed by Bertie and Bert
Space and nerds are cool! This film is about a group of misfit kids who love science, and that’s all you need to know. I saw this one at the Planetarium in Chicago (pre-pandemic), and it was a great experience. Shout-out to Chicago actor Milan Ray who plays Hell-No Price, her fireriness adds to the film.
“Troop Zero” is now playing on Prime.
#48 “The Girls of Summer” – directed by John D. Hancock, screenplay by and starring Tori Titmas
“The Girls of Summer” is not just a comedy, it’s not just a romance, it’s really a film about self-discovery. We rediscover ourselves through the main character Maren, played by Tori. Her journey takes us through midwest ‘scapes of lakes, cornfields, and sunsets. Tori Titmas is what makes the film. She carries a vulnerability and realness through her music, and her relationship with the people onscreen. I feel this story is an extension of who she is as a person. Read my interview The philosophy of improvising a film and life: Tori Titmas talks ‘The Girls of Summer’
“The Girls of Summer” is playing now on Tubi.
#47 “Cuties” – directed by Maïmouna Doucouré
I loved how the female filmmaker community lifted director Maïmouna Doucouré up after all of the negative backlash that came after the release of her film “Cuties”. This film scared the shit out of the conservative-right wing community. Seeing pre-teens dance in sexual ways and wearing scandalous clothing became Fox News parents’ worst nightmare. I’ll admit it was even hard for me to watch, but rewinding back to my pre-teen years, I remember watching Britney Spears videos and MTV and wanting to look like the dancers, and do their pelvis-thrusting moves. My friends and I would get together and choreograph dances and in the privacy of bedrooms, emulate what we’d seen reflected onscreen. The film shows the reality of pre-teen girls ready to become women and be what they feel they see as desired. If you look more deeply, “Cuties” is a commentary of our broken world, and why we shouldn’t put girls in sexy outfits to give some kind of entertainment.
Monica Castillo’s review from RogerEbert.com expresses a view similar to that, and although it can be uncomfortable to watch, it is also is an important film to watch in my opinion. Another reason to watch the film is for Fathia Youssouf’s performance as Amy. She shines.
“Cuties” is streaming now on Netflix.
#46 “Yes, God, Yes” – directed by Karen Maine
Like the short film “Oleander”, directed by Kate Hackett, I had the pleasure of watching and interviewing the director earlier this year, Kate Hackett, Emmy winning editor for the series Cheer (Emmy winning editor Kate Hackett discusses her directorial debut “Oleander”), we see the hypocrisy in “abstinence” and “religious-based” sex education. “Yes, God, Yes” is a comedy like “Saved” that shows the imperfections of the “perfect” Christian facade. The film is also a film about a girl that is having a sexual awakening that I could relate to, and loved that it was brought to the screen.
“Yes, God, Yes” is streaming now on Netflix.
#45 “Bad Hair” – directed by Justin Simien
Hair weaves for womxn in the Black community in America have become a way of identity, as you see in the 2018 film “Nappily Ever After”. Justin Simien, like in “Dear White People” , takes a genre type and flips it into a commentary. This one is truly chilling, and fun in a way, even though it deals with serious elements. Hair is used as the horror piece of the film, similar to the mask in “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”. His film brings the surface horrors deeper with an awareness and intelligence like “Sorry to Bother You” and “Get Out”. The main actress Elle Lorraine, transforms and terrifies. The special effects in this film are amazing.
“Bad Hair” is streaming now on Hulu.
#44 “I Used to Go Here” – directed by Kris Rey
Kris Rey, like her last name, is a beaming light that has emerged in the filmmaking industry, in Chicago and for womxn in film. In the past she was linked to mumblecore filmmaker Joe Swanberg, but now stands alone in her own style, specifically with her depiction of onscreen female characters . In her 2015 film “Unexpected” we got a glimpse of that as she shows pregnancy in more of a real way. I interviewed Kris about that film and her journey as a mother (See Jane Salon: Kris Rey on representation of pregnancy on film and her own journey as a mother)
In her latest “I Used to Go Here” we take a thirty-something woman (Gillian Jacobs) still in the throws of adulting she returns to her undergraduate university to speak about her latest published book. During this journey she reconnects to herself as a writer and a person. I enjoyed this film for the hilarious moments, and the vulnerability of Jacobs’ character. As a thirty-something I can relate. You’re never finished, we keep evolving.
“I Used to Go Here” is now streaming on major platforms.
#43 “The Half of It” – directed by Alice Wu
“The Half of It” is the best teen comedy I’ve seen in some time. In fashion to Wu’s indie hit “Saving Face” she brings a comedy and a romance to the screen we’ve never seen before. You fall in love with the main character Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), and you root for her.
“The Half of It” is now streaming on Netflix.
#42 “A Thousand Cuts” – directed by Ramona S. Díaz
This year we really needed films like “A Thousand Cuts”. In the documentary we follow Filipino journalist Maria Ressa as she fights for freedom of speech against the Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Pre-election it really shows what it could have been if Donald Trump remained in power, and how “FAKE NEWS” can manipulate and exist in a terrifying way.
“A Thousand Cuts” is streaming through virtual cinema.
#41 “Black Bear” – directed by Lawrence Michael Levine / starring Aubrey Plaza
I think of Aubrey Plaza as the Lily Tomlin of our day. She is the best at deadpan comedy, and has the acting chops to play more complicated and serious roles. “Black Bear” was the perfect accumulation of the two, and she shows her range as an actor in this powerhouse performance. There is a twist half-way through the film that embraces the intricacies of filmmaking in front of and behind the camera.
We start “Black Bear” with Aubrey as Allison a female filmmaker, based loosely on director Lawrence Michael Levine’s partner, filmmaker Sophia Takal (“Black Christmas”, “Green”). A “pas de trois” emerges as Allison stays with a couple (Sarah Gadon, Christopher Abbott) in the Adirondacks to start writing her new film. From there the lines between reality and fiction are blurred, which makes the film an interesting ride.
Great interview from Indiewire to read with the film Indiewire‘s With ‘Black Bear,’ Aubrey Plaza Becomes the Artist We Always Knew She Could Be
“Black Bear” is streaming now on major platforms.
#40 “The Other Lamb” – directed by Małgorzata Szumowska
Last year I saw a lot of Charles Mansonesque films with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Mary Harron’s “Charlie Says”. “The Other Lamb” looks at the cult life with the women as the centerpiece, and one woman in particular played by Raffey Cassidy. It’s a coming of age film that is empowering and it’s horrifically beautiful. The end takes an interesting and satisfying turn.
“The Other Lamb” is playing now on Hulu.
#39 “Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl” – directed by Amy Goldstein
Going into this film, I only knew Kate Nash from GLOW, and a couple of her songs from the early 2000s. After watching “Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl,” directed by Amy Goldstein, I deeply appreciated the honest look of a girl following her dreams. It’s not sugary sweet following your dreams. It’s bitter-tasting at times, and the documentary portrays this with unflinching honesty, while reinvigorating one’s own sense of purpose. I could definitely see parallels between Kate’s journey and my own, but also between her journey and those of female filmmakers. Read my interview with the director, Filmmaker Amy Goldstein Defies Stereotypes With ‘Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl’
“Kate Nash: Underestimate The Girl” is streaming on Amazon.
#38 “Clementine” – directed by Lara Gallagher
You can’t watch Lara Jean Gallagher’s film without thinking of the 1966 classic “Persona”, directed by Ingmar Bergman, especially one scene, when Bibi Andersson is talking to Liv Ullmann about a sexual experience on the beach. The description is so vivid that you’re hanging on her every word. You find yourself sharing her feelings as she brings us to a time when she was a girl, laying on the beach with her friend, and experimenting sexually. You can almost smell the salt water, feel the sweat from the hot sun, and taste the ocean air as it courses through your lungs, just by the dripping of her words. Lara Jean brought out a similar performance through Sydney Sweeney as Lana. Her monologue will give you shivers. Otmara Marrero also brings a powerhouse performance as Karen. She plays a woman who is dealing with a difficult breakup as Lana comes into her life. Their relationship is sensual in a way, and prickly. Read my interview with filmmaker Lara, Lara Jean Gallagher heightens visual storytelling in her first feature “Clementine”
“Clementine” is streaming now on major platform.
#37 “Luxor” – directed by Zeina Durra
“Luxor” is a gorgeous looking movie with a passionate romance. Andrea Risborough is subtle in her performance, yet carries moments of emotional explosion. The film was inspired from a dream from the director Zeina Durra, which gives the cinematic storytelling a dreamy lens. Read my Sundance interview with the filmmaker Zeina Durra delves into her dreamy Sundance film ‘Luxor’
“Luxor” is streaming now on major platforms.
#36 “The Fight” – directed by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli B. Despres
Following the Women’s March in January 2017, I was witnessing a power in the collective, a power I hadn’t seen before in my lifetime. Though I didn’t have a name for this power, I knew that it represented some “fight”, some unrest with our country’s political shift. It was 2017, shortly after the presidential election, and I was still feeling the pains of Hillary’s loss. That was when I heard about the “Muslim Ban”, Trump’s first of many tyrannical agendas.
That is why “The Fight” struck such a chord with me . . . full interview with filmmaker Elyse Steinberg here Elyse Steinberg, co-director of “The Fight,” focuses her lens on ACLU’s heroic humanity
“The Fight” is streaming on all major platforms.
#35 “I Will Make You Mine” – directed by Lynn Chen
Imagine that you are listening to a record. It’s a good tune, one that you really savored during a particular time in your life. Then you return to the song. You didn’t realize how embedded it was in your psyche and soul, but you start to notice something is missing. The male voice is dominant, and the female voices are scattered. The words of these women are beautiful, but faint. You want to hear–really hear–more of those female voices, all the notes. That is what Lynn Chen did in her directorial debut, “I Will Make You Mine”. You can read my interview with the filmmaker about this gem Lynn Chen flips the gender perspective in her directorial debut “I Will Make You Mine”
“I Will Make You Mine” is streaming on major platforms.
#34 “Run” – directed by Aneesh Chaganty
Like with “37 Seconds” and “Crip Camp” we’re seeing better representation for physically disabled people. “Run” follows these films with Kiera Allen in this thriller that feels like a Hitchcock film, it’s seamless and suspenseful. The reveals are terrifying and have a pay off. Sarah Paulson is always amazing in her roles, but in this one it was great to see a contender with Kiera Allen. Also, it’s worth noting that the director Aneesh Chaganty is great at bringing unrepresented people to his characters and stories, like with his last film “Searching”, by having a Korean father and daughter at the center of the story.
“Run” is streaming on Hulu.
#33 “Coded Bias” – directed by Shalini Kantayya
“Coded Bias” follows Joy Buolamwini through her investigation of implicit bias in face recognition technology. Joy has a PhD from the MIT Media Lab and has pioneered techniques that are now leading to increased transparency in the use of facial analysis technology globally. Through her journey and research, we connect with different experts in the field, such as Cathy O’Neil, who wrote Weapons of Math Destruction, a book that sounds the alarm on the danger of the math behind algorithms that are widening the inequality gap and undermining democracy. We also become acquainted with Silkie Carlo, the UK director of Big Brother Watch, an organization that is monitoring the trial use of facial recognition technology by the UK police. What I loved about this doc was seeing strong women playing pivotal and heroic roles in AI.. It’s nice to see other faces in documentaries on AI then mogul types like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos. Read interview with the filmmaker Shalini Kantayya shows how sci-fi is becoming reality in her AI doc “Coded Bias”
“Coded Bias” is playing at virtual cinemas.
#32 “On the Rocks” – directed by Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola is my favorite director. We started Cinema Femme with an issue dedicated to her directorial debut, “The Virgin Suicides”. “On the Rocks” shares aspects of “Lost in Translation” (my favorite movie of all time) with the joining of two people who are at different places in their lives, and by spending time together, they rediscover themselves in the process. I love the adventures they embark upon throughout the film. Laura craves a realness in her life, as she has lost a connection with her husband, and with herself. Being with Bill (Felix) is always exciting, as it is in “Lost in Translation”, and I especially loved that car chase. The Phoenix score amplifies the rekindling of the father and daughter relationship in a way that is deeply moving. And the characters’ whistles unifying in the end demonstrates that the two have come to a more present place of harmony.
“On the Rocks” is streaming now on Apple TV.
#31 “Kajillionaire” – directed by Miranda July
There is a scene when Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriguez’s characters are in a gas station bathroom, the lights go out, and there is total darkness. That scene sums up the whole movie for me, magical with awkward bursts. A true Miranda July lens. Miranda July is a rare find, and so are her films.
“Kajillionaire” is streaming on major platforms.
#30 “Dirty God” – directed by Sacha Polak
“Dirty God” is an incredibly beautiful film. It contains moments that are gut-wrenching, but also heartwarming at the same time. This dichotomy drew me deeper into the character of Jade, who became a burn victim after her ex-boyfriend threw acid in her face. As I learned from my interview with the Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak, this is a common act committed against women in the UK. In 2017, the number jumped to 465 reported attacks against women.
Set in London, Sacha Polak’s first English film features Vicky Knight in an impactful performance as Jade. Vicky is a burn victim in real life. Sacha was looking for a burn victim to play this character, and having Vicky play Jade was important to her. “I wanted the audience to feel the skin Jade lives in,” she noted. Read my full interview Sacha Polak’s beautiful and raw “Dirty God” places us in the skin of a burn victim
“Dirty God” will be coming to On Demand on 12/15/20.
#29 “Boys State” – directed by Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
I love when a documentary takes you into a world that you would never have known existed, and when you are introduced to it, brings a little more clarity to our current day realities. Teenage boys from all over come to Austin Texas to “play” government. But these boys, will soon be men, and will enter in our government. Playtime is over. What we see in these boys reflects where we are as a country, divided. But some of them brought me hope, especially through Steven Garza and René Otero.
“Boys State” is now streaming on Apple TV.
#28 “Mulan” – directed by Niki Caro
My favorite action film of 2020 is “Mulan”. I was fortunate to see this film before watching the animated one, so I went into the story with fresh eyes, and this one was a feast for the eyes. Disney’s live-action films have not been that great, in my opinion, but I feel Niki Caro made this one into something fresh and new.
“Mulan” is streaming on Disney+.
#27 “Lovers Rock” (Small Axe series) – directed by Steve McQueen
The second film of the Small Axe five-part film series called “Lovers Rock” is my favorite, and has the strongest female character (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), followed by Leticia Wright in the “Mangrove” film. What I loved about this one was the camera angles that Steve McQueen took us, he took his time, and really had us experience what it was like in the 80s in a Reggae dance club in London. One song, “Silly Games” by Janet Kay, will have your skin prickling, wait for it.
“Lovers Rock” is streaming now on Prime Video.
#26 “Relic” – directed by Natalie Erika James
The film has shades of Gothic horror, but breaks through them by immersing in a tri-generational relationship between a grandma, daughter, and granddaughter. The film begins when the grandmother goes missing and the daughter and granddaughter go to the grandmother’s home to find her. Once they arrive, they find that the grandmother and the house are different in nature. From there, a thrilling story is revealed. The film premiered at Sundance this year and stars Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin. Read my full interview with the director of “Relic”: Natalie Erika James infuses horror and a beautiful darkness in her female-led debut “Relic”
“Relic” is now streaming on major platforms.