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.
#25 “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – directed by George C. Wolfe
We lost a giant talent this year, Chadwick Boseman. Knowing now about his cancer, and how this was his last major film before he died, you can’t help but have that lens on all of his words in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. His words are prophetic in nature with his death soon to come, and you will need to take out the tissues during his monologues. The man will win a posthumous Oscar for this performance.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is coming to Netflix on December 18th.
#24 “First Cow” – directed by Kelly Reichardt
After reading the book Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch, it really opened my eyes to a huge gap of onscreen representation with the indigenous community. I’ve always respected Kelly Reichardt’s ways of capturing native lands and people. In this film, we become immersed in the period of the gold rush, and see many people from the indigenous community in this film. We meet intriguing characters, Lily Gladstone being one of them. Also, I appreciated the female gaze that was brought to the two main male characters, showing more intimacy in the emotions and the complexities of a male friendship. The beauty in this film was the details that usually go unnoticed.
“First Cow” is now streaming on Showtime and other major platforms.
#23 “Promising Young Woman” – directed by Emerald Fennell
I’m reluctant to put a lot of my thoughts about the film into this description, except to recommend that you go into watching the film cold. This one is pretty twisted, but in the best way. A different kind of revenge fantasy story. Carey Mulligan, as always, gives a breathtaking performance.
“Promising Young Woman” comes to Video On Demand on Christmas Day.
*Carey Mulligan has always been an advocate of female filmmakers, and it’s no different with Emerald Fennell. Watch a Sundance conversation between the two about female filmmakers, remarking on the lack of accolades during awards season, specifically the Oscars.
#22 “Yellow Rose” – directed by Diane Paragas
“Yellow Rose” is very timely, and timeless. It’s the story of a Filipina teen from a small Texas town who fights to pursue her dreams as a country music performer while having to decide between staying with her family or leaving the only home she has known. The Texas landscapes are beautiful, and the voice of the Tony-winning singer Eva Noblezada (Hadestown and Miss Saigon) will shake your heart. Read my interview with the filmmaker: Diane Paragas tells a timely and timeless story in her narrative feature debut “Yellow Rose”
“Yellow Rose” comes to streaming on all major platforms on 12/22/20.
#21 “Circus of Books” – directed by Rachel Mason
Talking to “Circus of Books” producer Rhianon Jones for her feature this year (Rhianon Jones rocks the movie industry by producing the work of emerging female filmmakers), when she described the premise of Rachel Mason’s documentary, I was immediately intrigued: A film about a Jewish family who runs a gay porn shop in Los Angeles for years, and Rachel is the daughter of the parents. Immediately, I’m in. After viewing it, I concluded that “Circus of Books” is a beautiful portrait of the mother and how she finds her way to becoming a business owner by running “Circus of Books”, while being tied to her religious faith and her role as a parent. She is more than one thing, and she thrives, but is also human in her struggles. Truly inspirational.
“Circus of Books” is streaming now on Netflix.
#20 “One Night in Miami …” – directed by Regina King
I recently saw this film, and Regina King was not messing around in her directorial debut. As an actor, I’ve always admired how she doesn’t shy away from difficult and complex roles. Now I see as a filmmaker, she is the same way. The film contains four riveting performances by actors who play monumental men in history. I was particularly struck by Leslie Odom Jr. as the music artist Sam Cooke, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X.
“One Night in Miami …” is coming to Prime Video on January 15, 2021.
#19 “The Assistant”- directed by Kitty Green
Kitty Green wants you to feel uncomfortable throughout her film, and is contributing to the conversation of the hashtag that’s been waking us up, finally. The hope is that the boy’s club mentality will cease to exist and that Kitty’s film will reflect a culture that is behind us, as opposed to one that is extremely relevant to our current climate. You can read my interview with Kitty Green Kitty Green’s film ‘The Assistant’ reveals the faces of the #MeToo movement and the pains behind them
“The Assistant” is now streaming on Hulu and other major platforms.
#18 “The Forty-Year-Old Version” – directed by Radha Blank
Radha Blank rocked Sundance 2020’s world this year. I felt immediate FOMO of not seeing her film at Sundance, and even though I hadn’t seen her film until recently, I became a Radha fan. Why? She is a WOC forty-something filmmaker who’s brought something to the screen that is personal and shows us that no matter what age you are, you can still reinvent yourself. Fight the stereotypes, and as Radha says in the film: “FYOV (Find Your Own Voice)”
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is now playing on Netflix.
#17 “John Lewis: Good Trouble” – directed by Dawn Porter
I was introduced to Dawn Porter by the composer Tamar-Kali, who did the score for “Shirley”, and was excited to tell me about her new score that she composed for “John Lewis: Good Trouble”. Her words: I truly hope that we can somehow muster the emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social maturity to evolve as a society here in America. And I hope that film will be, in the timing of its release, an accompaniment to that type of change. Congressman Lewis is someone who has been through the fire before and here we find ourselves in the fire again, and it’s time for us to finally extinguish it. (Tamar-kali bewitches us with her magical score for “Shirley”)
We lost John Lewis in July, a man that stood for fighting for what is right, even if that gets you in “trouble”. Because Lewis getting into trouble led to integration in Nashville in the 60s, because he sat at counters where he wasn’t welcome. His “trouble” in Selma, which was shown on camera, led to opening up the eyes of America. And his “trouble” led to getting legislation through with the Voting Act in 1965. Dawn Porter captured all of the rhythm of John Lewis, the activist and the congressman. She laid out his legacy in an impactful way. “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is a great film to watch during this year of confusion and uprising with #BlackLivesMatter. You can read here my interview with Dawn Porter Dawn Porter captures an awe-inspiring legacy in “John Lewis: Good Trouble”
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” is streaming now on major platforms.
#16 “I’m Your Woman” – directed by Julia Hart
After watching “I’m Your Woman” it stuck to my brain. It was such a genre flip with such strong female characters, I couldn’t help being obsessive in my thinking about the film. Julia Hart took an underwritten character from “Thief” and gave her a life by flipping the 1970s gritty genre and centering it around a female character. The genre flip showed me something onscreen I had never seen before and I noticed the details more because of that. I was so intrigued that I would continue to watch the film three more times before writing this essay. Read full essay here: Julia Hart reinvents 1970s thriller genre with a female lead in “I’m Your Woman”
“I’m Your Woman” is now streaming on Prime.
#15 “Dick Johnson is Dead” – directed by Kristen Johnson
After seeing Kristen Johnson’s “Cameraperson”, the beautiful portrait of her own story broken down through the moments of her career as a filmmaker, I knew that I had to see “Dick Johnson is Dead”. The film’s construction is different, but it was done similarly in an out-of-box way. She played with the idea of the fear of her losing her father, and what that would look like. There is humour and tenderness in this film.
“Dick Johnson is Dead” is now streaming on Netflix.
#14 “The Glorias” – directed by Julie Taymor
There’s a scene where we see a group of Indian women sitting on a train with the younger Gloria Steinem (Alicia Vikander). The women see that she is about to be conned into paying more for food than the retail price, because she is American. The Indian woman next to her tells her not to pay that amount, and pays on her behalf. It’s moments like this in the film that reveal no matter where we are in the world, there is that common thread of womanhood that unites us.
“The Glorias” is now streaming on Prime.
#13 “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” – directed by Eliza Hittman
I remember that “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was one of the first films to be on the precipice of a theatrical release, and then was unable to show in theaters because the rise of COVID-19. I was looking forward to seeing this one in the theater, and many months later, I streamed the film on HBO Max while I was trying to catch up on my 2020 films. So glad I got to see it. There’s no flashiness in the film, no extreme sounds or pacing. The film takes its time as we travel on a bus with a teenage girl Autumn and her cousin Skylar to New York City with the purpose of Autumn getting an abortion, since it’s not an option for her in her hometown in Pennsylvania. The journey and the survival aspects of the film reminded me of Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy”. Less is said, but more felt through the cinematic tones.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is streaming on HBO Max.
#12 “Farewell Amor” – directed by Ekwa Msangi
The film is an immigrant story set in modern times, one that shows the real pains of coming together as a family after many years separated. What I love about this film is we get the point of view from the mother, the father, and the daughter. Each perspective has its turn. We see the fragments of their adjustment to their new lives and then we see the fragments piece together like a symphony.
“Farewell Amor” is now streaming on major platforms.
#11 “Shirley” – directed by Josephine Decker
“Shirley” will always be synonymous with Sundance 2020 for me. I went into the festival with this film as my number one must-watch title, and Josephine Decker, my number one interview subject. I was very fortunate to check both of those boxes. I had an out-of-body experience watching this film, similar to what I experienced in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”. It was like there was some kind of magic drawing me in, with the stringy score by composer Tamar-kali. “Shirley” placed me in an intoxicating spell that still has yet to wear off. Great performances by Elisabeth Moss as Shirley, and Odessa Young. Read my interview with Josephine Decker Josephine Decker casts a witchy spell with her new film ‘Shirley’
“Shirley” is now streaming on Hulu.
#10 “La Leyenda Negra” – directed by Patricia Vidal Delgado
The complexities and the richness of her story goes way beyond what we’ve typically seen before in this sort of narrative, and it touched me. I felt the love and the passion of the Latinx Compton community, and wished that the people in our government, and those ignorant about TPS (Temporary Protected Status) would watch this film. Because if they saw what I saw, their hearts would shift and open up to change. I am glad I decided to see this film for so many reasons, but mostly because it is so important and relevant. Read my interview with the director: Filmmaker Patricia Vidal Delgado breaks through biases in “La Leyenda Negra”
“La Leyenda Negra” is now playing on HBO Max.
*I also got to see the short “Little Chief” that played before “La Leyenda Negra”. This is also one to watch, directed by Erica Tremblay. Watch on vimeo.
#9 “Once Upon A River” – directed by Haroula Rose
Lakes, rivers, and oceans are so essential to my being, with the deepness and the ebb and flow. Watching Haroula Rose’s film “Once Upon A River”, I felt these connections cinematically through the main character, Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna). Her journey is very different than my own, but with every touch of the water, the submergence through the waves, I felt exhilarated and felt one with the river, like Margo. The river paces the film, and the people she meets take part in her journey. We feel a familiarity of what it means to find your people, the people who get you. And like “Lost in Translation”, those people we meet in transit can be very special passengers to our lives. The river is always the home, and the people are the gardens we create, which nurtures us beyond.
“Once Upon a River” has opened up the floodgates in me and Cinema Femme. First with our interview in 2019 with Haroula Rose conducted by Matt Fagerholm, contributor to Cinema Femme and Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com: Fish out of water: Haroula Rose on ‘Once Upon a River,’ directing Maya Hawke, and much more. When I was introduced to her after I saw the film, we created an immediate collaborative connection. What really meant the most to me was my conversation with Haroula, cast, and producer, which you can watch here.
“Once Upon a River” will be streaming on major platforms next month.
#8 “Time” – directed by Garrett Bradley
This film fittingly has a black and white lens, and it is a piece of symphonic beauty through Garrett Bradley’s vision and Fox Rich’s story. There is a perilous strength in Rich through her fight in getting her husband out of his 60-year sentence in prison. It is an intimate portrait and a great companion film to Ava DuVernay’s “13th”. Watch their conversation here.
“Time” is now streaming on Prime.
#7 “Saint Frances” – directed by Alex Thompson / starring and written by Kelly O’Sullivan
“Saint Frances” is close to my heart. Kelly O’Sullivan wrote the script and plays the leading role as Bridget. Her story makes it feel very human. Abortion is part of Bridget’s story, but it is just a piece and seen as that. The relationships between the central female characters binds this story. It is played with realism and humor, which is a style I’m seeing more and more in Chicago independent cinema. Also, the adorable Ramona Edith Williams who plays Frances, is pivotal to the film’s vulnerability and lightness. Read my interview with Kelly O’Sullivan last year about the film: Kelly O’Sullivan’s debut script ‘Saint Frances’ brings an authentic look into womanhood
“Saint Frances” is now streaming on major platforms.
#6 “Lingua Franca” – directed by Isabel Sandoval
Isabel Sandoval’s beautiful masterpiece (in my opinion) shows an intimate look at a trans woman who happens to be a Filipina immigrant living in New York City as a caretaker for an elderly Russian Jewish woman. Things get interesting when the elderly woman’s grandson comes to stay with her. This film is an emotional experience that gives you all the feels. Read my interview with trans filmmaker Isabel Sandoval: Isabel Sandoval beautifully elevates the marginalized in “Lingua Franca”
“Lingua Franca” is streaming now on Netflix.
#5 “TAPE” – directed by Deborah Kampmeier
Though it is a tough one to watch, “TAPE” is probably one of the most important films to watch during our #MeToo era. We see the #MeToo hashtag less and less, but that doesn’t change the fact that sexual violence and manipulation in the entertainment industry has gone away. Even beyond the entertainment industry, sexual violence is an epidemic in our country and world. Every person on this earth is connected to someone who has dealt with sexual assault. “TAPE” gives us a different lens on this trauma that is worth looking at. Also, the film is based on a real story. Read my interview with the director Deborah Kampmeier: Deborah Kampmeier’s ‘Tape’ explores the gray areas of #MeToo through sharing one woman’s powerful story
“TAPE” is streaming now on major platforms.
#4 “Babyteeth” – directed by Shannon Murphy
A film full of music, Australian talent (Eliza Scanlen, Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn), laughter, heartbreaking and beating moments. “Babyteeth” has the best final scene of a film this year, in my opinion. Watch through the credits, and you won’t be disappointed. Let the mood wash over you like the waves. Read our interview with filmmaker Shannon Murphy: Australian filmmaker Shannon Murphy “Babyteeth” washes over you with exuberant music, love and beauty
“Babyteeth” is streaming now on major platforms.
#3 “Miss Juneteenth” – directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples
“Miss Juneteenth” came to streaming on June 19th (Juneteenth), during a year that most of white America did not even know this was a holiday. The holiday celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. With the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement this summer, a film like this one couldn’t have come at a better time. Nicole Beharie delivers a riveting performance as Turquoise, a mother trying to channel her lost dreams into her daughter through the Miss Juneteenth pageant which she had previously won. Through her desires for her daughter to succeed in ways she felt she had not, she goes through a period of rediscovery. The film is an intimate portrait of what it’s like to be a Black independent woman in the US, and what that looks like.
The film is Channing Godfrey Peoples’ directorial debut. We had her on a panel this year on the topic of the Black Female Filmmaker Renaissance, moderated by Chaz Ebert. You can watch here. You also can read a beautiful personal essay about the film by our contributor Fabiola Auxila: Miss Juneteenth. A love letter to phenomenal women
“Miss Juneteenth” is streaming on major platforms.
#2 “Nomadland” – directed by Chloé Zhao
Chills. I could watch Frances McDormand all day traveling through beautiful landscapes. The plot is secondary, and the wandering is what brings us deeper into the film. McDormand thrives in the “nomad” lifestyle.
“Nomadland” is coming to streaming 2/19/21.
#1 “37 Seconds” – directed by Hikari
This year with “Crip Camp” and “Run”, we are seeing womxn with physical disabilities represented in a more human way onscreen. “37 Seconds” is one of those films, and for me, it took the exploration even deeper. Yuma is an early-twenty-something woman and talented manga artist in Japan who has cerebral palsy. She is treated differently because of her disability with an overbearing mother and mistreatment by her employer. But, as we have seen from the other films this year, she is just like every other woman, desiring independence and a longing for love. When she tries to get a position at a pornographic manga comic book, she is told she needs to pop her cherry before she can work there. This places her on a quest for sex and living her own life. There are so many delicate layers with enriching and rewarding twists. Hikari is a master filmmaker and one to follow.
“37 Seconds” is steaming now on Netflix.