Why do I love cinema? One reason is the communal experience. I had so missed being in a theater with a full audience. I love joining my fellow audience members in being transported together to another place, another time, or another experience. The best part of that is when you share an empathetic experience toward a character or a group of people that has not been represented onscreen before. You can share in a range of emotions: laughter, fear, and being profoundly moved.
Probably one of my favorite experiences was seeing “The Power of the Dog” at the Music Box Theatre with that riveting score by Jonny Greenwood . Also, seeing the Cannes prize-winner “Titane” was mind-blowing, shocking and surprisingly heartfelt at times. And finally, attending the Chicago International Film Festival and seeing “Passing,” followed by a Q&A with director Rebecca Hall, was a true joy. Movies this year were about “coming back” for me.
These top 50 films were chosen by Cinema Femme with the following criteria: (1) films that had a strong female-identifying presence in front of and/or behind the camera (2) Films that drew me in with their cinematic story, and in some instances, (3) Films that are a reflection of our times in 2021. All the films chosen are feature-length, and are currently streaming or will be coming to streaming later this month or early next year.
Honorable mentions not included in the list (in no particular order) are “Antarctica”, “Spencer”, “As of Yet”, “Sweat”, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” “7 Days”, “King Richard”, “Specialish”, “One Woman Hamlet”, “’Til Kingdom Come”, “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” and “Land”.
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): “Midnight Mass” (Netflix), “Nuclear Family” (HBO Max), “Mare of Eastown” (HBO Max), “Maid” (Netflix), “Hacks” (HBO Max), “Work in Progress” (Showtime), “The Underground Railroad” (Prime), “Cinema Toast” (Showtime), “Yellowjackets” (Showtime), and “Impeachment: American Crime Story” (FX).
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 email@example.com with your suggestions, and I’ll make sure to watch and share.
#50 “Mixtape” – directed by Valerie Weiss
“Mixtape” is the kind of film I would have liked to have seen as a kid. What unfolds is a coming of age journey that brings you back to the days with your friends, and when life was about discovering and having a blast doing it.
“Mixtape” is now streaming on Netflix
#49 “Les Nôtres” – directed by Jeanne Leblanc
“Les Nôtres” shows the complexity of sexual abuse. When 13-year-old Magalie (Émilie Bierre) is discovered pregnant after she faints in a dance class, a scandal births in this small French town that will tear it apart. The mother in this film is strong, and the performances are brilliant. We promoted the film on our website earlier this year.
“Les Nôtres” is streaming on most major platforms.
#48 “At The Ready” – directed by Maisie Crow
Maisie Crow’s “At The Ready” looks at a group of high school students who are involved in a law enforcement program at their school and they are encouraged to join the border police after graduation. Hypocrisies are uncovered among the people who are leading the program, and realities are faced by the students who join the ranks of the border patrol. This film came at an appropriate time as we continue to see law enforcement not caring for the people they serve and getting away with corruption.
“At the Ready” is streaming on most major platforms.
#47 “Found” – directed by Amanda Lipitz
Like Nanfu Wang highlighted in her documentary “One Child Nation”, in the late 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, Chinese families could only have one child, and they would be fined if they kept more than one. Most families could not afford to have more than one child, and this resulted in millions of baby girls beings put in orphanages, separated from their biological parents. Three cousins reunite in the US and start a journey together to learn about where they came from, and to find their birth families. Get the tissues out, this is a tear jerker.
“Found” is streaming now on Netflix.
#46 “Candyman” – directed by Nia DaCosta
“Candyman” (only say it once!) is an ambitious remake of the original 1992 horror classic “Candyman”, directed by Nia DaCosta. Cinema Femme had been highly anticipating this film, as you can read in Rebecca Martin’s personal essay on “Little Woods”. With the times we are in, there was an urgency in the message of this film, that DaCosta shared on Juneteenth eve. The film did not disappoint, and we’re now in anticipation of DaCosta’s next film.
“Candyman” is now streaming on most major platforms.
#45 “Becoming Cousteau” – directed by Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus is a favorite filmmaker of mine. We’ve covered her “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” series, and spoke with producer Amy Hobby about her documentary on Nina Simone. So when I got a sneak peak of “Becoming Cousteau,” I was immediately intrigued. Before seeing this documentary, Cousteau seemed like a myth that was more enhanced through Wes Anderson’s film “Life Aquatic”. In this documentary, the myth becomes a man, and we see in him what is most human. Garbus is not afraid to take a deep dive into a subject, which makes that subject radiate.
“Becoming Cousteau” can be streamed on Disney+.
#44 “RESPECT”- directed by Liesl Tommy
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, the power anthem for womxn, and it came from the powerful and inimitable Aretha Franklin. A biopic like this one can fall into tropes, but with Jennifer Hudson’s performance, the woman and her story come alive.
“Respect” is now streaming on most major platforms.
#43 “I Carry You With Me” – directed by Heidi Ewing
Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp”) makes her narrative feature debut with “I Carry You With Me”. The film is beautiful, a love story between two men in Mexico who immigrate illegally at separate times to America. They risk everything for one another, and they cannot return to their country. There is a documentary-esque slant to the film as it’s a real story, which adds a layer of authenticity to the narrative.
“I Carry You With Me” is streaming on most major platforms.
#42 “Pray Away” – directed by Kristine Stolakis
I grew up in a community that shunned people who were gay, and I always knew that wasn’t right. When I went to college, some of my closest friends were from the LGBTQ+ community, and it pained me how my community looked at being gay as a sin. This documentary by Kristine Stolakis unmasks the ugliness and the cultishness of these religions that make queer people feel not human. This is another powerful film produced by Ryan Murphy on this subject, and I’m grateful that it exists.
“Pray Away” is the powerful documentary now streaming on Netflix.
#41 “Spring Blossom” – directed by Suzanne Lindon
Often I get weirded out by onscreen romances between a teenage girl and an older man, but in this case, it’s more about the whimsy of romance, and what it means to find a connection with someone else who is in a different time in their life. I love how the director, Suzanne Lindon, plays the main star of the film, a young talented filmmaker who is only 21.
“Spring Blossom” is streaming on most major platforms.
#40 “Eternals” – directed by Chloe Zhaó
According to Erica Jamal Edwards (@liljimmybih) and Veronica Miles (@veronicalm), “This may be one of the first Marvel films to tell a story that would be great as its own movie, away from the MCU franchise and source material. With ‘Eternals,’ Chloe Zhao has made something that is magnificent in scope, cinematography and character development. The performances were moving, especially Angelina Jolie as Thena, Goddess of War, whose suffering from PTSD is delicately handled only in a way that a female writer/director could.”
“Eternals” is now playing in theaters and comes to Disney+ later this month (December 2021)
#39 “Asia” – directed by Ruthy Pribar
As we’ve seen in the past couple years, Shira Haas is a powerhouse, as we’ve seen in “Unorthodox”. This is proven further by Ruthy Pribar’s great story of what brings a mother and daughter together when tragedy strikes.
“Asia” is now streaming on Prime.
#38 “Sophie Jones” – directed by Jessie Barr
Filmmaker Jessie Barr teams up with her cousin Jessica Barr to make this coming-of-age gem. It is a passionate film that is deeply felt through the eyes of a teenage girl who is budding in her sexuality at the same time she is grappling with the loss of her mother.
“Sophie Jones” is streaming on Showtime.
#37 “Sweetheart” – directed by Marley Morrison
“Sweetheart” shows the awkward pull of being a teenager. AJ (Nell Barlow) does not yet know who she is, but is intuitively aware of her sexual preference, women. Closeted to her family, as they are on holiday, she finds herself falling for a lifeguard named Isla. The film and story are anchored by the brilliant powerhouse performance of Nell Barlow.
“Sweetheart” is available to stream in the UK, and will be distributed in the US in 2022.
#36 “Groomed” – directed by Gwen van de Pas
“Deliberately building an emotional connection to gain the trust of a victim for the purpose of sexual abuse” is the definition of “grooming”. It is the word that director Gwen van de Pas bravely explores, driven by the abuse she endured from her swim coach when she was 11 and 12 years old. We go on her journey while she educates herself and us about the minds of these sexual abusers.
“Groomed” is streaming on Discovery+
#35 “Black Widow” – directed by Cate Shortland
I’ll admit, I’m not a Marvel fan. I’ve probably seen two of the Marvel films, and they are not recent. But when I heard that Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was finally getting her due with her own origin film, and it was directed by a woman, I had to see this one. I was not disappointed. Florence Pugh as Natasha’s sister was such a wonderful addition. I could watch a universe with just Scarlett and Florence, but alas, the Marvel universe likes to bring things to an end (spoiler alert). But as a stand-alone film, the humor, the relationships, and the action was thrilling.
“Black Widow” is now streaming on Disney+
#34 “My Name is “Pauli Murray” – directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Like Alice Guy Blaché, and the women of the Hull House in Chicago, we see that there were womxn behind the birth of ideas and technology that changed history. Murray brought many laws of equality to pass that started with the rhetoric she gave behind it. I’m grateful to Cohen and West for introducing me to Pauli.
“My name is “Pauli Murray”” is streaming on Prime
#33 “Cowboys” – directed by Anna Kerrigan
In May 2020, we spoke with Anna Kerrigan about her film “Cowboys”, another picture directed by a woman that dismantled the machismo of the western genre. This also was such an important film for the trans community, as it stars a trans actor, Sasha Knight. Read our interview here, and a fascinating essay that was featured in The Atlantic about this film and other female-directed westerns.
“Cowboys” is now streaming on most major platforms.
#32 “Mama Gloria” – directed by Luchina Fisher
Luchina Fisher’s debut feature documentary is about Mama Gloria, a trans woman in Chicago who has been a leader and inspirational figure in the LGBTQ+ community. Read my interview with Luchina Fisher about this fascinating womxn.
“Mama Gloria” can be streamed on PBS online platforms.
#31 “Bruised” – directed by Halle Berry
If you know “Rocky”, and are a fan of comeback films, you will love “Bruised”. Berry in her 50s is unbelievable in this film as a comeback MMA fighter. The climactic fight will keep you at the edge of your seats and rooting for Jackie Justice (Halle Berry) until the end. This film marks the directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Halle Berry.
“Bruised” is streaming now on Netflix.
#30 “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” – directed by Marilyn Agrelo
“Sesame Street” revolutionized the way we educate and it impacted my childhood. Read our interview with filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo about her documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”, and take a trip back to “Sesame Street.” I loved it.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is streaming now on HBO Max.
#29 “Mayday” – directed by Karen Cinorre
We highlighted Karen Cinorre’s debut, “Mayday,” for our Sundance coverage. The film is a feminist dystopian wonder. Read Dawn Borchardt’s interview here: Karen Cinorre encourages young women to find their voice in her feature directorial debut “Mayday”
“Mayday” is streaming now on most major platforms.
#28 “Britney vs. Spears” – directed by Erin Lee Carr
#FreeBritney was a popular hashtag of 2021. It wasn’t until I watched Erin Lee Carr’s documentary “Britney vs. Spears” that I really understood what has actually been going on with Britney over all these years. This was quite emotional, as I’ve felt tied to Britney since my teen years. Journalist Jenny Eliscu and Erin Lee Carr team together to find out more about what conservatorship is, and how it was used against Britney. The work they did eventually led to the recent freedom of Britney Spears.
We covered Carr’s docuseries “How to Fix a Drug Scandal”, highlighting some of her other female-centric docs: Erin Lee Carr places us in the shoes of a drug addict in the four-part docuseries ‘How To Fix a Drug Scandal’
“Britney vs. Spears” is streaming on Netflix.
#27 “Bergman Island” – directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
As a cinephile trying to find myself and my own voice in a world of brilliant cinematic minds, I could relate to this one. I loved the play of story and reality in the Bergman landscape.
“Bergman Island” is streaming now on most major platforms.
#26 “Zola” – directed by Janicza Bravo
The twitter epic of A’Ziah “Zola” King was brought to life in Janicza Bravo’s “Zola”. In a time where social media shadows are current society, this story speaks volumes.
“Zola” is steaming now on Hulu.
Pingback: The 50 best films of 2021: Part 2 (25 – 1) – Cinema Femme
Pingback: Our top 10 recommended films to see at The 58th Chicago International Film Festival! (10/12 – 10/23) – Cinema Femme