Oscar Nominations 2020: 11 brilliant women who should be on the Best Director list

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We’d love to congratulate all the women nominated for Best Director at this year’s Academy Awards, but we can’t. Because… well, because there aren’t any.

The 2020 Oscar nominations are in, and, as ever, Hollywood’s female filmmakers have been entirely shut out of the Best Director race.

Alongside Todd Phillips – whose film Joker has scored a leading 11 Oscar nominations across the board – this year’s nominees include Martin Scorsese for The Irishman, Sam Mendes for 1917, Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Bong Joon Ho for Parasite.

“Congratulations to those men,” said Issa Rae, after announcing the all-male list.

It was a beautifully barbed comment – particularly when you consider the fact that it has been a spectacular year for women behind the camera. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood holds a 95% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 271 reviews. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women has been lauded by critics ever since it hit cinemas over Christmas, and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell seemed an absolute shoe-in for this year’s Oscars list (although it’s worth noting that the film’s star, Awkwafina, was also snubbed in the Best Actress category).

Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers) and Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) were, likewise, worthy contenders – and then there’s all the exciting first-time filmmakers to consider, too. Think Queen & Slim’s Melina Matsoukas, Booksmart’s Olivia Wilde, Honey Boy’s Alma Har’el, and Atlantics’ Mati Diop, to name just a few.

Of course, we’re disappointed to learn that the Academy has snubbed all of these amazing women. Disappointed – but not surprised. After all, there have only ever been five women nominated for the Best Director category since the very first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929 – and, of those five, there has only been a single winner. Just as the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag remains appallingly relevant (of this year’s 20 acting nominees, Cynthia Erivo was the only person of colour), so does the #OscarsSoMale complaint.

What can we do about it? Sure, we could pen yet another article on the Academy Awards’ painful lack of diversity, sure – but we’d rather spend our time celebrating those filmmakers who deserve to be celebrated. To pay credit where credit is well and truly due. To highlight the directors most deserving of your attention. 

Why? Because, if we make an effort to go to the cinema and support the work of these incredible women, it may send a much-needed message to the Academy. After all, money talks. And, to quote Olivia Wilde, female directors “are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support.

“Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women,” she said.

Hear, hear! And so, with those words ringing loudly in our ears, here’s our pick of this year’s best female directors.

Greta Gerwig – Little Women

It doesn’t matter who you ask, really: critics and audience-goers alike will agree that Little Women is a hit. Think 5-star reviews across the board (resulting in a 95% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and plenty of love for the film’s stars: Saoirse Ronan has been given multiple nods for her stint as the fiercely confident Jo, Florence Pugh has been nominated for her performance as headstrong, proud Amy, and Laura Dern’s Marmee has scored a Best Supporting Actress nomination, too.

The film has been selected as one of the Academy’s Best Picture contenders, too, thanks to Gerwig’s fresh and nuanced take on the age-old story. She’s reimagined the chronology, given weight to characters that might have been ignored in previous adaptations, and created a timeless classic… one which will even win over those who aren’t fans of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal text.

Marielle Heller – A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

It’s the biopic everyone over the pond has been talking about, with Tom Hanks taking on the role of beloved television icon Fred Rogers in a powerfully affecting story about acceptance and understanding. We here in the UK are yet to see the film (it isn’t out until 31 January 2020), but it’s received rave reviews across the board so far.

“The movie bets on goodness, and wins,” says The Wall Street Journal.

“Many a movie will make you laugh or cry or think. But very few make you want to be a better person,” added Plugged In.

And Steve Pond of TheWrap wrote: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood finds a gentle state of grace and shows the courage and smarts to stay in that zone, never rushing things or playing for drama … But just as Mr. Rogers used his show to talk about big issues with children in a tone that was softer and more halting than you’d expect given the subject matter, so does Heller stick to understatement in a way that threatens to become dull or sappy but never does.”

Lorena Scafaria – Hustlers 

Hustlers was 2019’s uniquely empowering heist drama: no only was it smart and incredibly entertaining, but it boasted a huge amount of emotional depth, too. So much so that everyone believed Jennifer Lopez’s standout turn as Ramona would win her an Oscar nomination. Sadly, though, it wasn’t to be. And, just as Lopez was snubbed by the Academy, so too was director Lorena Scafaria.

“It’s to Scafaria’s credit that she never moralises or simplifies what these women did. Rather, she paints a portrait of the dirty and corrupted world Ramona and her gang of merry (wo)men move through, what they do to survive it and the freedom that money gives them,” writes Stylist’s Helen Bownass in her own 5-star review

“You’ll never stop rooting for them.” 

Lulu Wang – The Farewell

The Farewell boasts a 98% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and for good reason. As Stylist’s Hannah-Rose Yee writes: “In The Farewell, a heartbreaking film based on director Lulu Wang’s own family in China, Awkwafina turns in one of the most searing, human performances of the year. As Billi, the character loosely based on filmmaker Wang, Awkwafina is by turns both serious and silly, a woman torn between the two halves of her identity in the East and in the West.”

While Awkwafina’s performance in The Farewell is truly unforgettable (just ask the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who awarded the comedian a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy), she was ignored in the 2020 Oscars’ list of Best Actress nominees. Likewise, Wang’s direction – which deftly married complicated family dynamics with a poignant, well-acted drama – has been ignored, too.

Read our review of the film here.

Waad al-Kateab – For Sama

Amid bombs going off, Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab recorded her life in the most difficult of circumstances. Addressed directly to her daughter, For Sama explains why she chose to compromise her child’s safety in the pursuit of peace. 

It’s a film about fighting for what you believe in, even when that comes at great personal risk. But it’s also about ordinary life in a conflict zone, where jokes are cracked, friends are vital and nappies still need to be changed. “My feeling is that this film is for Sama – and for the whole world – to understand,” al-Kateab told Stylist’s Colin Crummy when she met him last September. “It’s my personal story. Because of this, I could have been dead.”

It makes sense, then, that her film has now been nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars. What doesn’t make sense, though, is why al-Kateab has been ignored in the Best Director category.

Read our eye-opening interview with the filmmaker here.

Olivia Wilde – Booksmart 

There has been a huge buzz around Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart. The film, starring Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Dever (Beautiful Boy), takes a brave and hilarious look at teenage sexuality through an LGBT+ perspective, and it won critics over in the process.

Empire gave the film five stars, Vulture described it as a “goddamn delight” and Metro reviewed it as one of the “funniest films of 2019”. The Academy, however? Why, they decided to ignore Wilde’s movie entirely in the Best Director category. Go figure.

Céline Sciamma – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire might not be out in the UK yet (you’ll have to wait until 28 February), but this rich period drama has been the talk of the town overseas. It was nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globe Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and was chosen by the National Board of Review as Top Five Foreign Language Films of 2019. And the “thought-provoking romance” has an approval rating of 97% (based on 150 reviews) on Rotten Tomatoes, too.

Where, then, is Sciamma’s Best Director nod? We have no clue, quite frankly.

Melina Matsoukas – Queen & Slim

Queen & Slim is Melina Matsoukas’ directorial debut, and what a way to start your career. The film – which follows Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith’s characters as they go on the run after killing a police officer in self-defence – has been described as “stylish, provocative, and powerful”, and has won countless critics over with its gripping and thoughtful story.

It’s not out in the UK yet, but you can catch Matsoukas’ film (and show the director your support) when Queen & Slim hits cinemas on 31 January.

Alma Har’el – Honey Boy

“When 12-year-old Otis begins to find success as a television star, his abusive, alcoholic father returns and takes over as his guardian, and their contentious relationship is followed over a decade…”

Alma Har’el’s narrative feature directorial debut is based a screenplay by Shia LaBeouf, based on his childhood and his relationship with his father, and it was quietly released in the UK over Christmas. That doesn’t mean, though, that it isn’t worth your time: starring LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe and FKA Twigs, Honey Boy holds a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 94% based on a whopping 190 reviews. 

Try to see it, if you can!

Mati Diop – Atlantics 

Atlantics is hard to talk about, especially if you want to avoid spoilers. If we strip it to its barest bones, though, it’s a supernatural drama which follows Ada (Mama Bineta Sane) as she falls deeply in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a construction worker on a futuristic tower. But Souleiman and his colleagues are owed four months’ wages, and mutinously abandon Senegal to sail to Spain… a journey which ends in unspeakable tragedy. 

It’s worth noting that Mati Diop made history when her feature directorial debut premiered at Cannes: she was the first black woman to direct a film featured In Competition at the festival. Since then, the filmmaker has been widely praised for her poetic and haunting interpretation of the migrant crisis. And yet, predictably, she’s been ignored at this year’s Academy Awards. What gives?

Kasi Lemmons – Harriet

Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman escaped to become one of America’s most prominent and celebrated abolitionists.

Over the course of her life, she ran 13 rescue missions to save some 70 friends and family, helping them reach safety through the Underground Railroad. After the American Civil War ended, Tubman became a key figure agitating for a woman’s right to vote. She died in 1913 at the age of 91 and has since become one of the most recognisable figures in US history.

Though she has appeared as a character in several movies and operas, a standalone film dedicated solely to Tubman’s life has yet to be made. Until Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, that is.

The biopic – starring Best Actress nominee Cynthia Erivo – has captured the imagination of critics and viewers alike, sparking debate about the crackling blend of history and fiction. You can find out more about the film here.

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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