This is my third annual compilation (see the 2015 list and 2016 list) of films and TV-shows that made a conscious effort to be more feminist, and some even recognize gender, race, ability, and LGBTQ+ issues in an intersectional, inclusive, and original way. They are stories that move us forward in different ways. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the films and TV shows selected here are also some of the most cutting-edge, smart, innovative, and inspiring examples of work in the mainstream entertainment industry to date. The three highest-grossing films at the box office this year all featured female protagonists (Wonder Woman, Beauty and the Beast and Star Wars), for the first time since 1958!
There are many examples of women kicking ass in movies this year – and what a joy it was to watch – people even cried during the Wonder Woman action sequences! There are stories of women artists, athletes, scientists, musicians, and entrepreneurs who have full lives and are represented as intellectual, social, powerful, emotional and sexual beings, rather than objects. There are visibly more women in executive positions making these films. There are many feminist male artists creating important work. Of course, this list is not complete, despite my best efforts, but I am always open to suggestions and things I missed the first time around. So, here we go:
Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi, 20th Century Fox, January 2017) – based on the book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016) by Margot Lee Shetterly and directed by Theodore Melfi (director of St. Vincent with Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy), it tells the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson – brilliant women working at NASA, without whose work the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit would not have been possible. The film is empowering and inspiring.
I am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck. Velvet Film, February, 2017) – In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project: Remember This House. The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished and constructs a masterpiece of his own. One of the most moving documentary films about the race relations in the U.S. A must-see!!
Women’s March on Washington, Women’s March Global, and Women’s March Canada (January 21, 2017) – was a worldwide protest on January 21, to advocate legislation and policies regarding human rights and other issues, including women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, reproductive rights, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, freedom of religion, and workers’ rights. Most of the rallies were aimed at Donald Trump, immediately following his inauguration as President of the U. S., due to racist, sexist, and discriminatory statements he had made and attempted to legislate. It was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Last year, I went to the solidarity march in Victoria, BC, and documented it in a photo essay. I then reached out to the founders of Women’s March Canada, and have been in contact and collaborations with them for a year before deciding to become one of the organizers of the 2018 Women’s March Victoria and now working on building it to be an umbrella organization for local activism.
Girlboss (created by Kat Cannon, Netflix, April 2017) – Based on Sophia Amoruso’s autobiographical book (which was a bit of a bore), this series follows the rise of her online fashion business, Nasty Gal. Britt Robertson plays Sophia, a rebellious, broke anarchist who decides to start selling vintage clothing online and unexpectedly becomes a very successful businesswoman, who starts to realize the value (and difficulties) of being the boss of her own life. Charlize Theron and Sophia Amoruso served as executive producers. Britt Robertson gave a great depth to the protagonist, making her work, life, love, and friendship struggles relatable and interesting. Particularly moving, and rarely represented in mainstream media, are the moments when one part of her life is soaring to success, while another, the more private life, is simultaneously falling apart. How she deals with these paradoxes and picks herself up every time is very inspirational, moving, and portrayed with a lot of tenderness and heart. Unfortunately, Netflix did not renew it for a second season, but the first is worth watching.
Girls, Season 6 (dir. Lena Dunham, HBO, April 2017) – Girls concluded this year with its sixth season by pushing all the relationships and friendships to their limits. Unlike in the earlier season, when they hang out all the time and have overlapping plot-lines, each of the protagonists pursues their own aspirations and love interests, which pulls them apart to the point of untying their friendship. With the usual blatant honesty and self-reflection, the four friends end up in a bathroom together at Shoshanna’s engagement party, to which Hannah wasn’t even invited, screaming their frustrations at each other’s choices and priorities, and opening the space for forgiveness and mutual acceptance again. The choice to end the series with Hannah becoming a single mother (with Marnie’s help, after Marnie’s marriage and life fall apart), is an interesting one, considering Hannah’s ambitions and pursuits to become a writer and “a voice of her generation” are continuously undermined. The show remains true to the complexity and contradictory nature of its protagonists, who are all simultaneously annoying and fascinating, but consistently complex and multi-faceted heroines.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (dir. George C. Wolfe, HBO, April 2017) – Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne teamed up to uncover the truth behind the death of Henrietta Lacks, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1950s, and whose cancer cells (later known as HeLa) were extracted without her knowledge and used in ground-breaking medical experiments that led to the most vital advances in medicine. It is based on the book by the same name by Rebecca Skloot (a medical journalist played by Rose Byrne). Oprah plays a challenging role as Henrietta’s disillusioned, distrustful, aging daughter, searching for the truth about her mother’s life and death, and the injustices and exploitation of the medical and pharmaceutical establishments in U.S. Both the book and the film are great in their own ways!
Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, DC Films, May 2017) – Before she comes into her own as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an fearless warrior by her aunt (Robin Wright). Raised on a sheltered island paradise, Diana meets an American pilot (Chris Pine) who tells her about the massive conflict that’s raging in the outside world. Convinced that she can stop the threat, Diana leaves her home for the first time. Fighting in WWI, she discovers her full powers and embraces her invincibility. But with great power comes great responsibility and also, which is seldom addressed in mainstream culture, great loneliness. This is an inspiring adventure, reminding women everywhere, that “Wonder Woman is,” above all, “a state of mind!”
Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh, Rink Rat Productions, June 2017) – Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a fishmonger (Ethan Hawke) while working for him as a live-in housekeeper. Despite their differing personalities, they marry as her art gains in popularity. A co-production of Ireland and Canada, the film is about Maud’s struggles with arthritis, memory of a lost child, and a family that doubts her abilities. The film was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador, requiring a recreation of Lewis’s famously small house, which was the subject of controversy in Lewis’ native Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, the popularity of the film sparked a resurgence of interest her art. The film is a deeply moving portrayal of the intersecting injustices women experience within families and inter-personal relationships, and the role art and creativity play in our ability to heal and self-express despite constant emotional or physical violations of our identities, ambitions, self-determination, and our bodies.
Atomic Blonde (dir. David Leitch, Denver and Delilah Productions, July 2017) – Sensual and savage, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is the most elite spy in MI6, an agent who’s willing to use all of her lethal skills to stay alive during an impossible mission. With the Berlin Wall about to fall, she travels to retrieve a priceless dossier and take down a ruthless espionage ring. Once there, she teams up with an embedded station chief to navigate her way through the deadliest game of spies. Set to a fun soundtrack, with impeccable fashion style and set designs, this is a fun film to watch, despite the constant bruises that the heroine has to nurse in ice baths.
One Mississippi, Season 2 (created by Tig Notaro and Diablo Cody, Amazon, September 2017) – Inspired by events in comedian Tig Notaro’s life, the protagonist is a Los Angeles-based radio host of the same name, who is still dealing with serious health issues, including recovering from a double mastectomy. When her mother dies, Tig returns to her hometown in Mississippi, where she is forced on a painful (and at times, hilarious) journey that unearths uncomfortable truths about herself and her family. In the second season, Tig, her stepfather Bill (John Rothman), and her casually-racist brother Remy (Noah Harpster) begin to move past the loss of Tig and Remy’s mother. All three experience the fluttery hopes and anxiety-provoking disappointments of new romances. As they attempt to re-connect, they discover that each has lingering intimacy issues because of molestation by their long-dead step-grandfather. This witty and smart comedic drama came out just one month before the #metoo social media campaign went viral.
Home Again (dir. Hallie Meyers-Shyer, Waverly Films, September 2017) – Recently separated from her husband, Alice Kinney (Reece Witherspoon) decides to start over by moving back to Los Angeles with her two daughters. While celebrating her 40th birthday, Alice meets Harry, George and Teddy, three young filmmakers who need a place to live. Complications soon arise when she agrees to let the men stay in her guesthouse temporarily. Despite the presence of so many charming male characters, this feel-good romantic comedy, still focuses on the female protagonist and the intricacies and complexities of her (albeit very privileged) life, and not just the many (not always useful) men in her life. Directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, the daughter of rom-com queen Nancy Meyers (who co-produced it), this is a refreshing take on the same-old genre chic flick.
Battle of the Sexes (dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Decibel Films and
Cloud Eight Films, September 2017) – The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became the most watched televised sports event of all time. King was a feminist activist, who fought for equal pay, and after continuous discrimination in the professional tennis league, declared, “we’ll boycott the tournament. Not only will we boycott but we will set up our own tournament.” Trapped in the media glare, King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carrel) were on opposites sides of a binary argument, but off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles. With her husband urging her to fight for equal pay, the private King was also struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, while Riggs gambled his legacy and reputation in a bid to relive the glories of his past. Facts vs. Fiction. The two great performances are almost upstaged by Alan Cumming, who plays a Ted Tinling, King’s fashion designer and close friend, who gives her an encouragement speech after she won against all odds, and gives the film its poignant climax about LGBTQ+ rights and identity struggles: “Times change. You should know, you just changed them. Someday we will be free to be who we are, and love who we love. But now, it’s time to join the dance.” An extremely moving and inspirational film!
Transparent, Season 4 (dir. Jill Soloway, Amazon, September 2017) – This season takes the intersectional, but at times dysfunctional Pfefferman family to Jerusalem. It is a journey Maura first embarks on for an academic conference, bringing along Alex, the youngest daughter, who in this season is not only questioning her sexuality, but her identity as well. The trip soon turns into a re-connection with Maura’s long lost father, who left the family to move to Israel and became a successful businessman and started a new family. While the rest of the family is reconnecting with their roots in the Holy Land, travelling to the Dead Sea in an over-sized tour bus, and listening to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar, Alex discovers a community of artists and activists in Palestine, along with the abuses and discrimination they experience when they come into contact with the Israelis. A provocative and moving season, still hitting the emotional high notes and teaching mainstream audiences about the complexities of intersectionality.
Lady Gaga – Five Feet Two (dir. Chris Moukarbel, Netflix, September 2017) – Filmmaker Chris Moukarbel captured the woman behind the performer, the costumes, the glitz and the glamour. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, born in New York in 1986, is documented in her daily life, working on a new album, struggling with chronic pain, managing her music business and image, getting over another heartbreak and separation, and preparing for the Superbowl Half-Time Show. She does not hold back and shows us the whole spectrum of her pressure-cooker life, from visiting her grandmother to allowing the camera into her doctor’s office, we get to see glimpses of the strong and highly talented woman behind the superstar.
#MeToo – In October 2017, the #metoo social media campaign went viral and revealed that almost every woman globally has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault (especially in the workplace), and started a wave of outings of abusers, first in Hollywood and then worldwide. Coined by social activist Tarana Burke to help victims realize they are not alone, the hashtag was popularized by actress Alyssa Milano when she encouraged women to tweet it to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” This inspired other campaigns, such as “Time’s Up,” as well as many dismissals of predatory men in positions of power, and greater accountability and policy changes in the work place.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (dir. Angela Robinson, Boxspring Entertainment, October 2017) – The true story of what inspired Harvard phychologist Dr. William Marston to create the Wonder Woman character in the 1940s. Marston, his wife Elizabeth, and their mutual lover Olive Byrne find themselves in an unconventional threesome and start a family together. In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, the two women also inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time. The film is not without its complications, but overall an interesting reflection on the complexities of human sexuality, needs for domination and subordination in intimate and sexual relationships, as well as the bonds and bondage we can’t seem to shake.
The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker, Cre Film, October 2017) – Warm, winning, and gloriously alive, Sean Baker’s film is a deeply moving and unforgettably poignant look at childhood. Set on a stretch of highway outside the imagined utopia of Disney World, it follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinai) over the course of a single summer. The two live week to week at “The Magic Castle,” a budget hotel managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), whose stern exterior hides a deep reservoir of kindness and compassion. Despite her harsh surroundings, Moonee has no trouble making each day a celebration of life, her endless afternoons overflowing with mischief and grand adventure as she and her ragtag playmates fearlessly explore the utterly unique world into which they’ve been thrown. Unbeknownst to Moonee, however, her delicate fantasy is supported by the toil and sacrifice of Halley, who is forced to explore increasingly dangerous possibilities of sex work in order to provide for her daughter.
Human Flow (dir. Ai Weiwei, 24 Media Production Company, October 2017) – More than 65 million people around the world have been forced to escape their homes due to famine, climate change, and war – the greatest human displacement since World War II. Artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei examines the staggering scale of the refugee crisis and its profoundly personal human impact. Over the course of one year in 23 countries, Weiwei followed a chain of urgent human stories that stretch across the globe, including Afghanistan, France, Greece, Germany and Iraq. This incredibly moving, timely, educational, important, and aesthetically stunning film needs to be shown in every classroom so we can begin to understand, accept, and take responsibility for the globalized migration and dislocation of people, families and children on an unprecedented scale.
Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, Scott Rudin Productions, November 2017) – This is a moving, entertaining, and brutally honest coming-of-age story with all its dreamy beauty and emotional depth, directed masterfully by the very intelligent Greta Gerwig, who received a Best Director Oscar nomination for this film, becoming only the fifth female director nominated. Set in Sacramento, California, it’s a story of a high-school senior (Saoirse Ronan) and her turbulent relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), her peace-making father, her best friend, the popular girls at school, the boys in her life, and her artistic aspirations to leave Sacramento and go to New York to learn about culture. This film is a feminist response to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), a great film but very boy-centered. Gerwig’s version not only allows you to see and feel from the point of view of a young woman, but incorporates other important intersections of identities as well. Lovely and enjoyable.
She’s Gotta Have It (dir. Spike Lee, Netflix, November 2017) – Spike Lee re-imagines his first feature film with series of the same name. Brooklyn-based artist Nola Darling struggles to stay true to herself and her dreams while dividing her time between her friends, her job and her lovers – all three of them. That trio includes a married businessman and father Jamie Overstreet, photographer and model Greer Childs, and chatty Mars Blackmon. In addition to creating the series, Lee directs all the episodes and serves as an executive producer alongside wife Tonya Lewis Lee. The new Nola is an empowered artist and a sexually-liberated woman who represents a new celebration of female desire and creativity and self-determination. At times, the show feels like Spike Lee’s journey towards an intersectional feminist consciousness, not without moments of awkwardness or heavy-handedness, but overall very enjoyable!
Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino, Frenesy Film Company, November 2017) – written by James Ivory, based on the 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman (best fiction book I have read in years). It is the third and final installment in Guadagnino’s thematic desire trilogy, following I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015). In the summer of 1983, and 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the days with his family at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy. He meets Oliver (Armie Hammer), a handsome doctoral student who’s working as an intern for his archaeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Amid the sun-drenched splendor of their surroundings, Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire. Principal photography took place in Crema, Italy in May and June 2016, shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom on 35-mm film. It had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22, but was not widely released until November. Most narratives of love and desire are portrayed in mainstream media through conflict and obstacles – we are conditioned to think of love as difficult and heart-breaking, but this is an homage and celebration of love, desire, and friendship among all the characters and not just the main protagonists. Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s father, has the most moving scene of the film, when he urges his grieving son not to suppress his emotions, but allow himself to feel it all, the pain and the joy. This scene will make history because there are no other examples of such parental love, unconditional acceptance, and and celebration of emotional intelligence in contemporary mainstream media. We have entered a new era of transitioning from LGBTQ+ narratives of truth, reconciliation and overcoming discrimination and violence to building narratives of role models of acceptance and celebration. This is a significant cultural transition. The soundtrack is mesmerizing and addictive, the book is masterfully written, beautiful and sad, and the film is ground-breaking. A must see!
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, Disney, December 2017) – This is the continuation of J. J. Abram’s new generation of the Star Wars saga, as we follow Rey (Daisy Ridley) on her journey to becoming a Jedi. She finds Luke Skywalker, who has been living in self-imposed seclusion after failing to train Kylo Ren (Leia and Han Solo’s son, played by Adam Driver) and losing him to the dark side, lead by General Hux and the First Order, who are now leading an all-out assault against General Leia (Carrie Fisher in her last film before her death) and the Resistance forces for supremacy of the galaxy. As with the last film, there is a serious effort towards intersectional and diverse representation throughout the film, with women and people of colour at the helm. This one is not as strong as The Force Awakens, but still worth seeing, and it’s always fun to see Rey kick everyone’s ass.
Molly’s Game (dir. Aaron Sorkin, Huayi Brothers Pictures, December 2017) – The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a beautiful, young, Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and finally, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob. Her only ally was her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). This is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and is quite entertaining. Unlike last year’s Miss Sloane – a complex and cold female protagonist, fascinating but not easy to relate to – Molly is feminine and strong in the best and empowering ways, and at the same time, not without flaws, weaknesses, and in a complicated relationship with her over-controlling father. Jessica Chastain outdoes herself once again, delivering another unforgettable, intriguing character.
Things I missed the first time around:
Pitch Perfect 3 (dir. Trish Sie, December 2017) – I enjoyed the first and the third films in this franchise quite a bit, but I am not giving them full feminist thumbs up, they all still have a lot of baggage, and the second film was not even worth anyone’s time (perhaps with the sole exception of watching the female a capella group perform Beyoncé’s “Girls”). But the finale of the third film grabbed me and did not let go. Anna Kendrick’s character Beca performs George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” and brings up her girlfriends and teammates up on stage to join her and serenades each one of them to thank them for their support. Girl power, solidarity, and some extremely talented performances at their best.