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The Wonder Women Of 2017

We look back at the wonder women of 2017, the women directors and writers who pushed through barriers in the industry, advancing gender equality and making history.

The Wonder Women of 2017

2017 was a big year for women in film. The most obvious victory being in the fight against harassment and sexual assault in the industry (#Metoo and #Timesup) – top names being exposed and turn out for their abuse of woman (and men!), authority and power. Yet, there were other breakthroughs within the industry this year – an industry so riddled with gender inequality. For the first time since 1958, women ran the box office, with the top three highest-grossing films fronted by a woman – Daisy Ridley as Rey (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman) and Emma Watson as Belle (Beauty and the Beast).

With the conclusion of 2017, the climax of award season on the horizon and feminity in mind, I find myself looking back throughout the past year at the outstanding women who, from behind the camera, have left their mark in film and feminism. These women broke through the barriers of gender inequality and made a permanent stamp in film history and in our hearts. They each hold a piece of the movement forward and inspire those who are yet to come.

As Natalie Portman boldly pointed out at the Golden Globes before announcing the nominees for Best Director, none of them were female. Sadly, since the first Golden Globe Awards Ceremony, only 7 women have ever found themselves nominated in the Best Director category – with Barbara Streisand the only one out of seven to have won. While women remained shut out, the members of the Academy have differed from the Globes, announcing that Greta Gerwig is one of this year’s contenders for the Best Director Oscar – making her only the fifth woman to do so. She is the leading force of this past year – but she is not alone.

These are the wonder women of 2017.

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

The Wonder Women of 2017

Source: A24

When the Academy Awards Ceremony begins on March 4th, Lady Bird will be looking at a potential five Oscars in a variety of categories, including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Picture. While being nominated for Best Picture (officially the 13th film directed by a woman to be nominated in this category!) would be enough to put anyone on the map, it is the triumph which Greta Gerwig will permanently have attached to her name – Academy Award Nominated Director Greta Gerwig.

Joining one of the most “elite” groups in Hollywood, Greta Gerwig has become only the fifth woman in the history of the Academy to hold this nomination. Her direction to bring the tumultuous relationship of a strong-willed mother and her equally strong daughter to screen have solidified her in history, and have made her an inspiration for girls and women of all ages who aspire to bring their stories to life on screen.

And if a Best Director nomination wasn’t enough (for her directorial debut no less), she elevates her title to “two time nominee” with her additional nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Lady Bird as well. Making history once again, Gerwig is now only the fourth female to have both written and directed a film that is up for both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. All around the board, Greta Gerwig has shown she is a force to be reckoned with – a mark for the ages.

With all these statistics, what makes Lady Bird stand out from the female directors/writers before it? Where Kathryn Bigelow won for a war movie (The Hurt Locker) mostly focused on male soldiers, Lady Bird focuses on a young woman discovering who she is against the constant waves of passive aggressive love from a mother as independent as she is.

Being a native of Sacramento, Greta Gerwig writes what she knows as well, the film from the viewpoint of a woman. In a video for the 2017 New York Film Festival, Greta Gerwig discussed secrets to sneaking into upscale Hollywood parties, an exhibition of her fire that one can see personified by the character of Lady Bird. There is an essence of Gerwig throughout the film and ingrained within her characters. With this love, passion and vulnerability, it is no surprise that it has become a favorite of critics, briefly the highest ever rated on Rotten Tomatoes (oh, Paddington 2) and winner of Best Picture Musical or Comedy at this year’s Golden Globes.

With the Oscars only 6 weeks away, the odds are looking good for an exemplary showing of the female power.

Patty Jenkins – Wonder Woman

The Wonder Women of 2017

source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Even if you are part of the 1 percent who did not see Wonder Woman in 2017, you by no doubt heard the resounding affect it had on audiences and women. A superhero movie lead by a strong, independent female character, with an actress strong enough to fill the shoes and a director courageous enough to make it work. Best of all, out of the top three highest grossing films of the year (all with a lead female character), Wonder Woman was the only film out of the three to be directed by a woman.

By no means a newcomer to the industry, having previously directed MonsterPatty Jenkins blasted her way through gender stigmas and presumed gender roles, taking her version of Wonder Woman to new heights and to a new appreciation. And in a year where superhero films lacked fan love (*cough* Justice League), Jenkins proved she may just be the new go-to for top notch hero films.

The depiction of Wonder Woman for this film needed to be confident, strong and constantly radiate an independent personality. Jenkins would create space in her shots, not only for her character to fill but also for what the character represents. There was no forcing a presumed idea of Wonder Woman, or her people, in a defined box and she allowed her adaption of a classic comic book character to become a modern day super “role model” hero.

Jenkins‘ work on Wonder Woman and the success for the film, with both box office and critics alike, has guaranteed her a spot at the helm for the film’s sequel – which we can only imagine will be as feministically appealing, uplifting and groundbreaking. She has been and will continue to be a driving female force in the industry – a woman who “will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

Dee Rees – Mudbound

The Wonder Women of 2017

source: Netflix

Premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and concluding to a standing ovation, Mudbound is a film that feels like the heart and soul of its director and screenwriter are interlaced within each element of the film. There was such a love and care to the telling of two war veterans returning from battle (one white, one black) and the adjustments they must face upon arriving home. Compounding the heartbreak that settles in once our characters are home, audiences were faced with the harsh reality of racism in the south – no matter what you did for your country.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Hillary Jordon, Dee Rees began her involvement with Mudbound from the the very beginning, penning the adaptation. The heartbreak, lack of sympathy and truths of the time ooze from the pages of her script onto screen, each truth of historical racism and treatment of veterans screaming for acknowledgement. Rees is unwilling to turn a blind eye, keeping her camera focused on the horror, the heartbreak and the struggle. This could easily have become a film strictly about racism (and quite possibly just as effective), but Rees manages to expand the film giving a portrait of the time, not only on paper, but through the carefully selected adapted scenes and subtleties of the film.

Yet, it is not just the successful depiction of the racism within the south (and country), or the poor treatment and understanding lent to veterans, but also how Rees subtly interjects a focus on the treatment of women. The lead character Laura McAllen (Carey Mulligan) has no say in the direction the life she shares with her husband will lead. Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) makes the decision to buy a farm and move his family to the country without consulting his wife. She is told one night after the purchase has been completed – the decision final and non-negotiable. After they have moved to the mud-ridden farm, she faces a life she does not know and is forced to accept. Her only victory in the entire film is a beloved piano she forces her husband to keep in the new home. Dee Rees carefully examines the treatment of women during this time period, bringing to light the fractured family and the hardships women unwillingly undertook.

While Mudbound and Dee Rees were shut out of the Best Picture and Best Director nominations, it needs to be acknowledged that history was made this year with the announcement of this year’s Oscars nominations. Dee Rees made history this year as the first black woman nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. She had broken through a barrier that has stood in the way of black women before her, opening a world of opportunities for those who are to follow.

Sofia Coppola – The Beguiled

The Wonder Women of 2017

source: Focus Features

Being the daughter of film legend Francis Ford Coppola, expectations have always been high, and the need to prove one’s self has always been a constant for Sofia Coppola. To follow the man that would bring The Godfather to life is an epic achievement and family talent to have over one’s head. Yet, each and every time, Sofia Coppola has delivered, bringing critically acclaimed films to the screen and even making history – becoming the first American woman and third woman overall to be nominated for Best Director by the Academy of Arts and Sciences for Lost in Translation.

This year would be no different for Coppola – both in acclaim and history – as she brought to the screen her dark, and deceitful film The Beguiled. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in early 2017, The Beguiled was well-received and earned Coppola a Best Director award – the first for a female since 1973. With praise and history, Coppola proves that while not a newcomer, she is not to be forgotten.

A remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film of the same name, The Beguiled, set during the Civil War, focuses on a group of women in a boarding school who take in a Union soldier, and rather than turning him in, nurse him back to health. As his recovery progresses, the mindset of the household descends in jealousy, lust and a reinforcement of doing “the Christian thing”. Yet. as time passes, all involved begin to question themselves, their lives, and their safety.

Sofia Coppola crafts a story through script and screen, where the true intentions of its characters are never truly revealed. Affections towards the solider, and in return to the women, is questionable – are they real or is there a deeper root of survival and loneliness that drives desire and deceit? Shots of the women outside are wide and expansive, contrasting the tight and confined shots when indoors. In a world where men have vanished into battle, the women left behind are confined to their locations with limited knowledge, restricting them to continuing day to day functions with fear. Yet, while choosing shots that cling to the clichés of a refined southern belle (the dresses, hair, mannerisms), the independence that the women have discovered and achieved during the war is never forgotten.

Julia Ducournau – Raw

The Wonder Women of 2017

source: The Irish Times

The disruptive and disturbing opening night where many viewers find themselves warned and at times leaving the theater is usually only reserved for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) – yet still gaining a strong fan following and critic approval. 2017 would prove that this ability to affect an audience is not just for men. Director Julia Ducournau joins the ranks, her film Raw causing many at the film’s premiere to walk out of the theater due to its disturbing nature – many becoming physically sick. One of the film’s showings had to be paused, the exiting so disruptive to the remaining audience.

Yet, like those before her, she found success in the ability to not only affect emotionally but also physically, still managing to retain a love from critics and audiences alike – winning the FIPRESCI Prize (Director’s Fortnight or Critic’s Week) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. This was a film that would take me all of 2017 to see and it lived up to the hype. While much of the cannibalism did not disturb me, Ducournau‘s story of a young vegetarian ravaged by a newfound hunger for meat had me gagging at points and completely captivated.

Like many of the women on this list, Ducournau was not only the film’s director, but also the film’s writer. Her story brought to life through page and screen horrifies and amazes all who dared to watch it. She brings a sense of feminism and role reversal, lending to women overpowering men and becoming the predators. Coupled with beautifully framed closeups and lighting that mimics the fear and confusion within the main character, Raw is the horror movie fans of the genre have been waiting for.

Niki Caro – The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Wonder Women of 2017

source: Focus Features

The Zookeeper’s Wife was, in my opinion, a surprise success. Stories of survival, fight and victory from World War II are far from sparse, and Hollywood’s need to capture and captivate with these heroing tales is unfounded. Just this year alone, two other films surrounding the war were released (Dunkirk and Darkest Hour), each with their own success and angle on this horrific stamp in human history. Yet, while I expected horrific displays of war, violence and mass murder, I was surprised to find this film was delivered to audiences with a tactful touch, delicacy of detail, and care that is usually hard to find in a film of this nature.

Beginning just before the invasion of Poland, audiences are introduced to Antoninia (Jessica Chapstain), wife of the local zookeeper and an animal whisper of sorts. Caring for home and zoo, she is a woman who stands above the rest, unafraid to break conventional expectations of a regular housewife – refusing to be the norm. Yet, when the bombs are dropped and Jews forced into the Ghettos, she and her husband bravely and covertly defy the German army, saving and providing sanctuary to upwards of 300 Jews during the length of the war. This is a story of resilience and humanity, in the face of tragedy and bloodshed.

Niki Caro shows the horrors of war with a gentle realistic touch, without being overly graphic. Any horror that made its way onto the screen was carefully chosen and used only as a tool to remind viewers of the reality the family and victims went through – not as a tool specifically to horrify. Animals are shown savagely butchered by bombs and guns, a parallelism to the innocent lives lost throughout the war. Ash is mistaken as snow, only the looks of the adults in the room to tell you what it really is. There is no conversation, no visual proof of the tragedy it implies. While both examples are horrific, Caro‘s choice to show them keeps the film in perspective, yet limiting them just the same.

Caro was also smart in limiting the horrors shown, but not excluding, as it allowed viewers to reach a full understanding that where there is ultimate evil there is always ultimate good – those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. While this approach to a World War II story is nothing new (i.e. Schindler’s List), The Zookeepers Wife focuses on an entire family risking their lives, instead of one individual man – and more specifically, the woman who did all she could to save what could have been lost forever.

With beautifully framed shots that hold onto the emotion of the scene, Caro is a visionary in the art of emotion, catharsis and character fulfillment. Each element is given its due time to reach fruition, and when the final credits role, Caro‘s take on The Zookeepers Wife will resonate with you for days to come.

Katheryn Bigelow – Detroit

The Wonder Women of 2017

source: Annapurna

There are those individuals who rise above gender norms to join an elite few who have found their own way to break down barriers and rise above. Then there are those who are the statistic, standing alone on a pedestal, proof that it can be done and that it has been done. When it comes to females who have won an Oscar in the Best Director category, Katheryn Bigelow IS the statistic – the only female to have ever won the award in the history of the Academy. Winning for her outstanding direction for The Hurt Locker, Kathern Bigelow has set the standard as well as proven that a woman should never be overlooked.

Returning to the screen this year with Detroit, Bigelow shows once again her tenacity to tell a story without shielding our eyes from the truth and terror, as well as bring attention to an injustice – the consequences of which still resonate today. Based on the true story of the terror that ensued at the Algiers Hotel in 1967 during the Detroit Riots, Katheryn Bigelow strived to capture the mindset of a nation crumbling under the weight of injustice and the corruption deeply rooted in the organization that protects.

She gives the viewers time to take in the history of what brought on the riots, taking in every angle of fear and anger. Unlicensed clubs are cleared out, blacks lined up against walls and cattled into vans. Men are shot in the back by cops as they run from police, their only crime vandalism and rioting with no assault involved – no negotiation from police, only reactions. Speeches denouncing the riots are overlaid as the city falls into smoke, ash and violence. Actual footage and photos from 1967 are also interlaced throughout the composed scenes to heighten the impact, to make sure viewers are not lost in the cinematic display – a reminder that this ACTUALLY happened.

Days into the riots, a sniper is believed to have fired at the National Guard from the top floor of a local home. Unknowing that it was a toy gun with blanks, cops storm the house gathering all inside, demanding that the gun be shown. As the Detroit Police on duty assume command, the day to day corruption extended to the black community becomes a deadly game. To force a confession of the gun and shooter, the police begin taking each individual to a room and pretending to kill them if they are not given the information demanded. One of these cops, Krauss (Will Poulter), takes his frustration out on the black household, having previously been told by his sergeant that guilty charges of murder would be filed with the DA for the young black man he had shot in the back hours earlier – a call that should have placed him off duty – and begins to frame those injured or killed to insure a solid alibi for himself and his men.

It is a hard film to watch, as Bigelow does not shy away from from the truth of what happened and the lives that have been forever lost. One of the most effective cinematic choices Bigelow made was the use of framing depending on which character was on screen. When it was a victim, especially when lined up along the wall, shots were close and tight on the individual face – forcing you to see the victims with no distraction. For cops and oppressors, a wider shot was used, the extra space to contradict how big they feel, as well as to show how little control they really had.

With Detroit, Katheryn Bigelow showed she is still a forced to be reckoned with – and that she will never back down to show the truth.

Quinn Shephard – Blame

The Wonder Women of 2017

source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

By far one of my favorite films of 2017, Blame is a modern retelling of Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible. While there may be a bias on my part as The Crucible is one of my favorite plays, the modernization brought to this heartbreaking story surrounding a modern high school witch hunt shows that not much changes in history or in life. Making her directorial debut, 22-year-old Quinn Sherpard‘s Blame was one of the most talked about films of the Tribeca Film Festival, even garnering Nadia Alexander a Best Actress Award in Drama.

Blame follows the story of a young teen returning to school for the first time after a presumed mental breakdown the year before. As she struggles to reaclimate, Abigail (Quinn Shephard) finds comfort in her acting class where she can indulge in her passion of acting, as well as a questionable relationship with her drama teacher (Chris Messina). As lines between teacher and student blur, classmate Melissa (Nadia Alexander) becomes jealous of the attention Abigail is receiving, including the lead in the upcoming play. Determined to obtain the attention she believes she deserves, Melissa begins a witch hunt that will satisfy – or destroy.

Writer/ Director Quinn Shephard delivers a balanced adaptation of The Crucible, bringing a modernization that is not limited to setting but also to its inclusion of bullying, premature sex, high school party atmosphere and the lines between invested mentor and inappropriate behavior. She continues the balance on screen through her performance as well as keeping a keen eye for detail through the lens for each and every scene. She doesn’t rush her characters or her scenes, giving them their due time and development.

As mentioned, this was one of my favorites of the year, and a booming example of possible triumphs to come for this young up-and-coming star in Hollywood.

Here’s to 2018…

2017 was a big year for directors – and a big year for women overall. History has been made and oppressive tyrants have been brought down, paving the way for safety and further opportunities of equality amongst all women. Even taking a moment to peer into the world of television, women directors have begun to find their voices this year, bringing the highly acclaimed season of The Handmaid’s Tale to life, as well as the highly rated fifth season of Orange is the New Black. Yet, it is not just these directors that have left their mark on 2017 and the industry.

With her nomination for her work on Mudbound, Rachel Morisson has become the first female EVER to be nominated for cinematography in the entire history of the Academy (that’s 90 years!). Mary J. Blige continues the Oscar history trend by becoming the first person ever to be nominated for both Supporting Actress and Best Song for Mudbound. Also important to note, all the women nominated in the Supporting Actress category are all over the age of 40, defying the industry who favors the young, tearing down the presumed limitations of age. Safe to say, victories in equality found their moments across the board in 2017.

We can only hope that these advances and gender equality continue to grow in the years to come. Looking ahead to 2018, changes have already begun. Walmart plans to once again commence their ad campaign during this year’s Academy Awards, hiring only females to direct their successful commercial segments – including Melissa McCarthy, Nancy Meyers and Dee Rees.

Also, 2018 looks to be another great year for female directors and female-led films with these upcoming films by and about women: The Party (writer/ director Sally Potter), Annihilation (starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh), A Wrinkle in Time (written by Jennifer Lee/directed by Ava DuVernay/ starring Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon), You were Never Really Here (written and directed by Lynne Ramsey), Ocean’s 8 (all star female cast co-written by Olivia Milch), Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (starring Amanda Seyfried and Meryl Streep), Mary Queen of Scotts (directed by Josie Rourke/ starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie) and Red Sparrow (starring Jennifer Lawrence) – just to name a few.

So here’s to 2018!

Film Inquiry supports #TimesUp.

“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Stephanie Archer is 31 year old film fanatic living in Norwalk, CT, USA.

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