The start of awards season is a time of mixed rewards. On one hand, the announcements of Best Pictures and Best Actresses can sometimes help get friends and family to see movies they might never have discovered otherwise. But on the other, awards season typically stifles the conversation, and the rush to award the same eight films and the same eight filmmakers means that some of the best films get lost in the shuffle. This year especially, it seems worth it to fight the consolidation of conversation, as the sources for the best of the year in cinema have been so diverse and so unexpected. Even as we celebrate the success of worthy films like Moonlight and La La Land, we at MTV News wondered what it would look like if we made an awards ballot for the year using only films we loved that were directed by women.
I consolidated some categories out of necessity — there just weren’t enough animated films directed by women to justify including the category, and to avoid repetition, the Best Sound and Best Screenplay categories have been boiled down, too. But regardless of categorization, no narrative of this year in film is complete without considering the contributions of female artists.
Things to Come: Of Mia Hansen-Løve’s last three films, Goodbye First Love was partially autobiographical, Eden was inspired by her brother’s experience as a DJ overshadowed by Daft Punk, and now Things to Come arrives by way of her mother, who is a philosophy professor. Like the woman at its center, the movie doesn’t make a fuss about the big ideas or events that come to pass over the course of its runtime. But the cumulative effect of Hansen-Løve’s restraint is arresting. Every cut seems to come at exactly the right moment, the camera never lingers too long, and the characters often cut themselves off, their conversations always hanging at the brink of revelation, with no one becoming quite irrational enough to jump over the edge. Watching as star Isabelle Huppert confronts the natural losses that come with aging, Things to Come accepts that time goes by, sometimes slowly but always with an inevitable — why deny it? — relentlessness.
Certain Women: It only seems appropriate to offer such a perfectly composed, perfectly austere movie as Certain Women a second-place prize, given that the movie devotes itself to the observation of women whose labor goes unappreciated. Kelly Reichardt is an American treasure, and her films are a constant reminder of the anger that often lies under the surface of seemingly inert landscapes.
Anna Biller, The Love Witch: If all art uses aesthetics to realize a personal philosophy, then no director accomplished more on the behalf of film as an art form in 2016 than Anna Biller. The Love Witch looks like no other film released this year, or even this decade; its ideas are drawn from Biller’s own intimate study of feminist theory, and her command of the medium is even more impressive for how minuscule her production cost was compared to the hundreds of millions that go into studio releases.
Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann: In a double role as both a defeated ex-hippie father and his defiant proto-Trumpian prankster alter ego, Peter Simonischek suggests an inner life that grows with each scene. He resents his daughter, and he loves her. He makes a fool of himself, and he’s arrogant about it at the same time. He’s disappointed by his own life, and he’s sure that the path he followed is better than the alternative.
Sasha Lane, American Honey: Ferocious. Even when the character she plays is self-destructing — and even when director Andrea Arnold pushes the trash Americana setting to hyperdrive — Lane maintains an almost blasé rawness that keeps the movie’s cool.
Lou de Laâge, The Innocents: Lou de Laâge has a mesmerizing sense of focus, and her soberness in The Innocents makes it possible for the movie to delve into the melodrama of watching pregnant nuns during wartime without ever seeming tacky or exploitative. That said, I’ll be real: I’m calling de Laâge out here because she is an actor who made me believe she was a doctor, which is a feat I think might be unprecedented in the history of cinema.
Best Supporting Actor
Ethan Hawke, Maggie’s Plan: Who would have guessed when Ethan Hawke was annoyingly romancing Winona Ryder in Reality Bites that he would eventually grow into such a relaxed and natural presence on-screen? Director Rebecca Miller also wrote the script for Maggie’s Plan, and her style favors a specific ambling rhythm to speech that Hawke nails without ever really seeming like he’s trying.
Best Supporting Actress
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women: No one is ever really ready to watch Kristen Stewart break a nice ranch girl’s heart, but Gladstone makes the eventual disappointment even worse by building her character physically to match her outsize feelings. The only time she ever seems like she’s operating in a world built to fit her is when she’s riding her horse.
Michelle Williams, Certain Women: Just a reminder for you Manchester by the Sea lovers out there, that Michelle Williams also found time to return to her one true auteur this year, reteaming with Kelly Reichardt for the third time as a mother who is both vaguely annoying and also probably getting emotionally fucked over by her ungrateful husband and daughter who resent her for being vaguely annoying.
Toni Erdmann: It’s never easy to trust that strangers could be interested in what you’re writing, but what about when what you’re writing is a three-hour tragicomedy in which the main farce — following a father who adopts a persona with the hope of ruining his daughter’s career — doesn’t introduce itself until after a full hour of the runtime? And when that drama you’re writing unfolds against the backdrop of European corporate politics? Forget about it. Maren Ade has the balls of 10,000 men. Every scene in Toni Erdmann comes as a surprise.
White Girl: Thanks to the uncanny work of editor Michael Taylor and director Elizabeth Wood, White Girl plays as a lean, mean, almost clinical reconstruction of a bad trip. The camera is always somehow picking up exactly the best bad moment, pointing us to whatever lift of an eyebrow or backgrounded glance we need to see to stay one step ahead of a protagonist who believes she’s two steps ahead of everyone else.
Things to Come: There’s a moment in Things to Come when Nathalie comes home to a dark house after having her heart broken. She opens the windows and light begins to stream in, but as the room fills with the golden haze of daylight, the image fades to black. Maybe the best single edit of the year.
Queen of Katwe: Director Mira Nair filmed on location in Uganda, and Sean Bobbit’s cinematography of the streets of Katwe provides a foundation for the film’s warmth. Every frame is saturated with color, and every actor is lit with noticeable care, Bobbit’s light curving off their faces in a look-good movie that becomes a feel-good movie.
Best Production Design
Lemonade: Over the course of just one hour, Lemonade runs the gamut from gothic naturalism to Afrofuturism, from football stadiums to waterlogged bedrooms, and designer Hannah Beachler shepherded the entire project under Beyoncé and co-director Kahlil Joseph. And as was true with Beyoncé’s last visual album, Lemonade also deserves plaudits for being the only film on this list to pull off shooting in secret with arguably the most famous woman in the world.
Best Costume Design
The Love Witch: I mean, come on. Every costume is more spectacular than the last, but The Love Witch also takes the cake for the best plot-related costume moment of the year, in which Elaine seduces a man with the spectacular rainbow lining of her black trench coat, telling him, “I line all my clothes.”
White Girl: It’s rare for contemporary costume design to get much awards attention, but one of the most impressive elements of White Girl is the way that the movie manages to nail its college-bound Bushwick-residing protagonist down to exactly the stringy tank tops and bleached blonde beach waves that you would see on the street — without ever falling into self-consciousness or self-parody.
The Fits: 2016 had no shortage of quiet films that made big impacts, but The Fits, from first-time feature filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer, was one of the most profound. Using real-life outbreaks of “dancing disease” as the basis for its exploration of identity, sound is one of the most powerful ways that The Fits puts its audience in the headspace of a girl afraid to lose herself in the process of choosing who she is going to become. The gym that Royalty Hightower’s Toni must navigate echoes as if it were haunted, frightening first in sound and then in feeling.
The Invitation: As in all horror films, both the score and the sound for The Invitation work to build the mood of dread. What’s interesting about Karyn Kusama’s take on the horror score is its eclecticism. It’s easy to make a scary horror soundtrack, but how many of them make you wonder, Huh, is this also ... kinda funky?
No Home Movie: No Home Movie is the final film from Chantal Akerman. Simply put, the movie is a record of Akerman’s conversations with her mother, who died shortly after filming wrapped. More expansively, it is the final bow of a great artist returning to her longtime preoccupations with doorways, domesticity, and decay.
There are too many great runners-up to choose just one. Documentary films throughout the year have seen women exploring unique approaches to truth and reality, whether you’re watching the archival work Ava DuVernay undertook for 13th, or the unbelievable access granted for the filmmakers behind Weiner, or the experiment in association and perspective that grounds Cameraperson.
Best Original Song
The Love Witch: Give the freaky Ren Faire song the Love Witch hears at her forest wedding all the Oscars.