Filipino movies

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women

Paolo Abad
LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Celebrate Women's Month with this roundup of movies with exceptional women subjects, stellar actresses, and women-led filmmaking

Behind and in front of the camera, women from all around the world and across history have made an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape. 

While the movie industry hasn’t always been kind to women, in recent years, there have been visible efforts to address representation issues, bridge inequality, and even put an end to abuses.

Because of their different and distinct perspectives, women’s contributions to the diversity of cinema is exceptional. But patriarchal society has tended to relegate them to the sidelines, or worse – obscure their efforts.

So, we celebrate their achievements in moviemaking – as directors, subjects, and actors:

Lost in Translation

2003, Sofia Coppola

Photo from Focus Features

A romantic comedy that’s more poetic than prosaic, Lost in Translation shows Sofia Coppola as an auteur of aesthetic, of cool, and – most importantly – of a uniquely feminine perspective.  As her sophomore feature film, it has also remained one of the filmmaker’s most cherished and enduring works.

“I never expected people to connect with it so much,” Coppola told film magazine Little White Lies“I was surprised because I thought it was this really self indulgent, personal project. It’s still fun if somebody comes up and tells me they connect to it because it was just what I was feeling at that time.”

Lost in Translation has two Americans, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), drifting across Tokyo, the Japanese megalopolis pulsing with capitalist and technological excess, rendered dreamlike by Coppola and her cinematographer Lance Acord with a “Blade Runner feel. 

In this labyrinthine and isolating setting, Bob (Bill Murray), a washed-up movie star in a midlife crisis, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a newlywed Yale philosophy grad, become friends in the midst of their own existential crises. In their individual disconnection, they find a connection in each other.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Laurence Anyways

2012, directed by Xavier Dolan

Film still from Festival de Cannes

Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) is a writer and literature teacher. He’s happy with his lover, Fred (Suzanne Clément), but on his 35th birthday, he reveals a deep secret.

“I’ve lived like this for 35 years, and that’s a crime,” Laurence tells Fred. “And I’m the criminal, stealing someone’s life… The life of the woman I was born to be.”

Xavier Dolan’s third film seeks to capture the emotional chaos of the trans experience through the rifts it opens up among Laurence’s relationships: at her workplace, with her family, and especially with Fred. 

It also shines a light on “the sizeable gaps between tolerance, acceptance, and actually going to bed with someone,” as Film Comment’s Violet Lucca put it.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women

2018, directed by Alfonso Cuarón 

Photo by Alfonso Cuarón/Netflix

In Roma, “the men are either inadequate and immature, and the women simply survive without them. They do not rebel. They just exist,” wrote Oggs Cruz in his Rappler review.

It’s probably Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal work yet, where he pays tribute to his real-life nanny, as personified in its lead character, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Through the lens of this seemingly microcosmic narrative, Cuarón weaves a rich picture of Mexico going through social upheavals. 

With Cleo in the foreground going about her job – with all its mundanities, his camera sweeps and swoops through the corridors of a home breaking apart. Outside, the cogs of history are turning, and the film shows her place in all of it.

Without the pitfalls of melodramatic storytelling, this disenfranchised woman has been dignified: she works, she desires, and she dreams. She is real as it gets.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Lady Bird

2017, directed by Greta Gerwig

Film still from A24

Actress Greta Gerwig’s high school comedy and directorial debut was one of 2017’s standout cinematic moments. With her as screenwriter and on the director’s chair, it conveys Gerwig’s very assured voice, but also her fresh take on the genre.

In it, Saoirse Ronan stars as the headstrong Christine McPherson, or as she likes to be called, Lady Bird. Laurie Metcalf plays her mother, the hardworking but also similarly strong-willed Marion.

Full of misadventures as any coming of age flick would, it feels so familiar, but also riveting and nuanced with its characters and their turbulent relations – as if you’ve never seen anything like it before. The archetypes are there, sure, but in the hands of Gerwig, they feel fully fleshed out.

Never Not Love You

2018, directed by Antoinette Jadaone

Film still from IMDB/Viva Films

The chemistry between James Reid and Nadine Lustre is beyond doubt. Their onscreen presence already sparks with charisma. But with rom com connoisieur and auteur Antonette Jadaone, she captures romance grounded in the real, familiar, and nondescript – rather than the grand and fairy tale-like, but artificial moments.

As Gio and Joanne, their “romance elegantly avoids sparks and spectacle, and instead relies on the melancholy of quickly rushing into love only to find out that as that love matures, it reaches not a pinnacle but a plateau,” writes Rappler’s resident critic Oggs Cruz.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Private Life

2018, directed by Tamara Jenkins 

Photo by Jojo Whilden/Netflix

Here are the plain details: Private Life is about a couple in their 40s (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) who live in New York, trying to conceive via in-vitro fertilization. Tamara Jenkins, in her first film in over a decade, find the jokes and absurdities in this all-too-familiar yet uneasy situation.

“When people conceive a child, it’s private,” Jenkins told IndieWire, which sort of explains the title.

“You’re under blankets. It’s like invisible to the outside world. It’s dark. You’re doing this very private act but, as soon as there’s a problem with it, everything that is usually private becomes a conversation piece.”

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
An (Sweat Bean)

2015, directed by Naomi Kawase

Photo courtesy of Comme des Cinemas/Twenty Twenty Vision/ZDF

Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) is struggling with his bakery selling dorayaki, Japanese pancakes filled with a sweet red bean paste (an). An old lady, Tokue (Kirin Kiki) claims to have years of experience in making an and offers to help him out. Reluctantly, Sentaro takes her on, and soon enough, his business magically takes off. 

But the two hold secrets about their past. 

The premise could easily be perceived as cloying, but Naomi Kawase – also known for her documentary work – doesn’t shy away from tragedy, displays an remarkable compassion with her subjects, and ultimately expresses a hopefulness in the midst of all the misery.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Wonder Woman

2017, directed by Patty Jenkins 

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Coming off the heels of the critically panned Batman v Superman, Patty Jenkins directed one of the most lauded titles in the struggling DC Cinematic Universe – and deservingly so, it had to be about Wonder Woman.

Starring Gal Gadot as the Amazonian princess, the film was undeniably a blockbuster hit, having earned over $821 million worldwide. It was also a culturally relevant moment, becoming a beacon of empowerment in a Donald Trump-led world.” 

Was it necessary for a woman to direct it? Jenkins herself has an answer:

“I wasn’t directing a woman, I was just directing a hero,” she told the New York Times“That freed me up to go broader with her personality than someone might be able to do if they were afraid to make her vulnerable and loving and warm, and not always right, which is absolutely imperative to a leading character.”

“A woman didn’t have to direct it, and I wasn’t directing a woman’s story. I was directing a person.”

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Hidden Figures

2017, directed by Theodore Melfi 

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Intersectionality matters when it comes to discourse about disenfranchisement, and Hidden Figures offers a look at how women of color were discriminated against through the course of history.

Hidden Figures recounts how 3 African-American scientists at NASA – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – served as the unsung, brilliant figures behind a pivotal point for American space exploration.

Empowering and feel-good as a biopic, it deservingly shines the spotlight on these women.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
On the Basis of Sex

2018, Mimi Leder

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an American living legend. The internet even calls the US Supreme Court justice the “Notorious RBG,” honoring her as a feminist hero. But once in her life, she was a lawyer in a man’s world, hostile to her because of the mere fact that she is a woman. 

“One said women are too emotional to be lawyers. Another told me, a woman graduating top of her class must be a real ball-buster,” the movie’s RBG said.

The biopic details a specific episode in RBG’s life as she steps forward during a time of rising change and tries to overturn years and years of discrimination: “If the law differentiates on the basis of sex, then how will women and men ever become equals?”

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay

2011, directed by Antoinette Jadaone

Film still from Cinema One Originals

Antonette Jadaone, for the most part of her career, has been known for romantic comedies. But pre-That Thing Called Tadhana fame, she directed this raucous but often moving mockumentary about an unsung hero.

The subject is the late Lilia Cuntapay, probably best known as that aswang yaya from the Shake, Rattle & Roll series. She’s a prolific and veteran bit player, often relegated to the sidelines. 

In Jadaone’s mockumentary – a mix of real and fictional details from her life, she finally gets the spotlight, and the result is an incendiary revelation of her charm.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Winter’s Bone

2010, directed by Debra Granik

Film still from IMDB/Anonymous Content/Winter’s Bone Productions

Before she went on to be the star of The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence had her star-making role in Debra Granik’s bleak and suspenseful Winter’s Bone. 

Lawrence is Ree Dolly, whose family – a catatonic mother, a 12 year-old brother and 6 year-old sister – is threatened to be kicked out of their property unless she finds their father. Her search leads her to encounters with supposedly distant kin and the drug underworld.

With her tour de force performance as Ree, Lawrence commands respect, even earning the actress her first Academy Award nomination.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
American Psycho

2000, directed by Mary Harron

Film still from IMDB/Universal Studios

Mary Harron’s cult-classic adaptation of the seminal Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name features Christian Bale with one of his most iconic characters: Patrick Bateman, investment banker by day, serial killer by night.

In her adaptation though, Harron is able to add a layer of meaning to her source material – and it’s because of the female gaze, a Village Voice thinkpiece argues, saying that “American Psycho resists its antihero’s allure.”

“Harron, [her co-writer Guinevere] Turner, and Bale rightfully see Bateman as pathetic,” writes Angelica Jade Bastién.

“I very much think [American Psycho is] a feminist film,” Turner told Dazed magazine.

“It’s a satire about how men compete with each other and how in this hyperreal universe we created, women are even less important than your tan or your suit or where you summer. And to me, even though the women are all sort of tragic and killed, it’s about how men perceive and treat them.”

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Ang Nawawala (What Isn’t There)

2012, directed by Marie Jamora

Photo from Tumblr/Ang Nawawala

Having made a career in music videos – and as a musician herself, Marie Jamora’s perspective of the local (independent) music scene is unparalleled in her feature film debut. Equal parts poignant as a love letter to this community and as a family drama, Ang Nawawala is sincere with its unapologetically specific viewpoint, and it could only come from someone who has immersed herself in this milieu.

It stars Dominic Roco as the twenty-something Gibson Bonifacio, who has remained silent, arising from the trauma of witnessing his twin brother’s death. He returns to the Philippines after several years, and contends with the unhealed wounds the tragedy has inflicted on his family after all those years. 

He experiences first love, in the midst of this burgeoning music scene. And through this music, he finds a way to communicate.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women
Happy as Lazzaro

2018, directed by Alice Rohrwacher

Photo by Simona Pampallona/Netflix

Alice Rohrwacher, in the spellbinding Happy as Lazzaro, “draws from the past (tapping into literature and folklore as well as film) to interrogate present conditions and future possibilities,” wrote the New York Times’s A.O. Scott. 

Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is its naïve, Forrest Gump-esque hero, living among farmers in a valley called Inviolata in Italy. They work the land tirelessly, but – as it seems – for naught, as they are unfairly indebted to their ruthless marchesa (marquess).

Amidst this capitalism-induced misery, there is a somewhat idyllic quality about Happy as Lazzaro, as it even takes a surreal turn.

LIST: 15 great movies about and by women

1982, directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya

Film still from Far East Film Festival

From one of Filpino cinema’s foremost women figures, Moral dissects the the plight of women through the desperate situations of its four female leads: best friends Joey, Kathy, Sylvia, and Maritess (Lorna Tolentino, Gina Alajar, Sandy Andolong, Anna Marin).

Joey is into drugs and sleeps around, but finds herself in love with an activist. Kathy is a singer chasing her ambition, which doesn’t exactly match her mediocre talent. Sylvia is a lawyer still in love with her ex-husband, who now lives with another man. Lastly, Maritess is a housewife who her husband simply treats as a baby factory.

Tackling several issues like the political milieu of the final Marcos years and even marital rape, Moral is the second in Abaya’s trilogy, in between 1981’s Brutal and 1983’s Karnal. –

Paolo Abad

Paolo Abad writes, edits, and shoots for a living. He is one of the founding partners of the online radio platform Manila Community Radio.