It’s been some time since we saw a year for cinema as good as 2023. Finding someone to root for during awards season will be much more difficult than last year when we all just wanted Everything Everywhere All at Once to win everything. The directorial categories, however, have their work cut out for them: they’ll have to break the one-woman-per-year trend. 2023 saw a copious output from female directors compared to previous years, but the sheer volume of female-directed films aren’t what made it a landmark year. Rather, the genres and categories these works belong to are ones that have long been resistant to female intervention. The blockbuster, the psychological thriller, the teen sex comedy, and Canadian cinema in general saw a year led by women. These five films, all incredibly diverse in content and style, show just how broad and dominant the scope of female direction was in 2023, and will make you question why male directors even bother.
Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person – directed by Ariane Louis-Seize
Imagine Taika Waititi’s 2014 fantasy comedy What We Do in the Shadows meets a coming-of-age story about depression and the pressure to conform to familial expectations among young women. This is Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person, which probably wins the award for best title of the year. Shot and set in Montreal, the film follows young vampire Sasha (Sara Montpetit), whose empathy and inability to watch others suffer makes her incapable of feeding on human flesh. When she meets the suicidal teen Paul (Félix-Antoine Bénard), who she promises to kill and eat, their pact inspires hilarious escapades and is complicated by the bond that is forged between the two.
Although Anatomy of a Fall is the French language title that has gained the most awards season hype, Quebecoise director Ariane Louis-Seize’s strikingly original film should not be overlooked. Humanist Vampire is so deeply compassionate and endearing, and is such a welcome depiction of how depression, especially amongst women, while onerous and debilitating, can allow for a greater capacity for empathy. This silver lining is at the incredibly big heart of the film, which is accompanied by a playful score and bitingly funny dialogue (no pun intended). Unwaveringly charming in spite of all the blood, Humanist Vampire shows 2023’s triumph in female direction at the local level.
Past Lives – directed by Celine Song
The fact that this film is Celine Song’s directorial debut both terrifies and excites me. Its emotional warfare in the form of unrealized lifetime love destroyed me, but wow, did it hurt so good. Past Lives tells the story of childhood sweethearts Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae-Sung (Teo Yoo), who lose touch when Nora’s family immigrates to Toronto from South Korea. They connect sporadically over the next 24 years, but by the time Hae-Sung is finally able to visit her, she is already married to someone else.
This romantic drama is somewhat of a modern rendition of the star-crossed lovers tale, but its fusion of this format with themes of the diasporic vs. indigenous Korean experience – semi-autobiographical of Song’s own upbringing – are what make it stand on its own. It is not just Hae-Sung and Nora’s distance, timing, and career paths that divide them, but also how they experience their culture. In one scene, Nora tells Hae-Sung that since emigrating, she only ever speaks Korean to her mother. Later in the film, Nora explains to her husband that Hae-Sung’s distinct “Koreanness” makes her feel both alienated from and connected to her culture at the same time. The film’s stylistic understatedness and temporally expansive narrative only amplify its emotional blows to create one of the greatest debut films not just for a Korean-Canadian female director, but for any director in general.
Barbie – directed by Greta Gerwig
It would be ridiculous to recap 2023’s women in film without including the bedazzled, pink, cinematic leviathan that was Barbie. Greta Gerwig’s latest film is a stark contrast from her previous two dramas, but her masterful storytelling brings this doll extravaganza to life in a way that is both layered and enthralling. Millions flooded theatres dressed head-to-toe in pink to watch Barbie (Margot Robbie) and a hapless Ken (Ryan Gosling) embark on an adventure from Barbie Land to the real world to find out why Barbie has been experiencing “malfunctions” like flat feet and cellulite.
Barbie in and of itself was undeniably delightful, but what made it truly extraordinary was that it reached so far beyond the narrative world it created. Rarely do we see certifiable “blockbusters” of this kind: so self-aware, so funny, so socially engaged, so pink, so feminine. The fantastical world it built reached out of the screen and into the hearts of audiences – an engagement that could not have come at a better time. It not only brought people into theatres amid the SAG-AFTRA strike, but revived going to the theatre as an all-around event. Barbie set all kinds of records at the box office, becoming Warner Brothers’ highest grossing film ever, the highest grossing film ever by a female director, and the biggest film of 2023 worldwide, proving that female directors don’t have to sacrifice their femininity and creative integrity to dominate the cinematic market.
Saltburn – directed by Emerald Fennell
Whether you’ve been pining for a new Emerald Fennell flick since Promising Young Woman, or you heard “Murder on the Dancefloor” on TikTok and wanted to see what all the hype was about, Saltburn was most likely on your radar towards the end of 2023. When Oliver (Barry Keoghan) meets the affluent Felix (Jacob Elordi) at Oxford in 2007, they become close friends, prompting Felix to invite Oliver to Saltburn, his rich family’s extravagant, baroque estate. Upon Oliver’s arrival, things become incredibly sexual, tense, uncertain, and downright disturbing.
Like Gerwig, Fennell’s sophomore feature is narratively quite distant from her first, but maintains her signature psychological tone and banger soundtrack. She uses these mechanisms to create a depiction of how class is not just about division, and that for some, there is truly never enough wealth. Fennell uses Oliver’s creepy behaviour to represent how relentless economic and social climbing can be, as he parasitically infiltrates Felix’s loaded family. This economic invasion is largely depicted through mind games and sex, which make the film as juicy as it is poignant. While the internet-ification of the film risks reducing it to a mere TikTok sound, its online presence has exposed many to a level of subversive media they may not have encountered previously. For a more in-depth look at Saltburn’s symbolism, check out the Daily’s review by Evelyn Logan. Along with Barbie, Saltburn showed that female filmmakers not only dominated cinematic culture in 2023, but also the world of the internet.
Bottoms – directed by Emma Seligman
The unhinged teen sex comedy is back and gayer than ever, all thanks to Emma Seligman. Finally liberating us from the years of painfully out of touch, forcefully Gen Z-ified Netflix teen flicks, Seligman, along with star and co-writer Rachel Sennott, revive the most enjoyable aspects of the R-rated teen sex romp with a refreshing, queer perspective. “Ugly, untalented gay nerds” Josie (Ayo Edeberi) and PJ (Sennott), in the hopes of getting closer to pretty girls Isobel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber), start a “self-defence” fight club at their school to stand up to tyrannical football players.
Because the film’s queerness and femininity aren’t used as rhetorical devices and are allowed to just exist as the chaotic plot unfolds, its identity politics paradoxically become much more digestible. Josie and PJ’s identities and status as outcasts goes beyond them being gay, making it a part of their identity, but not their entire identity. This allows Bottoms to go all out in its violence, obscenity, and hilarity – something female-directed films aren’t often allowed to do. With the most side-splitting lines you’ve ever heard being doled out by the minute, Seligman’s flick proves that women, specifically queer women, are here to spearhead a new, inclusive era of the teen comedy without losing an ounce of the absurdity that makes the genre so adored. If you’d like a closer look at how Bottoms revamps the vulgar, teen comedy genre, you can read my film review for the Daily published last September.
Five films are not nearly enough to encapsulate just how prolific female directors were last year, but these picks are certainly some of the best overall, across all films. Even if major award ceremonies have given us little hope in terms of their ability to actually acknowledge these critical and commercial standouts, the flow of female-directed film and television gained a momentum this year that shows no signs of decelerating. More female-directed content is already being anticipated for 2024; Canadian director Molly McGlynn’s coming of age film Fitting In is set to be released in February, while Lulu Wang (The Farewell) has a new series called Expats coming soon that’s already gained lots of buzz and critical attention. Keep an eye out for female-directed film and television; buy tickets, talk about it, engage with it – you will most definitely encounter a perspective you haven’t seen yet.