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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Will 2018 Have More Female Oscar Contenders Than Ever?

2018 is already shaping up to potentially be a history-making year when we finally see more than one woman nominated in the category of Best Director at the Oscars. This victory will not come as a result of political sentiment fueled by the sexual harassment scandals committed against females in the industry, though it will be most welcome in light of it. How wonderful would it be to see multiple women nominated in the Best Director category in the same year that saw the highest-grossing female-directed blockbuster of all time, Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman"? 

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Upon its debut this month, Greta Gerwig's critically acclaimed, semi-authobiographical coming-of-age comedy, "Lady Bird," earned the highest per theater average of the 2017 box office. Audiences are clearly hungering for an authentic, richly textured portrait of the female experience, and Gerwig's film delivered just that with Oscar-caliber performances by Saoirse Ronan (channeling her director with uncanny precision) and Laurie Metcalf (so moving as the teen heroine's tough love mother). 

Other potential female contenders in the Best Director category this year include Dee Rees for her wrenching period drama, "Mudbound"; Kathryn Bigelow for her brutally affecting factual film, "Detroit"; Aisling Walsh for her touching character study of a naive artist, "Maudie"; Angelina Jolie for her bracing film about Cambodian genocide, "First They Killed My Father"'; and Valerie Faris for her timely and entertaining tennis dramedy "Battle of the Sexes," which she co-directed with her husband, Jonathan Dayton. Sorely deserving of more attention is "Novitiate," Margaret Betts' powerful ensemble film set in a Catholic church during the Vatican II reforms. Betts won a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Director at this year's Sundance Film Festival. (Adding Sofia Coppola for "The Beguiled.")

Amanda Lipitz, a first time director with her inspirational documentary, "Step," about a high school girls' dance team in inner-city Baltimore, could also emerge as a frontrunner in the Best Documentary race. I loved this film so much because it made me root for the dogged resilience of these high school seniors and their families in negotiating the slings and arrows of life, while not dimming their persistence and determination to seek a higher education. And on top of that, it is just downright entertaining. Another of the year's best documentaries is "Whose Streets?", a street-level view of the uprising in Ferguson, co-directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. And we must not forget Agnès Varda for the uplifting doc she co-directed with muralist JR, "Faces Places." (Four other documentaries I hope make this year's shortlist are Yance Ford's "Strong Island," Steve James' "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail," Ben Lear's "They Call Us Monsters" and Jeff Orlowski's "Chasing Coral").  

Rachel Morrison also deserves to be in contention for her striking cinematography in "Mudbound" (she also lensed "Fruitvale Station" and the upcoming "Black Panther"). You don't hear much about women cinematographers and it is good to see that she is amassing an important body of work.

Many films this year contain Oscar-worthy performances from women, both in the leading and supporting categories.

In addition to Ronan, some of the key contenders for Best Actress include Sally Hawkins for her transformative turns in both "The Shape of Water" and "Maudie"; Jessica Chastain's magnetic work as Molly Bloom in "Molly's Game"; Emma Stone's transformation into tennis great Billy Jean King in "Battle of the Sexes," Margot Robbie's stunning portrayal of Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya"; Annette Bening's dead-on turn as Gloria Grahame in "Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool"; and Frances McDormand's crowd-pleasing performance in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." McDormand commands the screen at every turn. 

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Earning considerably less buzz though no less deserving of contention are past Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence in "mother!", Cate Blanchett in "Manifesto" and Anne Hathaway in "Colossal." Other potential Dark Horse candidates could prove to be Cynthia Nixon in "A Quiet Passion," Florence Pugh in "Lady Macbeth," Lois Smith in "Marjorie Prime" and Salma Hayek in "Beatriz at Dinner." 

I also cherished Tatiana Maslany and Claire Foy's portrayals of devoted caregivers in "Stronger" and "Breathe," respectively. And we still have yet to see two eagerly anticipated performances slated for a Christmas release: the fabulous Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg's "The Post" and Lesley Manville in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread."

Joining Metcalf in contention for Best Supporting Actress this year are Allison Janney's scene-stealing mother in "I, Tonya"; Holly Hunter as the angry protective mother in "The Big Sick"; Elisabeth Moss in "The Square" (among my top three favorite films of the year); Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson in "LBJ"; Tiffany Haddish's scene-stealing work in "Girls Trip"; Octavia Spencer in "The Shape of Water"; Melissa Leo's galvanizing Reverend Mother in "Novitiate"; and deeply moving work from Carey Mulligan and Mary J Blige in "Mudbound." I also want to give an honorable shout-out to Laura Prepon in "The Hero," whose presence made her romantic scenes with Sam Elliott interesting and believable. 

There are also plenty of young female newcomers deserving of recognition, including Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project," Sareum Srey Moch in "First They Killed My Father", Seo-Hyun Ahn in "Okja" and McKenna Grace in "Gifted" (she also plays the young Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya").

And though this performance may not have enough screen time to be in contention, let's not forget Betty Gabriel's bone-chilling performance as the maid in Jordan Peele's "Get Out", my #1 movie of the year. It's been months since I've seen that movie and I cannot get her Oscar-caliber, off-kilter performance or her haunted face out of my head. In fact, Academy, let's not forget her. 

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