Let me state this from the offset: there are probably many, many more movies that could and should be on this list. I just haven’t gotten around to seeing them, partly out of my own lazy inertia (which I will completely own) but mostly because the movie industry has for most of its existence been heavily skewed to favor male directors over women (in recent years there have been some minor shifts to this dynamic with big blockbuster superhero projects like Wonder Woman and now Captain Marvel being directed by women, but it remains to be seen if this represents permanent change).
When I wasn’t paying any attention to who was making movies and simply watching what was readily available to me it was astounding how rarely I would casually come across a movie directed by a woman. Three years ago I finally decided to tally up the number of female-directed movies I’d seen and to my shock and horror the number was less than a hundred (out of almost 2000 movies seen at the time, representing a paltry 3% of the movies I’d seen). That was an insultingly low number, and I pledged to change that by intentionally watching 52 movies directed by women a year (once a week). Three years in, I have managed to bump up the percentage to over 10%, and intentionally seeking out female filmmakers has honestly been one of the most rewarding journeys I’ve been on.
But make no mistake, it took an intentional effort on my part. I had to hunt down a bunch of supposedly “classic” movies directed by women because they were shockingly out-of-print and not available on streaming (I had to plunk down $75 bucks on a used copy of Oscar-winning director Kathyrn Bigelow’s cult-horror Near Dark). I had to scour lists on less-than-famous websites to come up with titles, and sometimes I had to manually scan through hundreds of IMDB pages to find titles that were (a) directed by women and (b) actually attainable for me to watch. Even my beloved Criterion Collection only has a dozen or so of their hundreds of titles directed by a woman (believe me, I’ve looked). It is just another sign of the disparity that female directors face in the industry that viewers need to bend over backwards (and sometimes to break the bank) in order to even see some of their more famous works (in another case of ridiculousness I have a region-free DVD player because apparently that is the only way I’m catching up with most of Claire Denis’ work).
But nonetheless this project has been nothing short of a rewarding experience. So here I present to you during Women’s History Month my favorite movies directed by women in the vain hopes that it might kickstart your own journey to seek out female directors. As I mentioned at the top, this list is woefully incomplete and I look forward to you shaming me for pointing out the obvious candidates I have not seen yet. I will just use that as motivation to catch up on those movies for future updates of this list. Here we go:
(Note: For the most part I have stuck to one movie per director for this list except in one glaring exception.)
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
American Honey dir. Andrea Arnold
The Babadook dir. Jennifer Kent
An Education dir. Lone Scherfig
Enough Said dir. Nicole Holofcener
Little Women dir. Gillian Armstrong
Monsoon Wedding dir. Mira Nair
Mudbound dir. Dee Rees
The Rider dir. Chloe Zhao
Shirkers dir. Sandi Tan
Water dir. Deepa Mehta
25. CHOCOLAT (1988) dir. Claire Denis
Let’s start of this list by admitting that I am severely lacking in the number of Claire Denis films I’ve seen. Most of that is because it is criminally difficult trying to nail down copies of her film (I had to break out my region-free DVD player to even see Chocolat). So while I am fairly sure Chocolat is a placeholder for whenever I get my hands on her other work, the movie is nonetheless an impressive debut. Chocolat is a meditation on African colonialism and the insidious ways it seeps into every strata of human interaction as an essentially ignored and bored French wife of a district officer finds her obvious attraction to her family house servant thwarted by her ingrained racism and the system that keeps that racism in place.
24. TONI ERDMANN (2016) dir. Maren Ade
Toni Erdmann basic plot sounds like a screwball classic: Winnifred (Peter Simonischek) is so concerned about his workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) that he invents a goofy alter ego (the fake-teeth and ludicrous wig donning Toni Erdmann) in order to cheer her up. But then this is a German film that runs close to 3 hours (though feeling breezier than many movies with half that run-time) that often runs the full gamut of being side-splittingly hilarious and melancholically sad. It is a tour-de-force effort that also signals that Maren Ade has achieved “appointment viewing” status.
23. WAITRESS (2007) dir. Adrienne Shelley
I will grant that from a purely objective standpoint there are other movies that should be on this list. However for reasons I cannot fully explain, I am also head-over-heels in love with this little gem of a movie. Now more famous for its Broadway production, Waitress is a small but subtly revolutionary story about Jenna (Keri Russell), a diner waitress who finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage and an unwanted pregnancy who somehow finds her liberation and empowerment in the awakening life inside her. Director Adrienne Shelley balances realism with enchantment in this deft small-town fable about the transformative power of motherhood. While it is bittersweet that this is the last work from the late Shelley, at least it also happens to be her best.
22. SELMA (2014) dir. Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay manages to crack the imposing code for trying to bring someone as “saint-like” in our culture like Martin Luther King Jr. onto the screen without beatifying the person. That alone makes Selma one of the better movies of the 21st century. But what makes Selma truly great is that it infuses life into one of the more static genres, namely the biopic. DuVernay distills King (played masterfully by David Oyelowo) not by giving us the sweeping scope of his entire life but by narrowing down to one moment in his life, one moment in the civil rights movement, one moment in history. By sitting with him in the build up to the momentous events on the Selma march we get a greater grasp to who King was not because of his great acts but because of how patently human he was.
21. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) dir. Valerie Faris (with Jonathan Dayton)
Sure the age of the quirky “adorkable” comedy movie that had its heyday in the mid-to-late 2000s is now an era that is usually mocked, and Little Miss Sunshine definitely belongs to that era. But what set Little Miss Sunshine apart from most of its peers was that it was a quirky comedy with one foot firmly planted in the struggle of human existence. Each and every one of the oddball Hoover family (featuring the all-star cast of Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Steve Carrell, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin) is in their own way suffering either because of their brutal pursuit of the American Dream and of the ways that they don’t measure up to its ideals. And the road trip they eventually take to let the youngest member of the family Olive go to a beauty pageant ends up being as much a journey that brings them together as it is a liberation.
20. WHALE RIDER (2002) dir. Niki Caro
On the surface Whale Rider is set up as a typical “fight-the-system” narrative: Pai is a young girl who happens to be the only heir to a royal Maori line that is traditionally very patriarchal, and thus faces fierce opposition from her grandparents and her village. In a lazy narrative, the conflict would be a lazy “us vs them” scenario. But instead Niki Caro blurs the lines, making us root for Pai while refusing to vilify those who oppose her because the elders are seeking in many ways to preserve a culture that has been overrun by colonialism. That Caro manages to weave a story of female empowerment within an authentic and respectful portrait of Maori culture and tradition is a remarkable achievement indeed.
19. GIRLFRIENDS (1978) dir. Claudia Weill
I’m sure there is a parallel universe in which Claudia Weill takes up the mantle of the New York based neurotic artist who makes quirky and melancholic comedies once a year while Woody Allen remains largely forgotten and I have no doubt that it would be a better universe. Just about every major female-driven story about living in New York from Sex and the City to Girls owes a debt of gratitude to this wonderful little gem of a movie about two housemates who drift apart when one decides to pursue a career and the other chooses to be a housewife. It in many ways reflects the limbo of post-Second Wave Feminism when it seemed that these were the only two choices available to women. And it is achingly funny to boot.
18. WINTER’S BONE (2010) dir. Debra Granik
To see Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout role in Winter’s Bone is to wonder if she moved away from the indie world too early (or at the very least should consider returning to again). Winter’s Bone is a harrowing tale about Ree (Lawrence), a teenager who is forced to care for her siblings and checked-out mother and sets out to find her convict father who disappeared after putting the family’s house up for bond. She goes searching for him in the forests of Missouri and encounters the cruelty of desperate people, assisted only by her shifty uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes). Debra Granik offers no simple solutions or happy conclusions in this story, it this world where survival represents hope. And it is incredibly easy to draw a straight line between Lawrence’s magnetic performance here and her casting in the Hunger Games franchise. But for my money she was never better than in Winter’s Bone.
17. PRIVATE LIFE (2018) dir. Tamara Jenkins
Few things are as personally devastating while seeming trivial to everyone who isn’t experiencing it directly than trying and repeatedly failing to conceive a child. And in Paul Giammati and Kathryn Hahn we get an incredibly nuanced and tragicomic performance of an childless couple that is both refreshingly frank and honest while being hilariously tragicomic as well. With empathy and grace Tamara Jenkins blows the topic of infertility, long confined to the corners of life where hushed whispers are uttered, out into the open so that we are forced to walk in Giammati and Hahn’s shoes to understand the bigness of their seemingly small plight. But we are also invited to observe the particular absurdities that make it both a sad and sometimes absurdly funny journey.
16. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992) dir. Penny Marshall
Besides providing us with one of the most iconic movie lines in history A League Of Their Own excels at being a baseball comedy that is at once completely familiar to us and yet somehow new. The story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League is intriguing for so many reasons relating to contradictory American attitudes about gender and Penny Marshall is more than adept at highlighting these dynamics while still being on the surface a breezy sports comedy. Just about every performance in this movie, from Tom Hanks’ gruff coach to the star turns by Geena Davis and Lori Petty, are pitch perfect. It is the rare sports movie that refuses to name clear winners and losers and is willing to introduce a sibling rivalry that ends neither with zero-sum estrangement nor cheap reconciliation but with mutual growth. In short it is a sports comedy so brimming with character and originality that it makes you realize just how formulaic all the other sports movies are.
15. VAGABOND (1985) dir. Agnes Varda
I’ll admit it, Agnes Varda is the director that made me break the “one movie per director” rule for this list. Varda’s interest in people on the fringes of society and the people who fall through society’s cracks has been a major focal point of her latter work and Vagabond is perhaps the movie that spurred her in that direction. The movie follows Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) as she travels through the wine country of France during winter, choosing to wander the country free from any responsibility. Along the way she encounters other vagabonds who have given up on society as well as a cavalcade of other people barely hanging on in what becomes a prescient portrait of a soon-to-be-left-behind corner of France.
14. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) dir. Sofia Coppola
There is something truly unsettling about patiently spending time with people who are existentially lost and openly so, mostly because the longer we are in their presence the more we have to confront the repressed voices of our own lostness. What makes Lost in Translation so powerful and effective is that Sofia Coppola paints such a perfect portrait of Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) that you not only feel comfortable sitting with their ennui but become genuinely invested in their quiet and patient quest to be found. While every Sofia Coppola film is at the very least interesting, Lost in Translation is easily her most complete film in which the characters, cinematography (has Tokyo ever looked better?), and screenplay work in concert to create an unexpectedly emotional gut-punch of a movie.
13. WENDY & LUCY (2008) dir. Kelly Reichardt
One of the side-effects of female directors not getting equal share in the moviemaking business is that often they are forced to work strictly in the indie-sphere. In the case of Kelly Reichardt this turns out to be a blessing as she has been able to carve out a career crafting hyper-specific and intensely personal portraits about interesting people who fall through the cracks. In Wendy & Lucy her hyper-specific eye helps her craft what would turn out to be a prophetic vision of America in the 21st century following the sojourner Wendy (Michelle Williams) as she tries desperately to scrounge up the money to fix her car, get food for her dog, and make her way to a seasonal job in Alaska. It is a plight so small to be objectively ridiculous, and yet make incredible sense to all those who saw the economy crash in 2008 and lived through its harrowing fallout.
12. PARIS IS BURNING (1991) dir. Jennie Livingstone
It is hard to imagine now, in an age where RuPaul’s Drag Race and the like have given drag subculture something close to crossover appeal, that there was a time when it was forced to be an underground movement due to a much more violently homophobic society. While we should not pretend that violent homophobia has disappeared from society today, Paris is Burning serves as an important time-capsule to remind us how far we come. But Paris is Burning is no mere depressing portrait of the backward repressiveness of a larger culture that rejects them, even though it does show us the shockingly harsh realities facing these 20 to 30 something gay men who inhabit the New York Drag Ball scene. Rather it is a liberating experience showing people who are free from the guilt, pity, and shame of being in the closet and finding a community where they can fully celebrate who they are.
11. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018) dir. Marielle Heller
The remarkable trick that Marielle Heller pulls off with Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that she places us intimately close to two objectively noxious people and leaves us by the movie’s end wishing we didn’t have to leave them so soon. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has an irritable contempt for human beings, but it is borne out of a growing realization that her writing career has stalled because she is alone in the things and subjects she is passionate. Meanwhile her partner-in-crime, the sleazy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), is like driven to his estate by being repeatedly denied his chance for personal happiness. When they eventually turn to forging letters in order to make a quick buck, you don’t ever end up rooting for them, but you completely understand. As the title hints, this is a story asking for forgiveness and thanks to Heller, who approaches her subjects here with something approaching unconditional love, it is not hard to do so.
10. STORIES WE TELL (2012) dir. Sarah Polley
As anyone who has sat around as their family members regaled them with stories about the family history, it is not hard to understand that these stories are formative to the family narrative. And with any probing it is also easy to guess that most of these stories have probably gotten embellished more and more with each retelling. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is her investigation into her own past to get to the bottom of who her mother Dianne was, and by extension who Polley is herself. And as she approaches family members to “tell the story from beginning until now” it becomes increasingly clear that the truth exists only in fragments as each family interacts with their memory of Dianne Polley in ways that ultimately serve the storyteller’s interests. It is a fascinating dissection of memory and narrative, that serves to remind us that the sum of a person’s life cannot be wrapped up in a simple narrative no matter how much simplicity spices up the stories we tell.
9. THE TALE (2018) dir. Jennifer Fox
In an age where we seem to weaponizing nostalgia to devastating effect, no movie has so expertly deconstructed the toxic dangers of our lying narrative selves better than Jennifer Fox’s devastating The Tale. It is an autobiographical story in which an adult Jennifer (Laura Dern) slowly comes to terms with the fact that her own idyllic view of her sexual awakening in childhood hid and obscured a horrific and sickening tale of adult predation, grooming, and abuse. The movie is a masterclass about how memory works as a defense mechanism to protect ourselves and illuminates exactly why it takes so long for some victims to finally come forth with their own stories of being abused. It is a harrowing and heartbreaking story. But a wholly necessary one.
8. PERSEPOLIS (2007) dir. Marjane Satrapi (with Vincent Paronnaud)
Every ideological position ultimately falls apart when it is forced to confront the complexity of a single person. Persepolis exegetes this point better than most as it narrates Marjana Satrapi’s personal journey as an Iranian transplanted by the Islamic Revolution in the country. It is the rare movie that tries to show (to a West that too often paints every Muslim with the same brush) that Islam is a religion with many shades, many expressions, and is as nuanced as the multitudes of religious attitudes about other religions (and especially Christianity). Persepolis is also willing to wrestle with secular free-thinking and the way it can still mine in condescension and misogyny. And because all of these explorations happen through the lens of one woman’s specific experience, it is impossible to make any sweeping generalizations about the validity of any one position – and thus makes it more compelling. Meanwhile the filmmaking itself is a masterclass of minimalist design that revealed new narrative possibilities for the medium of animation beyond being mere “children’s movies”.
7. HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. (1976) dir. Barbara Kopple
One of the most powerful documentaries ever made, Harlan County U.S.A chronicles the contentious and violent year-long standoff between a Kentucky mining company and its striking workers. Embedding herself with the strikers, Kopple documents first-hand the underhanded tactics used by the mining company as they try and squeeze every ounce of profit at the expense of their workers who work in dangerous conditions for $7 a day. It frequently becomes terrifying as the company hires thugs (mostly members of the KKK and prisoners) to attack the strikers whether in the line or in the comfort of their homes (many strikers are forced to line their walls with mattresses). Kopple and her crew are not immune from danger as they find themselves shot at, beaten, and repeatedly being intimidated, making it near impossible not to side with the coal miners – not least because it is clear in the intervening years coal miners remain as exploitable as ever by the greedy corporations that hire them.
6. THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972) dir. Elaine May
Picking a favorite Elaine May movie proved to be one of the more difficult tasks for this list. Her debut A New Leaf features my favorite Walter Mathau performance and a thoroughly game Elaine May as two disparately different people who have no idea how much they need one another. Mikey and Nicky is a wonderful distillation of toxic masculinity but for my money May was never better in exposing it than in The Heartbreak Kid, a dark comedy about an egotistic man (Charles Grodin) who immediately gets smitten by a new woman (Cybill Shepherd) on his honeymoon. Nonetheless all three of these movies should be canonical classics of American cinema, and nowhere is the inherent sexism of Hollywood more evident than in the fact that Elaine May’s promising career was jettisoned by one high-profile flop (Ishtar).
5. THE MATRIX (1999) dirs. Lana and Lilly Wachowski
The Matrix represents one of the last of a dying breed: a four-quadrant action thriller that is not based on any previous intellectual property. Of all the movies on this list, it is easily the movie that has had the most outsize influence on the modern movie industry as it paved the way for a mainstream acceptance of all things science-fiction (and by extension the superhero movie, science fiction’s little cousin). It’s influence on the larger culture is also easily apparent, with its leather-clad style in many ways defining early 2000s fashion and its heady themes creating a wave of future annoyingly-smug philosophy majors who were initially fed of the cottage industry of books about the movie. And despite being twenty years old (and does that make me feel old) it is remarkable that the movie is still undeniably cool.
4. ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
This movie was eviscerated when it first came out, probably because we were all probably too close to the events at hand – Osama bin Laden had barely been dead a year when Kathryn Bigelow decided to dissect his impact on the American psyche in the hunt to kill him. But I have a strong hunch that within the next ten years or so Zero Dark Thirty‘s estimation will rise, not least because it more than any other movie of the era examines and exposes the emptiness of the revenge narrative and the way our relentless pursuit of it at any cost in the wake of 9/11 destroyed our collective souls.
3. LADY BIRD (2018) dir. Greta Gerwig
“The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome”, so says Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a senior in a Catholic high school in Sacramento practically begging to be away from her current life. Lady Bird is in many ways your typical coming-of age story following our heroine through her final year of high school but Greta Gerwig brings a hyper-specificity to the narrative that you can only assume we are seeing lived experiences on screen and not merely imagined scenarios. There is a pervasive messiness to Lady Bird’s journey that helps the movie break from its typical coming-of-age narrative. Lessons are learned too late to repair the damage done while learning them, good decisions go hand-in-hand with bad ones, and the trivial and transcendent intermingle with one another. In other words, an instant classic.
2. JEANNE DIELMAN 23, QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975) dir. Chantal Akerman
Admittedly everything about the description of this masterpiece sounds like a parody of art films: Over the course of three and a half hours, we follow Jeanne for three days as she goes about her regimented routine of cleaning, cooking, running errands, taking care of her emotionally distant adult son, and also prostituting herself almost exclusively in the stifling confines of her house. Yet it is precisely the prohibitively long run-time that gives this movie its power as it forces us to contemplate the utter mundanity of Jeanne’s life; we often get to meditatively observe her complete entire tasks real time, all the while without a hint of dissatisfaction. But there is a quiet anxiety when her routine slowly break down despite Jeanne’s best efforts to ultimately violently dramatic effect; her desire for routine normalcy coming up against our desire for conflict and drama. It is easily one of the great works of cinematic art and would be a shoo-in for the top spot on this list if not for one other pesky contender.
1. CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1962) dir. Agnes Varda
While female directors were mainstays in the silent era of cinema they quickly disappeared with the advent of sound, and in many ways we get to thank the French New Wave legend Agnes Varda for bringing women back to the director’s chair. And in Cleo From 5 to 7 we get to see Varda at her empathetic best as we follow Cleo, a young and successful singer, for two hours while she waits impatiently to hear from her doctor to confirm that she has cancer. The prospect of facing her mortality causes her to both contemplate the meaninglessness of her own existence and to confront the stereotypical gender boxes she has been forced to enter and sometimes embrace fully. The movie is short on definitive answers to her existential predicament but liberating in that her crisis has forced an unalterable shift in her view of the world.