Notable Films Directed by Women

Today, as I write this, the world is currently celebrating International Women’s Day.  One of the more frustrating moments of my life was when I came upon a list like this, a list enumerating various women directors and their most seminal works, I didn’t recognize most of the filmmakers mentioned in the article that I was reading. I won’t go into Hollywood’s apparent sexism and issues of diversity here but I also won’t let this article go by without at least mentioning that there is a problem with regards to how exposed the world is to women filmmakers. This post here, a list of notable films directed by women that I have watched, is my attempt in at least introducing these amazing and sublime filmmakers to the minuscule portion of the internet that reads this blog. A reminder to the reader though: This article is not a definitive list of films. I am confident that there are other great films out there that are directed by women that won’t make it to this list. Such an omission would be either because I have not watched them or because I plan to only include one film per filmmaker in this article. Do let us know thru the comments section if we missed something or if you disagree with my choices.

Whenever there is a mention of the French New Wave, names like Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut often pop up in the discussion. However, the name Agnes Varda is rarely mentioned despite being one of the very first filmmakers of the movement and is even known as the “Grandmother of the French New Wave.” Although her debut work, La Pointe Courte, is considered to be one of the films that ushered in the French New Wave era, her most accomplished work to my mind is Cleo from 5 to 7, her portrait of an anxious French singer walking the streets of Paris in supposed real-time as she awaits the results of her biopsy. I have never confirmed this but I’d like to think that Linklater’s Before Trilogy was influenced by this astounding work of Varda’s, a film that creates an emotional profile of a woman in crisis who is walking in a city that has been given life through film-making.

  •  Wings (Larisa Shepitko, 1966)

Larisa Shepitko had a short-lived career as a filmmaker in Soviet-era Russia. She died at the age of 41 due to a car crash that had happened while on her way to a location that she was scouting for her next film. At the time of her death, she made four feature films the most famous of which is Wings, a portrait of a female fighter pilot during the Second World War who is now living a quiet but unsatisfactory life as the head of a school for children. Collaborating with the actress Maya Bulgakova, Shepitko creates an affecting portrait of a woman who is disconnected from her surroundings and living in disappointment.

No one who has ever seen Sofia Coppola’s atrocious performance in The Godfather III would have guessed that she would go from having one of the more-derided performances in film history to becoming one of the foremost female directors of American cinema. Lost In Translation is perhaps her masterpiece and it tells the story of a fortuitous meeting between two people who are suffering the pangs of existential ennui in the heart of Tokyo. Coppola employs a restrained hand as she masterfully guides her two protagonists, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, in exploring their inner turmoil.

One of my favorite films ever, Away from Her is a perfect example of what happens when a filmmaker adapts a work of literature with enough respect to keep what makes the source great and enough bravery to make the story her own. Adapted from The Bear Came Over The Mountain, a short story from literary giant and beloved writer Alice Munro, Away from Her tells the story of a man coping with the institutionalization of his wife who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. This is a film, a love story at its core, where everything is shown with tenderness, authenticity, and the intentional absence of melodrama.

Kathryn Bigelow occupies a special place in the annals of cinema as she is one of the few female directors who tackles subjects that are dominated by male filmmakers and proving that she can take on the best of them. Her film, The Hurt Locker, about a soldier in the Iraq War who is tasked with disarming explosives is one of the most necessary narratives about war and its effects on the soldiers who participate in it. By focusing her lens on Sgt. William James, skillfully portrayed by Jeremy Renner, and his everyday life, Bigelow proves that war narratives does not have to contain nonstop gunfights and explosions to present a compelling film.

In An Education, which is a coming-of-age portrait drama about a young schoolgirl seduced by an older gentleman, Lone Scherfig creates a portrait of a young girl filled with a lust for life and its decadent pleasures. In the hands of other directors, An Education could’ve been a melodramatic film filled with over-the-top performances and cheesy dialogue but Scherfig shows her knowledge and skill by directing this film with admirable restraint and focus, never allowing the narrative to go out of hand by maintaining a clear vision of what she wants the film to be. Aided by the best script that Nick Hornby has ever written and by a magnificent performance from Carry Mulligan, An Education has cemented its status as one of the better films to come out of the 2000s.

  • Selma (Ava DuVernay , 2014)

One of the greatest cinematic crimes ever perpetrated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was the complete shutout of Selma. You may think that I am employing hyperbole here but I am not because Selma is one of the best films to come out of 2014. Duvernay, in her direction of the film, employs certain cinematic and narrative techniques that blew my breath away. In one the film’s pivotal scenes, we are shown how a huge crowd of black protesters on their way to Montgomery, Alabama being violently dispersed by the authorities while crossing a bridge in Selma, Alabama. The way that Duvernay handled the scenes are nothing short of brilliant and is a perfect showcase of her skill and precision.

I never thought that an experimental documentary about a dog’s death created by a filmmaker and musician known for her works that are classified as avant-garde would capture my attention and haunt me for days but Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog did and it did in a tremendous fashion. It is a film created with unbelievable grace as it discusses themes of death, love, life, and loss.

  • Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

Before I watched Mustang and was wowed by it, I knew nothing about it except that it was nominated for the 2016 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. After viewing it, I came out of the cinema thinking that it was one of the more affecting and emotional films that I have ever watched. It has since become one of my favorite films of not only 2015 but of all-time. It is a portrait of five sisters living in a male-dominated culture with strict adherence to oppressive traditions. Ergüven’s deftly mixes tragedy with comedy and skilfully juggles the fleshing-out of five distinct protagonists in what is unbelievably her debut work.


Honorable Mentions:

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
The Producers (Susan Stroman, 2005)
The Kids Are All Right
(Lisa Chodolenko, 2010)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012)
Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014)
Tig (Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, 2015)

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3 thoughts on “Notable Films Directed by Women

  1. There is very little exposure for women filmmakers, definitely. Majority of the ladies on this list are new to me. But do you think it’s exposure, or are there very few of them? I mean, in terms of numbers. This is one of those things I cannot find a reason for. Why are female directors so few?

    And I am taking note of the ladies on this list. Lone Scherfig’s An Education is brilliant. I really like Sarah Polley too. Stories We Tell is my first and only Polley movie and I think it is an earnest, emotinally-charged and well constructed film. And I so want to watch Tig! Aside from her various guestings, I think the first and only time I saw her in a movie was in In A World.

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  2. Sadly, I think, the film industry is still a man’s world. Maybe the lack of exposure and the few number is the causality? As in female directors are dissuaded from churning out films because very few production companies are willing to back them if pitted against their male counterpart? This is, also, maybe why most female directors write and produce their own films. I don’t know, but this is definitely saddening.

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  3. The lack of female film directors is a confluence of a lot of things. One factor is the abject sexism in Hollywood because it is a generally held belief among these male-dominated production companies that movies made by men make more money and that female-directed films are a niche interest. Which is why most female directors fund their films through independent means.

    There surely are a lot of female directors out there. They just don’t get enough exposure. I have a list of female filmmakers that I intend to tackle in the future and most of them are filmmakers that I have never heard of yet have glowing reviews from critics.

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