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The 25 Best Films Directed By Female Filmmakers

09 August 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Alexandra Gandra

best films made by women

Studies show that half of all film school graduates are women, yet only 5% of them are working Hollywood directors. This is not only a problem in Hollywood, but everywhere in the world. There’s prejudice and difficulties akin to them, common stories of declined financing help and even production interruptions due to certain chosen themes and subjects in their work.

There are exceptions to the rule that are forgotten, and others that are now breaking through. Although many who are active today seek refuge in independent filmmaking, TV and online media, they are – increasingly so – receiving more attention. The current list gathers some of the most prominent female filmmakers in the history of film, and the movies that made them so inspiring.

 

1. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)

Triumph of the Will

A propaganda film considered by many as one of the best documentaries ever made, Leni Riefenstahl chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. Riefanstahl won instant international fame with this and the other propaganda films she directed in the 1930s. She was considered a pioneer of film and photographic techniques; after she filmed Triumph, she was labeled by many as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century. Her personal association with Hitler (who actually commissioned this film) ruined her film career after Germany’s defeat in World War II.

In this documentary, Riefenstahl rehearsed some of the scenes at least fifty times, with the main theme being the return of Germany to power and Hitler as the leader who would bring glory to the nation. Popular in the Third Reich, Triumph has served as a true influence on all contemporary film genres and commercials.

 

2. The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

The Hitchhiker (1953)

A pioneer among women filmmakers, Lupino became interested in directing in the 1940s. After being on suspension for turning down a role she began to explore filmmaking, the filming and editing processes, and what she called “the interesting work.” She became the first actress to produce, direct, and write her own films.

The Hitch-Hiker was her first fast-moving film, a film noir about two fishing buddies who pick up a hitchhiker while on a trip to Mexico. Based on the true story of psychopathic murderer Billy Cook, the two men must survive a hostage situation where escape seems impossible. (An incredible detail is that they are located in the desert, but are constantly confined to small spaces.) Arguably, Hitch-Hiker is Lupino’s best film, and the only true noir directed by a woman, with emotional sensitivity and class performances by the three protagonists.

 

3. Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966)

Daisies (1966)

Chytilová wrote and directed this Czechoslovak comedy-drama film and turned it into a milestone of the Nová Vlna (Czech New Wave) movement, making it the second film by the only female in it. It follows the story of two girls named Marie who engage in a series of adolescent adventures. There’s really not much of a plot, as the director’s hand in it clearly wishes to make the film itself an experience, with brutally colorful imagery, random sequences with no apparent structure, music and sound often randomly appearing with no reasoning within a scene.

It is often a series of events mixed with philosophy, nonsense chattering. There are sudden alternations between black and white and monochrome filters of all colors, as well as standard photography. Even with the amazing surrealism and eccentric humor it brought, the film was labeled as “depicting the wanton” by the Czech authorities and therefore banned.

 

4. Seven Beauties (Lina Wertmüller, 1975)

Seven Beauties

In its original title, Pasqualino Settebellezze—starring Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, and Shirley Stoler—the film narrates the story of Pasqualino, an Italian man who, during World War II, abandons the army, is captured by the Germans, and sent to a prison camp. While doing everything he can to survive, the audience learns about his family—through flashbacks, specifically his seven unattractive sisters—and a few stories involving them and ultimately him.

After filming Seven Beauties Wertmüller, an Italian film writer and director, was granted the first female nomination for an Academy Award in Direction. The characterization, for instance, is astounding; Giannini presents the foolish side of his character and performs admirably. Gianni portrays a macho, opportunist man, deeply convinced he’s honorable. It is as black as comedies come, yet the audience is left with the notion that Wertmüller likes the unexplained, the irrelevant moral choices, and the mystery in her most memorable project.

 

5. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

Jeanne Dielman

A clear dedication to the ellipses of conventional narrative cinema, Jeanne Dielman broke new ground and remains a narrative inspiration. Akerman claims that, after seeing Godard’s Pierrot le fou at age 15, she decided to pursue filmmaking. When Jeanne Dielman first debuted, The New York Times called it the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema.”

The story examines a single mother’s life, cooking and cleaning over three days, while also prostituting in order to provide for her son. Prostitution is part of her routine, dull and uneventful like everything else in her life. The twist comes when the routine starts failing, and she spontaneously starts doing things she wouldn’t usually do. Akerman is brilliant in viscerally mixing these topics by using an innovative directorial approach, while leaving the audience with the task of filling the gaps.

 

6. The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

The Ascent

Shepitko’s last film before her death was this black and white Soviet drama film—winner of the Golden Bear award at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival in 1977. Said to be one of the finest war films ever made, The Ascent is set in the bleak winter of 1942, during World War II, and follows two young Soviet partisans as they search for food in a Belarusian village, which was occupied by Nazis.

After being spotted by a German patrol, one of them is shot in the leg, and the other has to take him to a safe place: the home of a woman named Demchikha. However, they are discovered, and both the partisans and the woman are taken to the German camp for interrogation. The struggle of the proletarian is the key point in this story, and the film stands tall as a cinematic statement of politics, faith, and moral choices.

 

7. Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985)

vagabond

Vagabond is a drama describing the story of a woman who, during one winter, wanders through the French wine country. A dark and disturbing grasp on the life of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), told through flashbacks and a near-documentary style, including alternative interviews with the people who have known her in the last weeks of her life.

Throughout the film, the audience gets to know the main character, how she seems so independent and hard to love, drifting from place to place accepting any help or places in which to stay. No one really knows where she is from, or how she ends up in her situation.

It’s noticeable how Varda’s background as a still photographer finds a place in this film. It is a particularly moving grip on visual detail that takes the story to an even harsher reality while simultaneously supplying the necessary beauty.

 

8. Big (Penny Marshall, 1988)

big 1988 movie

Starring David Moscow and Tom Hanks as 13-year-old and 30-year-old Josh Baskin, Big, in the “body swap” sub-genre, recounts the tale of a boy who makes a wish “to be big” and becomes an adult overnight.

At the start of the film, there are the usual jokes/issues applied to this sort of story (clothes not fitting, no one believing him, etc.), but it quickly falls in a deeper scenario. Josh clearly has no experience in adulthood, but it’s surprising how he can make it work.

Tom Hanks’ performance makes the audience believe he really is a 13-year-old boy trapped in an older body, and that is mostly because Penny Marshall made the two actors spend time together—even though they never shared a scene—and she had David Moscow them rehearse many of the grown-up Josh scenes performing the role, so Hanks could observe how the younger actor would react in those situations.

 

 

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  • Sheffield

    American Psycho.

  • missing some Lucrecia Martel 🙂

  • Genadijus Lesiuk

    Great list of female directors and their movies, however, there some really influential ones who are missed there. Lucrecia Martel, Claudia Llosa, Agnes Varda and Kira Muratova.

    • RiSky RahmaLia Sofyan

      you can find ‘Vagabond’ by Agnes Varda right on the list

    • Grace

      talking making movie in Hollywood – or in America –

  • Damien Boogie Beauguion

    Ravenous

  • The_Art_of_Evolution

    Strange Days

  • Tiago Batista Santos

    (hipster alert)

  • Deanie_Loomis

    I would add Elaine May’s hilariously droll “A New Leaf” (1971) and Ariane Mnouchkine’s four-hour-and 20-minute epic “Molière” (1978).

  • Patricia Meireles

    also missing Nadine Labaki from Caramel (2007) and Where do we go
    now? (2011)

  • elbert

    you had me until number 20

  • Ted Wolf

    nice to see Lina Wertmuller included in this list (had seen a previous list without her). To me, she is the preeminent female director.

  • Jorge Olaya

    You guys miss “La ciénaga” by Lucrecia Martel

  • hank scorpio

    Wayne’s World.

  • Drew Morton

    Maya Deren’s MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON? (You may have disqualified it because it’s a short…)

    • Grace

      Maya Deren is my hero – but she’s not a Hollywood director – neither do I assume would she be interested in making Hollywood films – I, as a woman, relate much more to the cinema of Maya Deren – and in fact pretty much came from that “school” of movie making when entering NYU – they were not having it – they weren’t really championing creating cinematic states of being on film – NARRATIVE, narrative narrative, and the conventions of narrative such as they’ve been defined by male film directors – they were not interested in nurturing an artists “voice’ – the only thing they were interested in was in teaching and in one learning the conventions of filmic storytelling – since the kinds of story one can “tell” on film are based on visual action – shoot em up, car chases, fights … the language of filmmaking, the grammar that has been embraced by the culture in America – was created by men, for men – maybe that’s why so many women in the past lost interest – they weren’t interested in telling stories for and in a way dominated by a culture of men -Maya Deren was taught to me college under avant garde cinema – not in the same school as Griffiths – one of the father’s of modern cinema…(No film history was taught at NYU) most women have different stories they want to tell then men do – and cinema as is – doesn’t really lend itself to telling those stories within the language of film as it stands today or what mostly men, think would sell in Hollywood – anyway Hollywood is becoming obsolete as a forum for speaking to and reflecting on the culture in any real way -I wanted to be a filmmaker based on the films being made in the 70’s – I’d have no interest in learning how to make fllms today – they don’t speak to me.

  • moviemanwill

    No Wendy & Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff?!

  • Allister Cooper

    Near Dark…?

  • Neubauten

    Fish Tank ( Andrea Arnold) ?

  • Grace

    3 American women out of 25 and one of them came to prominence first as an actress, Penny Marshall and her brother is the director, Garry Marshall. The 2nd, Sophia Coppola, is the daughter of the greatest American directors on the planet. Only Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t connected up the wazoo before becoming a director, although James Cameron was her lover. Three American woman directors out of 25, and two of them were Hollywood royalty first. What does that say about the American film industry for women directors? As one of those women who graduated with an MFA from NYU film school over 20 years ago, as much as I wanted to be a director, there was no path, not even an unclear one, to gaining a shot. Writing was the only thing I could do to “make a movie” where I didn’t need permission or money to do so. I sometimes find myself on a film set, and I realize that I know how to direct, and then I go, yeah, you have an MFA in it. You don’t lose the skill, as that’s the least they can give you when you graduate with aMFA from NYU film school, but that’s the end and the beginning. A few women found a way, either though their lovers, their beauty and charm and color, or their antipathy to men and love of women. American men do not want women directing as far as I can see. I once heard a producer say about one of the above women, she’s so beautiful. Not, she’s a great director. It’s sad I think. The female experience is missing from America, the land of golden opportunity. A country where “they” would rather have a black man than a white woman as President. I think it’s America’s loss more than anything, but still sort of sad.

    • Lord Darque

      I am curious about something. Hollywood has always run based on who you know. Without some connection to someone to get going nobody ever gets anywhere.

      If you had your exact same background except happened to be a man are you saying there would have been opportunities that you as a woman did not have? And if so what are those?

      • Grace

        I’m saying that those with the ability to give a director a shot were men – not women – there were just a lot more men than women – also men’s networks are stronger – were stronger – there was no network – no girl’s club pulling women into the system, mentoring women, – directing a movie is like going into battle – and men want to be led by men and would prefer women/producers/agents/even studio heads to nurture their talent . There are more women in Hollywood today, but the same about of women directors as 20 years ago.

    • Arnaldo Fernandez

      A country where “they” would rather have a black man than a white woman as President…..that sounds racist to me.

      • Grace

        I’m trying to say that even in a “rascist” society – gender trumps race – meaning that being a female is a weaker minority than being African American –

        • Chankya

          I Disagree. If it was A Democrat white woman Hillary Vs Republican Black man Obama, do you really think Obama would have won?

    • SinJaiVak

      Im not sure who “they” are as everybody voted in the election however are you saying that a white woman is a better choice than a black man for president? Do you think they are the qualities in which these individuals have? being “white woman” and “black man”?

      • Grace

        they are men – I’m saying men feel more comfortable with men in positions of power than a woman- especially in America – we’ve never had a woman President….

    • Chankya

      So 20 years ago, how many women and many men have graduated from your class? What percentage of those women and men have directed a film? That will make more sense if you want to talk about discrimination rather stating your own example.

      “A country where “they” would rather have a black man than a white woman as President.” Lets forget for a minute who this “they” is. Why do you think they should vote for a white woman instead of a black man? What should their choice be based on? What if Obama was a republican? What about a democratic White man Kerry Vs Republican Black woman Rice?

      • Grace

        They is MEN. I’m saying that the power structure in most of the world is run by men – so within that power structure they =men, would be more comfortable sharing power with a man than a woman – it goes beyond party lines and race – the proof is in the pudding – look at the world – look who has the highest positions of power in corporations, military, government, science, art – and from that draw ones conclusion – it’s not rocket science – it’s empirical. 20 years ago 5 women and 20 men graduated from a class of 35 that was made up of 10 women and 25 men- those that succeed in the industry were mostly men – 3 women had more than one child – that right there switched their focus – one beautiful black woman directed a movie, most of the men stayed, worked, and rose in the industry – the ratio of those who were accepted and graduated is the same as the ratio in the industry out of a class of 35 – 10 women in positions of power to 25 men – directing is tough for both men and women to break into and nepotism does trump ability in getting ahead – all things being equal

        • Chankya

          Making gender as a sole reason is very simplistic. Countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka have been led by women. There’s nepotism and Dynasty at play here.
          Also women do have a disadvantage competing with men when they have to plan having children during their prime. That sucks for some but for some thats their choice over career. Who is to define that directing a movie is greater than making a baby and raising it? Some of our notions of success and creativity have to be recast away from these traditional definitions, mostly defined by men.

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  • Guest

    Blue Is the Warmest Color

    • RiSky RahmaLia Sofyan

      ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ or ‘La Vie d’Adele’ is not a movie directed by a woman, it’s directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.

  • Richard McLin

    Pet Sematary, Strange Days, Frida, The Virgin Diaries, and Waynes World.

  • Susan Carr

    How can you not mention Deepa Mehta?

  • Zoe Cassavetes?

  • Sam Khoie

    good picks but so random

  • sarahberry9

    Seems a very arbitrary list. No Jane Campion or Gillian Armstrong? For the U.S., why Penny Marshall but not Penelope Spheeris? And where is Dorothy Arzner’s Dance Girl, Dance? For the New Waves, why no Agnes Varda or Margaretha von Trotta? This seems like someone who doesn’t know much film history poked their finger through a list of women directors.

    • jaily

      You can always check out the 2nd and 3rd pages of this list. Maybe you’ll rethink the “someone who doesn’t know much film history poked their finger through a list of women directors”.

      • sarahberry9

        Pages 2 and 3 seem just as arbitrary.

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  • WatersonTRB

    Never thought Francis’ daughter made good movies XD

  • Cinema Phenomenology

    Kira Muratova, a big Soviet female director, has been missed in this list

  • SinJaiVak

    point break?

  • Anna

    Virgin Suicides dir. Sofia Coppola

  • EroticFilmSociety

    No Susan Seidelman? SMITHEREENS is a key indie film of the punk/new wave era; and I think DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN has improved with age. Both feature fully realised female lead characters (unlike BIG, which I remember to be little more than a hollow, Hollywood celebration of male immaturity).

    And – at least as great an omission – where is Joan Micklin Silver? HESTER STREET is a masterpiece which is also centred on a female character; it is also a remarkable indie production. It’s many years since I’ve seen BETWEEN THE LINES but remember that as being a wonderful ensemble piece. HEAD OVER HEELS / CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER is a nuanced dark romantic comedy. CROSSING DELANCEY is charming but not without its darker aspect. The fact that Micklin Silver is not on this list suggests to me that she is in danger of being forgotten, which would be a grave disservice to women film makers

    Then there’s Lizzie Borden’s WORKING GIRLS, another notable indie film. And Juliette Bashore’s remarkable documentary, KAMIKAZE HEARTS. More recently, I thought Julia Leigh’s SLEEPING BEAUTY was powerful and disturbing. And, from the early silent era, Lois Weber was one of the leading directors in Hollywood; HYPOCRITES is peculiar but it’s a significant film for its time.

    And – as we are the Erotic Film Society – let’s have a shout out for women who made extraordinary exploitation films; Stephanie Rothman, subverting soft-core with THE VELVET VAMPIRE; Doris Wishman’s resolutely independent, no-budget grindhouse roughies (‘best’ is such a bourgeois concept -the divine Doris had a style like no other); Roberta Findlay’s dark dramas which brought a women’s point of view to hard-core; Candida Royalle, creating narrative erotica aimed at women and couples just as XXX was lapsing in video mediocrity…

    I realise that the aim of a listicle is to encourage discussion and a bit of controversy helps start the argument but I would feel happier celebrating any of these women and their films before a film maker whose documentary – however brilliantly crafted – helped promote a fascist mass murderer.

  • Django

    How about The Matrix?

  • Alex

    The Virgin Suicides

  • DSteel

    Cannot be a serious list without The Piano (Campion), My Brilliant Career (Armstrong), Winter’s Bone (Granik), Whale Rider (Caro), The Silences of the Palace (Tlatli) or Open Hearts (Bier).

  • Anson J

    Monster
    The Dead Girl
    Persepolis

  • Noah Garner

    Cleo from 5 to 7?????????
    Beau Travail???????????

  • Klaus Dannick

    Great list, but I’d have listed Sophia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” instead of “Lost in Translation” ( though both are excellent), and I’d have definitely included Martha Coolidge’s “Rambing Rose” instead of, maybe, “Big”.

  • Dani Andersen

    Susanne Bier, Denmark – In a Better World (among other things) 🙂

    As all those lists go, it’s an opinion of one person. They are not the law or ultimate selection, just an opinion … so I reserve the right to completely disagree with any and all of them ;))

  • Asiye Hande Nur Başar

    Deepa Mehta –> Water- Earth- Fire

  • Rose

    Lucrecia Martel’s Salta Trilogy

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  • lauramoreaux

    The piano (Jane Campion) and The secret garden (Agniezka Holland)

  • Rollyn Stafford

    There are so many beautiful films here! i have to add one more though…Wendy and Lucy.

  • Ruchit Negotia

    i love lynn ramsey.

  • Stefan Ristić