It’s unfortunate in a way, that a list of this nature needs to be realized. Unfortunate because women are so often underrepresented in film, despite being some of the most exciting, and important ad rem auteurs currently making movies.
Allow me to illustrate: ask anyone to name ten directors. If they’re able to, the odds are good that the names offered are mostly men. Similarly ask yourself if you can name five women directors. Wasn’t as easy as you thought, was it? It was these recent realizations that set me to writing. Consider this list a cure-all then, to patrist public attitudes and in celebration of stunning cinema. And make no mistake, every film on this list is made by talented women with considerable and aggrandizing bodies of work.
In no way is this a complete list, not even close, but the films listed below come from some of the most exciting filmmakers currently working in the biz; from genre films to more introspective work; side-splitting comedies, personal documentaries and others that are splashy and grandiose; all starry-eyed and stirring in their own ingenious ways. Enjoy!
25. American Mary (2012)
Energetic genre directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (aka “The Twisted Twins”) are fast establishing themselves as the recent reigning queens of horror and their forthcoming reimagining of David Cronenberg’s sci-fi body horror classic Rabid, set for a 2017 release date should secure their distinguished and demented crowns.
American Mary is the Soska Sister’s creepy chef d’oeuvre, a full-throttle feminist rape revenge picture that will never covet mass appeal but has certainly been the transgressive genre fan’s gory delight. Katharine Isabelle stars as the titular Mary Mason, a medical student low on funds who’s lured into a lucrative underground world where she performs surgeries for money. What kind of surgeries? Let’s just say there’s some unsettling extreme body modification going on here, but it isn’t all gore and guts.
The Soska’s direct American Mary with impressive and unhurried ingenuity. Yes, it’s nasty, but it’s also nuanced and artful––red-hued tableaus recall Argento––and a forcefully restrained dread permeates the picture. There’s dash and delectation throughout and while the story dervishes in directions that non-splatter fans will run from, horror enthusiasts are going to have a great time.
24. Selma (2014)
Ava DuVernay is a filmmaker full of promise. Having established herself with a wealth of insightful documentaries it was her second narrative feature, Selma, that has thus far brought her the most acclaim (though that could shift in 2016 when her hotly anticipated adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time enjoys a wide release).
Selma faithfully recounts the true story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and John Lewis (Stephan James). The city of Selma, Alabama became the sparring ground, as King and company faced violent opposition that ultimately led to President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While DuVernay’s film takes pains to provide accuracy and is very much a history lesson, it brilliantly refrains from didacticism in a story filled to burst with fascinating characters, strong performances, resulting in a stirring, provocative, and timely tale that’s expertly told with nuance and a startling precision.
23. Longing for the Rain (2014)
Famed Chinese indie documentary filmmaker Tian-yi Yang (Old Men, Wild Grass) elevates to auteur status with her decided fictional debut, Longing for the Rain. Set in contemporary Beijing, this tremoloed tale follows Fang Lei (Zhao Siyuan), a gentle-natured and neglected housewife. Her husband isn’t much of a lover—he’d rather find the next level on his ubiquitous video game console then find her G-spot—the best part of her days are spent with her daughter and caring for her dementia-suffering mother.
In due course Fang begins to be visited by a sometimes violent but always sensual phantom lover. These sequences are shot with an intensity and forcefulness that finds a way into all the aspects of Fang’s life.
In an early scene Fang is visited by the ghost of her mother on the night of her death, and it’s captured in an eerie, nagging light. Yang and her cinematographer, Wang Min (Warriors of Heaven and Earth) add a suiting hallucinatory quality to the film that weaves an understated gossamer glow to this sensual tale of the supernatural.
At times calling to mind Antonioni’s L’avventura and Siegel’s The Beguiled, Longing for the Rain asks more questions than it answers but, like Fang, you can’t resist it’s incantations or turn away from its embrace.
22. Wadjda (2012)
Wadjda is a remarkable film for a number of reasons, the least of which is that it’s a refreshing and celebratory tale of a rebellious and spirited young girl (Waad Mohammed, wonderful) who lives in the ‘burbs and wants a green bicycle.
Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, Wadjda is the very first feature-length film made by a Saudi woman as well as the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Considering that women in Saudi Arabia cannot vote or drive an automobile, this is no small feat and something of a landmark film.
Wadjda is a determined and nervy young 10-year-old naif schoolgirl who signs on for a Koran recitation competition, knowing that doing so could raise the money she needs to covet the green bicycle she keeps daydreaming about.
And while Wadjda’s tale is compelling and recalls somewhat the works of neo-realists like Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief), there’s also much to admire in al-Mansour’s detailed and exquisitely rendered depiction of day-to-day life in Saudi Arabia. This is a place of contradiction and wonder where hypocrisy and prosperity, persecution and poetry all co-exist.
While it could easily be a dirge-like polemic, Wadjda instead offers a subversive social and political commentary that doubles as a charming coming-of-age gem.
21. Monster (2003)
Patty Jenkins’ distinguished directorial debut, which she also wrote, was too disturbing to make her a household name (though 2017’s Wonder Woman should fix that) as she detailed the harrowing real-life story of Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron, in a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance).
Monster picks up shortly after Aileen, a sex-worker, has relocated to Florida. Here she soon meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a younger woman, and the two fall in love. When an aggressive john named Vincent (Lee Tergesen) brutally attacks Aileen, she kills him in self-defense and decides to finally give up prostitution.
A series of financial setbacks and Aileen’s wanting to protect and support Selby leads her back into hooking men and, secretly from Selby, she murders the men who seek her services.
A challenging, deeply troubling, intense, and tragic film, Monster is a riveting work. While Theron’s performance is overwhelming and gilt-edged, Jenkins deserves credit for solid direction, tightly composed frames and well-orchestrated frights. A haunting, hard and effectual film that’s not easy to shake.
20. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
1970s San Francisco is lovingly brought to life in Marielle Heller’s coming-of-ager (inspired by the great Phoebe Gloeckner graphic novel) as precocious 15-year-old Minnie is dead-set determined to be deflowered by an older man ((Alexander Skarsgård). Bel Powley is remarkable as Minnie, a misfit cartoonist with attitude to spare.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is Heller’s directorial debut, and it’s an astonishingly assured one, destined to be remembered in the same way that John Hughes’ teen-centric 80s films are, only here the male gaze is eschewed, more taboos are smashed, and the honesty and insights are even more pronounced.
Don’t let the conventional title or expected teen dramedy genre clichés deceive you, this is a shrewd, and sharp film with several star making performances, quotable quips (“I’m better than you, you son of a bitch!”), and surprisingly strong resonance. This is a film not just for young girls, but for anyone who struggled coming into their own.
19. Stories We Tell (2012)
This deeply personal and richly reflective documentary from Canadian filmmaker and celebrated actress Sarah Polley examines, via a stunning series of revelatory interviews, the truth behind her twisty family history, her mother Diane, and the early days of the women’s lib movement. The Polley family’s lifelong involvement with theater and film adds to the wealth of lively confessionals, stock footage, reconstructed footage, and more, and that it’s all so compelling, moving, and seemingly effortless in its magic.
Rarely in mainstream cinema has the nature of memory and the art of storytelling been conveyed in such dizzying mystery and elusive interconnection. Stories We Tell is full of humor, heart, poignancy, and profundity. Sure, the premise does sound like this could be a film overfull with inflated self-importance, navel-gazing nonsense, but that just isn’t the case. Stories We Tell is a compassionate, courageous, and deeply stirring work from a major talent.
18. A Simple Life (2011)
“Here is a film with the clarity of fresh stream water,” wrote Roger Ebert in his four-star review, “flowing without turmoil to shared destiny. No plot gimmicks. No twists and turns. Just a simple life.” This Hong Kong film by writer-director Ann Hui won accolades and deep praise the world over for its irresistible, tearjerking charms, its warmth and humor, and its exquisite cinematic portraiture.
As the title suggest, A Simple Life tells a simple tale with honest beauty as a Hong Kong film producer, Roger (Andy Lau), helps care of his family’s lifelong servant Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), after she suffers a stroke and has to relocate to a nursing home.
Hui based A Simple Life off of real events and the authenticity shows in her powerful screenplay which is bolstered immeasurably from a fantastic cast. Deanie Ip––who won the best actress award at Venice that year––is particularly powerful and commanding in a role that moves around from deeply compassionate, to very funny, to deeply moving with subtle but assured alacrity.
The duties of family, the hindrance and harmony of aging, and the people is our lives are detailed in gentle, flawless observation in this rewarding and quietly ravishing picture.