The 20 Greatest Female Filmmakers in Cinema History

Earlier this year there was a lot being written and talked about regarding the issue of gender discrimination when it comes to female directors, especially in Hollywood. In May this year, the American Civil Liberties Union urged the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and a few other agencies to investigate Hollywood’s hiring practices for evidence of gender discrimination.

Plenty of numbers were cited, like only 1.9% of directors of the top 100 grossing films of 2013 and 2014 were women and the number of female directors fell to only 4.6% last year, with the recent peak being a still shockingly low 8.1% in 2010.

As depressing as these statistics are, the upside to all this is that there’s actually no shortage of great female filmmakers out there, which is a testament to the quality of the films made by the lucky few who do get to direct films.

In fact, when trying to compile this list, I even had to further narrow it down by imposing several rules in order not to make it too long. So directors who have made less than 3 feature films will unfortunately have to be left off the list, and of course this list will concentrate only on directors making feature length films, but even more important is the availability or easy accessibility of their work in English-friendly editions in the first place.

Having to leave out names like Lynne Ramsay, Liv Ullmann, Barbara Loden, Catherine Breillat, Maren Ade (who’s only made 2 films so far, both really great), Andrea Arnold, Mira Nair, Clio Barnard, Joanna Hogg, Jessica Hausner, Naomi Kawase (a Cannes staple whose work is practically impossible to find in English-friendly editions) and Maya Deren has also not been easy, but since this is an ‘all time’ list, there are plenty more factors to be considered in addition to the aforementioned rules like overall importance in the history of cinema, a consistent body of work and special qualities that make them stand out as compared to other filmmakers. So after much agonizing, here they are, in no particular order.


1. Leni Riefenstahl

Triumph of the Will

One of the most wonderful things about cinema is that a film can be beautiful, important, genius and detestable all at the same time. Just like the eternally controversial The Birth Of A Nation, seminal in artistic and technical achievement yet morally indefensible in lots of places with regards to its content, Leni Riefenstahl books herself a place on any all-time great filmmakers list courtesy of two of her films – Triumph Of The Will and Olympia.

Riefenstahl was asked by Hitler to make a film about the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, which resulted in Triumph Of The Will, a triumph in the art of filmmaking regardless of the content and the way it’s used as propaganda. She broke even more new ground with Olympia, about the 1936 Summer Olympics which was scheduled to be held in Berlin.

There are conflicting stories on how Olympia was made, as one version states that Hitler invited her to do the film while Riefenstahl claimed that it had been commissioned by the International Olympic Committee. The unfortunate baggage that comes with her involvement with Hitler and the Nazi Party can be seen in the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl, but it still doesn’t take away the fact that she’s still, without any doubt, a great filmmaker.


2. Lina Wertmuller

Seven Beauties

Italian writer-director Lina Wertmuller was the first woman nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for her film Seven Beauties. No doubt the most famous title in her oeuvre is Swept Away, thanks to the Guy Ritchie remake starring Madonna.

Beginning as an Assistant Director on Fellini’s 8 ½ , Wertmuller has enjoyed quite a prolific career from her 1968 debut The Lizards all the way up to the 2000s, but she will forever be remembered for her remarkable run of 1970s films starring Giancarlo Giannini – The Seduction Of Mimi, Love And Anarchy, Swept Away and the hugely successful Seven Beauties, which received Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film.

Mostly operating within a comic register, even in films that would normally be categorized as drama, there’s an irreverent and infectious spirit to her films that make them highly enjoyable even today.


3. Agnes Varda

Beaches of Agnes

A royalty of not only the French New Wave, but also of modern French cinema, period, Agnes Varda has had a long and colorful life and career in filmmaking. Married to French legend Jacques Demy (director of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, amongst many other classics), Varda’s filmmaking career actually pre-dates the French New Wave by a good 5 years with her 1954 debut film La Pointe Courte, which contains many elements that people now associate with that movement.

Her second film Cleo From 5 To 7 was definitely very much a Nouvelle Vague film but it is through her later films that she’s most likely to be remembered now, especially Vagabond and the fiction-documentary- film hybrids that she’s been making since the 1990s like Jacquot De Nantes, The Gleaners And I, Cinevardaphoto and The Beaches Of Agnes, which touches the soul like so few films can, possibly benefiting from her wisdom and experience gained from gracefully growing old.


4. Kelly Reichardt

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

When Kelly Reichardt first surfaced in 1994 with her debut film River Of Grass, few would’ve guessed that she would go on to make such distinguished films afterwards as its story about two wannabe criminals on the run sounds just like any other crime-inflected indie film from the same year. Look closer though, and you can already see the seeds being planted for her future adventures in minimalist filmmaking as it is a crime movie without a crime, just like Old Joy is a buddy movie without actual buddies and how Wendy And Lucy is a road movie without a working car.

Often associated with the slow cinema movement but never actually belonging to it, what makes her special is how tense and emotionally engaging her films actually are despite playing down or even staying away from conventional dramatic elements and techniques. With the awesome Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves also part of her incredibly strong and consistent body of work, Reichardt is not only one of the greatest female filmmakers of all time, but is also one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, period.


5. Vera Chytilova

daisies movie

One of the pioneers of the Czech New Wave, it has taken a while for the rest of the world to finally catch up with her greatness due to the unavailability of her work in English friendly home video editions. Until recently, she’s most famous for the film Daisies, a boldly experimental and bordering on avant garde narrative film that was initially banned by the Czech government but still managed to win the Grand Prix at the Bergamo Film Festival in Italy.

Thanks to the efforts of UK label Second Run, the rest of the world has finally got the chance to sample her other films like her follow up Fruit Of Paradise and her 1998 film Traps, with the promise of more films to come as she’s actually had quite a long and prolific career making films in her homeland, to the extent that some even regard her as the most important Czech director of all time!


6. Sofia Coppola

Lost in Translation

It’s simultaneously easy and not easy being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. Forever blamed by the majority of Godfather fans for ruining The Godfather Part III, it’s certainly very brave of her to go into directing, knowing the kind of baggage and expectations that comes with the Coppola name.

Having now made 5 films, it’s quite clear that her brand of cinema differs greatly from her father’s, privileging mood and tone over the well trodden path of classical narrative cinema especially as evidenced by the beautiful Somewhere, the slightly overpraised Lost In Translation and even the much misunderstood The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola has fashioned herself a unique niche in the history of cinema as evidenced by the willingness of major festivals like Cannes (which put Marie Antoinette in Competition) and Venice (which awarded the Golden Lion to Somewhere) to regularly show her films, even if so many of her countrymen still remain unconvinced. There’s also the fact that she’s one of only four women so far who have been nominated for Best Director in the entire history of the Oscars.