The 20 Greatest Female Filmmakers in Cinema History

7. Larisa Shepitko


Larisa Shepitko’s filmography is a very slender one, with only 3 films to her name (not including her graduation film, of course), Shepitko having tragically died in a car accident in 1979 aged only 41 years old whilst scouting locations for a film she’s planning to shoot. Sometimes 3 films is more than enough as proof of greatness, or in her case only two actually, as the rest of the world only got the chance to experience her greatness thanks to Criterion’s Eclipse label’s two-film package of her debut Wings and her third film The Ascent, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1977.

Making use of documentary realism to present nuanced, beautifully observed, sensitive and powerful character studies, there’s a refreshingly down-to-earth feel to her portrayals of hardship in post-war Russia that transcends the possibly propagandistic and actually quite common scenarios (especially for Russian films).


8. Ann Hui

a simple life pic

One of the leading lights of the Hong Kong New Wave, making her debut way back in 1979 with The Secret, Ann Hui has been consistently working for the best part of 36 years now, regularly winning all sorts of awards in Asia, without getting too much recognition from the West. That all changed when the heartbreakingly touching A Simple Life nabbed 5 awards (including Best Actor for Deanie Yip) at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, and finally the rest of the world took notice of what a special talent Hui is.

Having long been in the enviable position of always getting her films financed in Hong Kong because of the prestige attached to her name, thanks to her long list of critically acclaimed classics like Boat People, The Story Of Woo Viet and Song Of The Exile, Hui even managed a surprise box office smash in Hong Kong and China with A Simple Life, thanks to strong word of mouth regarding the performance of Deanie Yip and the star power of Andy Lau.

With her latest film The Golden Era playing in Venice (as an out of competition closing film) and Toronto, she may have finally arrived on the world stage now at the grand old age of 68, but it’s her enduring back catalogue that really deserves more inspection, and which will be proof that she’s definitely one of the greats.


9. Chantal Akerman

Jeanne Dielman

Nimbly toeing the line between experimental and narrative cinema, Belgian director Chantal Akerman is perhaps the most interesting filmmaker on this whole list. Adventurous souls who purchased Criterion’s Eclipse Series boxset of her early work in the seventies would have been witness to her hypnotic exploration and observation of people and places, especially in the superb Hotel Monterey and News From Home.

And with her now all-time classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is one of the absolute high water marks of observational narrative cinema, she has effortlessly sealed her place in the pantheon of the world’s greatest directors. She has, of course kept on making other notable works like La Captive and the quite superb recent film La Folie Almayer (an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly) but Jeanne Dielman is such a stupendous achievement that she doesn’t even need to make any other film to be considered an essential director.


10. Elaine May

A New Leaf (1971)

Most famous for being a comedienne and writing and comedy partner to Mike Nichols, Elaine May has only four films to her name, with most of them being pretty hard to see and locate (her fantastic debut A New Leaf only available on DVD and Bluray in 2012 and the original version of The Heartbreak Kid fetching ridiculous prices on out of print DVD and VHS), it’s easy to forget how great a filmmaker she is.

A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid will always remain touchstones of black hearted yet tender American comedy in that golden age of New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s, surpassing anything that her partner Mike Nichols ever made even when people kept comparing her comedy style with Nichols’ own classic The Graduate.

Even more shocking was how good Mikey & Nicky was, a true blue John Cassavetes film in all but name, starring Cassavetes himself and his regular Peter Falk. And while Ishtar will remain best known as one of the biggest film maudits of the 1980s alongside Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a re-watch will reveal that there’s definitely more than meets the eye in it.


11. Claire Denis

White Material

A Frenchwoman who was born in France but raised in West Africa, where her father was a civil servant, the early films by Claire Denis clearly bore imprints of this experience, especially in her debut film Chocolat, another one of those very rare debut films that’s special enough to straight away be given a Competition slot at Cannes, and her big international breakthrough Beau Travail, still often cited as her best film.

What’s really special about her is her increasing rejection of the common rules of narrative storytelling in commercial cinema, preferring a more oblique approach in parsing out narrative information which results in her films getting more and more poetic as she grows with age. Hardcore Denis fans will swear for just about everything she’s done from Vendredi Soir (aka Friday Night) onwards, especially the stunning 1-2-3 combo punch of L’Intrus (aka The Intruder), 35 Shots Of Rum and White Material that quite simply put her heads and shoulders above so many other auteurs out there.


12. Sally Potter


Not as well known and highly respected in the US as she is at home in the UK, Sally Potter is nevertheless a name that should be on the radar of any film fan out there. Starting out with making experimental short films in 1969 after joining the London Film-Makers’ Co-Op (a British filmmaking workshop inspired by Jonas Mekas’ The Film-Makers’ Cooperative), she later became an award winning performance artist and a theatre director before finally making her feature film debut in 1982 with The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie.

Her big international breakthrough came with her second film Orlando (in which Tilda Swinton gave a tour de force performance as both a man and woman), which won several awards at Venice and received distribution in plenty of countries worldwide. Her follow up The Tango Lesson was also very well received, but it’s the path she’d chosen afterwards that made her an even more interesting director as films like Yes and Rage adopts a more experimental and stylized aesthetic, giving her body of work a richer flavor compared to most of her contemporaries.


13. Daniele Huillet

Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach

Without doubt the most left field choice on this list, as Daniele Huillet is one half of the Straub-Huillet filmmaking team which consists of her and her husband Jean-Marie Straub, Huillet deserves a place on this list for making some of the most beautiful, austere and formally rigorous films that the world has ever seen.

While the world still awaits English friendly editions of the majority of their work on home video (there are now multiple volumes of their work reissued on DVD in France, without English subtitles), the ones that are already available in English friendly editions, like the incomparable Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach, Sicilia!, Class Relations, Moses And Aaron and Fortini/Cani are evidence of not only judicious filmmaking artistry, but also refreshingly idealistic artistic ambitions that are both humble and grandiose at the same time.