For the first time in history, two female directors women were nominated in the Directing category at the Oscars. Although I feel that is a meagre statistic, considering the wealth of female filmmaking talent which has always existed, I guess we have to start somewhere. So let us start by having a look at some of the trailblazers whose shoulders we stand on, as well as the powerhouses whose work is making waves today. Who knows, maybe sometime in the future, there will only be female directors nominated in this award category?
Any basic film student (yep, guilty as charged) will speak in reverent tones about Agnès. Not only one of the founding mothers of La Nouvelle Vague, (New Wave) of French cinema which changed the face of film forever, she was also prolific until her death in 2019. She was more than just a director, but a photographer and artist too – her films were remarkable for an almost documentary-like realism and their focus on women’s issues, whilst maintaining a unique and experimental edge. No mean feat.
Clèo de 5 à 7 was one of her first and most impactful films, charting the hours between 5 and 7 in the life of spoiled pop star Clèo. Sounds light, but the dark undercurrents of death and existential angst are what make this film the seminal work it is. A must-watch. Some of her other highlights include: Faces Places (2017) in which she and fellow artist JR travel around rural France creating portraits along the way. A fine example of the kind of artistic gold dust which could only ever get financed in France.
Don’t miss Varda by Agnès (2019) her farewell film to the world in which she reflects on her life behind the lens. Scorcese hit the nail on the head when he described her as one of the “Gods of Cinema”.
You may never have even heard her name, but most people haven’t, so don’t feel too bad about it. Guy-Blaché started her career as a secretary in a film company and at 23, was inspired to make her own film called La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), one of the first narrative films ever made. Before Alice, there was only stock footage, but through her work, the concept of using moving pictures to tell stories was born.
She founded her own film company, and over the course of her career, she wrote, produced or directed over ONE THOUSAND films. She had a distinctive visual style as well as being unafraid to tackle groundbreaking subject matter such as child abuse, immigration and planned parenthood. She was the first person to make a film with an all-black cast.
“Errrr, how is this woman not a huge household name?” I hear you cry. Sadly, in a tale as old as time, she was shut out of the very industry she helped create and lost everything, including many of her films being destroyed. Thankfully a team of researchers in America have now made a documentary about her life and work: BE NATURAL, narrated by Jodie Foster. Give it a watch – this pioneer of cinema is long overdue for a little celebration.
This is a personal one, but I’ll try not to gush. When The Piano came out in 1993, I don’t think I’d ever seen women’s stories told in such a visceral way. Anna Paquin as Flora was a main character who I saw myself in, (this is your friendly reminder that representation matters) and Holly Hunter as Ada was a woman whose quiet power I was deeply in awe of. A twisted fairytale of a film that not only creates a distant time and place you can lose yourself in, but one which breathes humanity into that far-flung world at the same time. There was no mistaking that Jane Campion was a force to be reckoned with.
Thankfully she is one of the few women directors whose talent has been recognised with accolades – the second of seven women ever nominated for an Oscar, and the only woman to ever have won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though – in 2003 her film In the Cut received mixed reviews – perhaps for its unusual approach to the thriller genre. However, if you ask me, the world just wasn’t ready. It’s a strange, disorientating and deeply erotic piece of film, proving Campion’s skill at more than just period drama. It will be a cult classic some day.
More recently, Dame Jane (she is actually a Dame, I’m not just fangirling) created the excellent TV series Top of the Lake – one of the most fresh and innovative crime dramas to have come out of the last ten years. In short, is there NOTHING Jane Campion can not do?
Reading about female performers and filmmakers from Hollywood’s Golden Age makes me feel, frankly, lazy. Ida Lupino was an actor, singer, director and producer, widely considered the most prominent female filmmaker of the 1950s. This intimidatingly talented and driven woman was originally from London, but moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in the biz, using acting as a way in, watching and learning from others on set until she was allowed to take the reins and direct.
She appeared in fifty-nine films and directed eight, and directed over one hundred episodes of TV. Her film The Hitch Hiker (1955) is the first Film Noir ever to have been directed by a woman.
As an actor she often rejected roles she felt were demeaning, despite being under contract for Warner Bros – I can’t imagine that going down too well in 50’s Hollywood. Her films were often critical of patriarchal society and she strove for realism at all times.
Did she ever sit down? We may never know, but what we can be sure of is her extraordinary legacy. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for crying out loud!
The original powerhouse/Hollywood big hitter, Bigelow became a household name with the huge success of the riptide-roaring action movie genre film, Point Break in 1991, and this was at a time when big Hollywood movies were rarely directed by women. She proved that female directors were underrated and underused and has continued to do so over her decades-long career of huge smash hits. As interested in male as female-led stories, this gender blind approach has served her well, She was the first, (and for a long time, only) woman to have won an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2008).
Zero Dark Thirty was released to critical and commercial success in 2012, not to mention awards aplenty. She has a knack for showing you the pain and despair of humanity within a strikingly beautiful frame. To say her work is thought-provoking would be an understatement. She manages to balance commercial success with her signature style and is basically a Hollywood brand at this point. Anyone else feeling empowered?
Yes, this is a hill I am willing to die on. Don’t tell me that the queen of rom coms does not deserve to be called a great filmmaker. You can call me an angry feminist all you like, (and you’d be right, don’t @ me), but I defend the films that give us pleasure and light relief, the stories of female friendships, marriages, affairs and pot-smoking seniors which make us laugh until we cry. It is not a female-only genre and it is also not deserving of the scorn which is often thrust upon it.
Her movies are a brand unto themselves – if Meryl or Diane are making sweet food in a showroom-worthy kitchen, or sweet love to an attractive man in a perfectly upholstered bedroom by the sea…you’re probably watching a Nancy Meyers movie. You’ll have a warm fuzzy feeling watching it, you’ll laugh, you’ll weep and you won’t come out of the cinema feeling like there is nothing to live for. In fact, after the year we’re all been through, I think a dose of Meyers should be recommended by the NHS. Dare I say it – ditch the dark dramas where women are mutilated by a psycho and get thee some Nancy in your eyes. You’ll thank me. And if you’re still unsure, allow me to leave you with this fact: she wrote Private Benjamin.
Glaswegian Ramsey has proven her talents on the world stage, and recently announced she is in talks with Joaquin Phoenix to work with him on a new project. But let’s rewind a little – she burst onto the UK scene in 2002 with Morvern Caller, starring Samantha Morton as the kind of edgy queen-of-cool we all wanted to be. From then on, Ramsay has built a career both at home and across the pond, with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) really putting her on the map. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about time you did…. An adaptation of the hit novel, the film leads with the types of characters only usually seen as villains, and somehow makes you understand their pain. Not only that, but it is a film that will haunt you for long after the credits have rolled with its unflinching honesty. Ramsay is a director unafraid to look at the parts of humanity we might usually want to hide. In more recent years she helmed the critically acclaimed You Were Never Really Here starring Joaquin Phoenix…and now we’ve come full circle as they plot their next piece of movie magic for us. A bold and exciting voice in modern cinema: long live Lynne.
A name you will know if you grew up in the 80s or 90s, Heckerling kicked off her career by directing Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which had been written by Cameron Crowe. It’s now a cult classic, and made stars of all the teenage leads – Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh. She went on to direct Look Who’s Talking (1989) – a romantic comedy featuring a baby with the voice of Bruce Willis – which is exactly as excellent it sounds – and was one of many moments of reinvention for John Travolta. But all of this pales in comparison to the apex of Heckerling’s career, the genre-defining high school movie, Clueless (1995). I’m going to assume you’ve all seen it, but for posterity lets recap: Alicia Silverstone plays a 90s Cali female heroine version of Jane Austen’s Emma. This film is the reason I talked, dressed and felt the way I did for many, many years, (including kicking off a crush on Paul Rudd which has lasted for three decades.) Amy Heckerling has continued to work across film and TV ever since, directing episodes of Gossip Girl and The Office. She was one of the first women to make me believe I could be a director and for that, I’ll always be grateful.
Bursting onto the scene with the directing award at Sundance in 2012, Ava made the world sit up and take notice right away. (It was only her second feature). She went on to gather accolades with her work on SELMA, a star-studded historical drama about Martin Luther King, and she became the first black woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Director. Since then Ava has continued to dominate awards ceremonies and rule twitter with her strongly held beliefs and eloquence – this woman is more than just a filmmaker, she is a pioneer, making the world better one day at a time.13TH, her 2016 documentary about racial inequities in the criminal justice system, was nominated for an Oscar.
When They See Us, her Netflix series, won sixteen Emmy nominations, and Ava’s name became synonymous with the possibility that film and TV can make meaningful changes to society. No wonder Time magazine listed her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world! So yeah, I’m a little intimidated by this amount of grace and power…but what I wouldn’t give to have her as a dinner party guest.
A relative newbie, here is a woman who represents all that is great about the changes in the film industry over the past few years. Born in Bejing, she has adopted America as her home and made three feature films which express the beauty of its heartland – firstly Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015), then The Rider (2017) and more recently of course – the stunningly beautiful, Oscar-winning Nomadland. For any director to be working with Frances McDormand on only their third feature is an incredible achievement. Her style tends to lean towards a documentary feel and she often uses non-professional actors to exceptional effect. If it feels like I’m using too many superlatives here, that’s because she demands it.
Nomadland is the perfect post-lockdown film, which will wrap you up in a journey across America and make you wonder if there really are better ways to live than settling for a mortgage, house and job. A trailblazer, a poet and one to watch for years to come. Happily, Zhao has just signed on to direct The Eternals for Marvel, so we’ll be seeing a lot more of her work very soon.
These are just some of the incredible best female directors I admire, and the list just seems to grow and grow. Twenty years from now, we probably won’t be making lists according to gender at all… and that will be a good thing. Still, it feels great to celebrate the women filmmakers who have broken down boundaries to achieve movie magic – who is your favourite from the list? And who have I missed?! Get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org or on our socials.