Many of my favorite movies have been directed by women. Considering they make up an unbelievably small percentage of the total directors in Hollywood, that’s saying something. So I figured I would go ahead and highlight just ten that I love. Maybe you can take this International Women’s Day to catch up on one or two. There are major blind spots in my viewing of some of the great female directors- you’ll notice there are no Chantal Akerman or Agnes Varda films on this list, for example.
Without further ado, here are my picks. What would yours be?
Near Dark (1987 dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
If you haven’t seen the greatest vampire film this side of Nosferatu, well what’s stopping you? Particularly considering the recent death of star Bill Paxton, you might be missing out on a finger lickin’ good time. Reuniting Paxton with other cast members of Aliens (Lance Henriksen and Jeanette Goldstein), this takes the genre to an American southwest setting, and Tangerine Dream take care of the soundtrack. Bigelow brings her trademark gift for unforgettable visuals and tense action setpieces to the film, which the AV Club said “kicks unholy amounts of ass.”
Clueless (1995 dir. Amy Heckerling)
The classic teen movie against which all other teen movies are measured. Based on Jane Austen’s Emma, this is, for me, a top five movie of all time. Endlessly quotable, hilarious throughout, it’s very much of its time and place. And yet, timeless.
Selma (2014 dir. Ava DuVernay)
When the best of the decade lists start coming out in a couple of years, I expect this one will find a comfortable place on my top ten. The first movie ever made about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. was put in the hands of DuVernay, who at that point had only made two small indie films. With a perfect cast of veterans and up and comers, the unique eye of cinematographer Bradford Young, DuVernay made the 1965 march come to life. Echoes of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter ring throughout.
Old Joy (2006 dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Two men (Will Oldham and Daniel London) take a last minute vacation together in the Oregon wilderness. They’re old friends but life has led them in different directions, and the tension between the two is palpable. Anyone who has ever drifted apart from a friend and not had the emotional language to process it can relate to this gorgeous film. It’s a 75 minute meditation on the choices we make, and the unwritten futures that lay before all of us.
American Honey (2016 dir. Andrea Arnold)
This British filmmaker found a way to capture America in 2016 in a way few other American filmmakers could. Following around a group of mostly nonprofessional actors selling magazine subscriptions in the midwest, it’s a road trip movie that invites you along for the ride. These young kids party hard by night and wander around anonymous suburbs during the day, hungover and trying to make enough money for the next case of vodka. Taking us from the Walmarts of Oklahoma to the oil fields of North Dakota, it portrays an impoverished, desperate America mostly seen in documentaries, not at the multiplex. But it humanizes them fully- to the extent that it’s the rare movie where you find yourself asking months later, “I wonder what those characters are up to now.”
Pariah (2011 dir. Dee Rees)
A Sundance hit, also anchored by Bradford Young’s gorgeous cinematography, Pariah tells the story of a young black lesbian teenager living in Brooklyn. With her religously devout family, she has to hide her true identity, going so far as taking a change of clothes with her whenever she leaves the house. This way, she can fully express her own gender and sexual identity. It’s a beautiful film, so fully committed to truth telling and empathy for its characters, that it doesn’t need a neat and tidy ending for everyone.
Wadjda (2012 dir. Haifaa Al Mansour)
This first ever feature length film from a female director in Saudia Arabia also happened to be the first film the country submitted to the Academy Awards. You’ll often hear a positive critique of a female directed film that “you can’t tell it’s directed by a woman. It’s just great on its own!” And yet, as with many of these films, Wadjda is more grounded and empathetic than a lot of movies. At the risk of sounding gender essentialist, I would say that greater awareness is often a female trait. And wouldn’t you know it, greater awareness makes movies a lot better most of the time.
Away From Her (2006 dir. Sarah Polley)
Produced by Atom Egoyan, this debut film from actress Sarah Polley feels very, well, Canadian. Certainly rippling with Egoyan’s sense of equal parts grief and love, it’s the story of an aging couple brought to serious re-evaluation of their life together when the wife (Julie Christie) is forced to move into assisted living due to her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. That sounds ultra serious- but it’s ultimately a fairly lighthearted love story. It’s only a tragedy as much as life itself is a tragedy.
Beyond The Lights (2014 dir. Gina Prince Bythewood)
Most of Hollywood’s output of romantic films these days either come in the form of a Nicholas Sparks-esque adaptation, or whatever the next 50 Shades Of Grey sequel is. But Beyond The Lights reminded us all how great it is when a romantic film remembers to be extremely romantic, sexy, and grounded in the humanity of its characters. Nate Parker and Gugu-Mbatha Raw star as the police officer and pop star who fall into a semi-forbidden love after he saves her from a suicide attempt. It’s a true joy from beginning to end.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011 dir. Lynne Ramsay)
Ezra Miller plays the role he was born to play, a remorseless sociopathic teen incarcerated after murdering several of his fellow students, in this fever dream of grief and guilt by Lynne Ramsay. Tilda Swinton stars as the titular Kevin’s mother, barely functioning in the aftermath of Kevin’s killing spree. The film is a combination of flashbacks and vignettes from her present day life, spent mostly trying to avoid any other human in the town where she lives. We see the ways in which she never took naturally to motherhood, as she wonders how much she is to blame for her son’s lack of concern for human life. It’s one hell of a dark night of the soul, one that has stuck with me for the last several years.