Films by Julie Dash, Chantal Akerman, Chloe Zhao, Forough Farrokhzad, Jennifer Lee, and many other female filmmakers made the list.
For as long as there have been movies, there have been women making them. When the Lumière brothers were shocking audiences with their unbelievable depiction of a running train, Alice Guy-Blaché was pioneering her own techniques in the brand-new artform. When D.W. Griffith was pioneering advances in the art, and building his own studio to make his work, Lois Weber was doing, well, the exact same thing. When Hollywood was deep in its Golden Age, Dorothy Arzner, Dorothy Davenport, Tressie Souders, and many more women were right there, making their own films. It’s not even a trend that really abated, because it was never a trend. For so long, women being filmmakers was simply part of the norm.
And yet around the time of the advent of sound cinema, female participation in filmmaking began to drop. And the numbers have dipped immeasurably in recent decades. The latest Celluloid Ceiling report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University reveals that the percentage of women working as directors on the top 250 grossing films declined from 11% in 2017 to 8% in 2018. The percentages of women directing films in the top 100 and 500 films declined as well, with women only directing four of the top 100 films (a decline of four percentage points) and 15% of the top 500 (a decline of three percentage points). And despite highly acclaimed films released in 2018 by women such as Debra Granik, Chloe Zhao, Marielle Heller, Tamara Jenkins, Lucrecia Martel, and more, women were again completely left out of the Best Director nominees at the Academy Awards.
But the riches are there, and they are decades-deep. The IndieWire staff put together this list of the 100 All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women to celebrate the work of creators who have been making their mark on cinematic culture since it began. Our writers and editors suggested over 200 titles and then voted on a list of finalists to determine the ultimate ranking.
We hope it’s a list that captures the wide range and diversity of the work women create behind the camera, and a reminder that female directors have put their mark on every decade, genre, and kind of film, and will continue to do just that. —KE
100. “American Psycho” (Mary Harron, 2000)
Mary Harron did something it feels like only she could do: find subtlety in the sensationalism of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel about the murderousness of the upwardly mobile. And this in a movie where a nude, sinewy Christian Bale drops a chainsaw down a spiral staircase to cut short the life of a prostitute. But as with “I Shot Andy Warhol,” she manages this by getting specific. Harron revels in the details of Yuppie Patrick Bateman’s world — the bespoke business cards, self-care rituals involving cold-gel eye masks and herbal facials that would put Narcissus to shame, flaunting your plastic at dinners out, taking pride in a music collection well-stocked with Phil Collins and Huey Lewis & the News, and all manner of other Reagan Era acts of conspicuous consumption. Harron demonstrates a profound understanding that our trajectories through life demand that we “perform” who we are — or, at least, who we think we are. What happens if we lose control of the script? —CB
99. “Frozen” (Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck, 2013)
Jennifer Lee’s ascent to becoming Walt Disney Animation’s chief creative officer, the most powerful woman in animation, began with her script contributions to “Wreck-It Ralph.” Lee helped shape the funny, self-determined, yet glitchy Vanellope into a subversive anti-Princess. That led to her writing and co-directing “Frozen” with Chris Buck, transforming the troubled “Snow Queen” adaptation into a warm and witty sibling love story between sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). The Oscar-winning blockbuster solidified the new Disney renaissance, leveraged the studio’s hand-drawn legacy to guide the innovative CG animation, and became the most feminist take yet on the musical princess fairy tale. While Lee puts the finishing touches on “Frozen 2” (out November 22), she’s reshaping the studio with greater inclusion and diversity in storytelling. —BD
98. “I Am Not a Witch” (Rungano Nyoni, 2018)
Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s provocative satire revolves around a young girl sentenced to life imprisonment at a state-run witch camp. Counting Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos as kindred artistic spirit, Nyoni’s film is an at times unapologetically confounding work that tackles misogyny in Zambia. The film was shot over six weeks in the fall of 2016 around the country’s capital Lusaka, with a cast of largely non-professional local actors, led by a remarkable performance by nine-year-old Margaret Mulubwa. One of very few Zambian films to ever screen at the Cannes Film Festival, the momentous occasion led to Zambia’s president, Edgar Lungu, issuing a national congratulatory communiqué to the film and filmmaker, as well as an introduction of new film policies influenced by the realization of how important cinema can be in serving as an international postcard for the southern African nation. The stylistically fresh tragicomic film is the debut feature of an artist who clearly has a lot to say, and does so beautifully with this stunning work of magical realism. —TO
97. “They” (Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, 2017)
Making your Cannes debut before the age of 30 is an almost unbelievable achievement, but when you’ve studied with Abbas Kiarostami and can boast Jane Campion as an executive producer, your bona fides pretty much speak for themselves. In her evocative first feature, Iranian director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh explores the complicated and lately in vogue subject of childhood gender identity with an artful and empathic precision. Ghazvinizadeh leaves the birth gender of her protagonist, J, ambiguous, and surrounds them with an understanding older sister and her Iranian boyfriend. Set in Chicago, with some scenes filmed partly in Farsi, “They” embodies a contemporary international culture that makes the story feel universal, even as J’s journey is achingly specific. —JD
96. “The Secret Garden” (Agnieszka Holland, 1993)
Murray Close/Am Zoetrope/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
The versatile Agnieszka Holland has frequently fashioned her films around characters struggling with unfamiliar circumstances. Herself a wanderer, she made this tale of a 10 year-old orphan girl returned to her parents’ England a resonant fable about loneliness and friendship. What other cutting edge, festival-regular director has ever so easily transitioned to a G-rated studio hit? The success of this critic-supported family film sparked a resurgence of intelligent family films like Alfonso Cuaron’s “A Little Princess” and “Babe,” both also G rated. Of a piece with her other films, yet distinctive on its own, this is one of the best examples of a major director seamlessly integrated into a studio production and utilizing top talent — Roger Deakins, the D.P., as well as a production designer who later oversaw “Harry Potter,” and a cast that included Maggie Smith — and it makes one wish she had more opportunities. —TB
95. “Rambling Rose” (Martha Coolidge, 1991)
New Line Cinema
Adapted from his Depression-era Georgia novel by “The Graduate” co-screenwriter Calder Willingham, “Rambling Rose” broke out Laura Dern in the title role of a ripe young housemaid bursting with sex appeal, who riles up the father (Robert Duvall) and son (Lukas Haas) in her household as well as many of the men in her vicinity. Charming, flighty Rose earned Dern her first Oscar nomination — along with her mother Diane Ladd. With her seventh feature film, Coolidge scored rave reviews (if not box office) and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director for capturing just the right sexy, comedic tone for this poignant, impeccably crafted period dramedy. —AT
94. “Monsoon Wedding” (Mira Nair, 2001)
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Harvard grad Mira Nair knows that her best movies are the ones that are the most challenging, independent and personal, such as “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” “Mississippi Masala” and “Monsoon Wedding.” She started her directing career with 1988’s vérité-style “Salaam Bombay!,” her feature debut, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Next came the steamily sexy multiethnic romance ”Mississippi Masala,” starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury, which became an arthouse hit. A decade later Nair returned to her roots with festival hit “Monsoon Wedding.” Nair threads several romances through this tumultuous family drama, which culminates in the traditional Indian-arranged wedding of Aditi (Vasundhara Das) with Texas emigre Hemant (Parvin Dabas), who she comes to know in the weeks leading up to the wedding. She had broken off her relationship with an older man, but impulsively gets together with him just before the wedding. When she tells her fiancé, he forgives her. Nair expertly navigates the colorful subplots and local decor with constantly moving handheld cameras. There is never a dull moment, and we root for the happy couple to finally consummate a successful marriage. —AT
93. “The Breadwinner” (Nora Twomey, 2017)
With her debut animated feature, Irish director Nora Twomey of Cartoon Saloon delivered a powerful story of political oppression with sensitivity and hope, earning GKids its 10th nomination. Based on the popular YA novel by Deborah Ellis, “The Breadwinner” concerns a strong-willed 11-year-old Afghan girl who poses as a boy to help her family survive under threat from the Taliban after her father is imprisoned as a dissident. Twomey deftly balanced the personal with the political in exploring new dramatic territory with a naturalistic fervor. She also updated the turbulent events to make it more topical, with the fall and resurgence of the Taliban, and the rise of ISIS. But she rightly keeps the focus on the courageous 11-year-old Parvana (voiced by Canadian newcomer Saara Chaudry), who struggles to reunite her family in a stirring rite of passage. —BD
92. “Nitrate Kisses” (Barbara Hammer, 1992)
Barbara Hammer, one of the most prolific and esteemed lesbian filmmakers, is someone who mainstream filmgoers — and even more discerning cinephiles — probably don’t know. While the term “experimental film” may seem opaque to laypeople, Hammer’s work is marked by provocative playfulness. Her work often explores queer women’s sexuality and sexual subcultures, and her first feature film, “Nitrate Kisses” is a prime example. A consummate film archivist, Hammer intercuts footage from the 1933 homoerotic film “Lot in Sodom” with interviews with both gay and straight couples and images from LGBT history to create a 63-minute meditation on queer history and sexuality. Hammer’s influence, and the act of unearthing and reclaiming queer history, can be felt in countless queer films that followed, most notably Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman.” —JD
91. “Outrage” (Ida Lupino, 1950)
Terse, tense, and tough, Ida Lupino evokes so much of her characters’ anxiety and psychological state with a direct use of the camera. “Outrage” has a slightly wider scope than Lupino’s similarly effective independently-made noirs. Here, in a film where the subject is rape — a taboo topic for the 1950s that Lupino handles with customary bluntness — she uses urban and suburban landscapes to give her character’s situation a societal context. The film is way ahead of its time in terms of the way it handles its subject matter, while the climactic scene is haunting, along with a chase scene that demonstrates Lupino’s skill-set was virtually boundless. –CO