10 best female directors.
With the explosion of 2017’s #MeToo movement, there has been an onslaught of female and diverse driven stories being thrust into the foreground. An overdue climate change that is giving people, who have been neglected for far too long, a voice to be heard. However, truth be told there have been quite a few women in film who have dominated the big and small screens long before any movement arrived. Women who were so fucking good at what they did Hollywood wouldn’t have dared to ignore.
Below is my list of what I think are truly the ten best women directing TV and film today. My rule has always been when making lists like these to not include directors who have just 1–2 feature films but more of a body of work that has spanned years and years. The women below have indeed done that and have proven over and over that they are forces to be reckoned with when firing on all cylinders. Also important to remember this list is purely suggestive and everyone’s entitled to my opinion.
Where do you begin with the tectonic force that is Kathryn Bigelow? Beginning her career with a heavily unseen obscure Wild Ones rip off film called The Loveless starring a young Willem Dafoe… To mainstream genre fares like Near Dark and the timelessly awesome and quotable Point Break… To politically-charged thrillers like Zero Dark Thirty and what some might call her opus, The Hurt Locker.
Kathryn Bigelow is a director who gives the impression that she can not only outdrink a lumberjack but also out direct most of the men working behind the camera these days. Her groundbreaking career in Hollywood and against type filmography cements her as being a true badass. She might not have billion-dollar hits under her belt like her ex-husband James Cameron. But rest assured, her output is far more consistent.
It only made sense to follow up Kathryn Bigelow with who in my opinion is the new generation’s, Kathryn Bigelow. Is there anyone more versatile than Karyn Kusama right now? Going from 2000’s tender coming of age Michelle Rodriguez starred Girlfight to “The L Word” to Jennifer’s Body to The Invitation. Kusama clearly seems to have her footing best in genre fare however what makes her such a good genre director is that she understands the human condition.
It’s no wonder John Sayles helped finance her debut feature and served as an early mentor as his career was quite similar. Genre exploitation mixed with human dramas always makes for a fantastic recipe. Jennifer’s Body might’ve been considered a dud when it came out but my god that film is strangely aging like wine. And what’s even more exciting is that Kusama’s best work is ahead of her. Bring on the future (a.k.a. Blumhouse’s Dracula).
I’ll never forget randomly watching Andrea Arnold’s short film Wasp on Youtube. It was an insanely powerful and heartfelt story of a rough around the edges British mother and her little girls struggling to survive financially. It was some of the finest 20 minutes I had ever seen. Then when I randomly watched Fish Tank a few years later… My heart practically stopped. Andrea Arnold is the real deal. She doesn’t sugar coat anything, she tells the truth and she tells it beautifully and at times unforgivingly.
American Honey was the first film I had seen of her’s on the big screen. Sure it’s a bit long but wasn’t that the point? To immerse the viewer in a claustrophobic van to the point of feeling the same emotional pain as Sasha Lane’s character feels by the end? It was also the first time we saw Arnold’s point of view through an American story. It’s refreshing whenever a European director tells their tale of American life and Arnold capitalizes on that tenfold.
Part of me wants to label Nicole Holofcener the female Woody Allen but with how political correctness has been going these days people might not look at that as a compliment. Regardless Holofcener might possibly be the humblest writer/director in Hollywood. She has this effortless style that never seems to get in the way of what she truly adores. Her characters and stories. These are the two most important elements she brings to the table. Nice to see people are still making careers out of telling stories that don’t involve space aliens or talking cars.
Holofcener is a true actor’s director. Whether it’s introducing the world to Catherine Keener, showcasing one of Jennifer Aniston’s finest dramatic performances to date, or giving James Gandolfini a chance to star in a romantic comedy. She believes in the depths actors have and it shows in her work. She might not have had the same mainstream success as some of the other directors who were part of that ’90s indie new wave have had, however, I consider her to be right up there with the best of the best.
The fact that Mary Harron along with multiple other women were behind the making of a film like American Psycho blew my mind when I first saw it 20 years ago. Though entertaining and fucked up as hell, I couldn’t help but perceive it as extremely racist, misogynistic, and mean spirited. Granted I was just starting middle school so my brain hadn’t fully developed yet. But after years of reflection, it all makes perfect sense. Need I remind you the book was written by a gay man and the film was co-written by a lesbian.
Harron changed the game for female directors. Her bold abrasiveness and strange dark humor made her body of work not only intense and informative about our society but also very fun to experience. A tough code to crack. Some might say Harron has drifted off the Hollywood scene in the last few years but considering her work didn’t start or end with her most well-known film should remind you that she still has a lot more powerful weapons in her arsenal. And I have no doubt she’s going to sneakily blow our minds again when we least expect it.
Nepotism can be frustrating in Hollywood. However, when someone manages to carve their own path and make an impact entirely their own that’s when it’s special. Growing up on the sets of her father Francis certainly costs way less than film school but at the end of the day, one cannot teach another a point of view. When it comes to storytelling, you’re on your own. Delivering in my opinion one of the finest feature debuts ever committed to celluloid, The Virgin Suicides, the megaphone was effortlessly passed on to the next generation in what would become the new poster child for one of the most cinematic family trees of all time.
Some might say that after Sofia’s sophomore opus Lost in Translation that she never fully got back to the lightning in a bottle of her first two features. Her 2006 innovative “historical” biopic Marie Antoinette didn’t quite stick the landing but has since become a cult favorite of her’s. 2010s Somewhere showed tough guy Stephen Dorff in a light we weren’t used to seeing. And 2013’s The Bling Ring was an irreverent if flawed satire on celebrity obsession. All this being said, Sofia has a style that she keeps close to her heart and she’s still one of a kind. Make sure to watch On the Rocks on October 23rd when it’s released on Apple TV+. Looks like a return to form.
If you were to ask me to give you an example of how I would define a true artist? I would say without hesitation filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. A style solely on atmosphere and mood rather than the plot is quite daring for a director to tackle over the course of seven features. But Reichardt seems to make it look easy even though god knows how complicated it is for someone to write a check. Launching her career in 1994 with the haunting tonal poem River of Grass, it wasn’t until 2008 that she branched into the “mainstream” with Wendy and Lucy. I say mainstream because she found her muse, Hollywood star and indie darling Michelle Williams.
It seems like filmmakers these days sell out quicker than they arrive when a big studio comes to them with a truckload of money and a franchise. But Reichardt has stayed close to her heart since day one. Much like Todd Solondz did when he purged his entire life savings to finance 2004’s Palindromes, Reichardt will work a full season of America’s Next Top Model to finance 2006’s Old Joy. Living the life of an independent artist can be a fucked up struggle sometimes. It’s a lifestyle very few kids these days can inhabit but whenever you’re complaining about how little money you have, just remember that Reichardt has been hitting the pavement professionally for almost thirty years. So stop crying and get back to work.
Quite possibly the darkest director on this list, Lynne Ramsay blew some American audiences away (and traumatized others) with her breakout film We Need to Talk About Kevin. A disturbing character study of a couple’s son as he evolves into what might possibly be the equivalent of the devil. It was a relentlessly intense drama that never seems to let you come up for air. Lynne Ramsay is a bold uncompromising filmmaker. She creates what she wants and if the public doesn’t respond to it, so be it. Ramsay’s not trying to make simple entertainment. She’s communicating something bigger to an audience. Evoking a feeling perhaps general audiences don’t want to feel.
Ramsay’s 2017 Taxi Driver companion piece You Were Never Really Here is probably her most polarizing film to date. Certainly one with a Hollywood star leading the role. The climax in the diner alone is an epic WTF moment in every way. It’s unfortunate we didn’t get to see Ramsay’s vision inside a big western with 2015’s Jane Got a Gun as she quit the project right before it was scheduled to shoot over creative differences. This is what’s so impressive and invigorating about Lynne Ramsay. Her filmography is light years more important to her than a career in Hollywood. She’ll play the game to an extent but in the end, if the work doesn’t pacify her soul, she’ll move on.
Following Lynne Ramsay with another Lynn, though the two could not be more different in style. It was heartbreaking to see in the trades back in August of Lynn Shelton’s passing. She might no longer be with us however she’s made such an impact on independent film and television over the years that it felt only right to pay tribute to such a talented soul. I mean any woman who had been in a relationship with comedian and podcaster Marc Maron is pretty fucking awesome. I’ll never forget in 2009 when I went to the Sundance Film Festival to visit and I watched this little indie film called Humpday starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard. It was one of the most original “love” stories I had ever seen. From that point on I became a Lynn Shelton enthusiast.
Over the years since her breakout film Humpday, with the exception of 2011’s charming improvised rom-com Your Sister’s Sister, Shelton became heavily focused on episodic television. The shows she worked on seemed to be specifically designed for her even though she was mostly coming on in the middle of them. “Shameless,” “New Girl,” “GLOW,” “Fresh off the Boat…” Just a few weeks ago shortly after her passing, I decided to watch her last feature film Sword of Trust which happened to star her then-boyfriend Marc Maron. The best way of describing it would be that it’s the most compelling movie without conflict. And you should watch it right now. R.I.P.
Yes, I’m literally breaking my own rule by putting a director of only two features on this list. However, 2011’s Take This Waltz has had such a meaningful impact on me and is the definition of a hidden gem that I couldn’t restrain myself. Beginning her career as a child actress, Polley has worked with some of the most groundbreaking directors of all time. Terry Gilliam, Doug Liman, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg... It was only natural that she would eventually step into the director’s chair with 2006’s Away from Her. A uniquely beautiful love story dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also one of Julie Christie’s finest performances to date.
I’m sure everyone who had seen Away from Her when it came out assumed that was just a one-off for Polley and she’ll get back to acting. It wasn’t until 2011 where she cut deeper with what I believe is a little masterpiece, Take This Waltz. A raw story that tackles infidelity, loneliness, addiction, regret, guilt. It’s all in there. I guarantee you every dramatic-based film Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen have acted in since were inspired by their performances in this film. It’s been nine years since Take This Waltz and we’ve still yet to see another feature from Polley. I pray to God she hasn’t quit and will take our breath away at least one more time. We can only hope.