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10 Iconic Women Who Changed Cinema

From early pioneers to modern forward thinkers, cinema has always played home to extraordinary women.

Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with FilmStruck. The exclusive streaming home for The Criterion Collection, FilmStruck features the largest streaming library of contemporary and classic arthouse, indie, foreign and cult films as well as extensive bonus content, filmmaker interviews and rare footage. Learn more here.

Agnes Varda

At age 88, the indomitable and highly influential Varda shows zero sign of slowing down when it comes to churning out art told through continually experimental means (she’s also remained committed to supporting her work in person, recently popping up at both the French Institute Alliance Française for a career-spanning chat and this year’s Rendezvous With French Cinema series with a brand new exhibit; we should all be so lucky to be as vital and involved when we’re half Varda’s age). Varda’s contributions to cinema and feminism have been the centerpiece of her life’s work, and early works like “L’opera-mouffe” make the case for an obvious link between her early visual diaries and the current documentary landscape. The 1958 short (also known as “Diary of a Pregnant Woman”) examines working-class life in Paris through a then-pregnant Varda’s eyes. Long considered to be prime example of early French New Wave, thanks to the canny meddling of documentary and narrative styles, along with a compulsion to capture life as it is, the short quickly established Varda’s unique vision and way ahead-of-the-curve ambition.

GIRLFRIENDS, Melanie Mayron with director Claudia Weill, 1978, (c) Warner Brothers / Courtesy: Everett Collection

“Girlfriends”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Co

Claudia Weill

An American indie director who made the jump to television long before it was cool — though she managed to snag directing gigs on the sort of shows that predicted the so-called Golden Age of Peak TV we’re currently steeped in — Weill made her bones with her 1978 feature narrative debut “Girlfriends,” which captures the pains and pleasures of deep female friendship (and urban malaise) with a wisdom few filmmakers have been able to match. She followed that up with her very own big-budget rom-com (the curious “It’s My Turn,” starring Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh), setting the stage for other filmmakers eager to make the jump to studio films after indie outings while still retaining their own charms. In recent years, Weill has gone all-in on television, directing episodes of “My So-Called Life,” “Chicago Hope” and, yes, even “Girls.” Weill carved out her own path — one marked with plenty of twists, turns and compelling decisions — in a thoroughly modern way that many rising auteurs could stand to model.

Nicole Holofcener

Modern walking-and-talking indie cinema owes plenty to Holofcener, who first made waves with her 1996 feature, the appropriately named “Walking and Talking.” The Catherine Keener- and Anne Heche-starring dramedy made Holofcener’s talents clear from the get-go: strong female characters, a canny hold on the tics of modern conversation, all-time performances from talented casts and uncomfortably relatable situations. Since then, Holofcener has only improved upon the formula, churning out films like “Please Give” and “Enough Said” while directing a handful of clever TV series, from “Orange is the New Black” to “Sex and the City.” Few filmmakers write their female characters with as much care and nuance as Holofcener, and her ability to direct her stars — from Jennifer Aniston to James Gandolfini — to some of their best work is proof positive of her ever-evolving abilities.

The Connection (1962) Directed by Shirley Clarke

“The Connection”

Photofest

Shirley Clarke

The Oscar winner (for her 1962 documentary, ”Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World”) was a wild forward thinker who used her love of indie cinema and the possibilities of video to churn out her own highly original films, Clarke was foremost a champion and a teacher. Originally hailing from the dance world, the New York native’s love for the avant garde later translated to works on film. An early adopter of videotape — remember that? — allowed Clarke to marry some of her greatest loves, and the filmmaker used the medium to record thrilling performances and installations. Clarke’s ability to span mediums was perhaps her greatest strength, and even her best known film (1960’s “The Connection”) was based on the play of the same name (that film also garnered significant attention for its prodigious use of profanity, enough to send Clarke into a censorship battle).

Chantal Akerman

The beloved Belgian filmmaker used her own life as her canvas, blending reality (as with her final film, “No Home Movie”) and the avant garde into thrilling new patterns. Best known for 1975’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” Akerman’s obsession with documenting the minutiae of regular life — both through documentary and narrative lensing — was always on display in her work. Highly personal but also deeply creative, Akerman created her own language, one that will influence feminist filmmaking for many more years to come.

Alice Guy-Blache

Widely believed to be the very first female film director, Guy-Blache did it all before it even occurred to most people to do anything. A director, writer, producer and actress, she was also a driving force behind early studio Gamount and founded her own, The Solax Company. While many of her films — believed to number in the hundreds — have been lost over time, a number of them (including many Charlie Chaplin-starrers!) are still kicking around. They’re worth the search.

Daisies (1966 Czechoslovakia) aka Sedmikr‡skyDirected by Vera Chytilov‡ Shown from top: Ivana Karbanov‡, Jitka Cerhov‡

“Daisies”

Sigma III Corp./Photofest

Věra Chytilová

A pioneer of modern Czech cinema, Chytilová is best known for her Czech New Wave feature “Daisies,” a gloriously strange and innovative feature about the adventures of two girls (both named Marie) who are charmingly untethered to the concept of social mores. Chytilová, despite her importance to Czech filmmaking in general and feminist filmmaking specifically, abhorred labels and consistently fought to do things her way (which explains why she so often ran afoul of the Czech government). Relentlessly original by every metric, few artists have made such a case for the power of personal creation. (Also, “Daisies” is just really, really fun.)

Lucrecia Martel

A pioneer of New Argentine Cinema, Martel has become something of a Cannes darling, screening her films there and serving on its jury in 2006. Martel often uses the societal and familial backdrop of her home country to craft her films around, they lend themselves to a particular kind of veracity that’s often deeply moving — her family drama “La Cienega” is proof positive of that. Partially self-taught and entirely possessed of her own viewpoint, she’s a modern filmmaker who still has plenty of exciting years ahead of her.

Mary Pickford

Much like Guy-Blache, Pickford was an early star in the studio system — okay, she was the star — and one who cast her lot both in front of and behind the camera. An actress and producer, Pickford also co-founded Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, United Artists and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A child star (she got her start on the stage, before getting hip to the growing influence of movies) who made the jump to not only mega-stardom (she was called the “Queen of the Movies,” and not for nothing) but who capitalized on real business acumen and personal grit, Pickford’s career is one of Hollywood’s most storied ones, and for very good reason.

À ma soeur! (2001)aka Fat Girl Directed by Catherine Breillat Shown: Anaïs Reboux

“Fat Girl”

Canal+ / Photofest

Catherine Breillat

French filmmaker Breillat is another cinema star who has often garnered significant controversy for her work, which frequently deals in frank discussions about bodies, sexuality and coming of age. Best known for her 2001 film “Fat Girl,” Breillat has actually been churning out honest, often very personal work about what it means to be a woman since 1975. Breillat courted controversy early on — she published her first novel at age 17 (not bad), which was then banned for anyone under age 18 by the French government, and her first feature film (based on yet another of her books) wasn’t released for almost a quarter-century. The word “badass” is thrown around a lot, but Breillat really is one. Her film career got a second act in the early aughts, when she used her own illness as the basis of the book and film “Abuse of Weakness,” a banger of film that features Isabelle Huppert in a shocking lead role.

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