Female filmmakers are still an unfortunate rarity in Hollywood — USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative’s latest study about female directors in the industry recently delivered blunt findings like “the director’s chair is white and male” and “age restricts opportunities for female filmmakers” and even “one & done: opportunities for female directors are rare” — but that hasn’t stopped a compelling legion of creators to churn out excellent films for as long as the art form has existed.
The 21st century may be less than seventeen years old, but it’s already played home to a slew of instant classics, from established auteurs to rising indie stars and everything in between. Here are the 25 best.
Behold, a bevy of riches…
25. “Tomboy,” directed by Céline Sciamma (2011)
A quietly gorgeous portrait of a plucky 10-year-old named Laure who moves to a new town and introduces herself as Mikael, you’d be hard pressed to find a single film that better encapsulates the isolation and exploration of queer childhood. Sciamma renders visually the subtle ways boys and girls sort themselves from an early age, with the help of a brilliant performance from young Zoé Héran, who embodies Laure with an innate carefree boyishness. “Tomboy” strikes the perfect balance between lighthearted and heartbreaking, between the joy of a fantasy realized and the harsh sting of reality. Though the film came out in 2011, it feels utterly timeless; the golden days of Laure’s summer could — and do — belong to anyone who recognizes themselves in her youthful determination. -Jude Dry
24. “35 Shots of Rum,” directed by Claire Denis (2008)
Claire Denis’ beautiful homage to the family dramas of Ozu, “35 Shots of Rum” tells the story of the natural loosening of the close bond between a widowed father and his young adult daughter. It’s particularly bittersweet when it comes to timing, as he knows she is ready to start a life of her own at the very moment he — an African immigrant, who had married a German — is also realizing his entire existence beyond her revolves around a public transportation job from which colleagues are being forced into early retirement. While we often rely too heavily on biography to explain a director’s work, with Denis it is always helpful to remember she spent her early life living in the waning days of French colonial Africa — her father a civil servant — before returning to Paris to attend university. As this film burrows into the personal, there is a larger sense of the flow of history, but without the slightest whiff of being didactic or forced. Denis’ brilliantly stripped down narratives and observational approach with her camera has been (wrongly) considered inaccessible or cold in the past, but this particular film is as empathetic and warmly familiar as any film in recent memory. “35 Shots” is a treasure and in some ways an unique entry in the Denis catalog, but it’s also just another chapter in a body of work that for the last 30 years has been as consistent and masterful as any director working today. -Chris O’Falt
23. “Cameraperson,” directed by Kirsten Johnson (2016)
Over the course of 2016, Kirsten Johnson’s “visual memoir” completed a starry trot around the festival circuit, kicking off with a lauded debut at the Sundance Film Festival, before making its way around the world and earning fans at nearly every stop. It’s easy to see why. Johnson made her bones as a cinematographer on a number of well-known (and well-loved) documentaries, from “Citizenfour” to “The Invisible War,” and she takes all of that experience and packages it inside a vivid, original documentary that’s as much about her personal life as it is her professional career. Using footage from her life and work, Johnson effectively and personally examines what it all means, how it all adds up and why we even film this stuff to begin with. Enormously touching and deeply felt, it’s a documentary — and a story — like you’ve never seen before. -Kate Erbland
22. “Monster,” directed by Patty Jenkins (2003)
There are films that are transformative, and there are films that are transformative. Patty Jenkins’ 2003 biopic about the wrenching, ill-fated life of serial killer Aileen Wuornos (an Academy Award-winning Charlize Theron) takes a seemingly soapy, salacious true-life plot and turns it into an incisive look at mental illness and the treatment of society’s most needy subjects. Jenkins’ script also finds the time to add in a star-crossed love story involving the continually, criminally overlooked Christina Ricci (straddling the line between villain and victim at nearly every turn) and a steadily worn-down Theron, who is all closed heart and open wounds. -KE
21. “Pariah,” directed by Dee Rees (2011)
Humming with the electricity of repressed sexuality and packing the heat of a Brooklyn summer, “Pariah” follows teenage Alike (Adepero Oduye) as she embraces her queerness and masculine gender expression. We melt alongside Alike as she lights up with the first tingles of love, seeing herself for the first time through the desiring eyes of Bina (Aasha Davis). The camera practically aches as Alike changes out of her baseball hat and t-shirt on the train home to Brooklyn, donning a girly sweater in order to calm her parents’ suspicions (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell). Cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival”) films Alike’s first nights out at the club in rich, saturated colors. Already one of the most buzzed about directors of the year, Rees will no doubt become a household name when “Mudbound” hits theaters later this year. But with its tale of first love and self-discovery, “Pariah” remains her most personal film. -JD
20. “Bend It Like Beckham,” directed by Gurinder Chadha (2002)
Like “A League Of Their Own” mixed with “Monsoon Wedding,” “Bend It Like Beckham” delivered an uplifting sports saga mixed with a comedic take on the familial conflict many first generation citizens face. Set in London, all Jesminder, or Jes (Parminder Nagra) wants is to play football, but she must hide the thing she loves doing most from her traditional Sikh family. With a breakout performance from Archie Panjabi as her bridezilla sister, and Keira Knightley in the role that solidified her lesbian fan base forever, “Bend It Like Beckham” is an undeniable classic. Infinitely re-watchable, with a broad appeal and feminist story that avoids cliché, this movie’s charm never fades. -JD
19. “Breathe,” directed by Melanie Laurent (2014)
Melanie Laurent’s gorgeous, twisted, and confident second feature directorial effort just might be this century’s definitive story of teen obsession, one made with unrelenting care and an abiding cleverness. Laurent’s stars – relative newcomer Joséphine Japy and the luminous Lou de Laâge, playing a pair of fast-friends high schoolers — may not be engaged in a sexual relationship, but the instant physical and emotional bond between the pair occasionally dips into some very gray areas, all the better to pack on the well-earned emotion and tension. Trapped in a friendship that slowly spins out into something ugly and abusive, it’s a slow burn tale of teen obsession with some major rewards (and even bigger questions). -KE
18. “No Home Movie,” directed by Chantal Akerman (2015)
The beloved Belgian filmmaker consistently used her own life as her canvas, blending reality and the avant garde into thrilling new patterns, and her final film — the deeply personal “No Home Movie” — is a fitting and finely honed conclusion to a life and career cut terribly short. 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, and it comes to startling ends in “No Home Movie,” which focuses on her fraught relationship with her mother as they both near the end of their lives (though only one knows it). It would feel invasive if Akerman wasn’t always so dedicated to making her audience feel nothing but welcome. -KE
17. “The Beaches of Agnes,” directed by Agnes Varda (2008)
At age 88, the indomitable and highly influential Varda continues to tease about the end of her career, while also churning out art told through continually experimental means (she just bowed yet another “final film” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, to rapturous reviews). 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. That same desire to chronicle her own life moves in a different manner in her 2008 documentary, “The Beaches of Agnes,” an appropriate mix of the meditative and the amusing. As Varda returns to the places and people that shaped her life, she also readies herself to say goodbye to them — if only materially — while still bringing her wholly distinct sense of humor and self to the film. We should all be so lucky to be as happy — and talented — as Varda. -KE
16. “Lovely and Amazing,” directed by Nicole Holofcener (2001)
More recently known for “Enough Said,” Nicole Holofcener writes the perfect kind of comedies; ones about deeply flawed characters that revel in the life’s inevitable messes. This nearly perfect film stars Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer as sisters, with the excellent Brenda Blethyn as their liposuction-seeking mother, and a scene-stealing Raven Goodwin as their adopted black sister. Each character is unlike any other woman you’ll see onscreen; equal parts self-deprecating and self-absorbed. Holofcener balances many elements, including a May-December affair with a young Jake Gyllenhaal, and using the young Goodwin as cheeky comedic fodder. It’s a bold choice that pays off. Wrongfully pegged a “smart chick-flick” by some, Holofcener is that rare double-whammy of an auteur whose genuine artistry is masked by sheer entertainment value. -JD
Check out choices 15 – 6 on the next page, including fraught families, an animated classic, a whale of a tale, and a powerful trip with America’s free-wheeling youth.