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The 100 All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women

Films by Julie Dash, Chantal Akerman, Chloe Zhao, Forough Farrokhzad, Jennifer Lee, and many other female filmmakers made the list.

The 100 Greatest Films Directed by Women

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20. The Matrix (Lilly and Lana Wachowski, 1999)

"The Matrix"

“The Matrix”

Jasin Boland/Warner Bros/Village Roadshow/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The Wachowskis blended Asian film wire-work (choreographer Yuen Woo-ping) and gun play, cyberpunk anime, philosophical texts, and some CGI tricks of their own (bullet time) to create a completely different type of Hollywood film. (Plus, Keanu Reeves knows Kung Fu. Whoa.) Beyond its originality and influence, “The Matrix” is a thought-provoking, kickass action film. Its near-perfect screenplay didn’t water down the sci-fi complexity of their world, but it also didn’t get lost in rambling exposition. The sequels were disappointments that failed to deliver on the mythological potential of the original, but they can’t erase the greatness of this groundbreaking work. –CO

19. “Wanda” (Barbara Loden, 1970)

"Wanda"

“Wanda”

Before “Wanda,” Barbara Loden was best known for her stage work, some TV appearances, a small role in “Splendor in the Grass,” and, as is far too often the case with talented female artists, for her relationship with a man — in this case, her marriage to Elia Kazan. After “Wanda,” for which she’d win the International Critics Prize at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, she would be known by those who truly care about filmmaking craft as the director of one of the best films of the 1970s. Loden stars as Wanda, in addition to her duties behind the camera, a woman with little agency to do good or bad, it seems, but who just drifts through life until she gets caught up in a bank robber’s plot for a major heist. This is a film that looks at the female sidekick, or the moll, or the gangster’s girlfriend, a kind of passive stereotype that appears throughout movies again and again, and sees a crime thriller unfold through her eyes, rather than a man’s. It’s as disturbing a view of how society views women as disposable as “Vivre sa vie,” but unlike Godard’s film, which keeps you at a distance, Loden’s film brings you in – ending with as haunting a final close-up as you can find in the movies. —CB

18. “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

"The Adventures of Prince Achmed"

“The Adventures of Prince Achmed”

Lotte Reiniger’s expressionistic evocation of a story from “The One-Thousand and One Nights” was not the first feature-length animated film ever made — that honor would go to a couple films from Argentine director Quirino Christiani — but as far as we know, it’s the earliest one that survives. And what an epic it is: monsters, evil sorcerers, a journey across the sea through towering waves. But the expansiveness of the story has a striking counterpoint in the images, which are flat silhouettes that look like shadow puppets. This is not some puppet show that was staged live while the camera was rolling, however. It took three years of painstaking work to shoot each figure frame by frame to create the illusion of movement. A maximalist narrative — one dazzling sequence involves a sorcerer turning into multiple animals in rapid succession — paired with a minimalist visual style, allows for extraordinary delicacy of feeling. This is a unique exploration of two-dimensional animation, but its characters fully exist in three. —CB

17. “Fish Tank” (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

fish tank andrea arnold

“Fish Tank”

BBC Films

Andrea Arnold had already made a Cannes-winning feature and won a short film Oscar by the time “Fish Tank” premiered in 2009, but the coming-of-age drama confirmed the English filmmaker deserved a spot on the list of best working directors. “Fish Tank,” starring Katie Jarvis as a 15-year-old who begins an affair with her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) is one of the most fearless dramas ever made about female sexuality. Arnold’s handheld camera is jolting for the way it captures her protagonist’s sexual awakening and emotional turmoil. The director didn’t give her actors full scripts in advance of filming and decided to tell them the plot on a day-of-shooting basis, and that spontaneous energy and sense of discovery is at the forefront of every scene.—ZS

16. “Zero Dark Thirty” (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

"Zero Dark Thirty"

“Zero Dark Thirty”

Annapurna Pictures/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

One of the problems with a majority of the political criticisms of “Zero Dark Thirty” and screenwriter Mark Boal’s CIA-friendly sourcing, is it ignores what is on screen. While Bigelow likes to play political agnostic, the film captures America’s post-9/11 blind obsession with retribution. While people can debate if torture led to real intelligence, and if “Zero Dark Thirty” celebrates that it did, Bigelow’s camera shows more interest in the people behind the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. It’s run-and-gun filmmaking with a precision only Bigelow can bring, as that tired feeling of endless pursuit is captured so beautifully through action and characters-in-motion. The raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound is an incredible action set piece filmed with shocking authenticity that registers as the most subversive filmmaking of the last decade – the country’s greatest moment of victory in the war against terrorism is rendered morally ambiguous, at best, by Bigelow’s images. When Jessica Chastain unzips Bin Laden’s body bag, it’s not a moment of cathartic victory, but something stranger and more profound: Chastain’s blank stare is esssentially a mirror of what we’ve become – and it ends the film with a clear question: Was it all worth it? –CO

15. “Dance, Girl, Dance” (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)

"Dance, Girl, Dance"

“Dance, Girl, Dance”

Shutterstock

While several women directors, like comedienne Mabel Normand, directed films during Hollywood’s silent age, as the film industry became more commercially established, men completely took the reins. The first female director in the early sound era and the first woman to join the DGA, Arzner consistently turned out features from 1927 through 1943; she invented the boom mic on her first film, a remake of “Wild Party” starring Clara Bow, and broke out Katharine Hepburn (androgynous “Christopher Strong”) and Rosalind Russell (“Craig’s Wife”), among others. Her 20 features were well-made if not groundbreaking in form. One feminist standout — included in the National Film Registry — is backstage show business story “Dance, Girl, Dance,” which was choreographed by Arzner’s longtime life partner Marion Morgan. Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara are in top form as dancers vying to land jobs as well as the same man (Louis Hayward). In one pivotal audition scene, Ball is the flirty bootie-shaker who lands a hula dance gig after serious dancer Maureen O’Hara fails to seduce the cigar-chomping man making the hire. Arzner makes her point by showing his face in extreme close-up as he responds to each woman, first impassive, then totally aroused. –AT

14. “Yentl” (Barbra Streisand, 1983)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1642929a)Yentl, Barbra StreisandFilm and Television

“Yentl”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Papa, can you hear me? It’s a good question, and just as relevant today as it was in 1983, when the legendary singer and actress Barbra Streisand dropped a bombshell directorial debut with “Yentl.” The film’s most famous song could very well become a rallying cry for women filmmakers in perpetuity, who have been consistently locked out of — or invisible to — the patriarchal institutions that award film’s top honors. Told with a Shakespearean scope, the period musical follows a Polish Jewish woman who dresses as a boy in order to study the Talmud after her father dies. The movie is a grand, sweeping, period drama and original musical, complete with a helicopter shot finale on a boat. After watching an early cut, Steven Spielberg was floored, famously telling her: “Don’t change a frame.” Streisand directed, starred, co-produced, and co-wrote the film — a first at the time — and she became the first (and only!) woman to ever win the Golden Globe for Best Director. —JD

13. “Clueless” (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883440b)Alicia Silverstone, Stacey DashClueless - 1995Director: Amy HeckerlingParamountUSAScene StillJane Austen

“Clueless”

Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

It would be difficult to overstate the cultural significance of “Clueless” — both as a perfect representation of the ‘90s zeitgeist and as a triumph of biting feminist satire. Children of that decade cannot see a mini-skirt or brightly-colored plaid without conjuring an image of Cher Horowitz standing in her drool-worthy automatic closet. And you can practically hear today’s brand of sex-positive, pop-culture-obsessed DIY feminism being born the moment Tai tells Cher: “You’re virgin and you can’t drive.” Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, the catchphrase-drenched comedy managed to deliver a coming-of-age film, a teen ensemble comedy, and romcom, all within a stylishly-packaged Jane Austen riff. Heckerling’s first brilliant move was re-branding “Emma” as a ditzy Beverly Hills popular girl, imbuing her with an infectious spirit and an impeccable fashion sense. While fewer and fewer people seem to understand what directors actually do, Heckerling launched many a career with her visionary casting, invented an infectious and enduring lexicon with her whip-smart script, and oversaw the creation of an instantly recognizable world with fashion-forward set and costume design. As Cher Horowitz might say, “That’s, like, totally radical.”—JD

12. “Winter’s Bone” (Debra Granik, 2010)

Winter's Bone

“Winter’s Bone”

Far more than Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout role — though it certainly did that job well — Debra Granik’s backwoods noir delivers a fascinating window into the survival instincts of America’s lower class. Set in the heart of Missouri’s Ozark woods, the movie revolves around a despondent teenager whose father vanishes after selling their house as jail bond. While serving as a surrogate mother for her two younger siblings, Ree begins a trenchant investigation into her father’s whereabouts, following a tangled path of dangerous criminals and drug addicts through the woodsy landscape.
But the solution to this mystery matters less than the mood under which it unfolds — dreary exchanges pitched between fatigue and anger define this isolated world, which may as well be post-apocalyptic. Still, there are glimmers of hope that break through: the abrupt rhythms of a bluegrass tune, Ree’s willingness to stand strong against the powerful men who confront her, and a final image that suggests her capacity to keep going at all costs is the ultimate conquest. Under the radar when it premiered at Sundance, “Winter’s Bone” won the festival and ultimately scored four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Lawrence. Years would pass before Granik made another absorbing look at provincial survivors with “Leave No Trace,” but “Winter’s Bone” distills her filmmaking mastery so well it guarantees her place in film history as a first-rate storyteller. —EK

11. “The Rider” (Chloe Zhao, 2018)

"The Rider"

“The Rider”

Sony Pictures Classics

Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider” singlehandedly proves cinema is an empathy machine like no other. Similar to her feature debut “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” Zhao uses “The Rider” to explore a pocket of American life that has more universal truths about sacrifice and human growth than the viewer is expecting at first. Half of the film’s success is in casting first-time actor Brady Jandreau in the story of his own life. The choice makes “The Rider” an autobiographical memory piece in which the leading actor wrestles with past choices and its impact on his experiences in the present. Zhao’s handheld camera embodies her sensitive approach, and when she opens up the visual scope to capture a fleeting sunset on the plains the film takes on a lyrical quality that’s truly next-level. —ZS

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