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The 25 Best Films Directed By Women of the 21st Century, From ‘Lost in Translation’ to ‘Persepolis’

From "Lost in Translation" to "Persepolis," "American Psycho" to "No Home Movie," here are are the 25 best films made by female filmmakers of this century (so far).

15. “The Kids Are All Right,” directed by Lisa Cholodenko (2010)

“The Kids Are All Right”

After making some challenging masterpieces, Lisa Cholodenko finally knocked it out of the park with a witty and artful take on contemporary family life. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are kinetic as a controlling power lesbian and her free-spirited wife who has an affair with their sperm donor, played with quintessential laidback brio by Mark Ruffalo. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson bring a perfect blend of child-like innocence and willful precociousness as the titular kids. The film was a critical and box-office success, though some LGBT critics bristled at the “lesbian turns straight” trope. In our opinion, Cholodenko gets a pass as an out lesbian in Hollywood who makes great films — and it turns out all right in the end. -JD

14. “Persepolis,” co-directed by Marjane Satrapi (2007)


Based on the best-selling graphic memoir about her childhood growing up during the Iranian revolution of 1979, Marjane Satrapi’s directorial debut lost nothing in translation from page to screen. The animated film honored Satrapi’s original drawings, sticking to simple black and white, and the addition of music and voiceover added a whole new layer to her whimsical storytelling. An otherwise harrowing tale of wrongful imprisonment and political revolution, the young Marjane remains obstinately idealistic even as her world crumbles around her. As in the novel, the juxtaposition of the cute drawings and the very real and dangerous events gives “Persepolis” an ineffable power. -JD

13. “Wendy and Lucy,” directed by Kelly Reichardt (2008)

“Wendy and Lucy”

Kelly Reichardt’s work has always displayed a keen knack for the capturing the intimacies and heartbreaks of the working class, and while later works like “Certain Women” and “Meek’s Cutoff” (Reichardt goes period, with startling results) continue in that tradition, nothing else is as deeply felt as her first collaboration with star Michelle Williams. The Cannes premiere follows Williams as the eponymous Wendy, a young woman hoping for a better life and losing nearly everything — namely, her beloved dog Lucy — along the way. Reichardt never revels in the fear or shame of her characters, and her deep humanism only makes Wendy’s plight all the more compelling. -KE

12. “The Arbor,” directed by Clio Barnard (2010)

“The Arbor”

Clio Barnard immersively and masterfully mixes together narrative tropes with documentary tricks to tell the complex story of lauded British playwright Andrea Dunbar in a film that’s as fresh today as the day she conceived it. Named after Dunbar’s play of the same title, Barnard uses staged recreations and various actors to unspool a look at Dunbar’s exceedingly rough upbringing and her unshakable desire to succeed, all while lip-syncing to actual interviews from Dunbar and her family. Mostly focused on her fraught relationship with daughter Lorraine, “The Arbor” uses a seemingly basic story to frame a wildly original and unique storytelling conceit. Each story can have its own telling, its own force, and Barnard embraces that it in rewarding ways that never fail to surprise. -KE

11. “American Honey,” directed by Andrea Arnold (2016)

"American Honey"

“American Honey”

At just under three hours long, “American Honey” takes the viewer on a long, strange journey, which mirrors her young protagonist’s own foray into the wilderness. Escaping an abusive home life, Star (Sasha Lane) joins up with a traveling van of misfit toys, otherwise known as “candy kids” (in this case, “magazine kids”). Less salacious than sex trafficking, and hence rarely reported on, Arnold dives head first into the nefarious world of human trafficking and the slippery slope that leads many into a life of modern day indentured servitude. Shia LeBeouf is erratic and charismatic as Star’s seducer Jake, a role uniquely suited to his particular talents. Through many long scenes on the road, in the van, or wandering deserted suburban cul-de-sacs, Arnold slowly builds out Star’s limited world as the walls close in on her ever tighter. It’s endurance cinema at its finest, and put to good use as a masterful exploration of a teen girl’s self-discovery. -JD

10. “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay (2014)


Ava DuVernay’s Best Picture nominee marked a tremendous step forward for the indie filmmaker (previously best known for her festival favorite “Middle of Nowhere”), though she kept close to her perpetual aims to find the personal in a story about something universal (and, in the particular case of “Selma,” a story that many people already think they well know). Her Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic — focused on his work in Selma, Alabama — is moving, rich, and intimate, but it also isn’t bogged down with the normal trappings we’d expect from such a feature. DuVernay gets to the heart of both King and the battles he fought, and she also doesn’t balk at showing his less appealing attributes. It’s not just a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the past, it’s a film about a man and the present. -KE

9. “Stories We Tell,” directed by Sarah Polley (2012)

“Stories We Tell”

In this deeply personal documentary, Canadian actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley blurs the line between filmmaker and film, as the best documentaries often do. The redheaded Polley never looked much like her siblings; her family often joked that her mom, Diane, had had an affair with the mailman. Her mother died young, when Polley was just 11, so the truth remained a mystery for years — until she decided to go looking for it. Unraveling like a thriller, but with the heart and soul of a touching memoir, “Stories We Tell” uses mystery to uncover a profound truth about the nature of stories. Polley draws from interviews with the father who raised her, her half-siblings, and three potential biological fathers, as well as Super 8 footage shot to look like home movies to weave her gripping narrative. All the while wondering — is she telling story, or is the story telling her? -JD

8. “The Babadook,” directed by Jennifer Kent (2014)

“The Babadook”

Jennifer Kent seemingly came out of nowhere when her directorial debut “The Babadook” became an instant horror classic at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and she’s been one of the most high profile female indie filmmakers ever since. Without ever falling into imitation, Kent manages to evoke the atmosphere of horror masters like Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski in this tale of a mother and son plagued by a storybook demon. For all the expertly crafted jump scares and bump-in-the-night suspense, Kent’s genius is in grounding her horror tale in the destabilizing emotions of a grieving mother. Essie Davis’ Amelia has been unable to move on since her husband’s death, and Kent makes sure her trauma is every much as real and unrelenting as the titular monster. And let’s not beat around the bush: Kent knows how to do an old-fashioned horror sequence like the legends she so clearly adores. She draws out the tension of looking under a bed or waiting for a monster to turn the corner with a calculated menace, so much so that she leaves the viewer begging for the scare to arrive. That’s great horror filmmaking. -Zack Sharf

7. “Whale Rider,” directed by Niki Caro (2002)

“Whale Rider”

Based on the novel by the first published Maori author, Witi Ihimaera, comes an uplifting film about a 12-year-old Maori girl named Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) who wishes to become leader of her tribe. Though the line of succession points to her, a woman has never been tribe leader, much less a little girl. As her grandfather trains the boys, hoping to find a leader amongst them, Pai follows his lessons in secret. When a group of whales wash up on the shore, only Pai is able to save the whales by communicating with them. An inspiring tale of a girl succeeding against strict traditions but still honoring her past, “Whale Rider” tugged at heartstrings while avoiding classic pitfalls. The New Zealand-born director made great use of the small island’s stunning landscape, and handled her source material sensitively and respectfully. -JD

6. “Monsoon Wedding,” directed by Mira Nair (2001)

“Monsoon Wedding”

Though getting a Broadway adaptation isn’t exactly the zenith of cinematic achievement, it speaks to the smash hit status of “Monsoon Wedding” that it will soon join the ranks of “Legally Blonde,” “The Wedding Singer,” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” A wedding movie to rival all wedding movies, Mira Nair’s runaway hit is a sumptuous ensemble tale that follows the affairs, money woes, and familial dramas surrounding an epic Delhi wedding. Boasting a rich hybrid score of contemporary and classic Indian music and suffused with the vibrancy of what feels like the entire color spectrum, Nair fully immerses the viewer in the dizzying sights and sounds of Delhi. The international co-production remains one of the most successful Indian crossover films ever made, its unique blend of comedy and melodrama proving as alluring as the country itself. -JD

Check out our top 5 choices on the next page, including an explosive war story, the world’s most nattily-dressed killer, and stories about unexpected connections, lost and found.

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