Kathryn Bigelow may have been the first female filmmaker to win a Best Director Oscar for 2009’s The Hurt Locker. But did you happen to notice that for the most recent Academy Awards, the nominees in the same category were all men — in a year when two movies directed by women, Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, were up for Best Picture?
Gender inequalities exist throughout the arts, but they’re especially pronounced in the rarefied world of film directing. We all know a few big-name women filmmakers: Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Susan Seidelman, Catherine Hardwicke, Nora Ephron, Julie Taymor. In honor of International Women’s Day, we present ten great, contemporary female directors who you may not know but should definitely check out.
Writer/director Nicole Holofcener has spent the past two decades making resonant, personal, independent films that center on the lives of regular women. Balancing drama and insight with a sharp wit, Holofcener coaxes subtle, realistic performances out of her ensemble casts — a talent that earned her (along with her actors and casting directors) a special Robert Altman Award at last month’s Independent Spirit Awards. We’ve also got to give Holofcener a shout out for spotlighting one of our favorite actresses, Catherine Keener, in every single one of her features.
A French filmmaker raised in various parts of Africa, Denis makes films that focus mostly on France’s African and other immigrant populations. Her movies are impeccably composed and edited, generally stick close to a few main characters, and proceed at a slow meditative pace. These are art films with an irresistible humanist touch.
Kelly Reichardt may only have a few films to her name, but she’s easily one of the most exciting voices of independent cinema’s new generation. Although she debuted in 1994 with the acclaimed River of Grass, Reichardt didn’t release a new movie until 2006’s Old Joy, which cast Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy) in a pensive roadtrip movie about a dissolving (or evolving) friendship. Reichardt has come to specialize in minimalist character studies of young people struggling to find their place in the world, the best of which is 2008’s heartbreaking Wendy and Lucy.
French filmmaker and novelist Catherine Breillat is known for telling brutal stories that mash up fairy tales, sisterly rivalry, and extreme sexuality. She’s been making films since the ’70s, but it was her bluntly titled 2001 breakthrough, Fat Girl, that won her a captive American audience. To truly enjoy Breillat, you have to appreciate her cruel sensibility — and for those of us who love it, she’s a perennial favorite.
The daughter of legendary American playwright Arthur Miller, Rebecca Miller wears many hats: she’s a writer, actress, and director who often adapts her own books. Like Holofcener, her absorbing dramas focus mostly on professional women in literary milieus — although Miller’s 2005 film, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which stars her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, as an environmentalist raising a teenage daughter alone, is a strong exception.
Although she now makes her home in Canada, Deepa Mehta’s creative heart belongs to her birthplace, India. She is best known for her Elements Trilogy (Fire, Earth, and Water), a set of three films, made over the course of a decade, that dramatize pressing controversies — religion, homosexuality, the treatment of women — that consume her homeland. Now, Mehta is collaborating with Salman Rushdie on an adaptation of his book, Midnight’s Children.
Of all the filmmakers on this list, Lena Dunham is by far the youngest and least experienced. And yet, at only 24, she already has one smart, entertaining, micro-budget movie under her belt, last year’s Tiny Furniture — which she wrote, directed, and starred in, winning a Best First Screenplay nod at the Independent Spirit Awards. Now, all signs point to a long, successful career: Back in the fall, HBO greenlighted Girls, a half-hour comedy series about 20-something ladies with backing from Judd Apatow.
A spare, keen-eyed, and pop-minded writer/director, Mary Harron came up as a music journalist in New York’s ’70s punk scene. She’s only made three features, each zeroing in on a controversial cultural figure or work: deranged feminist and SCUM Manifesto author Valerie Solanas, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, and pinup queen Bettie Page. Although it’s been six years since her last film, Harron has directed episodes of some of our favorite TV shows (Big Love, Six Feet Under) and is working on perhaps our most anticipated movie of all time, an adaptation of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s essential oral history of punk, Please Kill Me.
She may not have any Academy Awards under her belt, but Ondi Timoner is one of current cinema’s most perceptive documentary filmmakers. We first marveled at her light-handed storytelling in 2004’s DiG!, which followed bands the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre as they navigated art, fame, and (in the latter’s case) mental illness over a period of seven years. Lately, Timoner has turned her attention to the intersection of science, technology, and private lives. Her narrative debut, which we absolutely can’t wait for, will be the biopic Mapplethorpe (yes, as in Robert).
Sally Potter is an odd one, no doubt about it. Originally known for her avant-garde, feminist short films in the ’70s, Potter eventually brought her artsy aesthetic to full-length movies. Not every critic has embraced her non-linear way of working, which eschews static characterizations and straightforward plots in favor of narrative and linguistic experimentation, but we find that her films are always thought-provoking, even when they aren’t resounding successes.
Bonus: Women experimental filmmakers
Although experimental film tends to be male-dominated as well, women have had a good deal of success penetrating the high-art realm of cinema. In addition to Sally Potter, we’ve listed some of our favorites below: