It’s no secret that the numbers surrounding women in cinema are dismal. Melissa Silverstein’s Women and Hollywood recently reported that only 74 of the 271 people invited to join the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences this year were women. We also know that for every 15 or so male directors, there is just one female director. At the same time, filmmakers of all genders continue to explore new representations of women in cinema. We thought it was time to revisit some essential feminist films (a few classics and several, perhaps, unexpected picks) that deconstruct gender identity, explore issues pertinent to women and their history, and challenge the patriarchy. These films, directed by women and men, have broadened the scope of female representation in cinema.
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50. The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson
An intimate portrait of feminist art-punk activist icon Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin, and one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. Interviews from Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, and other cultural compatriots build the lineage of feminism — striking a compelling balance “between history and personality.”
49. The Trouble with Angels, Ida Lupino
“Not only did [Ida] Lupino take control of production, direction and screenplay, but each of her movies addresses the brutal repercussions of sexuality, independence and dependence,” Carrie Rickey once wrote of the pioneering and prolific filmmaker. The Trouble with Angels was Lupino’s first film in over a decade and helped former Disney actress Hayley Mills establish the next stage in her career. The coming-of-age tale, set at an all-girls Catholic school, explores the struggles and hopes of young women in a world without men.
48. A View to a Kill, John Glen
The James Bond canon is hardly “feminist,” but hear me out. One person who is rarely discussed when it comes to the franchise is one of the most powerful women behind the series, Barbara Broccoli. Daughter of famed producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who established the franchise as a blockbuster extravaganza, Broccoli started working as a Bond publicist as a teenager. She became assistant director on 1983’s Octopussy at 23 years old and found herself in the same role two years later for A View to a Kill. The Roger Moore-starring film boasts Broccoli’s influence and atypical Bond girl May Day, played by Grace Jones. Bond’s transformation throughout the 1980s saw the secret agent allying with unique female characters who were portrayed more like equals instead of mere eye candy. The Jamaican musician and actress, who has been a raucous proponent of female empowerment for decades, plays a bodyguard in the movie with superior strength — enough to even outperform 007.
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47. Clueless, Amy Heckerling
One of only a handful of women working behind the camera in mainstream cinema during the early 1980s and ‘90s, Amy Heckerling created a female-led comedy that at first glance doesn’t seem to have any feminist underpinnings, but is full of surprises. Written by Heckerling as a loose interpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless boasts a strong cast of comedic women who are not only outspoken and confident, but also reflect on their choices and take responsibility for the course of their lives. Subtle nods to historical pioneers, like the reference to Louisa May Alcott (“Bronson Alcott High School”), are a fun addition.
46. Nine to Five, Colin Higgins
“They’re showing the Boss who’s the BOSS!” You’re damn right. And also because: Dolly.
45. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Patricia Rozema
A Canadian comedy featuring an awkward Girl Friday that touches upon creative frustration, rivalry, and the stigma of women living alone. It’s even Camille Paglia-approved: “Here’s a smaller product with no budget, and you get this wonderful realism and comedy. This girl’s kind of aimless, yet plucky. It’s the twentysomething problem with self-definition.”
44. Between Heaven and Earth, Marion Hänsel
Marion Hänsel’s existential, feminist allegory with a sci-fi bent finds one pregnant woman questioning the world around her when her unborn child objects to being born.
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43. The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel
New Argentine Cinema figure Lucrecia Martel draws connections to the country’s dark political/class struggles, transposing its “disappeared” from the mid-to-late ‘70s into a sedate, challenging story about a woman’s fractured state following a fatal accident and its ensuing cover-up.
42. Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, Lou Adler
One of the greatest, albeit most underrated, punk films and proto-Riot Grrrl works, written by Nancy Dowd in her post-Academy Award (Coming Home) era, starring baby-faced Diane Lane as a total badass. The poster’s tagline says it all: “These girls created themselves.”
41. Female Misbehavior, Monika Treut
Annie Sprinkle and Camille Paglia star in celebrated lesbian writer-director Monika Treut’s four-part documentary highlighting transgressive sexuality, feminist performance art, and one person’s journey making a female-to-male transition.
40. Ai zai bie xiang de ji jie (Farewell China), Clara Law
Hong Kong award winner Farewell to China, scripted by frequent collaborator/partner Eddie Fong and starring the great Maggie Cheung, explores Asian displacement in America. Director Clara Law spoke about the dark origins of the film in a 2010 interview:
I did a lot of research on how Chinese families live in New York. I heard about lots of success stories, but I also heard lots of stories about women having psychological or mental problems. It’s probably because they don’t have to work. They stay home and they become very lonely. As their children grow up and start speaking English to them, they feel very rejected and abandoned, and lots of them developed mental problems. A lot of women committed suicide. There are lots of stories that we’ve heard about. I didn’t make a connection with these women in our films until now.
39. Storme: Lady of the Jewel Box, Michelle Parkerson
An intimate documentary about the “Rosa Parks of the gay community.” Stormé DeLarverie, “who may or may not have thrown the first punch at the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village,” was an LGBT activist and drag king hailing from America’s first racially integrated gender impersonation show, the Jewel Box Revue (a regular production at the Apollo in Harlem). The performer even caught the attention of photographer Diane Arbus. In her later years she was a bouncer at lesbian bars and emceed pride parties, fighting intolerance and challenging social constructs of gender norms.
Station Wagon Productions
38. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, Sarah Jacobson
Radical underground cinema director Sarah Jacobson spoke to Film Vault in 1998 about her movie debut — the feminist splatter short I Was a Teenage Serial Killer — shot when she was only 20 years old:
I consider myself a feminist filmmaker, definitely. The whole reason I got into film was because I never saw cool girls in films that I liked. I have no fear of the word “feminist.” I know that has certain negative connotations to some people, but then why should I let other people’s stupidity bully what I want to do, right?
To me, feminism means that I should have an equal opportunity to do what I want to do as a woman. I don’t want to be better than men, I don’t want to shut men up. It’s like, look, you’ve got your little thing over here, you’ve got your B-movie aesthetic, and I’ve got my interpretation of it that girls can enjoy, too, so you don’t always have to watch the bimbo get raped or slashed or stalked or whatever.
That’s what Serial Killer was, you know? A reaction to the serial killer chic that was so “in” at the time. I thought it would be fun to kind of turn the tables on it all. You had all these guys going, “Yeah! Kill the girl! Kill the girl!” and it was like, “Hey, why don’t we just kill the guy?” But only the stupid ones, because, you know, not all guys are bad. Some of my best friends are men.
37. The Student Nurses, Stephanie Rothman
Under the tutelage of B-cinema king Roger Corman, Stephanie Rothman started her film career in the horror and exploitation realm, releasing this subversive movie in 1970 — the first under Corman’s New World Pictures banner. Rothman discussed balancing personal and professional interests within the exploitation genre in a 2007 interview:
Once I paid my debt to the requirements of the genre, allowed me to address what interested me — and continues to interest me today — political and social conflicts and the changes they produce. It allowed me to have a dramatized discussion about issues that were then being ignored in big-budget major studio films: for example, a discussion about the economic problems of poor Mexican immigrants–who were and still are America’s largest immigrant population — and their unhappy, restive children; and a discussion about a woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion when, at the time, abortion was still illegal in America. I have always wondered why the major studios were not making films about these topics. What kind of constraints were at work on them? My guess is that is was nothing but the over-privileged lives, limited curiosity and narrow minds of the men, and in those days they were always men, who decided which films would be made.
Corman has always employed female directors (including Amy Holden Jones and Rita Mae Brown, who created The Slumber Party Massacre), and he backed up Rothman’s take on the subject in his essential book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime : “It was important to the filmmakers and me that we have something to say within the films… I insisted each (nurse) had to work out her problems without relying on a boyfriend.”
36. Baadasssss Cinema, Isaac Julien
BaadAsssss Cinema gives a platform for blaxploitation greats like Pam Grier to discuss the influence of the genre on cinema, hip hop culture, gender bias, and more. Added bonus: commentary from author and activist bell hooks.
35. Sisters in Law, Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto
Female magistrates in Cameroon, West Africa seek justice for women and children who have been abused, raped, and neglected. Slant’s 2006 review captures the heart of the film’s message:
Hope springs eternal in the documentary’s greatest scene: Manka, the little girl tortured by her aunt, smiles for the first time in the film as Ngassa teases her about the new clothes she’s been given. It is a vision of healing and possibility that validates a mission with the greatest of intentions: to assert that men and women are equal under the law. For a Muslim culture in Africa, Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba’s work is perhaps without precedent—by the end, the audience hopes that it catches on and becomes a norm.
34. The Body Beautiful, Ngozi Onwurah
British-Nigerian director Ngozi Onwurah’s autobiographical short film (starring the filmmaker and her mother) examines racial and sexual identity (including those linked to the director’s modeling career in a predominantly white industry), body image, and womanhood in the context of memory (the elder Onwurah’s mastectomy is a focus) and fantasy.
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33. Song of the Exile, Ann Hui
Revered Hong Kong New Wave cinema figure Ann Hui filmed a moving autobiographical portrait of the cultural clashes and identity issues surrounding Hui’s return to Hong Kong and her relationship with her Japanese mother. “She uses a cine-feminist autobiographical practice to engender the genre by interpreting herself publicly in a patriarchal (film) culture,” writes Audrey Yue in her book, Ann Hui’s Song of Exile.
32. I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron
Harron’s freshman feature sparked a fascination with figures on the fringe. I Shot Andy Warhol centers on radical feminist and SCUM Manifesto creator Valerie Solanas (played by the fantastic Lili Taylor), who attempted to kill Andy Warhol in 1968. Harron’s dark satire American Psycho often precludes her from feminist discussions, but the film was, in part, a critique of male misogyny (it doesn’t get more direct than Patrick Bateman’s weapon of choice, a phallic chainsaw).
31. Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay
“Morvern Callar is ultimately about the grieving process, though some viewers are understandably frustrated by a central character who gives off so little emotion and invites so little sympathy. Why should we care?” Scott Tobias of A.V. Club asked, before suggesting: “Well, maybe because Morvern is right to feel burned by the bloody mess her boyfriend has left behind. And maybe because characters don’t have to be sympathetic to be compelling.” Especially women.
30. I Will Follow, Ava DuVernay
A model of African-American independent cinema about grief and family — free of the hoary clichés, full of multidimensional characters, beautifully understated.
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29. Smithereens, Susan Seidelman
A punk, feminist riff on the coming-of-age drama with a real, imperfect woman (Susan Berman) at its center. “I wanted the film to be slightly stylized, but also capture the gritty reality of life in the East Village,” Seidelman told Filmmaker Magazine. “I also wanted Smithereens to include some moments of irony and humor to counter-balance the harshness of Wren’s life. I would call the tone of the film ‘pushed realism.’ The characters are real, the emotions are real, but some of the situations and art direction are ‘stylized.'”
28. Female Trouble, John Waters
Giving the bad girls and outcasts a place in the canon — even if they wind up in the electric chair. “My films are about people who would never win in real life. They always win in my movies,” Waters once said.
27. Christopher Strong, Dorothy Arzner
Pioneering director Dorothy Arzner, one of the only women to make a successful jump from silent cinema to talkies (becoming as prolific as her male counterparts, if not moreso), helped launch the careers of Hollywood strongwomen like Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn. She cast the outspoken Morning Glory actress in 1933’s Christopher Strong:
It’s the story of a record-breaking English aviatrix who falls in love with a distinguished political figure (Colin Clive). As soon as they go to bed together, he insists — late on the very first night — that she not fly in the contest she is entered in. It’s the intelligent woman’s primal post-coital scene. In movies up to the ’70s, this primal scene was never played out satisfactorily; the woman always gave in, either in the paste-up screwball style that provided the fake resolutions of the ’40s, or, as in this picture, fatally. . . . It’s not one that independent-minded women can easily forget.
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26. Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt’s devastating story about a young woman (and her beloved dog) who attempts to start over in life, but is met with heartbreaking obstacles, raises issues of gender/social inequality without maudlin gimmicks.
25. 3 Women, Robert Altman
“Possibly the most striking and talked-about ‘women’s films’ of the time; compensatory nods to the fair sex by [an] alpha-male [director], but still memorable,” wrote Molly Haskell.
24. Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki
A thread of feminism weaves itself through the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps his most mature film, Princess Mononoke features a memorable and tenacious heroine, San, who subverts feminine stereotypes and is written without the fanciful quirks commonly found in animation (hello, Disney). Wolf-goddess character Moro deserves attention as an unlikely mother figure that is fierce and, well, totally pissed off (you would be too if people were destroying your home), but wise and nurturing.
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23. Dogfight, Nancy Savoca
A rare film set during the Vietnam War and told from the perspective of a woman, Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight reveals a different kind of cruelty people inflict upon one another, off the battlefield — in this case, a group of misogynistic Marines using women in a contest of looks. Lili Taylor’s peace-loving Rose, who becomes one of the targets in this game, soon realizes she’s being courted by River Phoenix’s Eddie for the wrong reasons — though his guilt and seemingly genuine interest in Rose is apparent. Rose confronts Eddie about the game, defending the honor of all women involved, which winds up bringing them closer together. In Old Wives’ Tales: Feminist Re-visions of Film and Other Fictions, author Tania Modleski writes:
In view of the narcissistic self-referentiality of many male-directed Vietnam films, which repeatedly and utterly disqualify women as authorities in matters of war and peace, we can perhaps appreciate Savoca’s audacity in having her heroine’s aspirations and values point a way out of the trap in which the soldier finds himself.
22. Alien, Ridley Scott
“She’s not a sidekick, arm candy, or a damsel to be rescued. She isn’t a fantasy version of a woman. The character is strong enough to survive multiple screenwriters. She was lucky enough to be played by Sigourney Weaver,” said Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America President John Scalzi of Ellen Ripley from 1979’s Alien. Defying genre cinema’s gender clichés (she is gender neutral, really) as the clear-minded, intelligent, and capable officer of the ship Nostromo, Ripley is more resourceful than the men who employ her and steps in to take over when all hell breaks loose.
21. Orlando, Sally Potter
Our own Judy Berman recently highlighted Tilda Swinton’s performance in Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s satirical text that explores gender and artistic subjectivity, a project that was ambitious in both form and content:
Although it’s far more straightforward a narrative than most of her work, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando still presents one major challenge for the big screen: its protagonist is a nobleman in Elizabethan England who lives a life that spans centuries, and is suddenly transformed into a woman midway through it. Tilda Swinton may be the only (allegedly) human actor equipped to play the role of such a regal, mysterious androgyne, and her performance in this adaptation — also a breakthrough for director Sally Potter — became her signature.
20. Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden
Shot in a pseudo-documentary style and set in a futuristic New York City following a socialist revolution, Born in Flames melds science fiction and feminist politics. Despite government changes, sexism and racism are still on the rise, and an underground network of women unite in their own liberation.
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19. India Song, Marguerite Duras
The wife of a French diplomat in India during the 1930s takes other lovers to relieve the boredom of bourgeois life. Duras blurs masculine and feminine responses to the affairs, deconstructing rigid sex and gender categorizations.
18. The Last Mistress, Catherine Breillat
Breillat on why The Last Mistress is a feminist revision of the femme fatale:
Everything was in the book, including the conversations between the Contesse d’Artelles et the Marquise de Flers, when they analyse how you have to manipulate a man, which are indeed very feminist. I knew that people would say I’d written this but it’s in the book, it was written by Barbey d’Aurevilly. However, I have explored the myth of the femme fatale. Vellini is the femme fatale, she’s a ‘flamenco’ character, she comes from Seville, but I approached her through the vamps of the 30s and 40s, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth; and also Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu… créa la femme, she has that singular sexual freedom, the freedom to provoke desire knowingly, which caused a scandal when the book came out, and later when Bardot made the film. . . . I thought that the flamenco character [played by Asia Argento] had to be a rock’n’roll character in our times. She had to have a very sexual, provocative side, but also be very androgynous. Rock’n’roll women are both feminine and masculine. They are aggressively sexual.
17. A Question of Silence, Marleen Gorris
Hailed as a feminist classic, A Question of Silence finds Marleen Gorris — the first woman to direct a movie that won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film (Antonia’s Line) — explores issues of violence and oppression in a male-dominated society, through a drama about three women who murder a man. Shot in 1982, the film is especially resonant due to the time period, before the legal system had adequately addressed many of the rights and issues affecting women.
16. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy
Celebrated for its vivid milieu, Jacques Demy’s sensitively characterized film is a superior look at an independent woman (Catherine Deneuve) in a romantic narrative who makes difficult choices about marriage, children, and survival that sometimes leave her alone — but she is never lonely because of that.
Photo by Essential Filproduktion/Societe Parisienne De Production/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
15. Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari
“When [the novella] was written, it was impossible to talk about politics. When Shirin made the film, she was free, she was out of Iran, she could talk about political change,” Shahrnush Parsipur told an audience in 2012 about the film adaptation of her story Zanan Bedun-e Mardan (Women without Men), directed by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. In the movie, four Iranian women living in Tehran during the 1953 coup d’état find solace and independence in an orchard.
14. Daisies, Vera Chytilová
The young women in Vera Chytilová’s Czech New Wave farce “construct fluid identities for themselves, keenly aware of their sexuality, toying with the men who pursue them. It’s an exhilarating, surreal, anarchic experiment, framed by the turbulent 1960s.”
13. Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), Kenji Mizoguchi
Another unflinching portrait of the exploitation and marginalization of women in Japanese society (drawn in part from the experiences of Mizoguchi’s sister and mother) who make the ultimate sacrifice, with a knowing look at the (weak) men whose successes are dependent on it.
12. Dyketactics, Barbara Hammer
Groundbreaking experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer — who tackles issues of gender, sexuality, and aging — directed the first film portraying lesbian lovemaking, made by a lesbian.
11. The Sisters Trilogy, Margarethe von Trotta
One of the leaders of the New German Cinema movement and an essential feminist filmmaker, Margarethe von Trotta’s Sisters Trilogy (Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness, Marianne and Juliane, Three Sisters) depicts the rejection of female roles in traditional society and the bonds of sisterhood that are tested by traumatic events.
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10. All About My Mother, Pedro Almodóvar
“To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother,” reads the dedication in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 film All About My Mother. It might be impossible to find a more diverse collective of complex women: a pregnant nun, a grieving mother, a lesbian actress, and a transgender prostitute.
9. Sweetie, Jane Campion
Campion’s first feature film is an audacious look at family dysfunction and a pair of sisters — one exasperated and stunted by her sibling’s mental illness. Dana Polan discussed Campion’s ability to depict “the psychosexual realities of women’s lives”:
All of Campion’s features offer versions of this story, as if each were a piece in an overall experiment in which Campion as testing how women wend their way through the thorny terrain of heterosexual desire and dread.
8. De cierta manera (One Way or Another), Sara Gómez, Julio García Espinosa, Thomas González Pérez, and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Sarah Gomez’s One Way or Another is a significant feminist critique of marginalized groups at watershed moments in history, with a focus on the Cuban revolution.
7. Riddles of the Sphinx, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen
Director Laura Mulvey on her essential avant-garde feminist film, Riddles of the Sphinx:
We were both very interested in the politics of psychoanalysis and feminism and we were both very interested in the question of language and how experimental language could be transferred to film. The theoretical questions we were interested in were similar, albeit a kind of tangle in themselves, a mixture between psychoanalytic theory and aesthetic theory, dislocations between sound and image characteristic of an avant-garde strategy. . . . We were always interested in stories and storytelling. But we were also interested in stories as a way of probing or experimenting with other ways of telling stories. There was perhaps a rather divided sense between feminists who felt female artists could come up with completely new imagery that would reflect women’s sensibility and a feminist aesthetic just by wanting to.
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6. Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash
Julie Dash directed the first feature film by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States in 1991 — a stunningly captured look at three generations of Gullah women off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia in 1902.
5. Faces, John Cassavetes
Star Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ wife and frequent collaborator, spoke about the director’s uncommonly sensitive look at relationships:
You hear both sides — many feminists attack him. He had a great interest in women and a great sympathy for them. His opinion was that society made women quite crazy — and not just the men. It was their mothers making them crazy half of the time. He said men got all the blame but their mothers told them which way to act and to pretend things that they didn’t feel and say things they didn’t mean, to inflate a man’s ego . . . I just thought he saw through a lot of games.
He had an insatiable curiosity and compassion for just regular people, very often working-class people or artists or women. In Faces, there were older women who expressed their desires and frustrations and that was just not seen at the time. It was considered embarrassing for an older woman to have anything to say about anything emotional.
4. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Agnès Varda
BFI’s Jemma Desai on Varda’s 1977 film about female friendship and feminism in the ’60s and ’70s:
Agnès Varda’s most overtly feminist film charts the friendship between two very different women. Pomme, a high school rebel, befriends Suzanne, a working class young wife and mother after the suicide of Suzanne’s husband leaves her destitute and hopeless. Through the friends’ very different journeys — Pomme’s subsequent bohemian career as a travelling singer and Suzanne’s period of working class poverty — Varda paints a picture of the utopian optimism and energy of the 1970s feminist movement in France, and of female friendship as a sisterhood that survives against all odds.
3. Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren
The bar for avant-garde female filmmaking, born from personal experiences and anxieties. Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental classic builds its interior female perspective and constructs of selfhood through dreamlike imagery.
2. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s crowning achievement, released in 1928, that still painfully echoes contemporary cases of female oppression — the film’s silent context taking on an unintentional resonance:
Carl Dreyer’s last silent, the greatest of all Joan of Arc films. . . . Joan is played by stage actress Renee Falconetti, and though hers is one of the key performances in the history of movies, she never made another film. (Antonin Artaud also appears in a memorable cameo.) Dreyer’s radical approach to constructing space and the slow intensity of his mobile style make this ‘difficult’ in the sense that, like all the greatest films, it reinvents the world from the ground up. It’s also painful in a way that all Dreyer’s tragedies are, but it will continue to live long after most commercial movies have vanished from memory.
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1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman
The New York Times described Chantal Akerman’s imposing, languid opus and feminist breakthrough — about a widowed housewife and mother who prostitutes herself to survive — as the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema.” Ivone Margulies’ Criterion essay elaborates on the movie’s feminist framework:
In its structural delineation of a link between two prescribed female roles — domestic and sexual, the mother and the whore — the film engages broadly with a feminist problematic, one that takes into account also a woman’s alienation, her labor, and her dormant violence. . . . Many in the avant-garde felt vindicated that this narrative topically addressing women’s issues was so plainly indebted to pure experiments with duration and series. Akerman’s representation of a concrete, defamiliarized everyday was a defining feat.