To celebrate Greta Gerwig being up for the best director Oscar tonight, we take a look back at the female-helmed films we adore the most. Gerwig’s the fifth woman to be nominated for this award and if she wins, she’d be the second woman to do so, after Katheryn Bigelow took it home for The Hurt Locker in 2010.
From Bigelow to Sofia Coppola (who also ranks in that list of Academt Award-nominated directors), there are more than a few great female directors who have made bold, consistent marks upon the film industry over the years. Others still have made singular, genius films, then have drifted out of the spotlight. But their work remains cherished and celebrated nonetheless.
You might find a few surprises within our list, too – classic films you know and love, without ever having realised that there was a woman behind the camera.
When we say ‘our’ list, we mean it – all of our writers made their own personal top 10 lists, then we applied a points-based system to those. This list is the final result. It’s an overall top 10 that reflects our preferences as a team, not any one individual’s top choices.
10. Mustang (2015), dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Mustang takes my personal number one spot, not only for films directed by women – it’s my one of my all-time favourite films, full stop. Comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides can’t be ignored – it presents a similar set-up – but it achieves that same goal with far more grace and power that Coppola’s film manages, as good as The Virgin Suicides is (it wasn’t far off making our list too).
It’s perfectly delicate, endlessly nuanced and incredibly beautiful. It’s a film I’d expect from a director at the peak of her lengthy career, so the fact that it’s Ergüven‘s debut feature is astonishing. If you look for visual grandeur in your films, you’ll drown blissfully in Mustang‘s aesthetic.
Ergüven shoots these five lovely, fascinating girls and the surrounding Turkish backdrop with true rare eye for beauty. There are intense close-ups of subtle glances, dwelling shot of the girls all tangled up in a one another, skyward shots of them all touching heads and weeping, a furiously happy and contagious football match celebration, and many more shots that stick in the mind.
Visually eloquent films don’t always place as much importance on their narrative, but Ergüven understands that the power of storytelling is just as important as the power of beauty. Her film excels on all fronts – the narrative is poetic, sad, funny, heartwarming, and holds a vital warning about the barbarity of arranged and about restricting the freedom of young girls. Like a mustang – which is a free-roaming wild horse – they need to be allowed to run free.
9. Lords of Dogtown (2005), dir. Catherine Hardwicke
Made in 2005, Catherine Hardwick’s film captured the 70s skate scene so well. Emile Hirsch plays one of four energetic, vibrant skaters – the pioneering Zephyr skating team – who are swept up in sporadic fame and fortune, as their reputations rise and fall.
Hardwicke settles the viewer into the era so well that you forget this film was made in 2005 with ease, to the point where it almost surprises you when you see modern actors and actresses like Pablo Schreiber, William Mapother or Sofia Vergara pop up.
And best of all, Heath Ledger plays their manager, Skip. It’s one of his coolest, wildest roles, with Skip a mix between a blithering drunk, a hardworking labourer and a protective manager who doesn’t want anyone encroaching upon his talent.
If you haven’t seen it, make the effort to correct that. Especially if you’re a fan of the surfer and skater scene. I hadn’t seen it before we compiled this list and it impressed me a lot. It drags you along in a wake of cool moments, tears these kids apart, then dumps you in a pool of compassion and reunion at the end.
8. Big (1988), dir. Penny Marshall
Big was the most successful of several age-changing films in the late 80s. It grossed over 8 times its $17 million budget, which made Penny Marshall the first female director to ever gross more than $100 million.
Sure, it’s more childish and fun than most of the other entries on our list, but just shows that female directors make their indelible mark in all kinds of genres. Marshall’s film handles themes of childhood, love and friendship with expert ease. It’s the kind of film you know will satisfy the whole family.
If you ask a Tom Hanks fan where this ranks for them, they’ll probably tell you his performance here is one of their favourites. There’s a lot of versatility needed to play everything from child-like naivety to sincere adult. And fun films from our childhood tend to bind themselves tight to our hearts.
7. Persepolis (2007), dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
The only animated film to make our list, this 2007 effort was co-directed by a woman – Marjane Satrapi, but it’s purely autobiographical of her, which makes it, in our eyes, eligible for this list.
It’s adapted from a graphic memoire, written by Satrapi, about her childhood growing up in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution.
It’s dark in tone – with everything that the child protagonist goes through – but it holds glimpses of hope towards the end. It won Wetern audiences over in droves upon its release – it was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar and Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs.
6. The Hurt Locker (2008), dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Whether you thought The Hurt Locker deserved the praise that was lauded upon in when it came out or not, one very important milestone was achieved because of this film – Katheryn Bigelow became the first female to win the best director oscar. She even beat out her ex, James Cameron, in the process.
It excels in tension – it really keeps you on the edge of your seat for the majority of the film, with an unfailing, relentless suspense. Jeremy Renner is great in it and his career soared much higher, because of this film.
The best director oscar was more than deserved – Bigelow does a great job of showing how each soldier deals with stress in different ways, and in the hands of many other directors, this would probably have been far less minimalist and far less effective for it.
5. Clueless (1995), dir. Amy Heckerling
When modern high school films come out, with girls as the focus (like Easy A, which also adapts a literary classic – The Scarlet Letter) you’ll often see the media make such claims as ‘the best high school film since clueless.’
That’s because in modern culture, Amy Heckerling’s film holds the bar as the last great high school film to beat (we’re talking post-John Hughes films). It’s truly cherished by fans – you’ll often find it topping personal favourite lists (other than ours).
Its legacy influenced fashion and lingo in the 90s, and it also stands as one of the best Jane Austen adaptations. Many might not realise that Heckerling’s film is actually a modern adaptation of Jane austen’s 1815 novel, Emma.
Other films have tried that same approach – some before Clueless, like 1985’s Just One of the Guys, which adapted Twelfth Night – but they often try too hard.
4. Point Break (1991), dir. Kathryn Bigelow
A true fan-favourite, you’ll likely find this on many people’s top favourite film lists, female-directors or not.
It’s Patrick Swayze at his coolest (though Road House isn’t far behind) – like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Bodhi is so alluringly anarchic and boldly iconic that it’s almost socially dangerous. I’m certain this film kicked off many people’s interest in surfing and adrenaline thrill-seeking.
And whether you can stand Keanu Reeves’ acting or not, this is also one of his best roles. Johnny Utah isn’t an easy role to pull off – Keanu has to play straight-laced FBI agent, chilled surfer, careless criminal, and lovesick puppy. And his chemistry with Swayze and Lori Pety (Tyler) is dynamite.
3. Wonder Woman (2017), dir. Patty Jenkins
Is Patty Jenkins’ debut Diana film a little too high on our list? Perhaps, but I think this positioning shows just how huge of an impact Wonder Woman had on the world last year. It broke records of all kinds, and made men and women everywhere very happy that it exists. That kind of power can’t be ignored.
While much of its charm can be attributed to Gal Gadot’s affecting humility, Patty Jenkins’ directorial vision is what stopped this from becoming just another failed superhero film.
The first two acts are strong – we experience Themyscira through the eyes of a young, naive Diana, and we witness her deific grace in the world of men, as she struggles to comprehend the brutality of World War I (which is called ‘The Great War’ for a reason).
The third act is where it falls apart a little – the battle descends into generic CGI chaos and David Thewlis is far from the right choice for Ares. But overall, the film succeeds. Diana has finally been given the big screen treatment and – thanks to Jenkins’ adept delivery – that’s changed the landscape of superheroine films forever.
2. American Psycho (2000), dir. Mary Harron
This is a film that mesmerised me in my youth, but back then, I hadn’t no idea that a woman was behind this darkly comedic take on Bret Easton Ellis’ famous novel.
Mary Harron’s direction is astoundingly expert, which makes the narrative effortlessly cool. American Psycho holds its well-deserved place as a classic of cinema. You won’t find it on the BFI or AFI’d greatest films of all time lists, but you will find it gracing the top spots of (probably mostly male) cult film fans all over the world.
Christian Bale – in one of his most impressive turns – plays narcissistic businessman Patrick Bateman, who develops a taste for killing that escalates, until it seeps over into his daily life.
It’s devastatingly violent and disturbing at points, but it never feels like depravity for depravity’s sake. Harron presents the whole bloody affair as a dark comedy, of sorts – one not meant to be taken as a serious thriller.
1. Lost in Translation (2003), dir. Sofia Coppola
If American Psycho mesmerised me in my youth, then Coppola’s film stole my heart and soul. I watched this slow, graceful, heartfelt, delicate comedy endlessly – I even had a poster of it adorning my University dorm wall.
Ever since then I’ve held Sofia Coppola in the highest regard – even more so than her father. Most of her successive films wowed me, but none quite to the degree that Lost in Translation did.
And I’m not alone in that –this film stole hearts all over the world, upon its release. Those already warmed to Bill Murray’s charm found it revived and elevated here. Those unfamiliar with Johansson (which was everyone), found her a graceful new talent.
And those who might have pre-judged Sofia, perhaps from her acting in The Godfather Part III, were sorely proven mistaken. And not only did she prove her directorial worth – she proved her elegance as a writer and an auteur too.
There is so much subtle, understated joy in this film. From the hilarious observations about Japanese culture to the way the script pokes fun at Kelly (Anna Faris), the comedy is pitch perfect.
Emotionally, it’s even more adept – the heartwarming platonic-esque (almost father-daughterly, almost romantic) love that forms between two lost individuals is endlessly beautiful.
For us, as a team, it’s easily the best film ever crafted by a female director (and consequently, one of the greatest films of all time).
Do you think Greta will win tonight? Her chances seem low, but it’s possible and it would certainly be well-deserved. Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Image credits: Focus Features, Lionsgate Films, Warner Bros., DC, Columbia Picures, TriStar Pictures, Gracie Films, Optimum Releasing, Paramount Pictures, Ad Vitam, Summit Entertainment, 20th Century Fox