In 92 years of Oscar history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director:
Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1976), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 2017).
How many of them had won? One. Kathryn Bigelow in 2010.
Does that mean there aren’t many women directors around? Definitely not. It just reveals how things are for these artists striving under the glass ceiling. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research is a good frame of reference for annual facts and trend of women in the film industry. According to their newest study entitled “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair: Analysis of director Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across 1,300 Top Films from 2007 to 2019” (Jan. 2020), female directors of top-grossing films reached a 13 year high in 2019: 10.6%, breaking an average of just 4.8% throughout the past 12 years. Maybe studios have begun to see women can be trusted to make profitable movies after all.
Yet, how many women are nominated for Best Director in the 2020 Academy Awards?
This is not a post of protest, nor of analysis, but of reminiscence. I’ve made a mental inventory of some of my favorite films, ones that have stirred some ripples in the Pond, and found many of them are directed by women. Their works might not have made it to the ‘top-grossing’ list… but, this just shows where my interests lie.
Here they are in alphabetical order, with my favorite films bolded. Links are to my reviews:
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker (2008, Best Picture Oscar, Best Director), Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Bigelow is the only female to have won an Oscar in Directing. She has shown that when a woman takes on a military movie, she can master the conflicts both external and within.
Jane Campion – The New Zealand director is one of the five women in Oscar history to be nominated for Directing. The Piano (1993) is visually stunning and bold in its depiction of the yearnings of the human heart. Campion is the first (and only, so far) woman to have won the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes with this film. Bright Star (2009) is a lyrical portrayal of English poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne before his untimely death at 25. A beautiful tapestry weaving together the visual and the word.
Nora Ephron – I miss Nora Ephron. It seems with her passing in 2012, romantic comedies aren’t the same anymore. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) will remain iconic from a period that still valued face-to-face meeting over the telephone or emails. And for some reasons, Meg Ryan seems to have gone out of sorts too. Hopefully she’ll make a come-back like Renée Zellweger did with Judy (2019).
Sarah Gavron – Brick Lane (2007) prompted my interest in the British director with her focus on a Bangladeshi wife in London; Suffragette (2015) depicts women’s personal struggles against a monumental period of British social history, but Rocks (2019) is the gripping, down-to-earth drama following a black teenage girl being left alone to fend for herself and take care of her little brother when their single mom deserts them, achingly real.
Greta Gerwig – Little Women (2019) is a production that I’d enjoyed far more than Lady Bird (2017) for which Gerwig got a Best Director Oscar nom in 2018. It’s plain snubbing of her achievement in this year’s Academy Awards where the slate of Directing nominees are all males. Recognized at the Oscars or not, Gerwig’s Little Women will remain a definitive and worthy contemporary adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic.
Mia Hansen-Løve – In Things to Come (2016), the French actor-turned-director Hansen-Løve presents a woman at the crossroads of life. Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy professor whose husband leaves her for a younger woman, while her elderly mother with dementia needs her constant care, her publisher finds her text book no more relevant, and her two children have grown and lead lives of their own. What are the things to come for her?
Mira Nair – The Namesake (2006) is the movie adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel. A delightful and humane look at the generation gap within an immigrant family from India, and the clash the son has to face being caught between his present American life and his cultural roots.
Sarah Polley – Polley adapts Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s short story for the film Away from Her (2006). At age 27, the Canadian actor-turned-director wrote the screenplay of an elderly couple facing separation as the Alzheimer stricken wife has to move away to live in a care home. Polley’s directorial debut sent veteran British star Julie Christie to the Academy Awards as a Best Actress nominee, and Polley herself for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Dee Rees – Mudbound (2007) is the adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel set in the American South at the end of WWII. Two military men, one white, Jamie, and one black, Ronsel, came back from Europe’s war zone to their home in Mississippi, each faces a different predicament. And for Ronsel, a decorated soldier who had fought under General Patton, home is a totally new battlefield.
Kelly Reichardt – Reichardt’s styling is naturalistic, casual but nuanced. Certain Women (2016) is a triptych of three short stories by Maile Meloy. Against the vast landscape of Montana, lives can be very ordinary, but Reichardt shows there’s no ordinary life. Similarly, Wendy and Lucy (2008) is a simple narrative about a young woman looking for work drifting through the Pacific Northwest with her dog Lucy. Reichardt has major stars in her cast who all look very comfortable being anonymous.
Lone Scherfig – Scherfig’s forte is her pleasant styling even when depicting a troubling story. Their Finest (2016) is England in her darkest hour during the Blitz in WWII but with the mood of a romantic comedy. And in 2009, Scherfig tells the story of an innocent teenage girl and her parents being duped by a man in An Education (2009). Carey Mulligan in her breakout role, landing her with a BAFTA win and an Oscar nom for Best Actress.
Agnès Varda – In her last film shortly before her death in 2019, Varda by Agnès, the French New Wave icon stated three crucial concepts in her filmmaking: Inspiration (the why), Creation (the how), and Sharing. The soft-spoken but astute artist has left us with a treasure trove of works, albeit not readily accessible in N. America. I’ve been able to watch several, including my favorites Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Faces Places (2017).
Lulu Wang – The premise of the Chinese American director’s real-life family experience in The Farewell (2019) could be shocking to Western viewers, but that just shows the divides separating us who are framed by different cultures: to tell or not to tell an elderly family member of her terminal illness diagnosis. What Wang has ingeniously achieved in her film is to bridge the chasm separating the two sides with a human touch that transcends borders. Amazing feat.
Chloé Zhao – I hope this is a new trend, that is, let Asian Americans, or any underrepresented Americans of various cultural roots, to have the chance to showcase deserving works. The Rider (2018) is a poetic narrative of a contemporary cowboy–a rodeo bronco rider– recovering from debilitating head injury. Chinese American director Zhao is an unlikely person to tell the story; yet this is her vision after befriending the Sioux community in a South Dakota reservation.
23 thoughts on “Women Directors of My Favorite Films”
Can I add to your list (yes, I miss Ephron too) with Wadjda, a film made in Saudi Arabian by director Haifaa al-Mansour? This film portrays what Saudi life is like for women, and through the dream of a young girl to have a bike, when girls don’t ride them in order to protect their purity, shows the possibility of change. This film, made entirely in Saudi Arabia where there are no cinemas, and no film industry, has such an important message, and is an act of great courage, given the power of the religious police in Saudi Arabia.
Thanks for sharing with us Wadjda, Lisa. I’ve heard of the film but haven’t had the chance to watch it. From what you’ve described, it sounds beautiful. I’ll check it out. Actually Haifaa al-Mansour had a newer feature The Perfect Candidate screened at TIFF last year when I was there. But I had lots on my plate and didn’t have the chance to catch it.
After a 35 year ban on public movie theatres, Saudi Arabia reopened movie theatres in 2018, with the screening of Black Panther at the AMC cinemas there. I’ve also read that in those theatres there’s no gender separation. I’m sure lots of people welcomed such more opened atmosphere in their society.
Again, thanks for your input! Would love to hear more of your favourite women directors and their works. 🙂
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I loved Wajda too. I still remember scenes from it, and it was so many years ago I watched it.
Wajda is a great film, Arti, I concur with Lisa. I would have to add Mustang as a really powerful favourite of mine too, by Deniz Gamze Ergüven.
Of course, as an Australian, I would have Gillian Armstrong’s My brilliant career in my list. I saw it again last year and it has held its own amazingly.
But thanks for this post. I knew the situation was dire, but I had no idea that only FIVE women had been nominated for best director in the history of the awards. That’s beyond unbelievable.
Yes of course, thanks for reminding me. Mustang is a wonderful film. Now that you’ve got me thinking, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (2018) is also an affective and realistic drama about a 12 year-old boy wandering the streets of Beirut. It’s Lebanon’s official entry to Oscars Best Foreign Language Film that year. Sarah Gavron’s Rocks is a parallel. I wrote reviews of them for Asian American Press, not on Ripple. Now I must check out the G. Armstrong you mentioned. I don’t think I’d seen it but a different title similar to it… need a memory boost.
And yes, there have been many films by female directors through the decades, films that might surprise people if they didn’t know already. Now that could be another post.
Yes, I was pretty sure you’d seen Mustang. But, you can’t remember and name them all.
I think you could do another post OR posts!
Hi Arti – I haven’t commented in a while, but I try to read when I can.
This is an observation made about living women artists as well. How many people can name 5 living woman painters, never mind won awards, had museum shows, etc? I think this is true of any art form.
I am a huge fan of Alice Munro and found Sarah Polley’s film outstanding and I have seen it many times. It was filmed with such sensitivity, capturing so much of what I find in Munro’s writing. I was also profoundly moved by The Piano. I can hear the score in my head at the mere mention.
I’d love to see a post on those films we may not know about!
Welcome back, Michelle! And thanks for sharing your thoughts as an artist. Well, I know I can name at least one living woman painter. 🙂 Can’t agree with you more, not just any art form, but in fields of business, science & tech, government, … you name it. The glass ceiling is an all purpose cover.
Agree too with your view on Alice Munro and Sarah Polley. I still feel Away from Her is her best film. Both are our national treasures.
You’ll see a post on more films by women directors in the next few days.
What a great list. And what a great history of discussing films we’ve had – I’m glad I have had my understanding of women director’s films deepened by reading this blog.
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker was a great film, far less macho than I thought it would be. Just a shame that it is only “women doing men’s films” that seems to have been recognised so far. I can quite understand Natalie Portman wearing a dress with Sciamma embroidered on it.
Sarah Polley – Stories we Tell is one of my favourite films.
Mudbound – Carey Mulligan, and a film I made a point of watching because you’d said it was good. Agnes Varda – two lovely films made in the last years of her life.
Nora Ephron – have you read her books of essays? Very mordant and human.
The Farewell – on my list to watch
Things to Come – the one I’m going to rewatch!
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I need to re-watch Stories We Tell. It’s quite a discovery she had while making this doc. And, I think you’ll enjoy The Farewell. Hope you can find it soon. I know it’s now on Amazon Prime Video. Do you have it? And yes, I’ve read Nora Ephron’s books. Very sad while reading her personal essays knowing she’s gone, gone too soon.
I Loved “The Rider” — it was amazing that Zhao used the actual real people on the Reservation experiencing the story, as her actors — it was a very special experience (and I am a long-time horse person). “Away From Her” was wonderful story telling with an interesting twist, as was “Hurt Locker.”
And, I was thinking about Barbara Streisand directing the movie, “Prince of Tides” (1991), with Nick Nolte, Blythe Danner and herself. This was a very difficult story to tell and she did a wonderful job. Did you see it?
Yes, Heather, Zhao has shown herself to be one unique talent. She’s directing a superhero movie next, Marvel comics The Eternals. She’ll have a chance to show how versatile she is. What a contrast it will be from The Rider. And yes, I’d seen Prince of Tides. Streisand is a super talented lady. The film I like better directed by her is Yentl. Have you seen it?
You list some wonderful films I adored, like “Away from Her” and Nora Ephron’s work. Oh, I loved her — she just nailed it. Lots of good titles here. I still think Gerwig’s Little Women is an all-time favorite.
Nora Ephron’s talents were more than just the movies can reveal. Reading her books which are compilations of personal insights made me miss her more. Who do we have now to replace her voice? As you mention your all-time favorite, maybe Greta Gerwig?I’m glad she’s only 36 now and have lots of time to grow into that stature, and more.
A wonderful post! I share your feelings re Nora Ephron (she was great and had such good intuition of what works in a romantic comedy!). And, I too want Meg Ryan to make her brilliant come-back. As for Jane Campion – I so want her new film the Power of the Dog to succeed and gain awards. Even though she was nominated before, she deserves so much more.
I share your enthusiasm of Jane Campion’s works. I look forward to her upcoming The Power and the Dog and wish her more recognitions which she deserves. I know nothing about the novel so don’t know the actual subject matter, but I’m mostly attracted to the cast: Kirsten Dunst, Benedict Cumberbatch, Thomasin McKenzie.
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The Piano is an all time classic that no one, not even Campion herself, could ever top.
I would add Debra Granik (Winters Bone, Leave no Trace) to the list.
Have you seen Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe? I love her films, especially as they take you inside other cultures and in this one her son sings the catchy soundtrack Number One Spice, which is also fabulous.
Also loved the Iranian Director Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men, an apt film title for your post.
Yes, I have. It’s a fascinating movie, best of which is it’s a true story. I have it on my next post where I have a list of “More Films by Women Directors”. And O, I didn’t know about the soundtrack. I’ve enjoyed Nair’s works. I like The Namesake, as it’s on my list here, and of course, Lahiri’s books are my favourites too.
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Excellent choice. I would venture to add Albertina Carri to this as well. Yes looks like women need to break the glass ceiling here as well.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thought!
Nice list. My favorites that you didn’t mention:
Sofia Coppola (one of my favorites – Lost In Translation is the obvious pick but I really like The Bling Ring too)
Miranda July (Me And You And Everyone We Know is great, and I liked The Future too although that one’s a bit odder)
Andrea Arnold (Red Road is my favorite of her last four movies, but all have their merits)
Claire Denis (White Material)
Catherine Breillat (Bluebeard)
Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)
Some honorable mentions:
Vera Chytilova (Daisies is bizarre but very memorable)
Melanie Laurent (Breathe)
Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body)
Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madelin)
Thanks for your input with a good list. There are several in here I like. Lost in Translation was on my mind of course but decided I wouldn’t put it in my all time faves. However, it deserves a mention. So, thanks to yours. Your list has also stirred up some other titles I didn’t mention here, like Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago, which (and I might sound odd) I like more than The Souvenir. Also Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie and most recently, at TIFF19, I saw Ina Weisse’s The Audition, with Nina Hoss who’s once again excellent as in her previous Phoenix and Barbara.
So, thanks to your two pebbles into the Pond, stirring some more ripples. 🙂