13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

Lynne Ramsay 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

The recent departure of Lynne Ramsay from the upcoming film Jane Got a Gun, which coupled with the departure of Jude Law and put the movie in a kind of limbo, has once again reopened an unfortunately gendered discussion about directors and their relationship to the suits the run the moviemaking industry. The fact that she’s a female director in an industry that is still embarrassingly lacking in female filmmakers has played into the discussion more heavily than one would hope.

In one sense, this perspective could be useful, as it could shine a light on the working conditions women in the industry have to endure, or whatever the hell Ramsay couldn’t bring herself to put up with anything may have been (at this point pretty much all the information coming out is speculative). She’s coming off a pretty successful piece of work in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and many other hot directors coming off big hits are pretty valuable commodities, or so one would think, so it’s curious as to what went wrong with this thing.

In another sense, and which seems to be the prevailing perception unfortunately, many are placing the blame on Ramsay’s shoulders for not honoring an agreement (which could be an understandable position if and when the actual facts come out), and casting no doubt on how much the presumably strained relationship with higher-ups could have been the fault of the studio people. The point: few people seem to know the details of this story and how we got to where we are, and yet plenty are rushing to condemn Lynne Ramsay as crazy or irresponsible or what have you. It’s not surprising but nevertheless disappointingly shabby treatment for female directors like Ramsay who have a higher standard to live up to still.

That just compelled me to bring to mind a number of female directors who should be bigger names than they are, because they’ve produced outstanding work. There should be more of them, and I’m hopeful there will be in the years to come. It should also be noted that I’ve tried to list many women to show that there are more than just a handful, not to make an exhaustive list, because if you can name all of something, there ain’t that many of them. Still, proportionally, it’s sad. Here are 13 of the best whose work I’m familiar with. They deserve more credit, and we’re going to give it to them.

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1) Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

K-Bigs is the big dog, the baddest bitch on the block right now, possibly the hottest director working today thanks to huge critical successes The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. After toiling in the genre picture circuit for years, with films like Near Dark and Point Break, she has emerged as one of few hands in the game right now who can simultaneously create perfect, enthralling action pieces and subtly reveal layers beneath the surface of complex characters. Some voices lamented the fact that her big breakthrough as a woman who directs, which led to her being the first woman to win the Oscar for directing, was a macho war thriller. Then she responded with a movie about a badass, determined CIA agent who found Osama Bin Laden and happened to be a woman. She hasn’t set out to make feminist cinema (not that it would be a bad thing if she had), but when you have more women involved as filmmakers you will inevitably have richer and greater quantities of heroines and anti-heroines.

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2) Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

It often seems as though well connected women get accused of nepotistic advantage, whereas men merely have pedigree. The skepticism about Sofia Coppola’s talent seems to have worn away, though. She’s no longer seen as the privileged daughter of Francis Ford Coppola but rather the heir to his filmmaking legacy, having had her own huge success with 2003’s Lost in Translation. She’s far from a one-hit wonder though, having done compelling work with her debut feature The Virgin Suicides, as well as her most recent, and vastly underrated, film Somewhere. Even Marie Antoinette, which was poorly received by most viewers, has been defended more recently as a kind of historical allegory for modern day child stardom, with which Coppola herself certainly has some familiarity. She’s got another film coming out with Emma Watson this year to look forward too, and most likely will be an important figure in film for years to come.

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3) Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

Sarah Polley has cemented herself as a solid indie actress, and is beloved by Canadian audiences who first got to know her on Road to Avonlea. But it turns out Canada’s Sweetheart is a complete reduction of the multitudes she contains. Polley delivered one of the strongest directorial debuts in recent memory six years ago with Away From Her, a devastating love tragedy, earning her an Oscar nomination for writing. Her sophomoric effort, Take This Waltz, was also a resounding critical success. The key pervading theme of her work seems to be that all love stories are ultimately tragic, and the source of this feeling may be traceable after seeing her personal documentary Stories We Tell, set for theatrical release this year. It’s the finest documentary to come out since maybe Exit Through the Gift Shop, and bends the genre in equally interesting ways. Her movies are so deceptively simple but vastly complex, intellectually and emotionally, and continually surprising. Oh, and she’s 34 years old. Chances are she’ll only get better with age, which is hard to imagine because she’s already the best.

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4) Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

Though she’s fallen into a bit of a slump with the coolly received The Tempest and the controversial Spider-Man musical, Julie Taymor has proven herself to be one of the finest visionaries of stage and screen. She directed the fantastic stage adaptation of The Lion King, and her movie director credits include Titus, Frida, and Across the Universe. These movies are highly poetic and thus aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, their visual majesty is impossible to deny. Taking Shakespearean material and transforming it into a visual frenzy of color and sound is quite a feat, and Across the Universe is a strange but beautiful ode to Beatles music and young love. Hopefully the experience with Spider-Man hasn’t robbed her of all inspiration, and she can mount a comeback worthy of her earlier work.

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5) Jennifer Westfeldt

Jennifer Westfeldt 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

Jennifer Westfeldt is another veteran of the theater scene, but she has two remarkable film credits to her name, Kissing Jessica Stein, which she starred in and co-wrote, and the recent Friends with Kids, which she wrote and directed and starred in with a cast of some of the best comedic actors working today. Friends with Kids in particular is a movie that shows incredible promise. It has that magical mix of maturity and comedy that Woody Allen made famous, but she makes her drama far more realistic, and her emotional payoffs more earnest. It’s also rare to see someone write, direct and act in their own movie and perform exceptionally well in all aspects. She’s another filmmaker and artist with an enormous upside. The fact that Jon Hamm is her long term partner makes me respect them both that much more.

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6) Susanne Bier

Susanne Bier 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

There are certain foreign films that do so well that naturally American filmmakers want to remake them in English. When this happens multiple times to the same director, they’re doing something right. This is the case with Susanne Bier, who hails from Denmark and is the talent behind the original movies Brothers, which was remade 5 years later with Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Open Hearts, which Zach Braff wanted to adapt and direct an English version of for years. She has since had moderate success in English language films herself, making the Halle Berry feature Things We Lost in the Fire in 2007, and is helming the upcoming reunion between Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, Serena. She also won an Oscar for her 2010 film In a Better World.

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7) Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

Kelly Reichardt is almost like an even more minimalist Clint Eastwood, except maybe more poetic and less literal. She’s teamed with star Michelle Williams for two consecutive critically lauded independent films, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, the latter of which worthy of the anti-Western label that folks like to credit Eastwood for pioneering. Her movies are deliberately pieced together and difficult to interpret—slow-paced and cerebral. In Meek’s Cutoff, this seems entirely appropriate given that it’s a chronicle of pioneers making their way across the American frontier, far from an adrenaline rush of an experience. Her work seems perfectly suited for an actor like Williams, who embodies characters so fully and deeply that an aesthetic as careful and attentive as Reichardt’s makes room for the subtle touches of a nuanced performance to really shine through.

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8) Catherine Hardwicke

Catherine Hardwicke1 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

Hardwicke is billed as the most commercially successful female director in the business, but this is of course due to her directorial work on the first—and only the first—Twilight movie. It deserves mention that many credit this film as the strongest of the series, focusing on the emotional elements of the teenage experience rather than the supernatural warfare taking place in the later installments in the series. That this theme took center stage in that movie makes sense, given that Hardwicke is the individual who brought us Thirteen in 2003, a story of a young teenage girl growing up faster than her mother and adults around her can comprehend. Her movies are typically polarizing, including the two aforementioned features as well as Lord of Dogtown. She presents challenging material that is sometimes rich and complex and sometimes simply grating, but always compelling in one form or another.

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9) Lynn Shelton

Lynn Shelton 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

Lynn Shelton is kind of a force. Her work is lumped in with other so-called Mumblecore films, which are defined by microbudgets and largely improvised dialogue. It’s a style that lends a special kind of realism to movies that can’t afford to use expensive tricks or effects to make the artificial exercise of filmmaking appear like life is merely unfolding before the camera. In my view, though, her work soars high above most of the movement’s male-driven stuff, helmed by the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg and folks, for whom I also have enormous respect. Mark Duplass is indeed a staple of Shelton’s two big features Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister. Seemingly simple premises, both these films feature small casts and mostly controlled environments, but the drama that ensues in these spaces is somehow completely captivating. She seems to create an atmosphere for her actors to simply excel in this unorthodox style of filmmaking, and these two films hold their own against any small scale dramas. They’re almost like little one-act plays captured on film. It’s fairly specific, and Shelton seems to be the one director who has absolutely mastered this emerging style of cinema.

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10) Nicole Holofcener

Nicole Holofcener 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

Another festival favorite, Nicole Holofcener is one of those directors who just comes up with little gems, the most recent example of this being the 2010 movie Please Give, featuring Catherine Keener as a New York City vintage furniture store owner oscillating between acute self-interest and severe guilt. It’s a painfully honest look at the conflict common among upper middle class types who swing back and forth between worrying about the state of the world and poverty and what more they could be doing to make things better, and all the stuff they have to deal with in their own lives. She also wrote and direct the indie hit Friends with Money in 2006. Her films are particularly interested in complicated female protagonists, which is perhaps why she was tapped to direct a couple of episodes of Parks and Recreation.

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11) Lisa Cholodenko

Lisa Cholodenko 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

The big measure of success for Lisa Cholodenko came in 2010 when she directed The Kids Are All Right, which went on to be nominated for four Oscars including three acting nods. She has a well-deserved reputation for being a director who is especially in tune with actors, evidenced by the three Oscar nominations for Kids as well as multiple acting award recognition for her previous films Laurel Canyon and Cavedweller. With Kids, though, she was introduced to mainstream audiences in a big way, offering up a movie that felt funny the way things are funny in real life, not with big laughs coming from carefully crafted and executed punchlines but observational notes and absurd situations. Somebody hire her for a new movie already, please.

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12) Debra Granik

Debra Granik 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

It’s tempting to associate Debra Granik herself with her female protagonists, and this may or may not be fair. What is fair is to say that Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone is one of the most badass movie heroes to come along in a long time. It’s the movie that rocketed Jennifer Lawrence to superstardom, and with good reason: it grabbed people’s attention by its frank portrayal of drug addiction and poverty in rural America in an immediate and terrifying way, conveying the enormity of an obstacle it is to escape from a world like that when that’s what you come from and all you know. Her previous feature Down to the Bone dealt with similar themes, and earned her awards from Sundance before she was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Screenplay on Winter’s Bone. Of the directors listed here, she may have the most unique and exciting style, maximizing tension and finding stories and heroism in seemingly mundane, everyday occurrences that deserve to be hailed as triumphant.

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13) Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron 13 Excellent Female Filmmakers To Keep In Mind

It probably is worth mentioning Nora Ephron, the late great figure in American culture, adored for her writing and filmmaking ability and influential for many rising female filmmakers like Lena Dunham, who ought to be mentioned alongside these other women. She changed the rom-com game whether we’re into it or not, and her final effort as director, writer and producer, Julie & Julia, was a delightful end to a hugely successful career.

It’s noticeable that many of the filmmakers on this list are relative newcomers. I tried to focus on those working today, but there aren’t many women making the type of relatively large-scale films, that is, large enough for them to be discussed at much length by film savvy web buffs. This is either because women were lousy filmmakers for decades and only recently got good, or else it’s a male-driven industry dominated by bravado and the type of work environment that tends to favor men and dismiss women’s contributions, particularly in leadership roles. But the wave of relatively new talent from female filmmakers is encouraging, and hopefully leads to more parity and diversity when it comes to stories that get told on screen. Because diversity always leads to a richer sample of all the perspectives the world has to offer. It’s about time that this half of the population had a cinematic voice that was proportionally representative. It will mean more terrific movies.

Do you have any female filmmakers that you like who are missing from this list? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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