The 10 Best Female Directors & Their Unmissable Movies

Sophia White

The first female director was Alice Guy-Blanché, who made her first film in 1896. Today, some 120 years later, the most prominent directors and producers are still, by and large, men, a fact that is unrepresentative of the total pool of talented filmmakers. We check out 10 of the best female directors working in Hollywood today and their most influential works.

Kathryn Bigelow | Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

It’s hard to pick between The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty when naming Kathryn Bigelow‘s best film. While The Hurt Locker won an Oscar, beating out ex-husband James Cameron’s Avatar, it is Zero Dark Thirty that arguably had the biggest cultural impact. Its representation of CIA interrogation tactics and the lead up to Osama Bin Laden’s killing in an almost journalistic manner opened up a lot of debate. Her handling of difficult subject matters which are most often handled by male directors – that of war – makes her stand out in the field. She also directed two actors in Oscar nominated performances, showing that alongside her handling of the source material, she is able to get the most from talent.

Lisa Cholodenko | The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Cholodenko served both as writer and director on all three of her feature films. Her films resonate with audiences for their realistic portrayal of human emotional experiences. The writing of the films combined with her skill as a director has likewise made her popular with actors whom she has worked with. Her most recent feature, The Kids Are All Right, looks at the children of a lesbian couple who set out to find their sperm donor father. The film was nominated for an Oscar and BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay and went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Comedy. She has mostly directed TV over the past few years, bringing her understanding touch to the small screen.

Sofia Coppola | Lost In Translation (2003)

Coming from cinema royalty didn’t always have its perks for Sofia Coppola, whose portrayal of Mary Corleone in her father’s The Godfather Part III was widely criticized by critics and audiences. Fortunately she found her skill in directing and is one of the most acclaimed directors working today, with several Academy Award nominations under her belt and a steady output of thoughtful, stylized and interesting films. Lost In Translation won Coppola the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and also earned Bill Murray a nomination for Best Actor. It is a must-see for anyone that wants to do an extended period of travelling or is considering moving abroad, and is a perfect encapsulation of the isolation of modern society.

Claire Denis | 35 Shots Of Rum (2008)

Claire Denis is a French director whose work primarily deals with issues in modern France and colonial West Africa. Though this is the blanket subject matter for most of her work, she very much treats the film as a canvas, with the sounds, compositions and colors being the most important part of her films. As such, her films include some of the most striking cinematography around, and shows the value of location over studio shooting. 35 Shots Of Rum deals with the complicated relationship between a father and daughter. It is a subtle yet intimate family story and character study which shows a different side to Parisian life.

Ava DuVernay | Selma (2014)

One of the biggest snubs of this year’s Academy Awards went to Ava DuVernay in the Best Director category, although it was a landmark year – she became the first black female director to have a film nominated for Best Picture. DuVernay’s background is in journalism and much of her work falls into factual and documentary. 2014’s Selma, a chronicle of Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, showcases her journalistic talents, particularly in its questioning of the prescribed histories that have previously been fed to the American public. It is also, surprisingly, the first film to have King as the main character. A promising figure for both female and African American directors.

Jennifer Kent | The Babadook (2014)

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook was one of the most well-received films of 2014 and is hopefully a sign of even better things to come from this freshman director. Australian cinema and horror are two things that have had a harder time than most when it comes to cracking into critical acclaim, but with The Babadook cropping up on many critics’ end-of-year lists, it may be yet another sign that awarding bodies are out of touch with audiences. Kent’s dedication to her craft and the genre has resulted in a truly terrifying film that will surely go down as a horror classic.

Carol Morley | Dreams Of A Life (2011)

With forays into both documentary and drama, Carol Morley is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the UK’s most interesting female directors. She was initially trained in art film, and this can be seen within many of her creations, which take more risky creative choices and aren’t afraid to allow time for thought and meditation. Dreams Of A Life finds Morley trying to uncover the life and final few years of Joyce Vincent, a woman whose remains were found in her flat some three years after she died. Mixing interview, re-enactment and some journalistic investigation, Morley created a haunting film that makes you question the importance your own existence.

Jehane Noujaim | The Square (2013)

Egyptian film is something that largely falls by the wayside for Western audiences, but with each new film that she produces, Jehane Noujaim is beginning to buck this trend. She made a number of vérité documentaries which gained attention in the US, but it was The Square that really thrust her into the attention of the world media. Following a group of Egyptian revolutionaries during the ongoing revolution of 2011, the film gave an inside look at the events which previously were only shown through the eyes of the Western news media. In addition to raising new questions about the Egyptian revolution, Noujaim also pushed the boundaries in what was able to be done in terms of documentary cinematography, production and distribution.

Sarah Polley | Stories We Tell (2012)

Along with Noujaim, Sarah Polley is another director that has seen a substantial rise in her profile, thanks to Netflix. Polley comes from a film family and this prompted her to start a career as an actor. In 1999, she began directing shorts before making her first feature in 2006. Her first two films gained positive reviews, much of which was aimed specifically at her as the director. Stories We Tell is her first documentary, but the rawness she exposes in her quest for the truth shows her innate proclivity towards the format. A sure fire example of the truth being stranger than fiction, and an impressive study of the filmmaker as subject.

Lynne Ramsay | We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

A director who isn’t afraid to go into uncomfortable territories. The image composition and use of audio-visual techniques within her films creates a viewing experience that is stylized to such an extent that it would be hard to think of any other director being able to pull them off. Lynne Ramsay films are distinctly Lynne Ramsay. Immersive and uncompromising. We Need To Talk About Kevin, adapted from the Lionel Shriver novel of the same name, deals with the relationship between a mother and her disturbed son. The harsh source material combined with Ramsay’s shooting style makes for a film that cuts deeply and leaves you thinking about it long afterwards.

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