Women have been making movies since the silent era, and over the course of cinema’s over 100-year history, they’ve made some of the best films the world has ever seen. But unlike their male counterparts, few women have received the recognition they deserve.
Only two women — Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion — have ever won the Academy Award for Best Directing, and both were in just the last thirteen years. Here I’d like to look at some of the other fantastic women directors who deserve way more attention.
1. Alice Guy-Blaché
If we’re looking at women directors, we have to start at the beginning with Alice Guy-Blaché, the first woman director to make a film at the end of the 19th century. She was also one of the first filmmakers, along with the Lumière brothers, to make a fictional film. But she’s not just important for her contributions to film history as a medium; she also made some fantastic movies, including the still scathingly satirical The Consequences of Feminism from 1906.
2. Lois Weber
Lois Weber was one of the first great American filmmakers. Her films, which number over fifty, were not only socially and morally bold, taking on issues of abortion and birth control in the 1910s, but also foundational to what cinema would become. Her 1913 film Suspense pioneered the split-screen technique, now a standard part of cinematic language.
3. Ida Lupino
Ida Lupino began her movie career as an actor before shifting to writing, directing, and producing. As an actor, she starred in some of the best movies of the Classical Hollywood period alongside Humphrey Bogart and Robert Ryan. But it’s as a filmmaker that she made an indelible mark on Hollywood.
She’s the only woman to direct a noir, the brilliant The Hitch-Hiker, and many of her films, like those of Lois Weber before her, tackle issues that are still controversial today, like unwanted pregnancy and sexual assault.
4. Penelope Spheeris
Penelope Spheeris is one of the few directors who can claim to have made both iconic documentaries and narrative films. She directed the first Wayne’s World movie and the three Decline of Western Civilization documentaries about punk and metal in Los Angeles. She’s one of the most influential filmmakers of music documentaries and deserves to be a household name.
5. Amy Heckerling
Almost everyone has heard of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, but few people know the name Amy Heckerling, and that’s a crime. Heckerling didn’t just direct the two teen cult classics; she also perfectly adapted Clueless from Jane Austen’s classic Emma and turned its early 19th-century language into 1990s California teen slang.
Her other films are also hilarious, including National Lampoon’s European Vacation and her last movie Vamps, but she hasn’t made a movie in more than a decade now.
6. Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay has only made four features since beginning her filmmaking career in the 1990s. She hasn’t made a major classic on the level of things like Wayne’s World or Clueless, but that’s probably because she doesn’t make fun movies. Ramsay’s films are intense character portraits that dive into the damaged psyches of people formed by trauma that are unlike anything else.
We Need to Talk About Kevin may not be a widely seen film, but it’s a classic among cinephiles interested in the limits of psychological portraiture in cinema.
7. Karyn Kusama
Karyn Kusama has made two cult classic horror movies, but unlike many filmmakers who can make that claim, the two films that she’s had canonized are wildly different from one another, a testament to her range as a filmmaker. Jennifer’s Body is a hilarious high school horror comedy, while The Invitation is a single-location atmospheric horror film about responding to grief.
Add to that that she’s also a fantastic director of action, as exhibited by Aeon Flux (which the studio took over in the final cut) and Destroyer, and you’ve got one of our greatest living genre filmmakers who deserves any budget she desires.
8. Naoko Yamada
As any fan of animation will tell you, it’s a medium, not a genre. That may be most clear in the films and television series directed by Naokoo Yamada. The anime director has a specific style of focusing on the small movements of her characters’ bodies, especially legs, that convey emotion which she developed through studying the films of live-action directors.
Yamada’s focus is always her characters, and her formal choices bring the audience closer to those characters in a way that makes her work not only stunning pieces of animation but also some of the most emotionally potent pieces of media you can find.
9. Gina Prince-Bythewood
Gina Prince-Bythewood started her career with the romantic comedy cult classic Love and Basketball and is now making epic action movies like The Old Guard and The Woman King. She’s another filmmaker who should have made many more movies than she has. But I’m hoping that the commercial and critical success of The Woman King (which was notably shut out from the Oscars last year) leads to her getting more projects off the ground more easily.
10. Mary Harron
American Psycho is one of those cult classics that breaks out of its niche to become a classic for the culture at large. None of Mary Harron’s other films have made that impact, though her Valerie Solanas biopic I Shot Andy Warhol could and should have.
She’s a filmmaker who beautifully mingles her edge with real care for her characters, leading to some of the most beautifully human films about complicated people involved in things like assassination attempts and pornography ever made.
11. Claire Denis
Claire Denis is an arthouse icon but never transitioned to the mainstream like several other directors have. Her films like Beau Travail and White Material aren’t just powerful explorations of bodies, emotions, and colonialism. They’ve also been foundational for a generation of filmmakers, including Oscar-winning Moonlight co-writer/director Barry Jenkins. Denis has been making movies since the 1980s and, at 77, is not showing any signs of slowing down, and we should all be very grateful for that.
12. Julia Ducournau
Julia Ducournau has only made two feature films, Raw and Titane, but she’s already one of the most exciting and noteworthy filmmakers of the 21st century. Her features and shorts show an incredibly unique sensibility and incredible control of tone combined with a mastery of visual filmmaking that will hopefully lead her to become a household name in the next decade.
Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Looper, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.