From 1894 to 1922, French Alice Guy Blaché was the first woman to ever direct a movie. She was also one of the first filmmakers to make a narrative fiction film: an 1896 short called The Cabbage Fairy. While Blanché’s accomplishment isn’t talked about as much as it should be, it is a undoubtedly notable one in women’s history. Apart from directing, Blanché also wrote, produced, and created costume designs for her films.
While filmmaking remains a male-dominated industry even today, the number of female filmmakers has significantly increased through the years – inspiring women directors like Greta Gerwig, Chloé Zhao, and Ava DuVernay have made a name for themselves in the movie biz thanks to their dedication and continuous hard work. These groundbreaking movies successfully showcase the work of women directors whose directorial skills and creativity led them to develop innovative and compelling stories on-screen.
Updated on June 10, 2023, by Daniela Gama:
Greta Gerwig is among the best female directors in the industry and is slowly reaching the top of her game by providing audiences with groundbreaking takes on popular stories. After directing Little Women, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Gerwig is back and more popular than ever due to all the hype surrounding one of the year’s most anticipated summer blockbusters, a live-action adaptation of the world’s favorite do-it-all doll, Barbie. The movie stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and hits theatres on July 21. From We Need to Talk About Kevin to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, these are some other best movies directed by women that deserve your attention.
20 ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ (2011) Dir. Lynne Ramsay
We Need to Talk About Kevin follows a mother, played by the talented Tilda Swinton, who struggles to love her problematic child, Kevin (Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller), who does increasingly bizarre and dangerous things.
Through its interesting usage of expressive imagery, this compelling mystery thriller by Lynne Ramsay makes it hard for viewers to look away from the screen. In a horrifying tale of motherhood, guilt, blame, forgiveness, and manipulation, viewers are provided with enough food for thought to keep themselves invested throughout the film’s entirety.
19 ‘Marie Antoinette’ (2006) Dir. Sofia Coppola
Being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather‘s legendary director), it is only natural that Sofia Coppola has, too, developed a taste for filmmaking. A master at depicting human connection, the skilled director fascinated viewers with her 2006 take on the life of iconic but ill-fated queen Marie Antoinette, starring talented Kirsten Dunst.
Exquisite and luxurious, Marie Antoinette brings new life and perspective to period dramas, making it easy to connect with the characters even though the present day is eras apart from them. Besides the really-pleasing-to-the-eye cinematography, costumes, locations, and even food that features in the film, what is so particularly great and original about this movie is the way Coppola manages to create a modern and fresh take on both the period drama genre and historical figures in question.
18 ‘American Honey’ (2016) Dir. Andrea Arnold
American Honey is perhaps one of the most underrated coming-of-age movies out there, and what makes it so special is the authenticity in its performances (especially from Sasha Lane) and in the way it explores the bumpy road of self-discovery. Without much to lose, Star decides to join a band of misfits and becomes a part of their traveling magazine sales.
While Andrea Arnold‘s brilliant film doesn’t have a strong, prominent plot and mostly focuses on the characters instead, it accurately reflects on youth and all the things that come with it. Fragile and endearing, American Honey counts with elevated filmmaking that almost makes you feel as though you were part of Star’s world.
17 ‘First Cow’ (2019) Dor. Kelly Reichardt
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, First Cow follows a lonely cook who has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon Territory. After connecting with a Chinese immigrant, the two collaborate on a business – selling biscuits. The only problem is they need milk, and the only way to get it is to steal it from the cow that belongs to the local aristocrat.
Creative and compelling, Reichardt’s film remains true to her essence; her career is filled with quiet but impactful films that show more than they tell, and First Cow is one of them. Although this film will not be for everyone, it is undoubtedly a unique, poignant study of humanity that stood out from the rest of the genre.
16 ‘Clueless’ (1995) Dir. Amy Heckerling
Clueless is one of those films you can’t help but love. Although it is technically a modern adaptation of the literary classic Emma by Jane Austen, this version of the famous novel has got its own unique twist that makes it a remarkable watch. Fun and entertaining, Amy Heckerling‘s film follows matchmaker Cher (Alicia Silverstone), who is the same amounts wealthy as she is socially successful.
Considered one of the most original teen flicks of the ’90s — and rightly so — Heckerling’s piece puts Austen’s Emma in a modern high school setting, and the result is unmatched. Clueless is an essential romantic comedy satire that deserves all the praise it has been given.
15 ‘The Farewell’ (2019) Dir. Lulu Wang
The Farewell is a comedy-drama based in part on director Lulu Wang‘s real-life experiences. It’s centered on a Chinese-American family that decides to conceal the fact that their matriarch is dying from her. This decision doesn’t sit right with Billi (Awkwafina), who loves her grandma so much that she decides to crash the fake wedding her family is staging in China.
Aside from an unforgettable performance by Awkwafina in this serious role, The Farewell is known for its painfully accurate depiction of Asian culture, particularly the complicated family dynamics. Billi deals with contradictions, confusion, and undeniable love while interacting with her family. Director Wang manages to capture the specific experience of Asian-American immigrants who visit a country they supposedly have a connection to, and – like Billi – end up finding out more about their own identity in the process.
14 ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2008) Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Centering around a bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad in which the men involved endure a series of progressively dangerous, life-threatening circumstances as their tour of duty reaches its last weeks, The Hurt Locker is a masterfully directed, nail-biting war drama with impeccable performances from those involved.
Despite its enthralling narrative, what may stand out automatically about The Hurt Locker is the fact that it provided Kathryn Bigelow an Oscar in 2010, making her the first woman director to ever win one. There are many great aspects of the edge-of-your-seat 2008 feature, but the careful examination of war addiction and the pressures of masculinity are certainly on top of the list.
13 ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (1999) Dir. Kimberly Peirce
Although it is a divisive feature (mostly given to a cisgender actress playing the role), there is no doubt that the Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry was hailed as incredibly groundbreaking when it premiered given the fact that trans stories in films were incredibly scarce. Directed by Kimberly Peirce, the 1999 film is a dramatization of the life of an American trans man Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank), depicting his anxieties and struggles as he navigates through life in rural Nebraska and finds love eventually.
While Hilary Swank’s performance — which even earned her an Oscar — in this is definitely one of the highlights of the film, Boys Don’t Cry‘s powerful message is arguably what stands out the most. Although flawed, Peirce’s dramatic debut is tragic, bittersweet, and thought-provoking all the same, mostly given to the way it criticizes hatred and intolerance that leads to violence.
12 ‘Lady Bird’ (2017) Dir. Greta Gerwig
Any fan of coming-of-age films needs no introduction to the masterpiece that is Lady Bird. The award-winning A24 film directed by Gerwig chronicles the messy relationship between the titular character (played by Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird can’t wait to get out of her sleepy town and move to college but soon discovers that she isn’t quite as ready as she thought she was.
Gerwig made a splash in the industry with this poignant directorial debut that told an intimate and relatable story of a teenage girl coping with the struggles that come with growing up. It’s a beautiful ode to the importance of friendships and the sometimes underrated role that mothers play in their daughters’ lives.
11 ‘Women Talking’ (2022) Dir. Sarah Polley
Based on the eponymous 2018 novel by Miriam Toews, director Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated Women Talking draws from the real-life rapes that happened within the isolated Mennonite community known as the Manitoba Colony. The powerful film delves into the dynamics without the religious colony, and how the women discuss the horrific yet normalized practice they discover.
Powerful, unsettling, and inspiring all at once, Women Talking highlights the power of female connection and sends an effective message about the horrible way society treats and tolerates assault. The director does a stunning job of coupling themes of restrictive religion and fanaticism with this controversial yet unflinching depiction of real women’s stories.
10 ‘Selma’ (2014) Dir. Ava DuVernay
Centering around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights, Ava DuVernay‘s Selma offers a moving outlook on the civil rights leader and his journey. With powerful performances including David Oyelowo‘s, this true-to-life historical drama is intelligently made and an overall highly important watch.
Tenderly told, the 2014 picture tackles a significant chapter in American History and is still relevant today. There is no doubt that DuVernay’s passion and honesty are seen through the way she directs her films – Selma is a great example of that, and the fact that she was the first black female filmmaker whose work was nominated for Best Picture speaks volumes.
9 ‘Daughters of the Dust’ (1991) Dir. Julie Dash
One of the most breathtaking female-directed movies, Daughters of the Dust illustrates three generations of Gullah women living on the South Carolina Sea Islands in 1902. Oftentimes overlooked (but recommended by iconic filmmaker Spike Lee), this 1991 film is absolutely stunning to look at.
In addition to its bewitching visuals, Daughters of the Dust, directed by the undeniably gifted Julie Dash, provides audiences with a poetic take on tradition and family and a creative storyline that will likely entrail viewers and submerge them in another place and time. Furthermore, the 1991 feature certainly broke ground as the first movie directed by a black woman to get a wide theatrical release.
8 ‘Nomadland’ (2020) Dir. Chloé Zhao
Revolving around a woman in her sixties who, living as a modern-day nomad, embarks on a journey through the American West, Chloé Zhao‘s out-of-the-box Nomadland offers a reflective piece of storytelling. Although some consider the Academy Awarded “Best Film” overrated, it is still a pretty solid drama that tells a distinct and exciting story.
Accurately depicting the spirit of freedom and adventurism of the main character Fren, wonderfully played by Frances McDormand, Zhao’s piece of very humane filmmaking gently explores the life and the choices individuals make; which ultimately results in a bittersweet tale (in the best sense of the word).
7 ‘Little Women’ (2019) Dir. Greta Gerwig
With three Oscar nominations, Greta Gerwig has slowly but surely risen to fame through the years. Her 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott‘s treasured classic Little Women is certainly one of her best works, and it follows the story of four sisters who long for very different things in life.
Not only is May Alcott’s beloved novel beautifully translated into the silver screen, but incredibly acted as well (it helps that the cast is filled with brilliant actors). While the film may not be innovative in the sense that it has never been done before, it is, nonetheless, a groundbreaking piece and one of the most important women-directed films. Gerwig shone a light on today’s issues tackling topics that are still relevant nowadays, especially for young women, while staying loyal to the period.
6 ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003) Dir. Sofia Coppola
A now-iconic stylistic rom-com meant to capture the unique vibe that is “romantic melancholy,” director Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is just as beautiful today as it was when it first premiered. Starring an aging and jaded movie star, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), and an unsure newlywed, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the film portrays their chance encounter and succeeding adventures in Tokyo.
The movie highlights the rare connection the two find together in a foreign land, sharing their loneliness over drinks at the hotel bar or chasing happiness in the unfamiliar and vibrant roads around the city. Their brief yet stirring bond is something neither of them will likely forget, just as viewers still remember the mysterious final whisper they share before they part ways.
5 ‘American Psycho’ (2000) Dir. Mary Harron
American Psycho is undoubtedly a cult classic; everyone has either seen it or heard of it. What many don’t know, though, is that the dark commentary on ’80s Wall Street culture was directed by a woman. One of the best female-directed movies revolving around the intriguing life of the iconic Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), Mary Harron‘s legendary film depicts Bateman’s psychopathic tendencies as he tries to hide them from his co-workers and friends.
Although it features a highly unsympathetic main character, it is almost impossible not to enjoy the killer film. Extremely well-written and acted, American Psycho is a great adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis‘ novel of the same name. It counts on a darkly funny and engaging script and has a lot to say about society.
4 ‘Persepolis’ (2007) Dir. Marjane Satrapi
A renowned animated drama film based on director Marjane Satrapi‘s eponymous autobiographical novel, Persepolis tells her life story set against pre- and post-revolutionary Iran (before heading to Europe). The coming-of-age is unlike any other, as it’s inextricably linked with the Iranian Revolution and the way in which Satrapi finds herself affected, involved, and forever changed by the political events around her.
An often unnerving movie that proves animation can be for adults, the visually striking and emotionally stirring film is not for the faint of heart. It is both a moving story and a call to action that shouldn’t be ignored – a reminder of women’s strength and irreplaceable role in the revolution.
3 ‘The Matrix’ (1999) Dir. Lilly and Lana Wachowski
The Matrix franchise is, no doubt, one of the most famous franchises out there. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t recognize Keanu Reeves‘ iconic character Neo and his super cool sunglasses. However, it may be unknown to some that not only did the Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana, direct the super successful first installment of the series back in 1999, but its most recent films, too (though Resurrections was only directed by Lana).
Now considered one of the best and most kick-ass sci-fi movies of all time, the Wachowskis’ masterpiece is, beyond question, deserving of all hype; the fact alone that its universe managed to keep its relevancy after 25 years speaks for itself. Packed with action and tons of memorable moments, The Matrix is also one of the most referenced films in pop culture.
2 ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ (1953) Dir. Ida Lupino
In this 1953 crime noir by Ida Lupino, a sociopathic escaped convict (William Talman) is picked up by two old friends on a fishing trip (Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien) and warns them that he will kill them when he gets to his destination: a ferryboat in Baja.
An early example of the incredible work of an innovative female creator who broke through major boundaries during her time, The Hitch-Hiker is undoubtedly a groundbreaking road trip movie that should be added to everyone’s watchlist (especially if you’re one of those people who enjoy classics). Although its plot is simplistic, it certainly keeps audiences invested during its runtime of only 71 minutes.
1 ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019) Dir. Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma‘s critically acclaimed drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows the raw and powerful story of two French eighteenth-century women – an artist named Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who she is commissioned to paint a portrait without her knowing. To do this, she must observe Héloïse closely by day and paint her by night.
Nominated for one BAFTA award, this delicate motion picture features an exquisite, never-seen-before narrative. With stunning cinematography, Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is both heartbreaking and passionate. The way the love affair between both characters slowly develops is deeply enthralling, and what makes it even better is the electric, almost palpable chemistry between both actors.