March normally signals the turning of the season. For pop culture, it means the world is fresh off Oscar season and jumping straight into Women’s Month.
Ironically, though, the two never really seemed to get along well, with the Oscars having only nominated five women throughout its 92-year history and Kathryn Bigelow remains the only female winner to date. Even the most recent ceremony received a lot of flak for failing to celebrate or recognize the many female directors worthy of recognition (Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Lorene Scafaria, to name a few). So you can see how dazzlingly bleak this all sounds.
Nevertheless, 2020 is looking a little brighter with more and more female directors getting the chance to put their visions to life on the big screen. This is especially true for all four of the year’s major superhero films. Earlier this year we had Cathy Yan for Birds of Prey. In May, Cate Shortland helms the long-awaited Black Widow film while Patty Jenkins brings Diana Prince back in June for Wonder Woman 1984, and Chloe Zhao is set to helm Marvel’s newest and very much highly awaited group of heroes—The Eternals—in November.
It’s still a long way to go, but luckily we’ve also had strides in the past which has left us with a rich catalog of amazing films directed by women that we’ve compiled into this handy dandy list just for you:
1. Booksmart (2019)
One of the smartest teen comedies of 2019 was directed by Olivia Wilde. Yes, 13 from House, Olivia Wilde. Starring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart tells the story of two overachieving high school seniors who realize that they never had fun throughout their teenage years and make a pact to make the most of their last day of high school on the eve of their graduation.
It’s smart, laugh-out-loud hilarious, heartfelt, and has a nuanced way of looking into its characters that puts it on the better end of a lot of coming-of-age films (plus a standout performance from Billie Lourd). It was nominated for several awards last year, including a Golden Globe nom for Beanie Feldstein and an Independent Spirit Award win for Best First Feature for Olivia Wilde. If you’re interested in more, check out Edge of Seventeen too, directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and starring Hailee Steinfeld.
2. The Farewell (2019)
This will make you cry. I am warning everyone with a close relationship with their grandmother right now. Lulu Wang crafted this amazingly poignant film about an all too common but not as well-known tradition in China where terminally ill elders are not told about their condition.
The film follows a Chinese-American family as they set up a cousin’s fake wedding so the family can gather and say goodbye to their grandmother. Awkwafina stars in it and nabbed a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her performance. The film also won Best Feature and Best Actress for Zhao Shuzhen at the Independent Spirit Awards, earning praise for its themes of morality, the lengths to which we’ll follow tradition, and the difficulties of being in-between cultures. It’s a highly recommended watch and make sure to bring tissues.
3. Hustlers (2019)
The idea of a film about strippers isn’t new, but there’s nothing like Lorene Scafaria’s take on the subject. Based on the viral story published in New York magazine back in 2015, the film is a Robin Hood-like tale set during 2008 economic crash starring Jennifer Lopez (famously snubbed at this year’s Oscars) and Constance Wu as strippers who steal money by drugging Wall Street hacks.
Now from the description, it sounds like a mix of Magic Mike and Wolf of Wall Street, which in the wrong hands would be a recipe for disaster but what sets Hustlers apart is its intelligent writing and how the film portrays its women with depth, empowerment, and loads of empathy. The rest of the film is rounded out by its ensemble cast in Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and Julia Stiles with a few great cameos from Lizzo and Cardi B.
4. Little Women (2019) /Lady Bird (2014)
You can’t choose just one. As with any Greta Gerwig film, expect heartwarming moments, organic dialogue, and a strong joie de vivre about them, but Little Women and Lady Bird both excel in portraying domestic struggles as well.
Both led by incredible performances by Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird just makes you want to call your mom after watching, while Little Women gets its acclaim for the dual timelines that separates it from previous adaptations. Plus, the film’s amazing cast in Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep just take the film to another level.
Greta Gerwig’s films are not just well-crafted, they’re also great because of the stories that she puts forward. She champions tales that are often perceived as “less important” because it’s not some epic adventure to save the world or grand acts of male violence (see: the films of this year’s best director nominees). She believes in a powerful statement, one that she even put in Little Women: “writing about something makes it important.”
5. Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola holds the distinction of being one of only five women that have ever been nominated for Best Director, and that was for her 2003 film Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.
Famous for using Tokyo as its playground, the film actually manages to feel small as Bill Murray’s character, aging movie star Bob Harris, deals with a midlife crisis. In Japan, he meets Charlotte, a married college graduate unsure of her future played by a 19-year-old Scarlett Johansson, and they bond over their loneliness and insomnia. It’s a poignant film that fills the air with melancholy but never feels dull or boring. The romance in the film is contained only through emotion, but every moment feels intimate and never fleeting despite their circumstances. An absolute must-watch and a refreshing entry to the romance genre.
6. Paris is Burning (1990)
The famed documentary directed by Jennie Livingston dives headfirst into the golden age of New York City ballroom culture and shines a light on the origins of voguing, balls, reading, shade, tea, and houses, all within the larger context of the 80s AIDS crisis and the plight of African-American and Latino LGBT+ communities back then (a lot of which still exist to this day).
It’s the same era that the show Pose is based on and is the backbone of the many iconic phrases used on RuPaul’s Drag Race today (RuPaul and Michelle Visage also came up in the ballroom scene together.)
It's a highly culturally significant piece of cinema that reminds us of what happened in the not-so-distant past, gives proper credit to the origins of the many things we enjoy and partake in now, and that our feminism must always be intersectional, which is a great thing to remember this Women's Month.
7. Clueless (1995)
Jane Austen’s stories will never grow old and Clueless absolutely solidifies this point. In Amy Heckerling’s fantastic modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, the classic tale set in Regency-era England finds its place in the 1990s.
Her film garnered a lot of much-deserved praise for Alicia Silverstone’s charming performance as Cher, its boldness to poke fun at other teen films of the era, and the iconic fashion that still stands to this day. It’s made such a great impact that it now stands as one of the quintessential teen films to watch for any generation.
What’s more is it’s actually the first big-screen adaptation of the novel, making the modern-day setting an even bolder decision than it already was at the time. Amy Heckerling even studied actual Beverly Hills High School students while writing the film. Talk about commitment!
8. The Babadook (2014)
The folk tale turned pop culture phenomenon was actually writer-director Jennifer Kent’s first film. In the process of writing it, she explains how she wanted human relationships to really be front and center and wanted to put the myth in a domestic setting to make it feel all the more surreal.
It was these choices that resulted in its universal acclaim for one: actually managing to tell a story; two: having the movie rely on real dread and horror as opposed to jump scare after jump scare (which would have been easy seeing how scary the Babadook looks), and three: delivering a well-told, entertaining film and giving the world a new monster to love.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Celine Sciamma’s tale of two lovers hit French cinemas in a big way with its portrayal of a powerful forbidden romance between a painter and her subject.
American Psycho (2000)
Of course, a woman (director Mary Harron) would know how to deftly handle the story of a normal-seeming, psychotic male.
Another Patty Jenkins entry that won Charlize Theron her first Oscar back in 2004 for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wournos.
What are some of your other favorite films directed by women? Let us know!
Featured photo images courtesy of A24 (Lady Bird), Annapurna Pictures (Booksmart, Hustlers), and Focus Features.