Suffragette is on its way to an awards season near you, probably later this year. It’ll have a female screenwriter (Abi Morgan), female director (Sarah Gavron), and, naturally, female leads (Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter), telling the story of early feminists and their heroic efforts to secure the vote for women. And if statistics hold like they have been, it will also be one of the fewer than 10 percent of films created by women this year.
In 2014, only 17 of the top-grossing 250 films were directed by women. Yes, 17. It’s that unbalanced. And that’s an improvement. Between 1939 and 1979, over 7,000 films were released by Hollywood. Women directed 14 of them, which means that part of 2014’s problem was rooted in 1944’s problem and 1974’s problem: the historical, systemic tradition of inequality for women in the workplace, a tradition the film industry has been bizarrely slow in correcting or even recognizing as problematic.
So the library is open. If you can’t name a single film directed by a woman, here’s a really incomplete and really subjective get-started list*. Some historical, some arthouse, some mainstream, all of them great. Get watching.
This is not the legendary musical fiasco from Cannon Films. This is the 1998 directorial debut of then-17-year-old Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf (an influential member of the Iranian New Wave). The Apple is based on a true story about two young twin sisters who were imprisoned in their home by their father, and Makhmalbaf enlisted the real girls to play themselves in this devastatingly specific feminist docudrama — a classic of recent world cinema.
Beyond The Lights
Critically acclaimed and overlooked by audiences in 2014, this romantic drama from director Gina Prince-Bythewood was mistakenly painted as Rihanna Meets The Cop, when it was really about the limitations placed on women in the music industry, in relationships, and in families. That it was also a genuinely sexy, moving love story is kind of icing.
Penny Marshall has had great success as a director, but it all seems pretty far away these days, since her last theatrical feature in that role was 2001’s Riding in Cars With Boys. But it would unfair to her talent to forget that she directed this heart-tugging comedy about a 13-year-old (David Moscow) who wishes “to be big,” and who overnight turns into a 30-year-old man (Tom Hanks).
Marshall guided Hanks and David Moscow to their performances by having them rehearse together, with Hanks paying close attention to how a boy would react to being forced into adult situations. Funny and bittersweet all the way through.
French filmmaker Catherine Breillat isn’t much for compromise. Her forceful, unsparing films tackle the sometimes awful truth about life. In this provocative take on adolescent sexuality, the titular fat girl is 12-year-old Anais (Anais Pingot). She resents everything and everyone around her, often quite justly, including her older sister who inspires both jealousy and longing in Anais. Tough to take with a shocking ending, but vital all the same.
Actress Ida Lupino decided, in the 1940s, to get behind the camera and do what she referred to as “the interesting work,” by writing, directing, and producing her own films. The Hitch-Hiker is not only her best film, but a classic of the noir genre, the only one to have been made by a woman. The story of two fishing buddies who pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a psychopath is a tense, frightening story of survival with intelligence and humanity to spare.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
The New York Times called this film the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema.” That’s true, and it will freak you out. A single mother cooks and cleans, in what often feels like real time — that meatloaf gets made for as long as it takes an actual meatloaf to get made — and then accepts afternoon clients for her part-time job as a prostitute. Then, slowly and inexorably, all hell breaks loose. Challenging even now, Chantal Akerman’s process-based, durational drama is a nearly four-hour-long descent into the unraveling of a precisely controlled life. And you’ll never stop talking about it.
If you’ve seen a Sofia Coppola movie, it was most likely Lost In Translation. And as significant as it was, it didn’t get to be large. For that, you need to see Coppola tackle the days leading up to the French Revolution, which she does with both a masterful grandiosity and a strange, intimate focus on her favorite subject matter: young women in gilded cages, dreaming their days away and wondering how to become free. It got a mixed reaction from critics and audiences largely stayed away, but this one deserves another chance.
A history lesson that didn’t feel like one, this moving piece of filmmaking isn’t just a huge achievement for filmmaker Ava DuVernay, but for the legacy of its subject. DuVernay directs British actor David Oyelowo to a performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that is conflicted and human, full of fire and a profound desire to see justice served. That much of the moviegoing public avoided this immensely satisfying, incredibly well-made, and hopeful film is baffling.
35 Shots of Rum
French director Claire Denis is interested in the endless variations of human interaction, especially the experiences of the world’s outsiders. She is tough-minded but her films are sensual and open, elegant and occastionally austere. This slice of life, about an adult father and daughter living in Paris shows Denis at her most tender — the daughter in the film must come to a decision to leave her cozy existence tending to dad and go live life on her own. It’s graceful and wise, the perfect, gentle introduction to Denis’ masterful abilities.
From the legendary Agne Varda, this is a dark, unsettling story of a woman ridding herself of all responsibilites and ties to anything that would keep her in one spot. Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) uproots herself from a boring job in Paris and chooses to wander the French countryside, taking assistance from anyone who offers. Varda’s beautiful visual style is increasingly at odds with the desperate state of her subject, but her compassion for her protagonist shines clearly from start to finish.
*Seen all these? Then try All Over Me, An Angel At My Table, The Babadook, Beau Travail, Boys Don’t Cry, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Citzenfour, Clueless, Daughters of The Dust, The Decline of Western Civilization, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Girlfriends, Go Fish, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, Mi Vida Loca, Salaam Bombay, Something New, Starstruck, Tiny Furniture, Valley Girl. You get the idea. You should also check out my list of 10 horror films directed by women.