By Matt Carlin —
Martin Luther King Jr. was many things, and one of them is now as a way to begin the discussion on the gender gap in feature filmmaking. When Selma failed to garner an Academy Award nomination for director Ava DuVernay, a barrage of accusations of sexism and racism ensued. There was even a weirdly militant vibe to the ordeal—it got to the point where you were not personally allowed to believe that Selma wasn’t among the best films of the year, nor that DuVernay was one of the best directors without therefore being exposed as a sexist or racist. There is no doubt a dearth of female voices in filmmaking, but this should by no means extrapolate to the result that Selma is therefore the best film of the year. It was a very good film, and very capably directed.
And who cares about the Academy Awards? I cannot remember the last time I was excited by their safe and mundane bio-pic choices anyway. What really disturbed me was that DuVernay became the catch-word for female directors, the implication being that she was the only female filmmaker (perhaps Katherine Bigelow excluded) that you might know by name. Now just in case this is true, I have decided to help you realize how mistaken everybody really is. Because the following list is bursting with names, and I have had to exclude many—all female, none of them named Ava.
Please note the filmmakers in this list find their place not in a list of top female directors, but of top directors, period. They push the boundary of the art form and have produced some of the most exciting cinema of recent years.
- Claire Denis
One of the current Godfathers (Godmother?) of cinema. I was a bit taken aback when I discovered that some of her filmography was hard to come by. I am so enamored by her work, I just assumed that everybody knew her. The films were so good; how could they not speak for themselves? Her interests are numerous, but family and colonization loom big in her work. Her cinema is sparse, and beautiful. Her characters talk more often with their eyes than with their mouths. The films feature quiet interludes, and quite often bursts of savage violence. The journeys are not always comfortable, but are certainly worth taking. She is currently working on her first film in the English language. Go see some of her stuff. Also of note: Denis is so inspirational that she is a constant reference in my mind when completing my own film work. If it weren’t for her seductive 35 Rhums, there is a chance I never would have gone off and written Home, the feature I am currently in pre-production on. MUST SEES: ALL OF THEM, but start with Beau Travail, 35 Rhums, and Trouble Every Day.
- Kelly Reichardt
My first introduction to Reichardt’s work was a morning screening of Wendy and Lucy after a late night flight and no sleep. My partner fell asleep beside me claiming she was tired and that the movie consisted of a girl walking her dog. And she was sort of right. And yet . . . there was something going on, and I was moved. When I later saw Meek’s Cutoff, I knew I was witnessing the talents of someone special. And while she is often linked with the lo-fi indie filmmakers of recent years, her taste for narrative and technical bravery place her a peg above most of those boys in my estimation. Meek’s Cutoff, released back when many theaters still projected on celluloid, presented issues to projectionists as she shot the film in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1 (think those old boxy TVs), which most movie houses were not prepared for (the widescreen ratio is the norm). Since then, there has been a whole retro movement of young filmmakers shooting in the Academy ratio. No less than Wes Anderson shot the majority of The Grand Budapest Hotel this way. I’m not saying she is the whole reason this movement was sparked, but we can hardly say she isn’t influential. MUST SEE: Meek’s Cutoff.
- Agnieszka Holland
I had first heard of Agnieszka Holland when I had seen her name as a screenplay consultant on Krzystztof Kieslowski’s monumental Trois Couleurs trilogy. Years later, her film In Darkness stuck with me, more in its mood than anything else. It was, above all, a film that was true to its title. I must admit that I was not awestruck with her work until I saw the epic three-part Burning Bush, a harrowing and expertly told tale of repression and revolution. Her work manages to be direct and poetic at the same time. The edges are sharp and the feelings are raw. I don’t know much about her, but I have a feeling she is harder than you are. MUST SEE: Burning Bush, and In Darkness.
- Lake Bell
Lake Bell has only made one film as writer and director, and that is truly a crime. You will no doubt recognize her for her acting work (she keeps busy), but in 2013 she quietly made one of the best films of the year. Touching, hilarious, and remarkably insightful, In a World discussed her world, as well as yours and mine. You cared about the characters, the situations were real, and you laughed as hard as you would during any mainstream comedy. She needs to make more movies. MUST SEE: In a World.
- Lexi Alexander
I could not resist putting Lexi Alexander on this list. In a list whose ultimate implication is proving that the girls can play with the men, here is a woman whose work is as testosterone-addled as anything you might ever see. The German-born filmmaker has yet to make a truly great film, but her Green Street Hooligans is a cult favorite. She is an outspoken advocate for equality in Hollywood. She has spoken publically about how she could not obtain a meeting with the producers of The Fighter, as they were not interested in a woman directing the feature. She has made a short film that was nominated for an Academy Award and, oh: she is also a former world champion in karate. MUST SEE: Green Street Hooligans.
- Courtney Hunt
Confession: If it weren’t for Courtney Hunt, I might not be embarking on my current film. I had two separate ideas floating around in my head. They were both in and of themselves interesting, but I found my mind always wandered to the relationships; everything else was secondary. Then I saw Frozen River, the amazing 2008 feature film that is ostensibly about the smuggling of illegal immigrants across the border from Canada to America, but was really about the relationship between Ray Eddy, a down-on-her-luck check out girl, and Lila Littlewolf, a Native American bingo-parlor employee. The film discusses law, economics, racial tensions, the harm caused to the Natives, and the poor conditions of the Indian Reservations, but it does so always through the relationship of the two leads. By not being didactic, the film manages to encompass so much more than it otherwise would. Luckier still, I was able to hear her speak at a screening of the film. She is bright and humane, and has just completed her second feature film, The Whole Truth, which is due out this year. MUST SEE: Frozen River.
- Lina Wertmuller
Not too long ago, I had only known Wertmuller’s Swept Away, the art-house sex romp from the 70’s. Recently the streaming service MUBI offered a double-feature of some of Wertmuller’s work. I embarked on it with trepidation, but was soon in love. Equal parts vulgar, tender, political, and irrelevant, Wertmuller may be rivaled only by Fellini for her ability to encapsulate the most unique of visages into carnivalesque environments we as an audience never seem to grow tired of. MUST SEES: Seduction of Mimi, Love & Anarchy, and I suppose Swept Away (because that’s the one she is known for).
- Miranda July
There is something about the work of Miranda July. Even if you want to not like it, you will find that you cannot. And while it is daring, it is also sometimes just so damn cute that you want to find fault with it. But unfortunately my friends, Miranda July is a faultless filmmaker. She is especially talented at making films that are amazingly relatable while also seeming to exist in a universe that has been slightly twisted from the one you are used to. MUST SEES: Me, You, and Everyone We Know, and The Future.
- Susanne Bier
Susanne Bier’s work is provocative and cuts close to the bone. There are no easy answers in her cinema and her style is not full of flourish. Associated with the Dogme 95 movement (a manifesto which consisted of rules such as: shoot on location, camera must be handheld, shot on Academy 35mm, etc., etc.), her style developed as a minimalist cinema of truth. She does not take an easy path in any of her works. She probes, questions, and allows us as viewers to realize that the answer is not often clear, if available at all. She was recognized for her work with the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film in 2010 for In A Better World. MUST SEE: Brodre, In a Better World, and After the Wedding.
- Debra Granik
Debra Granik might be all the proof you need that the system is flawed and that there is clearly gender inequality in Hollywood. In 2010, Granik made her second feature Winter’s Bone, which went on to become a massive success, and was even nominated for an Academy Award or two. It is a haunting and stirring film, in which the lead character has to hunt down her father, a drug dealer. Oh, did I mention that it was the breakthrough film for Jennifer Lawrence, who has basically starred in every single film ever since then? It also gave John Hawkes the chance to be reevaluated as the premier actor that he is. Did Hollywood knock down her door with three picture deals? Nope. Apparently she followed up Winter’s Bone with a 2014 film Stray Dog, of which I know nothing about. MUST SEE: Winter’s Bone, and Down to the Bone.
There will no doubt be those that find I have left out an amazingly talented female filmmaker on this list (that is kind of the point!). Some I felt to be so mainstream and Hollywood that they are part of the system (Katherine Bigalow; Sofia Coppola; Penny Marshall). This is not a bad thing. Feel free to make your own list. Or just support all these remarkable talents in general. We need new voices. They are already here. Let’s listen to them.
And remember—if this dude here (that’s me!) gets his flick completed, it is more than partially due to at least two of the chicks listed above.