Top 5 Female Directors

In a survey conducted in 2008 by San Diego State University, Professor Martha Lauzen found that only 9% of film directors were women. Only four women have been nominated for Best Director and only this year did one finally receive a statue. Hopefully that win will open the door to more female visionaries, but for now here are my five favorite. I was tempted to make this list about the five most influential female directors, but then this would turn into more of a history lesson then it is already going to be. That is not to say that the five women on this list have not done their parts individually to pave the way for future feminine auteurs. If I were to make that list then Alice Guy-Blaché would have to be at the top. She was not only the first female director, but one of the first film directors of fiction film. In her 25 year career she was involved in the production of over 700 films. Dorothy Arzner would also earn a place on that list. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Directors Guild. The women on this list are not just 5 of my favorite female directors, but 5 of my favorite directors in general. There are more than a few honorable mentions: Claire Denis, Julie Taymor, Gillian Armstrong, Amy Heckerling, Jane Campion, Catherine Breillat, Andrea Arnold, Lone Scherfig, Mary Harron, Patty Jenkins, Tamara Jenkins, Kelly Reichardt, Asia Argento, Isabel Coixet, Sofia Coppola, Mira Nair, Kimberly Peirce, Sarah Polley and Penelope Spheeris.

5. Kathryn Bigelow

The number 5 spot was the toughest for me to decide on. I was considering Spanish independent director Coixet (My Life Without Me, Elegy) and cult favorite Spheeris (Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia, Wayne’s World). But I ultimately went with Bigelow because of her range of projects that she can tackle, plus that Oscar didn’t hurt. Kathryn’s first movie was the 1982 biker film the Loveless, starring a young Willem Dafoe in his film debut. Heavily influenced by the Wild One, the Loveless is a fun post punk take on the classic 1950’s biker genre. It is her 1987 follow up Near Dark that first drew my attention to this director. Initially Bigelow wanted to make a western, but could not find a financier. So instead she decided to make a modern day vampire film with the feel and pacing of a Leone western. Starring three actors borrowed from her then husband’s (James Cameron) movie Aliens (Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton), Near Dark takes the stale genre of vampire movies and turns it on its head and in doing so she created the best horror film of the decade. Instead of sticking with horror, Bigelow moved on to action and made one of the most iconic and quoted films of the 90’s, Point Break. Two other films of note are 1995’s slightly futuristic Sci Fi movie Strange Days (which was the first film to feature it’s website on its poster) and the 2002 Russian submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker. Both are extremely well made films but failed to find an audience. Because of this Bigelow had go back to her roots and make her next film on a shoe string budget. In doing so she did the impossible, she made a film about the Iraq war that is actually watchable. Hurt Locker triumphs where others fail because Bigelow focuses on the human aspect of the war opposed to the political side of it (the Green Zone, the Kingdom, Lions for Lambs). For this accomplishment she walked away with the first Oscar by a female director.

4. Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl is easily the most cinematicly recognizable and controversial director on this list. Best know of being the eyes of Nazi propaganda, she would spend the better part of her life revolutionizing the art of underwater photography. She started off her career as an actress in the lost genre of German mountain films. At one point she was considered one of the foremost actresses in Germany and if only a few choice castings had gone differently she could have been the next Marlene Dietrich (she just narrowly lost out to Dietrich in the film that would gain her international acclaim, Blue Angel). She became increasingly uninterested in work in front of the camera and wanted desperately to gain more control of the productions that she was involved with. She directed her first movie, Das Blaue Licht, in 1932, the last movie that she starred in was S.O.S. Eisberg in 1933. Leni saw Hitler speak at a rally in 1934 and requested a meeting with him. She felt that someone so passionate and animated a speaker as Hitler needed to be captured on film. He was equally enthralled with the young actress/director and after their meeting appointed her to a position that would lead her to creating one of the most celebrating and hated films of all time, Triumph of the Will. I admit that it can be hard to look past the swastikas and the square mustache, however in its technical execution, Triumph of the Will is one of the greatest films ever made. Riefenstahl used moving cameras, depth of field, music and aerial photography set a new standard in film and made her the first internationally acclaimed female director. Throughout her life she made the claim that she was not a Nazi and had no knowledge of the atrocities perpetrated by the Reich. In fact was very upset with the use of her film. She followed up with a two part documentary on the 1936 Olympic Games called Olympia, that like her previous effort set new standards in filmmaking such as underwater photography and the use of rails for tracking shots. She spent the rest of her years traveling the world as a photographer and at the age of 72 became a certified diver. The is a magnificent documentary made about her from 1993, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Whether you love her or hate her, Leni was a one of a kind person. It is said that she was the only woman who was able to boss around Hitler.

3. Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino is the definition of a strong willed woman. In an era of Hollywood that was dominated by men and machismo values, she was not only the only female director at that time, but the one of the few directors in general to make films that pushed the boundary. Ida made the first film to deal with the ramifications of rape from a woman’s perspective (Outrage). She was the first woman to direct a film noir (the Hitch-Hiker). She started off her career as one of Hollywood’s most glamourous and mysterious starlets, appearing opposite the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Jean Gabin, Errol Flynn, Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark. In 1947 she broke free of the studio stranglehold and became a freelance actress. Because of this she was suspended from making large budget films and began her own production company simply called “The Filmmakers”. Her company produced low-budgeted films that often surrounded socially conscious issues of the day. Her first crack at directing came in 1949 when a director hired by The Filmmakers to make the film Not Wanted suffered a heart attack and she was able to step in and finish the picture. She would go on to direct six more pictures in her career. My favorite of hers is 1953’s the Bigamist. It is a perfect example of her ability to portray men and women in the same fragile sensibility. Where other directors on this list focus on the characters of a story, Lupino was a genius at framing the situation as the protagonist of the film.

2. Lina Wertmüller

As I mentioned in a previous post, in 1976 Lina Wertmüller was the first female director to receive an Oscar nomination for her film the Seven Beauties. Much like Riefenstahl and Lupino, Lina started off her career as an actress, but soon grew tired of the creative restrictions of being in front of the camera and longed for more control. In 1962 she was introduced to Federico Fellini and was offered the position of Assistant Director on his 1963 film 8 1/2. It wasn’t long before she was given the chance to direct her first feature film and later that year The Lizards was released. She would release three more films in the 60’s, but she would not find success until she started a four picture collaboration with an old friend of hers, Giancarlo Giannini. Starting with 1972’s the Seduction of Mimi, Lina would find international acclaim with her new leading man, ending with the Seven Beauties. Her films usually surround the actions of left winged protagonists and often deal with clashes with the economically classes and between the sexes. Much like the next and final entry on this list, Wertmüller has the uncanny ability to take chances with her filmmaking that are striking and memorable, yet do not forced and add to instead of distracting from the overall film. Just take a look at the intro to the Seven Beauties to see an example of this. After the success of the aforementioned film, she was offered a four picture deal with Warner Brothers pictures and made her first english language film, A Night Full of Rain. The film itself was a classic Wertmüller, dealing with a relationship between a macho Italian (played by Giannini) and a feminist American photographer (Murphy Brown herself, Candice Bergen). While it received praise from the film community, it was a box office bomb and the studio unfortunately abruptly canceled her deal. She has continued to make films in her native Italy, but has not matched the success she found in the 70’s. Because of this few of her movies from the past three decades are available outside America. She holds the Guinness Book record for the longest film title with her 1979 film Un fatto di sangue nel comune di Siculiana fra due uomini per causa di una vedova. Si sospettano moventi politici. Amore-Morte-Shimmy. Lugano belle. Tarantelle. Tarallucci e vino. When you throw that into Google Translator you get “A bloody event in the town of Siculiana between two men because of a widow.Suspected political motives. Amore-Morte-Shimmy. Lugano beautiful. Tarantella.Tarallucci and wine”. Not surprisingly, it was released in America simply as Blood Feud.

1. Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda started her career with the intention of being a photographer. While visiting a small town in France in order to take pictures for a sick friend she decided to rent a camera and make a film. On a budget of $14,000 she made La Pointe Courte, a film about the relationships of a small fishing town that feels more like a documentary then a work of fiction. Fifty-five years later she is still telling stories about heartbreak with a documentarian’s eye. What makes Varda such a fantastic story teller is the way that she has an unbiased approach to her subject matter. Whether it be a mother in love with her son’s pre-teen best friend (Kung Fu Master), a vapid teenager with no will to live wandering through the purgatory of her existence (Vagabond), or a self obsessed actress that is waiting to hear from her doctor on the results of her tests (Cleo From 5 to 7), Varda simply lets the actions of the characters speak for themselves and leaves the judgements of those actions on the viewers. Her films follow the mentalities of the French New Wave and the filmmakers of the Left Bank of Paris by being concerned with the characters and individual scene, and less about the overall story. Often singular scenes in her films could very well stand on their own as a piece of short film narrative.  In one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Cleo from 5 to 7, is a prime example of this. Two song writers enter our main character’s apartment in order to show her new songs that have written for her. The proceed to present her song after song that she playfully casts aside, until she hears the first chords that perfectly capture the depth of emptiness that she is experiencing at the point. Almost like a cannon ball bursting through a barricade, she breaks the fourth wall and sings directly to camera before breaking down herself. It is not surprising that she has made a few documentaries as well, including 2000’s The Gleaners and I about the people in France that pick through fields after the harvest. It is hard to pin point what makes Varda one of my favorite directors, but I can say that it is impossible to forget one of her films once you have experienced it.

And now for the Special Feature:

Top 5 WORST Female Directors:

5. Dennie Gordon – What a Girl Wants, Joe Dirt, New York Minute

4. Betty Thomas – I Spy, 28 Days, Dr. Doolittle (the remake)

3. Mimi Leder – Deep Impact, The Peacemaker, Pay it Forward

2. Nora Ephron – Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Bewitched

1. Nancy Meyers – What Women Want, Somethings Gotta Give, the Holiday, It’s Complicated

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4 Responses to “Top 5 Female Directors”

  1. This is the best one yet! I’ll probably do one of these myself, but this is particularly informative for people who are unaware of just how many great films are made by women who go on unrecognized, while at the same time paying thorough and due respect to some absolute greats. I also really like Lilliana Cavani, for THE NIGHT PORTER and RIPLEY’S GAME alone she deserves a mention of love. I’ll save it for my own blog.

    Again though, GREAT PIECE!!! I read it twice for the sheer pleasure and will likely read it again. Keep it up.

  2. Boo, I like Mimi Leder. The Peacemaker is a great action thriller.

  3. Betty Thomas should be #1 if only for the horrible fact that she is responsible for the #1 highest grossing film directed by a woman: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

    But, she did do The Brady Bunch Movie, which is pretty brilliant. I guess it evens out.

  4. Interesting read! xx

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