In its 87 years of existence, only four women have ever been nominated for a Best Director Oscar. All of those nominees have made my list of the greatest movies directed by women. While researching this project, the original draft was more than 100 titles; narrowing it down to 10 was not easy, which is why I encourage you to chime in with your own choices in the comment section. In honor of Ava Duvernay, the latest and probably not last snub, for her brilliant “Selma”, here are 10 movies that make a good case for more original female voices at the movies.
1) Seven Beauties
Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties is an ugly movie. Wertmuller is a female Italian director whose films weren’t supposed to be nice to look at. She consistently tried to break societal taboos over her long illustrious career. “Seven Beauties” was the best film of her career and justifiably made her become the first female director to ever get nominated for Best Director. Tackling the holocaust, WW2 and Italy’s ugly role in the war was a risk. The taboos tackled by Wertmuller were indelibly cringed in an air of shame in her native country. She wanted to push buttons with her film and make the audience as uncomfortable as possible. Wertmuller shot her scenes with no restraint, purposely going over the top with original characters that stay etched in your memory for a good, long time. “Seven Beauties” is a landmark of cinema and clearly inspired Tarantino to re-write WW2 history himself 34 years later with “Inglourious Basterds”.
2) The Hurt Locker
Here is Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, tense and incredibly terrific movie that justifiably won the Oscar for Best Picture. I could have chosen other Bigelow gems like “Point Break”, “Strange Days” and “Near Dark”, but “The Hurt Locker” was the best and most important achievement. An episodic movie that dealt with male testosterone and adrenaline by studying a man who thrived on it, and kept putting himself in the most dangerous situation imaginable. The attention to detail is staggering. “War is a Drug” the title card reads at the beginning of Bigelow’s film. This movie is a drug. Jeremy Renner’s incredible performance and Bigelow’s incredibly controlled direction changed the way we saw action films and reinvented the possibilities for the new century. Not surprising that Bigelow was the first ever woman awarded the Best Director Oscar, and this quickly became a landmark in 21st century cinema.
3) Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola’s best movie as a director was such sensitive, delicate stuff – and I do mean that as a compliment. Every frame is beautifully photographed by Lance Acord; the film is a portal to a brightly colored, anything-can-happen Japan. And the performances by the two leads – Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen – just sublime. In showing unrequited, unforgivable, love between these two strangers lost in a place far away, Coppola infuses every frame of her magically romantic film with a sense of purpose and free will. It’s as if every convention known to Hollywood is thrown out the window and replaced by a
freshness you usually see in Japanese films made by Wong Kar Wai or Ozu. Most surprising of all, it’s American and as purely poetic as any movie can be.
4) The Piano
Jane Campion’s “The Piano” is the most personal movie of her astonishing filmography. This almost plotless story about a group of people who aren’t, on the whole, particularly easy to sympathize with, is a stunning mood piece and a haunting adult fairy tale about a woman’s quest to control her identity and destiny. A practically silent Holly Hunter gives an Oscar Winning performance that is as mesmerizing as it is haunting, and Anna Paquin, then 11 years old, won an Oscar playing Hunter’s smart and witty young daughter. Campion, never one to shy away from Gender politics, gave us a portrait of love, fear and passion amidst a world where a woman is not supposed to have the necessary freedom to fulfill her every desires. Rarely do we witness beauty as real as what is captured in this film. Campion’s cinematic landmark is such a visually stunning film, it’s almost intoxicating how its atmosphere sweeps across the screen and ravishes the eyes.
5) The Triumph of the Will
Was there ever any doubt that this – quite possibly the most influential film of all time – would not make the list? “Triumph of the Will” is a Nazi propaganda film that, despite its disturbing subject matter, revolutionized the way movies were made. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl singlehandedly rewrote the language of cinema with her use of cinematography and music. This is a work of staggering brilliance with shots that are still hard to achieve to this very day. It is then no surprise that filmmakers such as Peter Jackson, George Lucas and Ridley Scott have all admitted to having studied and copied Rifenstahl’s masterpiece. Watching the film with attention to all the details on screen is an incredible experience; add in the fact that this was meant as a propaganda tool by the Nazis and you have one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences imaginable.
6) Cléo de 5 à 7
The French New Wave was a boys club – that is until a young Agnes Varda showed up to shake the party. We all know “Breathless”, “The 400 Blows”, “Contempt” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, but no French New Wave top five could be complete without “Cléo de 5 à 7” a rich absorbing look at a woman embracing death and looking into the unknown. The film is a staple of feminist filmmaking and introduced to us a character that we could eerily relate to. Awaiting the results of a medical exam that could potentially lead to a stomach cancer diagnosis, Cleo wanders around the streets of Paris as themes of existentialism and mortality get played out. It’s a groundbreaking movie that gave way to one of the most iconic and important female voices in cinematic history. The boys club was forever shaken.
7) Zero Dark Thirty
Forget about the Bin Laden raid, which ends the movie, what counts in Kathryn Bigelow’s film is how they actually got there in the first place. The procedural work rivals that of “All The Presidents Men” and “Zodiac”, as does the harrowing relevance that burns at its core. A great performance by Jessica Chastain infuses every frame, and Bigelow, a great action director, proves her worth as a director of considerable intellectual skill. The controversy Bigelow’s film got upon release was obviously unwarranted and cost it Best Picture to –huh? – Argo? Haters will hate, but this movie has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.
8) Winter’s Bone
Debra Granik’s second feature film, “Winter’s Bone”, is the kind of movie that gets progressively better as you delve deeper and deeper into it. It is filled with humane, authentic characterizations of a society that is rooted in evil and people who have lost all hope in life and succumbed to morally wrong choices. There are memorable scenes that linger (the gutting of a squirrel, the taking of a girl, a final ambiguous mumbling sentence) a sense of dread that might turn the most primitive of moviegoers off. It is through and through a product of American Independent cinema and we should never forget its important existence. Then newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, delved deeply into her role and created something memorable and real. It was an absolutely spellbinding lead performance that brought subtlety to her role as a teenage girl desperately looking for her – quite possibly dead – father in the wild Ozarks of Missouri.
9) Boys Don’t Cry
I still hold out hope that director Kimberly Peirce will one day make as great a movie as her 1999 debut “Boys Don’t Cry”. Featuring an Oscar Winning performance from Hilary Swank, this was ballsy, original filmmaking at its finest. The true story of Brandon Teena, a trans-man raped, beaten and murdered by acquaintances after they discover that he is anatomically female, “Boys Don’t Cry” was a statement by Peirce to stop the madness and advance as a society. She doesn’t hold any punches and knocks us out with every stinging detail in this tragic, and sadly still relevant, story
Director Penny Marshall became the first female director ever to direct a movie that grossed more than 100 million dollars at the box office. No small feat. She was sadly one of the few true feminine voices in Hollywood to sit in the director’s chair during the 1980’s. Who can forget the iconic piano dancing scene that is the centerpiece of this constantly copied, but never bettered, 1988 movie starring Tom Hanks as a boy trapped in a grown man’s body. Marshall’s short but impressive streak would continue with “A League of Their Own” and the vastly underappreciated “Awakenings”, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.