Contrary to what the Oscars (and most other award shows for that matter), film studies classes, general conversation about film and history books will tell you, women have been making proper good movies since cinema’s inception.
In fact, the first ever narrative film was made by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché, all the way back in 1896. Unfortunately, Alice’s films and achievements were mostly neglected in favour of her male counterparts, and as such, she remains an sadly overlooked part of film history.
I’m not entirely sure where I was intending to go with that, but whatever – here’s some female filmmakers who I rate heavily.
We’ll start this list with probably the most well-known female filmmaker working today – Kathryn Bigelow.
She’s been making movies for donkey’s years at this point, ranging from pulpy, nightmarish vampire/western hybrids (Near Dark) to campy, so-90s-it-hurts action flicks (Point Break), but she arguably came into her own with 2008s The Hurt Locker.
I used to think this film was pretty overrated when I first saw it, but I recently rewatched it, and I can gladly confirm that my 15 year-old self was a complete moron. It’s kinetic, frantic and even daring (there’s few films, much less American films, that are willing to confront the fact that many young men take great pleasure in war), and thanks to Bigelow’s expert use of handheld cameras, there’s a air of authenticity to it as well.
Bigelow rightfully took home the Oscar for Best Director, making her the first (and, at the time of writing this, the only) woman to win the coveted award. Her Hurt Locker follow-up Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is pretty decent as well.
Next up, we’ve got one of cinema’s most widely influential and revered filmmakers, the late-great Agnès Varda.
Originally a photographer by trade, Varda first branched out into filmmaking in 1955 with La Pointe Courte, which was, in many ways, the film that really kick-started the French New Wave, arguably the most iconic and revered film movement in all of cinema history.
Varda was pretty prolific throughout her career, making absolute belter after absolute belter. She was a deft hand in both narrative and documentary, with traits of both often bleeding into to the other. Her films explored everything from civil rights to the pleasures of repurposing other people’s rubbish, and were entirely singular in every sense of the word.
Go check out Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Le Bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985) if your taste buds are strictly honed for fiction, or if you’re on a documentary tip, try The Gleaners and I (2000), The Beaches of Agnès (2008) and Faces Places (2017).
On the more obscure end of the spectrum, we’ve got Barbara Loden, who’s a bit of an anomaly when it comes to the other directors on the list.
See, Barbara only ever made one film, and throughout her life, she was mainly known for her roles as ditzy sex-pots and being Elia Kazan’s (of On the Waterfront fame) second wife.
But with that one film, Wanda (1970), Loden managed to make one of the richest, rawest, most unapologetically honest films I’ve ever seen.
Written, directed and starring Loden, and made on a shoestring budget, Wanda is the morose tale of… errr… Wanda, who, after granting her husband a divorce and relinquishing the rights to see her children, embarks on an apathetic odyssey through the soot-stained landscapes of eastern Pennsylvania with the emotionally and physically abusive Mr. Dennis, a bank robber who’s really bad at his job.
But with that one film, Loden managed to make one of the richest, rawest, most unapologetically honest films I’ve ever seen.
Depending on who you ask, Wanda can be viewed as an impassioned feminist statement, or as a rebuttal to overly-glamorised crime films, or even as an existential treatise on the emptiness of American life. I won’t make any judgements on it here, as I think it’s one of those films that’s best left open to interpretation, but what I will say is, it’s really, really, really good.
But despite early praise from serious cinema-types in Europe, Wanda sadly slipped through the cracks upon its US release, and was quickly written-off (partly by her weirdo husband Kazan, who purported that he actually wrote Wanda “to give [Barabara] something to do”, a claim that has since been debunked) as pointless dirge after her death at the age for 48.
Thankfully, the film’s stature has grown in recent years, and is now being rightfully championed as one of the greatest independent films ever made… which it is. Seek it out right now or else.
No hastily cobbled together list of female filmmakers would be complete without the inclusion of Lucrecia Martel, who is (in the humble opinion of this writer) one of the best directors working today.
Born and raised in Salta, Argentina, Martel first exploded into the film world with her extraordinary debut feature La Ciénaga (2001), a woozy, sweaty drama about a stagnant and indulgent bourgeois family who whittle away their days by drinking bucket-loads of wine, abusing the help and generally being a bunch of nasty bastards.
Laced with caustic humour and filled with festering dread, La Ciénaga unfolds like a sort-of drunken, nightmarish recollection of the most unbearable family reunion you’ve ever had the misfortune to be a part of. It’s hard to follow at times (I’ve seen this film four or five times and I’m still unsure of which characters are related or not), but it’s this narrative ambiguity that makes the film’s central theme of social malaise and decay so potent.
Put simply, it’s probably one of my favourite films ever made. Any one who knows me in real life can testify to how unwilling I am to shut up about it.
Martel has only made three other features, The Holy Girl (2004), The Headless Woman (2008) and Zama (2017), since La Ciénaga, but the good news is that they’re all just as good. I highly recommend checking them all out.
We’ll wrap up this list with some home-grown talent who continues to excel with each film she puts out – Andrea Arnold.
Some of you might remember Arnold as one of the presenters of No. 73 (alongside other national treasure Neil Buchanan) all the way back in the 80s. After she retired from acting, Arnold began on honing her voice as filmmaker, making shorts from the late-90s onwards, culminating in Wasp (2003), which one Best Live Action Short Film at the Oscars in 2004.
Features soon followed, starting with magnificently tense and disturbing Red Road (2006). Shot in the Dogme 95 style pioneered by Danish nutter Lars Von Trier, the film was an art-house smash, scooping up the hallowed Jury Prize at Cannes (in fact, all three of her feature films have won the Jury Prize at Cannes).
Arnold imbues her film with barbed wit, hard truths and a sprinkling of light-heartedness, which sets it a part from its gloomy, self-serious peers.
But what remains her best work in my eyes is Fish Tank (2009). The film is a tender and often-brutal depiction of a 15-year-old girl’s coming of age in a economically-deprived council estate in East London. While that sounds like almost every other coming-of-age film that’s come out of England is the last 30 years, Arnold imbues her film with barbed wit, hard truths and a sprinkling of light-heartedness, which sets it a part from its gloomy, self-serious peers.
Arnold followed up Fish Tank with American Honey in 2016, which is definitely worth your time as well.
Right, that should about do it. As always, thanks for taking the time to read my assorted ramblings on all things film. Means a lot. In a bit!