Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate everything that women contribute to our culture and our society, and to acknowledge struggles that many women face just to attain recognition for their achievements, or even to live their lives the way they choose. One field in which women have fought to be recognised is film; only four women have ever been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. Listed here are five of the greatest films directed by women. Among them are some of the most inventive, affecting and thought-provoking films ever made. Bear in mind, this list is in no way definitive, and it was very hard to leave out amazing films from the likes of Ava DuVernay, Forugh Farrokhzad, Jane Campion, and others.
Meshes of the Afternoon directed by Maya Deren (1943)
Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren’s short silent masterwork is one of the most beautifully textured and jaw-droppingly profound films of its time. Often lumped in with the surrealists like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, her work is actually far more incisive than the mind-bending dreamscapes of those artists. Meshes of the Afternoon, universally considered her greatest work, does flow like a dream, folding back and overlapping upon itself, full of abstract imagery, but there is a tangible and very confronting quality to it. Its images of domesticity are permeated with a lurking sense of threat and dread – a black robed figure and a shining knife figure prominently. Meshes of the Afternoon is enigmatic and artful, but no less potent for it.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles directed by Chantal Akerman (1975)
Chantal Akerman, who sadly passed in 2015, was featured in the “in memoriam” section of the 2016 Oscars. The Academy, however, would never have honoured any of her many great films while she was alive. Akerman was an uncompromising and bold filmmaker, as one can see from her three-and-a-half hour Jeanne Dielman… Delphine Seyrig plays the character whose name and address make up the film’s title. She is a housewife, taking care of a teenage son, but during the day when she is alone, she has men visit her. This deliberate and slow moving film is a total disruption to what we expect from cinema, and what society expects from women. It is subversive, iconoclastic, and totally original.
The Virgin Suicides directed by Sofia Coppola (1999)
Sofia Coppola has been accused of having had a significant leg up due to her famous father being the director of such classics as The Godfather and Apocalypse, Now, but from the very beginning Sofia followed her muse. This adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel was the feature debut for her, and does not seem like tentative first steps, but a bold statement of intent. Telling the story of the five Lisbon sisters, viewed as mysterious and unobtainable by the boys in the neighbourhood, The Virgin Suicides is a striking and sad evocation of stolen youth. Coppola directs an amazing cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner and James Woods, and perfectly evokes the 1970’s period setting of the novel to create an unforgettable film.
Morvern Callar directed by Lynne Ramsay (2002)
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay followed up her attention-grabbing debut feature Ratcatcher with Morvern Callar, an adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1995 novel of the same name. Throughout her career she has shown an innate ability to entice brilliant performances from female leads (she also directed Tilda Swinton’s brilliant turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin) and here she draws a beautifully tempered performance from the very talented Samantha Morton. Morton plays the title character, who, after her boyfriend commits suicide, decides to pass off his unfinished novel as her own, keep his death a secret and abscond to a new life with the money he left for his funeral. It’s hard to find an experience more profoundly cinematic and artfully constructed than this simple but brilliant tale.
Winter’s Bone directed by Debra Granik (2010)
Remarkably, for an independent and gritty drama, Winter’s Bone scored four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Also nominated was Jennifer Lawrence, in a spellbinding breakthrough performance. Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, who lives with her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings. She is unsure of the whereabouts of her father, but when a visit from the law reveals that she has to either prove that he is dead or lose her family’s home, she is thrust suddenly into the dark underworld of methamphetamine labs populated by her extended family. Winter’s Bone is dark, visceral and moving. Granik’s direction ensures that the stakes are always high, eliciting enormous tension from every interaction and revelation. From Lawrence she procured a star-making turn that makes us root for Ree as the only light in a very dark place.