[Editor’s note: The below piece was originally published on February 26, 2019. It has been expanded from the 100 greatest films directed by women of all time to the 111 greatest, as of October 3, 2020.]
For as long as there have been movies, there have been women making them. When the Lumière brothers were shocking audiences with their unbelievable depiction of a running train, Alice Guy-Blaché was pioneering her own techniques in the brand-new artform. When D.W. Griffith was pioneering advances in the art, and building his own studio to make his work, Lois Weber was doing, well, the exact same thing.
When Hollywood was deep in its Golden Age, Dorothy Arzner, Dorothy Davenport, Tressie Souders, and many more women were right there, making their own films. It’s not even a trend that really abated, because it was never a trend. For so long, women being filmmakers was simply part of the norm, and while recent studies have made it clear that the industry needs a wake-up call when it comes to the skills of some of our finest working filmmakers (who just so happen to be women), strides continue to be made.
But the riches are there, and they are decades-deep. The IndieWire staff put together this list of the 100 All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women to celebrate the work of creators who have been making their mark on cinematic culture since it began. Our writers and editors suggested over 200 titles and then voted on a list of finalists to determine the ultimate ranking.
We hope it’s a list that captures the wide range and diversity of the work women create behind the camera, and a reminder that female directors have put their mark on every decade, genre, and kind of film, and will continue to do just that.
111. “First Cow” (Kelly Reichardt, 2020)
Few filmmakers wrestle with what it means to be American the way Kelly Reichardt has injected that question into all of her movies. In a meticulous fashion typical of her spellbinding approach, “First Cow” consolidates the potent themes of everything leading up to it: It returns her to the nascent America of the 19th century frontier at the center of “Meek’s Cutoff,” touches on the environmental frustrations of “Night Moves,” revels in the glorious isolation of the countryside in “Certain Women,” and the somber travails of vagrancy at the center of “Wendy and Lucy.”
Mostly, though, “First Cow” unfolds like “Old Joy” in the Oregon Territory. Once again, Reichardt has crafted a wondrous little story about two friends roaming the natural splendors of the Pacific Northwest, searching for their place in the world. The appeal of this hypnotic, unpredictable movie comes from how they find that place through mutual failure — which leads them to steal milk from the cow of the title in a desperate attempt to kickstart a bakery business in the woods. Their plight unfolds in an early, untamed America, with rich implications that gradually seep into the frame. Reichardt excels at communing with natural beauty and humankind’s complex relationship to it, but “First Cow” pushes that motif into timeless resonance. —EK
110. “Atlantics” (Mati Diop, 2019)
Several recent movies have explored the refugee crisis as a deadly proposition, from the documentary “Fire at Sea” to “Mediterranean,” both of which focus on dramatic attempts to cross the ocean on rickety boats. The striking distinction of Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” is the way it magnifies the experiences of those left behind. Diop’s gorgeous, mesmerizing feature directorial debut focuses on the experiences of a young woman named Ada (Mama Sané) stuck in repressive circumstances on the coast of Senegal after her boyfriend vanishes en route to Spain. But it’s less fixated on his departure with other locals than its impact on Ada, and the community around her, as it contends with the eerie specter of the boys who went away.
An actress and filmmaker whose experimental shorts touch on similar themes, Diop’s first feature casts a tricky spell that might not click for some viewers on an initial viewing, until they think it over, and it all makes sense: More than a superb neorealist fable, “Atlantics” is in fact a powerful work of fantasy, weaving supernatural conceits into an absorbing vision of alienated seaside life. It’s a ghost story in which everyone’s haunted by the desire to escape, and a beguiling tale of romantic yearning like no other. —EK
109. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (Marielle Heller, 2019)
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is designed to sneak up on you. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, the saga of a bitter reporter who learns to appreciate life after forging a friendship with Fred Rogers would resort to cheap, maudlin devices. With iconic everyman Tom Hanks as the smiling children’s television host, the formula writes itself, and most people will probably assume they know every beat of the movie sight unseen.
Director Marielle Heller, however, excels at pulling heartstrings from sturdy foundations, injecting smart and insightful details into material that could easily default to sentimentality. Heller works backward by digging into the gooey material and mining for substance in surprising places. As a fictionalized version of journalist Tom Junod, Matthew Rhys plays a new father and disgruntled magazine journalist whose puff piece on Rogers turns into a transcendent, life-changing encounter with pure, unbridled optimism. The movie, which unfolds within the confines of an imaginary “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode, lingers in the character’s appeal. The wondrous closing scene, a wordless moment with Rogers after the production wraps up for the day, reminds that this sweet, unassuming movie has deeper sensibilities lurking beneath its surface, just like Rogers himself. —EK
108. “The Farewell” (Lulu Wang, 2019)
Anyone with a large Chinese family going back several generations will probably appreciate much about the one depicted in tender detail in “The Farewell,” director Lulu Wang’s touching and understated second feature. For everyone else — this critic included — Awkwafina’s performance is a terrific gateway. The rapper-turned-actress’ best performance takes a sharp turn away from her zany supporting roles for a restrained and utterly credible portrait of cross-cultural frustrations. As a Chinese-American grappling with the traditionalism of her past and its impact on the future, she’s the central engine for the movie’s introspective look at a most unusual family reunion.
Based on a 2016 episode of “This American Life” drawn from Wang’s own experiences, “The Farewell” centers on Billi, an out-of-work New York writer who learns from her parents that her beloved grandmother — that is, her “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shuzhen) — has terminal cancer. While this premise could have birthed a quirky dramedy, Wang’s restrained approach instead yields a slow-burn immersion into her character’s life, as she struggles with the conflicting emotions of loyalty and resentment that define her adult life. “The Farewell” delivers a remarkable window into Asian American identity to which future audiences will surely relate, and a welcome introduction to a filmmaker who’s just getting started.
Beyond all that, however, “The Farewell” stands up to the hype because it remains so unclassifiable — defined better by its premise than any single genre, the movie goes from family dramedy to thriller and back again before transforming into something else altogether, a snapshot of cross-cultural confusion utterly in touch with the present moment. —EK
107. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Eliza Hittman, 2020)
Three films into her career, filmmaker Eliza Hittman continues to prove herself as one of contemporary cinema’s most empathetic and skilled chroniclers of American youth. Hittman’s trio of features — “It Felt Like Love,” “Beach Rats,” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” her first studio effort — have all zoomed in on blue-collar teens on the edge of sexual awakening, often of the dangerous variety. Hittman’s ability to write and direct such tender films has long been bolstered by her interest in casting them with fresh new talents, all the better to sell the veracity of her stories and introduce moviegoers to emerging actors worthy of big attention.
The bond between cousins Autumn and Skylar (newbies Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder) is the beating heart of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” which, despite its billing as an abortion drama, isn’t just the wrenching heartbreaker many might expect. Yes, it’s a searing examination of the current state of this country’s finicky abortion laws and the medical professionals tasked with enforcing them (from the small-minded to the big-hearted), and if art can have any impact on its consumers, the film will stick with many of its viewers, perhaps even changing long-held beliefs.
But it’s also a singular look at what it means to be a teenage girl today, and with all the joy and pain that comes with it. Autumn and Skylar will never be as vulnerable as they are right now, straddling the line between child and adult, and doing their damnedest to make the right choices for themselves. No one understands that as keenly as Hittman, but perhaps “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will remind more people of that naked, terrible fragility and what it means. —KE
106. “One Night in Miami” (Regina King, 2020)
On a warm February 1964 night in Miami, self-professed “The Greatest” (a distinction that’s still hard to argue with, even so many decades on) Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston to capture his first World Heavyweight Championship. A 7-to-1 underdog, Ali’s win was hardly expected, but it also somehow felt preordained, a necessary step towards his domination of the sport and then the world. Malcolm X, a close friend of Ali’s and his spiritual guide who would lead him to the Nation of Islam soon after the win, was there. So was soul singer Sam Cooke and NFL superstar Jim Brown.
And when it was all over, when Ali became the greatest, the four close friends celebrated the win together at a local Miami hotel. What transpired on that evening — an evening that, yes, really did happen — belongs to both history and its central foursome, but is now vividly imagined in a film that crackles with all the hopes and fears and dreams and possibilities of both the men it tracks and the blossoming filmmaking talent behind the camera.
While first-time feature director Regina King is not attempting to offer a precise historical transcription of whatever happened that fateful night, what “One Night in Miami” provides is something richer: an emotionally accurate telling, one that always endeavors to find the real people underneath the famous gloss. “One Night in Miami” hits so hard because it remains joyfully, often painfully grounded in what makes a person extraordinary, even when the world isn’t ready for them. —KE
105. “Clemency” (Chinonye Chukwu, 2019)
Burgeoning star Chinonye Chukwu broke some serious barriers when her second feature picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where she became the first Black woman to win the festival’s biggest prize. But Chukwu’s death row drama goes far beyond nifty superlatives, and this decidedly human and deeply considered drama is a meticulously crafted heartbreaker that would sting no matter when it was made.
Chukwu both wrote and directed the drama, which stars an extraordinarily controlled Alfre Woodard as a prison warden struggling with the emotional demands of her job, many of which come to a head as she prepares to execute a prisoner (Aldis Hodge) mounting a desperate last-minute fight for exoneration. The filmmaker boldly tracks these two characters, brought to life by a pair of very talented leads, as they brace for an inevitable tragedy, making sure neither comes off as hero or villain.
Each scene is a challenge Chukwu’s characters fight through, and she ensures the viewer feels the grueling weight of the situation through pacing and editing. It all leads up to a final ten minutes guaranteed to break your heart (deservedly so, given the craft on offer within the entire film), enough to ensure Chukwu’s place in searing cinema for decades to come. —KE
104. “Hustlers” (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)
Lorene Scafaria’s third film is not only her best yet, it’s also a welcome twist on the crime thriller genre (if we must apply genre distinctions here) and the ripped-from-the-headlines, can-you-believe-this-is real drama. And, yes, it’s also a film about strippers, but more than that, it’s about women doing the best they can in a broken system. It’s also funny, empowering, sexy, emotional, and a bit scary, with most of those superlatives coming care of a full-force performance from Jennifer Lopez genuinely deserving of awards consideration.
For all its touchy subjects and ambiguous answers, “Hustlers” is never anything less than energetic, freight-train-fast, and impeccably plotted. Eventually, Lopez’s compatriot Destiny (Constance Wu) shares a persistent nightmare with the journalist trying to commit the duo’s wild story to paper: she’s riding in a car, and realizes no one is driving, and as she attempts to chuck herself at the steering wheel and the pedals, it’s already too late. Nothing in “Hustlers” feels as out of control as that; instead it’s Scafaria and her ladies, one hand on the wheel, one hand throwing up a blinged-out middle finger to the world that doesn’t value them. No one will make that same mistake with “Hustlers.” —KE
103. “Nomadland” (Chloé Zhao, 2020)
“Nomadland” is the kind of movie that could go very wrong. With Frances McDormand as its star alongside a cast of real-life nomads, in lesser hands it might look like cheap wish fulfillment or showboating at its most gratuitous. Instead, director Chloé Zhao works magic with McDormand’s face and the real world around it, delivering a profound rumination on the impulse to leave society in the dust.
Zhao previously directed “The Rider” and “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” dramas that dove into marginalized experiences with indigenous non-actors in South Dakota. “Nomadland” imports that fixation with sweeping natural scenery to a much larger tapestry and a different side of American life. Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century,” the movie follows McDormand as Fern, a soft-spoken widow in her early 60s who hits the road in her van, and just keeps moving. The movie hovers with her, at times so enmeshed in her travels that it practically becomes a documentary. Anyone waiting for a big moment won’t find one here: As Fern drives on, the movie embodies that line as a mission statement. —EK
102. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Celine Sciamma, 2019)
Over the past 13 years, Céline Sciamma has become one of the most exciting voices in French cinema, with a string of moving dramas focused on young women that deliver new poignant experiences each time out. From “Water Lilies” to “Tomboy” and “Girlhood,” Sciamma has excelled at probing the coming-of-age drama from fresh angles, assessing emerging sexual identity and rebellious instincts while hovering inside the ambiguous emotions they stir up. That constant fixation has yielded her most confident achievement to date, a warm and lush period romance that hails from familiar traditions even as it corrals them in new directions.
Sciamma’s lyrical 18th century lesbian drama finds young painter Marianne (an understated Noémie Merlant) assigned to paint wealthy heiress Héloïse (the ever-entrancing Adèle Haenel) over a single summer on a remote island. The setting gradually transforms into a painterly achievement of its own, with the rocky landscapes and ocean waves accentuating the gradual bond between the two women and how it defies the linguistic boundaries of their time. Sciamma compensates for that by using the language of cinema to fill in the gaps: An enchanting, fantastic paean to forbidden love, the movie builds to a series of thrilling operatic moments, including a show-stopping musical number that catapults the story from the boundaries of its setting to achieve a timeless ecstasy. —EK
101. “Little Women” (Greta Gerwig, 2019)
While it’s consumed with questions of ambition, economics, and a woman’s place in the world, “Little Women” is clearly the work of someone steeped in affection for the novel, and keenly aware of how the concerns of Alcott and the March sisters (loosely based on the author’s own family) have never quite abated, no matter the time. In short: it’s the same “Little Women” that has endured for centuries, given new life with an original narrative conceit, and a level of craftsmanship that’s nothing short of stunning.
Gerwig’s brilliant storytelling conceit, slipping between time and place, sister and sister, is aided by editor Nick Houy, who cuts between scenes through brilliant transitions that will reward repeat viewings: As Jo (Saoirse Ronan) mentions that her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris, the story finds her there; a visit to eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) ends with a fade that moves from the front door of her small house to the somewhat grander entryway of the March family abode, as the angelic Beth (Eliza Scanlen) wiles away her time, missing her sisters. There is no Jo without Amy, no Meg without Beth. Everything is connected or, at least, every March is connected, just as it should be.
Gerwig’s elliptical storytelling weaves both past (seven years earlier) and (relative) present with ease — any confusion is swiftly cleared up through her use of different color palettes between the time periods, and occasionally, Jo’s very different haircut — cutting more quickly, and nestling together more closely, as the emotion ramps up. Gerwig’s “Little Women” offers its own delightful storybook polish, in its own unique terms, and what a comfort that is. —KE
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