Issues of gender inequality are becoming ever more prevalent in the film industry. First there was the famous pay discrepancy highlighted by Jennifer Lawrence last year. And in recent weeks, two of our own writers have shone a light on other, subtler areas of cultural discrimination. Is there a sly patriarchal condescension in rebooting male franchises with all-female casts? And why are male method actors venerated more than female ones?
You can add to that long list the issue of female directors. Just last year, in what now seems to be an annual Academy Awards controversy, the media was abuzz over the appalling lack of female representation in the Best Director category at the Oscars (only four women have been nominated to date in the entire history of the awards). This statistical anomaly was indicative of a wider issue – namely that only 15% of released feature films in 2014 were directed by women.
Our list below doesn’t exist to probe the wider issues behind the lack of female directors in the film industry; more to lament that it is an artistic travesty as well as simply a question of fair representation. Of course, it would be wrong to reduce analyses of filmmaking exclusively to issues of gender, but it is unquestionable that when looking at the below list, some of the most talented and radical directors operating in today’s industry are women. One could almost argue that they bring a sophistication of aesthetic that very few of their male counterparts are able to match. While, very loosely, a masculine film aesthetic is very much focused on conveying the dynamics, action and politics of what’s in the frame, female directors almost take the constituents of their narratives as a given and go inward – creating spellbinding, interior representations of reality.
With the great Mia Hansen-Løve releasing her latest film Things to Come in the UK next week, here’s a rundown of 10 of the best female directors on the planet.
10. Ava DuVernay
DuVernay burst onto the American indie scene with a Best Director award at Sundance 2012 for Middle of Nowhere, before conquering Hollywood with her marvelous Civil Rights drama, Selma. Selma showcased DuVernay’s ability to infuse compelling content with assured visual storytelling – the sure sign of a classy filmmaker at work.
9. Lynne Ramsay
There are lots of impressive British female directors on the rise – Andrea Arnold, Amma Assante, Joanna Hogg and Clio Barnard – but Ramsay is arguably the best of the bunch. Although she’s had her struggles in recent years in her dealings with Hollywood, all her films to date have been exceptional, especially Morvern Callar (2002) – one of the best British films of the new century.
8. Sarah Polley
Polley is still so young, but she’s established an impressive career so far – both in front of, and behind, the camera. As director, she’s produced work of staggering diversity. Away from Her (2006) was a mature, beautifully-pitched portrayal of Alzheimer’s – avoiding the Hollywood mawkishness of that subgenre of films – and Stories We Tell (2012) is one of the most virtuoso ‘confessional documentaries’ ever made.
7. Kathryn Bigelow
Bigelow has made a career out of taking on – and largely trumping – masculine, testosterone-fuelled cinema. She operates from within the Hollywood firmament, she manufactures genre movies, and yet – her distinctive brand of visceral cinema far transcends the output of the hacks handling similar subject matter. Her Point Break (1991), The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) are indisputably some of Hollywood’s finest action thrillers of the last 25 years.
6. Samira and Hana Makhmalbaf
Precocious daughters of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira and Hana burst onto the scene in the early noughties with a series of astonishingly ambitious works. Arguably Samira’s most daring film was the Taliban exposé At Five in the Afternoon (2003), which ironically brought Hana to the fore with her documentary of the making of that film, The Joy of Madness (2003).
5. Jane Campion
Too often pigeonholed as a specifically feminist filmmaker (although she is that, producing a series of great films celebrating female self-determination), Campion is actually more wide-ranging. She has made some of the most beautiful films over the last three decades, and her underrated Bright Star (2009) is one of the best films ever made about poetry and writing.
4. Sofia Coppola
Say what you like about the somewhat hermetic subject matter of her movies (dramatising cocooned, privileged malcontents), but you’d be hard-pushed to find a more tonally assured auteur in world cinema today – someone who manages the balance of form and content perfectly. Lost in Translation (2003) is one of the great cinematic documents about how the most fleeting and transitory of connections can sometimes be the most profound, and Somewhere (2010) – though it passed under the radar a touch on its release – is one of the finest American films of the decade to date.
3. Mia Hansen-Løve
Hansen-Løve has amassed an impressive and diverse filmography already for one so relatively young. One feature of her filmmaking is its sheer productivity: All is Forgiven (2007), The Father of My Children (2009) and Goodbye First Love (2011) is a marvellously impressive trio of movies to open a career on. A recurring theme of her work is its high emotional power, and with Eden (2015), she has produced the best and most moving cinematic representation yet of dance music culture.
2. Lucrecia Martel
Sometimes it isn’t the size of the body of work that counts but its perfection, and despite having directed only three films to date, you won’t find any cinephiles arguing over the status of Lucrecia Martel as one of the finest filmmakers on the planet. She’s an absolute master of rhetoric – creating the subtlest of character analyses and social critiques out of an exacting command of her medium. Her masterpiece, The Headless Woman (2008), is unquestionably one of the finest films of the new century. We await her next release (eight years and counting) with increasingly bated breath…
1. Claire Denis
Denis has been producing consistently world-class cinema for nearly 30 years now. Not only is Denis a great visionary, but she’s an ingenious storyteller and social commentator too. Some of her treatises on post-colonialism are perhaps her best works: Beau travail (1999), 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and White Material (2009).