In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to highlight some of my favorite films directed by women. While women are still underrepresented as directors, there are a huge number of films directed by women that I love and think deserve attention. So to find just ten to celebrate this month, I had to narrow things down.
A fellow writer has covered some of my favorites as well: she’s written about Shirley, The Assistant, and Lady Bird in her piece celebrating International Women’s Day.
Then I thought I might as well limit myself to films that are currently available on the major streaming services (in the US, I apologize to my UK readers as I’m not sure what availability looks like across the pond). What’s the point of recommending great movies if they can’t be readily found, watched, and further recommended? And finally, while I love Booksmart, The Beguiled, Monster, and The Hurt Locker (among many other movies directed by women currently available on streaming), I decided I’d like to focus on some perhaps lesser seen films directed by women that deserve just as much love.
So below you will find a list of ten movies directed by women that I believe deserve more attention.
1. Smithereens (1982)
Director: Susan Seidelman
Susan Seidelman is most well known for her Madonna starring dramedy Desperately Seeking Susan, which is a delightful film that’s currently available on HBO Max. But her directorial debut Smithereens is also a fantastic film that deserves just as much attention. It’s one of the best portraits of 80s New York, and one of the best films focused on a narcissist ever made.
Wren (Susan Berman) just wants to make it big in the punk scene in New York, but the scene is dying, or at least moving West. What the audience is then left with is a film that shows a young woman desperately trying to create her own reality and failing to do so. The film uses Wren’s constantly undercut aspirations and a realist style to thoroughly de-romanticize being young and in New York in the early 80s, something that’s hard to find elsewhere, including in Desperately Seeking Susan.
And yet, while Smithereens is raw and dirty and punk, it manages to make you care for all of its characters, often through sheer charm, and in that way ends up being sort of cozy too, even if you’d never want to be in their place.
Smithereens is available to stream on HBO Max.
2. The Invitation (2015)
Director: Karyn Kusama
The Invitation is likely the most well known movie on this list, but as Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body finally makes its well deserved way to cult classic status, I’d like to make that case for her follow up as well.
While The Invitation doesn’t have the same snarky bite that Jennifer’s Body does (because it’s not written by Diablo Cody), it is a brilliant single location horror movie that plays with and subverts a variety of horror subgenres to better create its own story and unnerve the audience in new ways.
Kusama is a master of genre and in The Invitation she’s able to create dread in a variety of ways: her blocking and camerawork make the home in the Hollywood Hills feel simultaneously inescapable and like its closing in on those inside, using unclear flashbacks to make us unsure whether we can trust our lead character, and slowly building tension from increasingly uncomfortable conversations before exploding into a wonderfully violent finale.
To top it all off, it also has a final shot that should be iconic. I cannot think of another final image that has made me gasp and want to applaud at the same time – only The Invitation has managed that.
The Invitation is available to stream on Netflix.
3. Lovesong (2016)
Director: So Yong Kim
Lovesong is one of those quiet films that sneaks up on you and leaves you an emotional wreck by the end.
The story begins when Sarah (Riley Keough) and Mindy (Jena Malone), who have been best friends since college, take a road trip with Sarah’s daughter because her husband regularly dismisses her concerns about his frequent travel and absence from the lives of his wife and child. On the trip things between the two friends become more romantic, possibly not for the first time. The film then cuts to three years later, when Mindy is about to be married to a man and Sarah attempts to rekindle their romance.
The film is beautifully acted by Keough and Malone, who are both magnetic, charming, and painfully human as Sarah and Mindy. Neither of these women are perfect, and the film allows each of them moments that are devastating for the other, and frustrating for the audience that just wants them both to be happy. But while Lovesong isn’t a romance, it is one of the most emotionally potent sapphic stories I’ve ever seen packed into a film with a small story that belies its power.
Lovesong is available to stream on Netflix.
4. Always Shine (2016)
Director: Sophia Takal
Before she made the third Black Christmas movie, Sophia Takal made this small scale thriller that feels like an heir to Bergman’s Persona. In Always Shine, actors and nominal friends Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) take a retreat together to Big Sur, as an escape from their hectic lives in Los Angeles. There the facades present in their friendship fade away as jealousy and resentment take the fore in their interactions. And as the film goes on their relationship, identities, and reality all begin to blur.
Like The Invitation, the film’s (mostly) single location setting elicits a sense of inescapable claustrophobia, as if these two women cannot remove themselves from each other no matter how toxic their relationship may become. And like Persona, and Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Always Shine is able to mine the relationship of two women in an isolated setting for themes of identity and femininity, as well an exploration of the potential dangers of interpersonal relationships.
What makes Always Shine stand out is that here both women are actors, both just beginning their careers (or attempting to), and this leads the film to become much more of a genre film than its forebears. As the relationship between the women becomes more and more tense and outwardly hostile the film moves from being a drama to a thriller, and finally, almost an outright horror movie.
Always Shine is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
A Silent Voice is her first standalone feature, based on the manga of the same name by Yoshitoki Ōima. The undeniably melodramatic story focuses on high school students and is built on well worn, but emotionally potent, young-adult fiction standbys: lead character Shoya (voiced Miyu Irino) begins the story by deciding against suicide at the last moment, there is a deaf girl who is new to school, and there’s a lot of bullying and repenting for bullying. But what makes A Silent Voice special is the way that Yamada manages to make every single one of these teens into real and fully fleshed out characters who are more than simply their most dramatic moments. While the film clocks in at over two hours, every moment is used to shade the characters so that we understand what they are feeling and where they are coming from.
The film is a production of Kyoto Animation, the studio that made headlines when it was subject to an arson attack in 2019 but among anime fans is known for its many beloved series and gorgeously detailed animation. And A Silent Voice is no different, while the flower and koi motifs in the film draw particular attention to themselves, every frame is breathtaking. It’s one of the most beautiful animated movies I’ve ever seen both for its animation and for the tenderness and empathy with which it treats its characters.
A Silent Voice is available to stream on Netflix.
6. Casting JonBenet (2017)
Director: Kitty Green
Kitty Green broke through this past year with The Assistant, but before that she made this truly unique documentary about the JonBenet Ramsey case. I won’t go into the details of the case here as they are disturbing, but suffice to say that a child, JonBenet, was murdered and the ensuing investigation and media attention made the case into a sort of modern true crime myth. Like the Zodiac killer, the case remains open to this day and the mystery of what happened maintains a public interest.
But Casting JonBenet isn’t even really about JonBenet Ramsey or what happened to her. It’s about that public interest and the ways in which many of us become fascinated by true crime stories. It’s about the ways that our biases, and the sources from which we learn about these cases lead us to form our own theories and solve the cases for ourselves (whether our conclusions are correct or not is often irrelevant).
Casting JonBenet doesn’t research the case or seek to bring new information to light, instead the entire film focuses on the casting process for reenactments. The actors auditioning for roles are interviewed talking heads style, often while in costume, and asked what they think about the case, who they think might have committed the crime and why. Their answers, and the significant knowledge of the case that many of them display, are surprising and revealing not just about these individuals but about the ways that all of us engage with true crime.
Casting JonBenet is available to stream on Netflix.
7. Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
Director: Issa López
Isaa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a very special movie. You don’t have to take my word for it, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King have also praised and recommended the film. The way the film blends together magical realism, horror, gritty drama, and children’s fairy tales creates a film unlike anything, even if it is inescapably going to be compared to Pan’s Labyrinth.
The story focuses on a group of five children, all of whom have lost their parents to cartel violence, as they navigate life in a hostile city and become the targets of a gang leader whose phone (which may contain compromising information) they stole. Throughout, there are magical moments, both beautiful and horrifying (including more than one very well executed jump scare), that serve to lift the film from simply being a story of poor children in a violent world into a bittersweet fairy tale.
The way that the group of children interact, and very realistically comfort and get angry with one another, makes the film that much more powerful. The time that the film spends with the children allows the audience to see these kids be kids: playing, imagining, and being scared because of their seeming powerlessness. And by allowing us to see these children as children, and not just metaphors for innocence or cannon fodder to illustrate how ruthless the cartels are, Tigers Are Not Afraid brings us closer to them and forces us to see their world through their eyes. A world that’s full of magic that’s just as likely to save the day as it is to raise ghosts to haunt you.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is available to stream on Shudder.
8. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017)
Director: Mouly Surya
Unsurprisingly Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts takes place in four acts. But that’s just one of the heightened choices that Mouly Surya makes. The others, like the fantastic score full of crisp guitars and blaring trumpets, and the stunning widescreen photography, make clear that this is very much a stylized genre film, and more specifically a spaghetti western.
Like many spaghetti westerns, Marlina the Murderer tells a story of revenge. But instead of focusing on a man seeking revenge for the murder of his wife (as so many spaghetti westerns do), the film focuses on the titular Marlina, whose husband is dead from the film’s opening, and the aftermath of her revenge for an attack on her home and person by a group of would be robbers. In a perfect combination of style and realist subversion, for most of the movie Marlina carries the head of one of these thieves whom she decapitated in the first act so that she can deliver it to the proper authorities.
This mix of classically heightened genre and commitment to playing the plot as realistically as possible leads to an extraordinary film that manages to deliver on the promise of its genre while subverting expectations and commenting (often painfully) on the reality of women’s experiences as opposed to those of men.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
9. Knives and Skin (2019)
Director: Jennifer Reeder
Knives and Skin wears its influences on its sleeve. It has a set up similar to Twin Peaks, near constant neon lighting reminiscent of everything Nicolas Winding Refn has done since Drive, and its plot focused on teens attempting to understand a mystery makes it feel like the next generation of the high school noir following Blue Velvet and Brick. And yet, it’s a completely singular film.
Perhaps it’s the addition of gorgeously ethereal and unnerving renditions of pop songs throughout the film, making it a jukebox musical as well as a horror tinged high school mystery. Or perhaps the centrality of women and girls in the story. Unlike Blue Velvet and Brick, Knives and Skin doesn’t follow a young man working to solve the mystery of what has happened, but instead focuses on the ways that the tragedy of a girl gone missing affects her mother and three best friends.
It may also simply be that while director Jennifer Reeder draws on a variety of influences, the way that she brings them together creates a world and filmic style wholly her own. Knives and Skin is a beautifully unique film that makes me incredibly excited to see whatever Reeder does next.
Knives and Skin is available to stream on Hulu.
10. Hail Satan?(2019)
Director: Penny Lane
The question mark in the title of Hail Satan? is an invitation. An invitation to consider that maybe you could say it without the question mark. Penny Lane’s (yes, that’s her real, legal, given name) fourth feature documentary focuses on The Satanic Temple (TST), from its many members across the world (but mostly in the US) to the work that the Temple does to fight for religious liberty and the separation of church and state in the US.
The documentary mixes interviews with members and footage from meetings with news reports about TST and their work (and publicity stunts). This mixture allows Lane to give a full picture of the organization and emphasize the difference between what the idea of “satanists” conjures and the reality of who these people are. Cutting from far right politicians denouncing the evils of satanists to a well dressed young man in a bow-tie is funny. And when that young man begins to talk about how he just thinks all people should be treated equally no matter their faith, it becomes more.
Throughout the documentary, Lane uses humor (it certainly doesn’t hurt that a lot of the members are very funny) to draw attention to the real issues that TST is involved in advocating for, from abortion access to after school programs that teach children about pluralism. And while TST is certainly an organization that (knowingly) pushes buttons and upsets people, Hail Satan? shows that it’s all coming from a good place, and a very fun place too.
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