In honor of International Women’s Day, and the concurrent “Day Without A Woman” strike happening all across the globe, we here at GBT are totally prepared to fill the void and mansplain to you a list of twelve incredible women-authored films. Before checking out our list, you should definitely pop on over to F-Rated, a comprehensive collection of films that are either written by, directed by, or starring women in leading roles (or all three for the coveted “Triple F-Rated”). The Bechdel Test this is not; F-Rated is all about celebrating the talented women filmmakers who, despite only making up a combined 7% of writers and directors, have crafted some of our most memorable movies. Some F-Rated films might surprise you, some might catch your interest, but all of them are worth knowing. For our own list below, we focused on any of our favorite films that are either directed by, produced by, written by, or shot by women. Give it a read, and more importantly, give them a watch.
Cleo From 5 To 7 (1962) – Agnès Varda.
Ever since I was given a comprehensive lesson on Varda in college, it has struck me how unfair it is that the French New Wave is so synonymous with the films of Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, et al. First off, none of those guys would have ever even made a movie if not for the tutelage of Henri Langlois (and you don’t see that guy getting any credit, do you?). And, secondly, Agnès Varda premiered her first feature, La Pointe Courte, in 1954 – a full five years before Truffaut’s 400 Blows. Although La Pointe Courte is unequivocally a stylistic precursor to the New Wave and an all-too tempting pick for this list, I ultimately have to go with Cleo From 5 to 7, Varda’s quintessential New Wave film. The story essentially unfolds in real-time, focusing on a two-hour snippet in the life of Cleo (Corinne Marchand) as she waits for the results of a biopsy that might possibly confirm her cancer diagnosis. It’s equal parts poignant and droll, featuring effortless performances and the groundbreaking cinematography one expects from a New Wave film, and cements Varda as the indispensable godmother of modern French cinema.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quay Du Commerce, 1080 Brussels (1975) – Chantal Akerman.
If your definition of “film” includes any semblance of narrative arc, story, premise, or even plot, then prepare to be surprised (though likely not disappointed) by Jeanne Dielman: a 3 ½ hour long, painstakingly filmed, absolutely grueling look at the daily routine of one Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), address: 23 Quay Du Commerce, 1080 Brussels. She bids her teenage son goodnight (every night), makes hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, washes dishes, goes to the market, cooks dinner, washes some more dishes, tidies up the living room, and occasionally entertains male suitors for a price. The word “hypnotic” is doubtlessly overused as an adjective in film criticism, but if Akerman’s magnum opus doesn’t warrant that praise, nothing does. Jeanne Dielman challenges preconceptions about narrative and storytelling in film. It’s a marvelously innovative and intimate examination of domestic European womanhood in the heyday of 2nd Wave Feminism. Akerman’s approach is both non-essentialist and shamelessly genuine. The film is shot by Babette Mangolte, perhaps best known for her Marina Abramović documentary Seven Easy Pieces (2007), and employs a minimalist, static, matter-of-fact shooting-style that evokes feelings of horror and suspense. The incessant imposition of the banal preys on audience’s predispositions to structured narratives, in which all established tensions are resolved, and completely subverts the notion of plot. Imagine 3 ½ hours of build-up to a jump-scare…only for the scare to never come(?). Jeanne Dielman easily qualifies for a “Triple F-Rating” – writer/director Akerman, the producers, the cinematographer (Mangolte), and editor (Patricia Canino) are all women. Shamefully snubbed by Top 10 lists everywhere, Jeanne Dielman is as enigmatic as it is transparent, as thought-provoking as it is mind-numbing, and as beautiful as it is boring. This is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest films of all time.
Dope (2015) – Rachel Morrison, dir. Rick Famuyiwa.
Dope is not directed by a woman, but the memorable visual style of Famuyiwa’s frenetic hit is owed at least in part to DP Rachel Morrison. Taking cues from wrong-place-wrong-time European chase thrillers such as Run Lola Run (1998) and La Haine (1995), Dope follows South Central teens Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends as they accidentally stumble into a web of drug-smuggling, gang wars, and Beverly Hills hedonism. The film is rapturous with color, recalling the same ‘90s nostalgia that Malcolm and his crew all share growing up in present-day L.A. The deliberate irony of Dope is that, like the love Malcolm and his friends have for a decade they were scarcely alive to see, the cinematography is wrapped up in false nostalgia. Morrison captures the feeling of a bygone L.A. – lingering on traces of the past painted on crumbling murals and dusty curbs – but it’s all secondhand. Even the memories regaled by 30-something Dom (A$AP Rocky!), who heard the stories and the music of his predecessors, have been passed around like a game of cultural ‘Telephone.’ Dope is a ‘90s hand-me-down told through millennials’ eyes. Morrison’s work is just as dynamic as the winding plot of the film, boasting technically proficient tracking shots, whip pans, and the best scene transitions I’ve seen since Edgar Wright’s last good movie. This is easily one of the most energetic and confident films to have been released in the past five years, and Morrison, now busy shooting Black Panther (2018) for Marvel, has become one of the most highly sought-after DPs in the business.
Citizenfour (2014) – Laura Poitras.
Citizenfour a.k.a. One of the Most Important Films of the 21st Century (ever) is exactly that: important. Laura Poitras has been on the U.S. government’s shit list for a while now, as she has been using her gift of documentary filmmaking to expose injustices perpetrated during the War on Terror. Her third film to tackle this subject, Citizenfour, is about her secret meeting with whistleblower Edward Snowden and the investigative reporters that broke his story along with the resulting fallout. Regardless of one’s thoughts on this controversy, Poitras’ ability to craft a story and creative visuals from such a clandestine work is nothing short of impressive. Her bravery was thankfully recognized via an academy award for Best Documentary (as well as other accolades), and the fact that this is her third movie to basically stick it to the U.S. government by encouraging questions and outrage from people is inspiring. If you’re “not into documentaries,” then shut up and watch how Poitras can make one while being threatened by the world’s most powerful government.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008) – Nina Paley.
Sita Sings the Blues is a beautiful blend of music, history, animation, multiculturalism, and undeniable proof that men ain’t shit. Nearly everything behind this movie’s production was done by Nina Paley. She’s the writer, producer, director, and animator all at once, and much like Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016), Sita Sings the Blues comes from a need for artistic expression after an experience of emotional turmoil. In Sita, Paley juxtaposes her experiences with her emotionally distant husband living in India with the Indian epic the Ramayana, which follows the story of an ancient exiled prince named Rama from the perspective of his wife Sita. The use of jazz numbers by Annette Hanshaw throughout the film is strikingly poetic, as it not only helps the film stand out further in its uniqueness but serves as a strong transitional tool and thematic element for the importance of showing the female perspective. The film might be hard to get into at first due to how different all the animation and narration styles are, but it won’t be long until you’re sucked into Sita and Nina’s stories and you realize that heartache is as old as time itself and women deserve better than being with men who treat them terribly. Plus, this whole movie is online for free. So shout out to Nina Paley, a true artist for art’s sake.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) – Ana Lily Amirpour.
I last talked about A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night during my Seven4Seven video in which I gushed over the scene where “Death” by White Lies plays during a long take. Ana Lily Amirpour’s “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western” is just as hauntingly beautiful throughout its whole runtime as it is in this particular scene. By merely giving us a culturally inclusive setting and keeping us in the dark about the vampire, Amirpour takes horror to new artistic heights and helps the film stand out amongst the other great movies released during this new horror renaissance. Not to say that these are the only worthwhile aspects of this movie; it’s a near-flawless film across the board, with especially strong visual storytelling and black and white cinematography that really does support its claim as a genre-spanning work. Even if she continues to delve into horror, a genre that’s not everyone’s cup of blood, it’s great to see that such a talented female filmmaker is staking her claim and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) – Jamie Babbit.
I’m not sure why exactly my friend at the time had seen and loved Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader enough to recommend it to me in ninth grade, But I’m certainly glad that she did. When seventeen-(an age I could just barely comprehend at the time, being only fifteen myself)-year old Megan (Natasha Lyon) is surprised with an intervention for her seemingly lesbian habits, she is forced to a) realize that she may be gay, and b) go to True Directions, a conversion therapy camp. She struggles throughout the movie with accepting that there is nothing about herself that needs to be cured, and her feelings for her fellow camper, Graham, (Clea DuVall) who is much more comfortable with her sexual orientation. Babbit’s first feature film treated me to a delightful world of pastel colors and frank homosexual discussion, hilarious in the ways that a John Waters movie could be, albeit with more realistic sensibilities. Tastefully and un-obligatorily raunchy, yet soft with characters’ feelings, But I’m a Cheerleader is a hilarious example of representation in film that could really only have been made by a gay woman. Ten outta ten, would recommen-d.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) – Callie Khouri.
I’m really bad at watching movies when people tell me to, so when my sister and mom managed to sit me down to watch Callie Khouri’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood with them, it was quite the occasion. When Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock), a successful playwright and daughter of one Viviane Abbott Walker (Ellen Burstyn), is quoted in the paper as saying that her troubled upbringing had influenced her work (as it often does), her mother shuns her. With Sidda ready to cut off ties permanently, Viviane’s childhood friends who make up the titular sisterhood fly her down to Louisiana to help her understand why their mother-daughter relationship has deteriorated so much over the years. At first, I didn’t share the enthusiasm for this movie that my sister and mom have, but after repeated explanations on why it’s actually great, I’ve pretty much come around. Divine Secrets is a relentlessly charming character study about a forgiveness that I myself would never be brave enough to feel, and the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship that I, as a man, will never fully understand. And of course, Maggie Smith and Fionnula Flanagan shine as hysterical supporting characters.
The Love Witch (2016) – Anna Biller.
I’ve realized now that both movies I’ve talked about so far are ones I’ve only seen because they were recommended to me, and honestly that’s kind of messed up. The Love Witch, however, is a movie I was super hyped to see from the second I saw a trailer and, full disclosure, I was supposed to review it awhile ago but was dumb and didn’t. Written, produced, and directed by Anna Biller (making her one heck of a powerhouse), The Love Witch is I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970) meets The Mask of Satan (1960) meets Cat People (1942) meets Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) and so on, making it the movie that every film and/or art student wishes they made but didn’t have the skills or insight to pull off. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a recently divorced witch who leaves San Francisco to start her life over and use love magic to find a new man who will love her unconditionally. Through the use of elaborate set design and 35mm film footage, The Love Witch is nostalgic of 60s camp, while using modern hindsight to insert feminist themes into the story and deconstruct the genre as a whole. Playing all angles of how women can empower themselves through sexuality, and always contradicting itself in what it means to truly be in love, Anna Biller’s second feature outing is an awesome ride to go along for.
Selma (2014) – Ava Duvarney.
13th (2016) is one of the most talked about documentaries right now and possibly the reason more and more filmmakers are using Netflix as a medium for their work. However, Ava DuVernay’s work on Selma is what launched her into the stratosphere. Selma is an incisive drama about Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of trying to cover civil rights in one giant decade-long stroke, DuVernay focuses on a single event and gets an incredibly profound performance from David Oyelowo, where he portrays a flawed albeit very human MLK. With incredible performances from Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, and an eye for the natural lighting and dull overtones that puts the likes of David Fincher to shame, I have no doubt in my mind that Ava DuVernay’s work on Selma is what earned her carte blanche to make 13th and her Disney film A Wrinkle in Time (2018), which is currently in post-production.
The Matrix (1999) – Lana & Lilly Wachowski.
One of the greatest gifts the Wachowskis have is even if their movie goes off the rails in terms of plot, they never cease to hold your attention. Speed Racer (2008) is as colorful and joyous as it is nonsensical, and while they may not have directed it, V for Vendetta (2005)’s screenplay (written by Lana and Lilly) is a solid adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel that pays respect to the source with grace and grit. Of course, the duo would not be the commercial success they are today if it weren’t for The Matrix. A technical achievement unlike any at the time of its release, The Matrix pushed the envelope of 90s technical filmmaking and gift wrapped it with a cyber-punk vibe that no doubt influenced one of my favorite animated series – Batman Beyond. Even the sequels can be defended as solid action movies that perfectly embody early 2000s sci-fi vibes (just don’t put the plot under a microscope). Where The Matrix succeeds most is in its ability to pull from sources in recent memory and from the far depths of film history to pay homage to science fiction and the idea of artificial intelligence (and the smoke and mirrors that come with it). Such works include the fighting style and aesthetic of Japanese animation like Ninja Scroll (1993), Akira (1988), and Ghost in the Shell (1995), as well as sci-fi films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and, of course…
Metropolis (1927) – Thea von Harbou.
Name any science fiction film you can think of off the top of your head. I can almost guarantee you that movie was influenced, one way or another, by the silent German-Expressionist film Metropolis; and if it wasn’t, then that director is an idiot. Written by Thea von Harbou for her husband Fritz Lang to direct (we all know the writers are the real heroes), Metropolis is the pioneer sci-fi feature length film that Harbou wrote the book for so that it could be turned into a feature. At the time, Metropolis was met with mixed reviews – praising its special effects but criticizing the storyline for being too drawn out. Today, however, Harbou’s script is lauded due to the social commentary about classism, in an art-deco dystopian future, that it brings to the table. Any aspiring filmmaker or anyone who can consider themselves a cinephile will no doubt come across Metropolis one way or another in their career. While Fritz Lang certainly got most of (if not all) the credit for the feature, there is no doubt that the film would not have the immortality it has today if it were not for Harbou’s efforts to get the film off the ground in the first place. And I’m sure Lang told his wife how thankful he was for her devotion… Right?
One thought on “12 Films by Women to Watch”
Dope was directed by a woman?? That’s amazing. I loved that movie.