Our pick of 18 films from women directors to stream during lockdown
At the end of November, BBC Culture published an article listing the 100 greatest films directed by women.
The list was in response to what they call ‘a stark statistic’: when they compiled the 100 greatest foreign language films of all time, only four out of 100 films were directed by women. As they looked through the lists they had compiled in recent years, the lack of female directors was a consistent theme.
- 100 greatest comedies: only 4 female directors
- 100 greatest films of the 21st century: 12 female directors, but 0 in the top 20
- 100 greatest American films: 2 were co-directed by a woman
So they created this list to shine a spotlight on the creativity and perspective that women have contributed to the global film industry since 1916 to the present day. They brought together a panel of ‘368 film experts – critics, journalists, festival programmers and academics’ and had them vote for their 10 favourite films from an original list of 761 films.
‘The result is a stunning collection of films that demonstrates the power, creativity and diversity of cinema made by women around the world, from Lois Weber’s silent film Shoes (1916) right up to 2019 highlights The Souvinir (Joanna Hogg) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)…As ever, we don’t expect this list to be definitive but a starting point for discovery, discussion and debate.’BBC Culture
If you have a favourite film by a female director that didn’t make the list, join the conversation on social using #100FilmsByWomen
Here are our selections from the list to stream whilst in lockdown with brief introductions from the team at Roger Ebert’s. Popcorn at the ready!
The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
‘The Piano’ is as peculiar and haunting as any film I’ve seen.
It tells a story of love and fierce pride, and places it on a bleak New Zealand coast where people live rudely in the rain and mud, struggling to maintain the appearance of the European society they’ve left behind. It is a story of shyness, repression and loneliness; of a woman who will not speak and a man who cannot listen, and of a willful little girl who causes mischief and pretends she didn’t mean to.
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)
It is not important how the Lisbon sisters looked. What is important is how the teenage boys in the neighborhood thought they looked.
There is a time in the adolescent season of every boy when a particular girl seems to have materialized in his dreams, with backlighting from heaven. Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’ is narrated by an adult who speaks for “we”–for all the boys in a Michigan suburban neighborhood 25 years ago, who loved and lusted after the Lisbon girls. We know from the title and the opening words that the girls killed themselves. Most of the reviews have focused on the girls. They miss the other subject–the gawky, insecure yearning of the boys.
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
A lot of movies begin with poetic quotations, but ‘The Hurt Locker’ opens with a statement presented as fact: ‘War is a drug.’ Not for everyone, of course. Most combat troops want to get it over with and go home. But the hero of this film, Staff Sgt. William James, who has a terrifyingly dangerous job, addresses it like a daily pleasure. Under enemy fire in Iraq, he defuses bombs.
He isn’t an action hero, he’s a specialist, like a surgeon who focuses on one part of the body over and over, day after day, until he could continue if the lights went out. James is a man who understands bombs inside out and has an almost psychic understanding of the minds of the bombers. This is all the more remarkable because in certain scenes, it seems fairly certain that the bomb maker is standing in full view — on a balcony or in a window overlooking the street, say, and is as curious about his bomb as James is. Two professionals, working against each other.
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
There are a fair number of well-regarded films about the link between a father and a young daughter: ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ‘Paper Moon,’ ‘My Girl,’ ‘Fly Away Home,’ ‘Eve’s Bayou’ and ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ to name a few.
But rarer is the memorable movie that portrays a dad and his adult daughter: ‘On Golden Pond,’ both versions of ‘Father of the Bride,’ ‘Coyote Ugly,’ maybe ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Taken’ if you stretch matters a bit. That’s about all that immediately come to mind. I am no Freud, either Sigmund or Anna, but my guess is there exists something more complex, if distancing, about the older male parent-grown female child dynamic that perhaps makes it difficult to successfully translate onscreen.
Not for Maren Ade, the abundantly talented writer and director of ‘Toni Erdmann,’ Germany’s official submission for a foreign language film Oscar. She fully embraces the inherent awkwardness of a testy emotional bond and tackles it to the ground, all the while mining it for heartfelt humor without the all-too-common safety net of predictability found in big-budget Hollywood fare.
Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)
‘Orlando’ is about a person who achieves in one lifetime what most of us can only dream of doing: viewing four centuries of experiences through the eyes of both sexes. Obviously it is a very long and unusual lifetime. Born as a man in the time of Elizabeth I, Orlando becomes a woman midway in the journey (‘You see? Absolutely no difference!’) and is still going strong as the film ends.
This is the kind of movie you want to talk about afterward.
Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)
‘So, OK, you’re probably like – what is this, a Noxzema commercial?’ First words of ‘Clueless’. That’s exactly what I was like. The hand-held camera was tilting crazily, showing the sun-blessed teenagers of Southern California, and I’m like – what is this, an MTV video? Then Cher says the line and breaks the ice. Not Cher who won the Oscar. Cher, the heroine of this movie. A little later, she explains that she and her friend Dionne ‘were both named after great singers of the past that now do infomercials.’ (She adds, ‘She’s my friend because we both know what it is to have people be jealous of us.’) ‘Clueless’ is a smart and funny movie, and the characters are in on the joke. Cher (Alicia Silverstone), who lives in a mansion and looks like Cybill Shepherd, is capable of lines like, ‘Why learn to park when every place you go has a valet?’ But she puts a little satirical spin on them. She is one of the most totally self-absorbed characters in a movie since the heroes of ‘Wayne’s World,’ and yet she isn’t a victim, and we get the idea she will grow up tough and clever, like her dad (Dan Hedaya).
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
The movie heroes who affect me most are not extroverted. They don’t strut, speechify and lead armies. They have no superpowers. They are ordinary people who are faced with a need and rise to the occasion. Ree Dolly is such a hero.
A girl of 17, she acts as the homemaker for her younger brother and sister. This is in the backlands of the Ozarks. Her mother sits useless all day, mentally absent. Her father, who was jailed for cooking meth, is missing…This world is established with bleak economy in the opening scenes of Debra Granik’s ‘Winter’s Bone,’ which was a double prize winner at Sundance 2010. Unmistakably filmed on location, this film focuses on a society that has been left behind…The sheriff comes to call. Her father Jessup has skipped bail. To meet his bond, he put up the house — perhaps the only asset he had. If he doesn’t turn himself in within a week, the family will be thrown out. Just like that. ‘I’ll find him,’ Ree says quietly and firmly. And that’s what she sets out to do.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
It must be something like this to have a nervous breakdown. We find ourselves inside the mind of a woman whose psychopathic son has driven her over the edge. This is not entirely his fault. We gather she didn’t want to get pregnant, isn’t sure why she’s married, is a mother who tries to mask hostility with superficial kindness. If she had her way, she would put her life on rewind and start all over again — maybe even as somebody else, since she’s not very fond of herself.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is fragments of time, jagged and confusing, lurching around inside her mind. The film moves without any pattern between past, present and who knows when. We cling to guidelines like the length of Tilda Swinton’s hair to figure out where we are. For much of the film, she lives with her husband, son and daughter in an expensive suburban home, and when we realize they’ve lived there for several years, we begin to wonder, how can four people occupy a home for over a decade and not accumulate anything? The shelves and tabletops are as barren as those in a display home. What kind of a kitchen has empty counters? These people live there, but they’ve never moved in.
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
The opening moments of ‘Lady Bird’ accomplish so much so quickly, it takes your breath away. A mother and daughter are engaged in the time-honored tradition of the senior-year road trip to check out college campuses. It is 2002, and they are intently listening to a book on tape – in this case, The Grapes of Wrath. As it concludes, the two smile at one another, sigh and wipe the tears from their eyes. Tom Joad and Ma would approve.
Enjoy the lack of familial tension while you can. This is just about the last time parent and child will agree on anything as 17-year-old Christine, aka the self-proclaimed Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, the very picture of adolescent pique), impatiently expresses her post-graduation intention to flee from her staid Sacramento and take off to the East Coast ‘where the culture is.’ Later, she will deride her hometown as the ‘Midwest of California’ and not bother to correct someone who thinks she is from San Francisco.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
Families create their own narratives. Stories are passed on from generation to generation, and in this way the past continues to live, but it can also be obscured or distorted. Joan Didion famously wrote, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ Family arguments often come down to who ‘owns’ the narrative, or which version is decided upon as the “true” one.
Sarah Polley’s fascinating documentary, ‘Stories We Tell,’ is ostensibly about her mother, Diane Polley, who died in 1990. A powerful and thoughtful film, it is also not what it at first seems, which is part of the point Polley appears to be interested in making. Can the truth ever actually be known about anything?
Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)
In a perfect world, ‘Selma’ would exist solely as a depiction of darker days long since past, an American history lesson that concludes with reassurances that its horrors will no longer be perpetrated, tolerated nor celebrated. Alas, perfection eludes us on this mortal, earthly plane; ‘Selma’ shows the evolution of change while beaming a spotlight on the stunted growth of that which has not changed. Its timeliness is a spine-chilling reminder that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Its story provides a blueprint not only of the past, but of the way forward.
There’s a reason why Ava DuVernay’s film is called ‘Selma’ and not ‘King’. Like Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, ‘Selma’ is as much about the procedures of political maneuvering, in-fighting and bargaining as it is about the chief orchestrator of the resulting deals. ‘Selma’ affords Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the same human characteristics of humor, frustration and exhaustion that ‘Lincoln’ provided its President. This relatable humanity elevates King’s actions and his efforts. It inspires by suggesting that the reverence for Dr. King was bestowed on a person no different than any of us. If he can provoke change, we have no excuse not to as well.
Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001)
Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ is one of those joyous films that leaps over national boundaries and celebrates universal human nature. It could be the first Indian film to win big at the North American box office; like ‘Tampopo,’ the Japanese noodle-shop romance, or ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ which escaped the subtitled martial arts ghetto, it’s the kind of film people tell their friends they ought to see.
The movie follows the events in the large Verma family of Delhi, as their daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) prepares to marry Hemant (Parvin Dabas), a computer programmer from Houston. He is an ‘NRI’ (non-resident Indian), who has returned to meet the bride selected by his parents for an arranged marriage. Such marriages are an ancient tradition, but these are modern young people, and in the opening scene we see Aditi in a hurried exchange with her married lover, a TV host. She has agreed to the arranged marriage partly out of impatience with her lover’s vague talk about someday divorcing his wife.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)
French writer/director Céline Sciamma has hypnotizing powers – her spellbinding pull was unmissable in both the sensual ‘Water Lilies’ and the gleaming coming-of-age tale ‘Girlhood.’ With ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ she takes that cinematic magnetism to new heights and periods, to a cliffside manor somewhere on the coast of Brittany in the 1770s.
Imbued with a buttery-matte palette and resolute, painterly strokes of camera throughout – lensed by Claire Mathon with patient tenacity – Sciamma’s latest tells the tale of a dreamy romance. It’s a delicate drama that flourishes through the liberating power of art, where a hopeful yet consuming love affair sparks between two young women amid patriarchal customs, and stays concealed in their hearts both because of and in spite of it.
The Rider (Chloe Zhao, 2017)
The best American movie this critic has seen in the past year, Chloé Zhao’s ‘The Rider,’ is the kind of rare work that seems to attain greatness through an almost alchemical fusion of nominal opposites. An account of rodeo riders on a South Dakota reservation, it is so fact-based that it almost qualifies as a documentary. Yet the film’s style, its sense of light and landscape and mood, simultaneously give it the mesmerizing force of the most confident cinematic poetry.
Add to that the fact that this enrapturing vision of an indigenous American and hyper-masculine culture comes from a young female filmmaker who hails from Beijing and the achievements of ‘The Rider’ are fairly staggering. Chloé Zhao has lived in the U.S. for some time, and her debut feature, ‘Songs My Brother Taught Me,’ was shot and set on the same reservation and also used locals instead of actors as its cast. Reviewing that film, I said it belonged to a category of films that borrow from the cinematic subjects and strategies associated with Terrence Malick. While that influence may still underlie Zhao’s work, the apprentice here emerges as a master; ‘The Rider’ is a quantum leap beyond its predecessor.
A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992)
Until seeing Penny Marshall’s ‘A League of Their Own,’ I had no idea that an organization named the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League ever flourished in this country, even though I was 12 when it closed up shop, and therefore of an age to collect Bob Feller and Robin Roberts baseball cards and listen to the Cardinals on the radio. The league was founded in 1943, when it briefly appeared that men’s baseball would be a casualty of the war, and once the men came marching home it’s a wonder the league survived until 1954. Then it was consigned to oblivion; history is written by the victors. …
After years of perpetrating the image of the docile little woman who sat at home caring for her lord and master, American society suddenly found that it needed women who were competent to do hard, skilled work during World War II. Rosie the Riveter became a national emblem, Hollywood threw out its romance scripts and started making movies about strong, independent females, and it was discovered that women could actually excel at professional sports.
Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)
‘Chocolat’ is about a war between the forces of paganism and Christianity, and because the pagan heroine has chocolate on her side, she wins. Her victory is delayed only because, during Lent, a lot of the locals aren’t eating chocolate.
The movie takes place ‘once upon a time’ in a French village where utter tranquillity, by which is meant stagnancy, has reigned since time immemorial, until ‘a sly wind blew in from the north,’ bringing with it Vianne (Juliette Binoche), who opened the chocolate shop, after which nothing was ever again the same.
Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993)
If love at first sight is a reality, then in this information age there should also be the possibility of love at first cybercontact.
When people meet via computers or personal ads or phone-in radio shows – when their first sight of each other is through a communications medium – isn’t it still possible that some essential chemistry is communicated? That the light in an eye can somehow be implied even over thousands of miles? That’s the hope explored in Nora Ephron’s ‘Sleepless in Seattle,’ an unapologetically romantic movie about two people who fall in love from opposite sides of the continent, through the medium of a radio program. In Baltimore, Meg Ryan plays a woman who is already safely engaged – too safely – to a man whose only fault is that he appears to be allergic to almost everything. Then one night, driving in her car, she tunes in a broadcast as a young boy is appealing to the host for help with his father.
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)
‘The Kids Are All Right’ centers on a lesbian marriage, but is not about one. It’s a film about marriage itself, an institution with challenges that are universal. Just imagine: You’re expected to live much, if not all, of your married life with another adult. We’re not raised for this.
The married couple involves Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening). They’re raising a boy named Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and a girl named Joni (Mia Wasikowska). Each mother gave birth to one of the children, and because the same anonymous sperm donor was used, they’re half-siblings. Home life is casual and happy, upper middle class. Nic is a doctor, Jules is unfocused and lately thinking she might go into landscape gardening. Like many couples, they’re going through a little mid-life crisis.
The imperfect but stable home life of her family is disturbed by the decision of the children to seek out their birth father. Jules and Nic are staunchly liberal and approve of this in theory. In practice, they find it disturbing.
So there you have it – 18 incredible films directed by women to help keep you entertained during lockdown.