Most Exciting Women Directors of the Last Decade
To mark International Women's Day, we take the opportunity to sing the praises of 14 of the most talented female filmmakers to have emerged over the last decade.
Another year, another awards season and another Oscars at which no women filmmakers were nominated for best director. Well, quite frankly, fuck the Oscars. If those old white men think the cinematic worlds of Tom Hooper, Ron Howard and Sam Mendes are more worthy of praise than, say, those of Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, Lynn Ramsey, Kelly Reichardt, Sofia Coppola or Jane Campion, then they're welcome to their ridiculous little ceremony and they can shove their little gold statues somewhere unmentionable.
With International Women's Day on the horizon, we’ve highlighted the 14 most exciting women filmmakers working today. We've capped the list to directors who’ve emerged in the last ten years, so none of those aforementioned kick-ass filmmakers appear below, although suffice to say, Varda, Denis, Ramsey, Reichardt, Coppola and Campion are still making some of the most interesting cinema around.
Ana Lily Amirpour
Key films: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
With her first feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, US-raised filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour blended her own culture with that of her Iranian parents to create a vivid cinematic fairy tale that borrows iconography from both. The hero is a chador-wearing vampire who skateboards, her love interest is the spit of James Dean and it’s all set in a run-down Californian oil town where everyone speaks Persian. The soundtrack does a similar pop-shuffle, with Radio Tehran staples rubbing up against Brit post-punk and spaghetti western guitar twangs. It might not have been the best movie of last year, but it was certainly the coolest. Amirpour's next film, Bad Batch, sounds similarly badass: she describes it as “a post-apocalyptic cannibal love story” that’s "Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink with a dope soundtrack."
Andrea Arnold might be the UK’s most poetic filmmaker. She’s concerned with bruised people desperately seeking connections and, like her protagonists, Arnold is constantly seeking out beauty in the toughest of terrains. Her hunting grounds so far have been the concrete jungles of Britain's housing estates (Glasgow in Red Road, Essex in Fish Tank) and Yorkshire’s wind-battered moors (Wuthering Heights). Her next film, road movie American Honey, takes her across the Atlantic for the first time to the crummy motels and diners of the Midwest. Ever attracted to diamonds in the rough, American Honey will star child actor turned internet sensation Shia LaBeouf.
With The Arbor, Clio Barnard announced herself as a deeply original filmmaking voice, using a dizzying blend of cinematic and theatrical techniques (dreamy reconstructions, talking head interviews, actors channeling real life through verbatim theatre) to tell the tragic story of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, and the ripple effect of her untimely death (aged 29) on her three kids. Barnard’s follow-up, The Selfish Giant, based on an Oscar Wilde’s short story, is less inventive but just as thrilling.
Key films: Palo Alto (2014)
Working from James Franco's short story collection of the same name, Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis, niece of Sofia) creates a meandering tale that gets under the skin of her dazed and confused high-school protagonists. Like her aunt, Coppola has an uncanny knack for mood, turning Franco's rote coming-of-age situations into swoony vignettes of young people feeling their way through the ache of adolescence. No new movie in the pipeline yet, but her promo for Carly Rae Jepsen’s Your Type was pretty dreamy too.
Key films: Butter on the Latch (2013), Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody declared that “a star is born” when he entered the vivid cinematic world of Josephine Decker for the first time and we have to agree with him. Her plots are simple, but the forms they take are endlessly inventive. Decker’s camera is fond of wild digressions – like Terrence Malick, she’s as interested in the little dramas playing out on a blade of grass as she is with the main story – and we, the audience, need these breaks: when focused on her protagonists, Decker’s images are intimate and intense. She’s perhaps the closest new filmmaker we have to Herzog: a pioneer in the wilderness searching for those ecstatic moments where cinema is more real than real life.
Key films: Selma (2014), I Will Follow (2011)
There's a lot of pressure on Ava Duvernay's shoulders. Last year's civil rights drama Selma, its fury as impressive as its filmmaking, carried the hopes that a black filmmaker who also happens to be female might be recognised at the Oscars. Duvernay was snubbed, of course, but her being overlooked was one of the catalysts for the #OscarsSoWhite debate that bubbled over at this year's ceremony. Her name has become synonymous with fighting racial inequality in filmmaking. The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis even proposed a DuVernay test, which, like the Bechdel test does for female characters, would indicate if a film's African-American characters have fully realised lives rather than simply serving as scenery in white stories. She's already in the cultural zeitgeist; her next film, a Disney project written by Frozen screenwriter and co-director Jennifer Lee, might send her into the stratosphere.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s small but exquisite body of work reveals a filmmaker with a distinct voice all her own; one that is concerned with organic rhythms and gentle ironies rather than grand dramatics or convoluted scenarios. “I think it’s probably both my strength and my weakness,” Hansen-Løve suggests of her low-key style when we spoke to her last year. “It always brings me problems when I try to finance the script because people tell me there’s not enough drama, there’s not enough plot, not enough violence. The thing is, my own emotion works this way – I can’t help but trust it.” Reports coming out of Berlin Film Festival, where Hansen-Løve's new film Things to Come picked up the Silver Bear, suggest she’s still trusting her gut. We’re glad – it hasn’t steered her wrong yet.
Key films: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
Has any film been more frank and felt more true when it comes to the complexities of burgeoning female sexuality than this exquisite first feature from Marielle Heller? Adapting Phoebe Gloeckner's acclaimed 2002 graphic novel, Heller brings to life the anything-goes atmosphere of mid-70s San Francisco and puts at its centre one of the most fascinating teenagers in movie history. How often do you find a film where its young female protagonist revels in her own sexuality? The prospect terrified the British Board of Film Classification so much that they slapped an 18 certificate on the film, but the sex and nudity isn't shocking, it's the confidence of the protagonist, the actor playing her (Beth Powley) and her director that leaves you in awe.
Joanna Hogg's films don't look or feel like those of any filmmaker to come before her, and no filmmaker since has been foolhardy enough to try and ape her style. She shoots movies like a photographer: characters are placed in intricate tableaux and the scenes simply play out, with the static camera at a distant remove. Despite their stillness these are probing pictures. Hogg's deeply interested in the dynamics between characters and the fragile psyche of Britain's middle class. What makes her films so winning is that her clinical detachment comes with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow – like all great satirists, she clearly loves the subjects she's skewering.
Key films: The Babadook (2014)
"Let a law be passed requiring all horror films to be made by female directors," said the New Yorker's Anthony Lane when reviewing Jennifer Kent's pant-pooping debut. This would achieve two objectives, he reckons: it would curb horror's sleazy trope of women as victims and return the genre to its "rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition." It's this latter point that makes The Babadook so terrifying: Kent delves deep into the tensions bubbling under between a widowed mother and her difficult-to-manage son. Is the film's titular 7ft monster a manifestation of the mother's anger, or her son's imagination, or both? Or is it just one tall, creepy dude? We won't spoil the surprise, but we heartily agree with Lane that all horror filmmakers should take note of the psychological credibility Kent brings to every scene.
Actor-turned-director Sarah Polley makes deeply intimate films. Her debut, Away from Her, was a tacit drama about an ageing married couple facing the onset of Alzheimer’s. She followed that up with the underrated Take This Waltz, a vivid tale of quarter-life-crisis centred on Michelle Williams. Her third, and best, film, Stories We Tell, was a pseudo-documentary about her own mother. So far, all three have explored the love triangles that form within troubled marriages. Polley clearly has an itch she needs to scratch, and we're happy to get lost in her cinematic probings.
Key films: Blood Below the Skin (2015), A Million Miles Away (2014), Seven Songs About Thunder (2010)
We're cheating a bit here. Reeder's debut feature, As with Knives and Skin, isn't due to be released until 2017, but that didn't stop us falling head over heels in love with her filmmaking when we caught some of her short films at last year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival. Reeder’s films have been aptly described as John Hughes by way of David Lynch. The teen milieu and bubblegum aesthetic are very familiar, but there's something off in terms of their tone. You're never sure if a scene is about to explode into violence or if the characters are about to burst into song. We hope Reeder can transfer the surprise and tenderness of her short films to the feature length form.
French filmmaker Celine Sciamma is the master of exploring female coming-of-age. Her three films so far have centred on girlhoods: Water Lilies was a heartbreakingly honest look at the burgeoning sexualities of a group of teenage girls in a synchronised swimming team. Its follow-up, Tomboy, considers the body and identity issues of an androgynous ten-year-old. Her third feature concerned poor black teens on the outskirts of Paris and was called, well, Girlhood. Few filmmakers have so evocatively captured the confusion and self-discovery of growing up, whatever the gender.
Key films: Sun Don't Shine (2012)
The only film so far from actor-director Amy Seimetz never actually got a release in the UK, but that's more to do with timid distributors rather than the quality of the film. It's a sweaty, woozy movie following a couple as they drive down to the Florida Everglades with a dead body in their trunk. What the film lacks in budget it makes up for in atmosphere and performances. File it with Badlands and Gun Crazy, cinema's other great earthy lovers-on-the-run tales. Seimetz is currently working on The Girlfriend Experience, the upcoming TV show based on the 2009 Steven Soderbergh movie. We hope to find her back on the big screen soon.