Ranked: The Best Women Film Directors (and Their Films) (Dietz, 2010)
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- July 17, 2010
Mind the gap
Admittedly, we shouldn’t have to publish this article. But even in a year where a woman took home the Academy Award for best director (for the first time), female filmmakers still aren’t getting the same recognition or opportunities that male directors do.
When Kathryn Bigelow collected her Oscar trophy earlier this year, she did so as only the fourth woman ever nominated in the director category. But the Academy certainly isn’t the only organization to overlook female directors;
Bigelow is also the only female to win BAFTA and DGA awards as top director, and Barbra Streisand is the only female Golden Globe-winning director. The Cannes Film Festival also has a poor record in recognizing the achievements of women directors, and this year the festival came under fire when not a single one of the 18 films selected for the main competition were directed by women.
And this lack of recognition does not stem from a lack of quality films. While Christopher Nolan’s Inception 76 may be getting all the buzz,
two of this summer’s most acclaimed American films — with some of the best reviews for any film this year — were directed by women: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone 90 and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right 86. (Only Toy Story 3 91 has a higher Metascore among this summer’s dramatic films.) As we shall see in a moment, these are far from the only critically acclaimed titles from women filmmakers.
Women directors, of course, aren’t limited to directing critically-acclaimed indie dramas — or even films geared toward female moviegoers. For decades, women have been directing in genres ranging from comedy (Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius, Penelope Spheeris’ Wayne’s World, Penny Marshall’s Big) and horror (Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary) to animation (Vicky Jenson’s Shrek) and sports (Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham). Female directors have even made their mark in the “major box office flop” category (Elaine May’s Ishtar). However, not every genre has been open to directors of all genders; for example, few women other than Bigelow or Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) have ever had the opportunity to direct an action film.
And opportunities for women directors in any genre are still relatively rare. San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film routinely reports on trends in the industry, and their findings confirm a major disparity:
just 7% of last year’s 250 top-grossing films were directed by women. That percentage is actually a decline of two points compared to 2008, and the number has held steady within that 7% – 9% range for the past 25 years. The gender disparity extends, though not quite as severely, to all behind-the-camera crew positions and even to film critics.
We won’t be exploring the possible reasons why such a disparity exists here; instead, our focus is on the work turned out by these women directors over the past 30 years.
Which women directors have made the most of these limited opportunities? Below, we look at the average Metascores for the more prolific female filmmakers of the past three decades. We’re only covering dramatic films here, so noted documentarians like Ondi Timoner, Barbara Kopple, and Agnès Varda are not included. (Documentary films are actually the one genre where the number of female filmmakers is comparable to that of male directors.) Films released prior to 1980 are also excluded from the averages.
|The Danish director (who is part of the Dogme 95 movement founded by Lars von Trier) first attracted attention in the U.S. with her 2002 film Italian for Beginners 77, while her most recent film earned a nomination for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.
Best film: An Education (2009) 85
|Hailing from Argentina, Martel has helmed three critically-acclaimed films, including her 2001 debut La Ciénaga 75, named the best Latin American film of the past decade by a group of New York critics.
Best film: The Headless Woman (2009) 81
|Though her acting career quickly fizzled out, Coppola has been far more successful as a director, with three highly original and widely-praised releases to date. Her fourth feature, Somewhere, arrives in December.
Best film: Lost in Translation (2003) 89
|Jaoui has directed three films, each with screenplays co-written by her husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri. An actress as well as a director, the native of France has appeared on screen in each of her own movies, including her latest comedy, Let It Rain 72, and the Oscar-nominated The Taste of Others 78.
Best film: Look at Me (2005) 79
|While the French director is responsible for some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the past decade, reviewers aren’t always fond of her work. Exhibit 1: her 2001 existentialist horror film Trouble Every Day 36.
Best film: 35 Shots of Rum (2009) 92
|Another top Danish director, Bier received an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film for After the Wedding. Her 2005 film Brothers was recently remade as a Tobey Maguire film, and in 2007 she directed her first English-language film, the Halle Berry-starring Things We Lost in the Fire 63.
Best film: After the Wedding (2007) 78
|7||Lisa Cholodenko||3||73||8.3||$2.9m **|
|Before this year’s critical hit The Kids Are All Right, the Los Angeles native directed the indie dramas Laurel Canyon 61 and High Art 73 as well as episodes of Six Feet Under and Homicide: Life on the Street.
Best film: The Kids Are All Right (2010) 86
|8||Nicole Holofcener||3||72||7.2||$7.0m **|
|Holofcener’s films might be formulaic, but it’s not your usual formula. Instead, starting with 1996’s Walking and Talking 67, each of the writer-director’s four releases to date has been an acclaimed, intelligent drama (with elements of comedy) starring Catherine Keener.
Best film: Please Give (2010) 78
|In addition to her biopic about Andy Warhol’s would-be assassin Valerie Solanas, the Candian filmmaker also adapted Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho 64 and, more recently, directed The Notorious Bettie Page 64.
Best film: I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) 75
|The New Zealand native is one of only four women ever nominated for the director Oscar. A director now for over 25 years, Campion’s most recent effort was 2009’s Bright Star 81, about poet John Keats.
Best film: The Piano (1993) 89
|The Europa Europa director has also worked in American television, directing episodes of Treme and The Wire|
|One of Hollywood’s most commercially successful women directors, Thomas first gained fame as an Emmy-winning actor on the acclaimed 1980s cop series Hill Street Blues|
|Not included in her score average are a trio of documentaries about the Los Angeles music scene, The Decline of Western Civilization|
|Among the director’s critic-unfriendly films are the 1998 drug comedy Half Baked 16|
Other prominent women directors of the past 30 years not listed above (because many or all of their movies do not have Metascores) include Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging), Antonia Bird (Priest), Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl), Marleen Gorris (Antonia’s Line), Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God), Beeban Kidron (To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Sally Potter (Orlando), Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan), and Barbra Streisand (Prince of Tides).
Also note that Kathryn Bigelow, Amy Heckerling. Agnieszka Holland, Penny Marshall, Mira Nair, and Penelope Spheeris have many older films without Metascores; thus, their score averages indicated above paint an incomplete picture of the quality of their films.
Here are the top women directors from a commercial standpoint:
|Director||Lifetime Domestic Gross *||Average Gross Per Film *|
Films directed by women
First, let’s see how films from women directors have performed at the box office. According to a recent report by INDIEwire, only seven of the 241 films with domestic grosses of $100m or more over the past decade were directed or co-directed by women.
Why are so few women directors represented on the box office leaderboard? According to another study from San Diego State University, the reason is that women rarely get the chance to direct big budget films: “When women and men filmmakers have similar budgets for their films, the resulting box office grosses are also similar.”
Here are the best-performing films directed by women over the past 30 years. Note that all box office figures are adjusted for inflation to make comparing films released across different years a bit easier.
|2||Look Who’s Talking||Amy Heckerling||1989||51||n/a||$277.0m|
|3||What Women Want||Nancy Meyers||2000||47||6.3||$263.1m|
|4||Dr. Dolittle||Betty Thomas||1998||46||5.6||$244.4m|
|5||Sleepless in Seattle||Nora Ephron||1993||71||9.6||$243.3m|
|6||Deep Impact||Mimi Leder||1998||40||3.6||$238.1m|
|7||Wayne’s World||Penelope Spheeris||1992||53||9.8||$233.1m|
|8||Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel||Betty Thomas||2009||41||5.3||$225.0m|
Finally, let’s look at the best and worst films directed by women (at least out of those in Metacritic’s database; some films from the 1990s may not be available, and few if any films from the 1980s or earlier have Metascores).
|1||The Hurt Locker||Kathryn Bigelow||2009||94||6.9|
|Sita Sings the Blues||Nina Paley||2010||94||7.3|
|3||35 Shots of Rum||Claire Denis||2009||92||5.5|
|4||Beau Travail||Claire Denis||2000||91||7.6|
|5||American Splendor||Shari Springer Berman †||2003||90||8.0|
|Persepolis||Marjane Satrapi †||2007||90||8.1|
|Winter’s Bone||Debra Granik||2010||90||7.6|
|8||Lost in Translation||Sofia Coppola||2003||89||6.3|
|The Piano||Jane Campion||1993||89||7.1|
|10||Away from Her||Sarah Polley||2007||88||8.0|
|11||Little Women ||Gillian Armstrong||1994||87||9.2|
|12||Boys Don’t Cry||Kimberly Peirce||1999||86||8.6|
|The Kids Are All Right||Lisa Cholodenko||2010||86||8.0|
|14||An Education||Lone Scherfig||2009||85||8.1|
|The Intruder||Claire Denis||2005||85||5.0|
|The Savages||Tamara Jenkins||2007||85||7.4|
|17||Old Joy||Kelly Reichardt||2006||84||5.5|
|Shrek||Vicky Jenson †||2001||84||8.6|
|19||Frozen River||Courtney Hunt||2008||82||8.4|
|The Namesake||Mira Nair||2007||82||8.0|
|21||Bright Star||Jane Campion||2009||81||6.9|
|Fish Tank||Andrea Arnold||2010||81||8.2|
|The Headless Woman||Lucrecia Martel||2009||81||6.6|
|The Secret of Kells||Nora Twomey †||2010||81||7.7|
|26||Little Miss Sunshine||Valerie Faris †||2006||80||7.4|
|Set Me Free||Léa Pool||2000||80||9.2|
|Wendy and Lucy||Kelly Reichardt||2008||80||6.2|
|29||City of God||Kátia Lund †||2003||79||8.7|
|Look at Me||Agnes Jaoui||2005||79||7.7|
|Whale Rider||Niki Caro||2003||79||6.3|
|32||After the Wedding||Susanne Bier||2007||78||8.5|
|Eve’s Bayou||Kasi Lemmons||1997||78||10.0|
|How I Killed My Father||Anne Fontaine||2002||78||7.5|
|The Last Mistress||Catherine Breillat||2008||78||7.6|
|Morvern Callar||Lynne Ramsay||2002||78||5.7|
|Please Give||Nicole Holofcener||2010||78||7.5|
|The Taste of Others||Agnes Jaoui||2001||78||6.8|
|40||Fat Girl||Catherine Breillat||2001||77||6.7|
|Italian for Beginners||Lone Scherfig||2002||77||9.8|
|Monsoon Wedding||Mira Nair||2002||77||7.9|
|Open Hearts||Susanne Bier||2003||77||8.8|
|Stephanie Daley||Hilary Brougher||2007||77||6.8|
|1||The In Crowd||Mary Lambert||2000||14||2.5|
|Mixed Nuts||Nora Ephron||1994||14||6.4|
|3||Billy Madison||Tamra Davis||1995||16||8.7|
|Half Baked||Tamra Davis||1998||16||8.7|
|5||I Hate Valentine’s Day||Nia Vardalos||2009||17||4.9|
|Material Girls||Martha Coolidge||2006||17||4.0|
|8||Boxing Helena||Jennifer Lynch||1993||26||6.6|
|Filth and Wisdom||Madonna||2008||26||5.8|
|A Night at the Roxbury||Amy Heckerling †||1998||26||8.9|