Direct Like a Woman: Great Films Made by Female Filmmakers

What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than to sit down and watch some excellent films directed by some extremely talented women. This is a list of critically acclaimed films which you might be unaware that they were directed by women. These films are a variety of different genres, with different themes, characters and aesthetic appearance, but all share something in common, the gender of their director.

First on my list is the 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron. American Psycho is full to the brim with toxic masculinity, shocking scenes of a sexual nature and violence, as well being a satire on the capitalist yuppie culture of the 1980s.

Ifleft in inept hands, American Psycho could have just become a run of the mill slasher flick, but Harron treats the subject matter with a slight tongue in cheek approach which really captures the true aim of the novel. Despite the novel being criticised by feminists, Harron’s film is very much a feminist text, which shows the emptiness of the life of “ideal” man and brought to light the flaws of toxic masculinity and the ongoing suffering of women at the hands of brutish men. American Psycho was a commercial success and received praise from the critics, with critic Lisa Alspector calling it a “slick satire which cleverly equates materialism, narcissism, misogyny, and classism with homicide.” The film has now gone on the achieve cult status.

Like American Psycho, Monster (2002) also deals with the theme of the suffering of women, but Patty Jenkins’ Monster shows us the extreme side of women fighting back. Before she was bringing us Wonder Woman to the big screen, Patty Jenkins was delivering awarding winning dramas like Monster. The biographical crime drama is based on the true life account of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute who was executed in Florida in 2002 for killing six men. Charlize Theron is completely unrecognizable as Wuornos, gaining 30 pounds (14 kg), shaving her eyebrows, and wearing prosthetic teeth.

Jenkins’ effective direct manages to bring out a stunning and highly realistic performance from Theron, in fact film critic Roger Ebert described the performance as “an embodiment” and Theron went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama and the SAG Award for her performance. Jenkins manages to treat the subject matter in a sensitive manner without sensationalizing the story and allows us to decide whether Wuornos is a victim or just a criminal, again it’s a film that which treats it audience as adults and allows them to come to their conclusions. Both shocking and chilling, Monster will get under your skin.

Selma

Before her inspiring Disney film, A Wrinkle in Time, director Ava Marie DuVernay was the director who brought us the 2014 Martin Luther King drama Selma. In July 2013 came on board to direct and rewrite the film, and in an interview DuVernay estimated that she rewrote 90 percent of Webb’s original script, including rewriting King’s speeches, (as King’s estate has licensed them to DreamWorks). In order to prepare herself for the rewrite, DuVerenay spent hours listening to King’s words whilst hiking the canyons of Los Angeles, show her dedication to her work. DuVernay manages to draw out an excellent performance from actor David Oyelowo who plays Doctor King, and his performance received a nomination.

Critics praised the film, with critic Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times calling it “an important history lesson that never feels like a lecture.” Many felt that DuVernay was robbed of her best director award at the Golden Globes, and she is the only woman of colour to receive a nomination. It’s certainly a film that proves that women can take on stories dealing with important male historical figures.

Jennifer Kent

The horror genre seems to be all too dominated by male directors, but writer-director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature The Babadook (2014) proves that women are just as good (if not better) at taking on the challenges of the horror genre and managing to pull off a horror film that is original, scary but also a moving family drama that deals with grief. Kent set out to tell a story about facing up to the darkness within ourselves, the “fear of going mad” and an exploration of parenting from a “real perspective.” The Babadook brings to our attention the struggles of motherhood, which Kent explains is “very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.” It was a refreshing, brave film which shows the obstacles that women still have to face, and the stigmas that are attached to depression and grief.

There is a distinct look to the film, with a haunting mise-en-scene which springs out from the screen. The film was initially released on a limited run in Australia but word of mouth brought it success overseas and it managed to earn back way over it’s budget, which is an achievement in itself for any debut film director. Horror film legend, William Friedkin praised Kent’s work and declared that “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.” Certainly high praise indeed.

2017 saw some amazing films released by female directors from Greta Gerwig’s strong debut Lady Bird, to veteran Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. However there was one film directed by a woman that seems to have been overlooked, Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats. In the same vein of Call me by Your Name and God’s Own Country, Beach Rats tackles the subject of exploring sexuality and self-discovery. Hittman’s film follows the character of Frankie (Harris Dickinson) who likes to transmit the image of being an alpha male, however he is secretly gay, and is struggling to cope with his family life as well.

Beach Rats

Hittman was apparently inspired by a Facebook photo, and shows that there’s an internal battle going on inside many adolescent males to find their true identity. David Sims from The Atlantic describes how “Beach Rats still lingered in my brain after I saw it, mostly for those quieter shots of Frankie’s face etched with emotions that were harder to pigeonhole.” There’s a haunting feel to the film which leaves you eager for a repeat viewing. It’s a film which treats sexuality in a very realistic and mature approach and shows that female directors can approach subjects of male sexuality in a sensitive manner.

All of the above films are well worth seeking out if you haven’t already done so, and they all prove that women can take out any subject matter, genre and topic and deliver excellent, moving and challenging films. The future is looking bright for female filmmakers and we must make sure to keep supporting existing and up and coming film directors, because we can’t allow good talent to go to waste.

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2 thoughts on “Direct Like a Woman: Great Films Made by Female Filmmakers

  1. Webb disputes DuVernay’s claim that she rewrote most of the script. I don’t know who is telling the truth, but based on her overbearing self-promotion, I’m inclined to believe him. Anyway, Selma is an OK, watchable movie, but not exceptionally well-made. The lead actor completely lacked MLK’s charisma, a vital part of who he was, so I would argue that means the director did not get a good performance out of him. I believe most of the praise and nominations were out of respect for the real person and history.

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