Despite the long history of exclusion and challenges, there has never been a better time in history to be a female filmmaker. This year, 6 of the 19 films that will premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival were directed by women — a historic number — but still far fewer than the number of films directed by men. To continue this progress and strive for gender equity in filmmaking, we have to celebrate the perspectives and artistic voices of women and their strengths and visions to create powerful films in spite of hostile conditions. According to a 2020 research study from USC’s own Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, an analysis of the 1,300 top grossing films from 13 years (2007-2019) revealed that only 57 were directed by women. Of these 57, only 11 were women of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
Although consumers can feel powerless to enact change in the industry beyond complaining and demanding more opportunities for women, we can still come to recognize the great films women have been able to make despite the challenges of an inhospitable industry and society.
Here are 20 great films by women of different time periods, different races and ethnicities and each with strong feminist themes that we can learn from.
The Watermelon Woman (1996) - dir. Cheryl Dunye
Cheryl Dunye made history as the first Black lesbian to make a feature film, writing, directing, editing and starring in this 1996 rom-com/drama. This landmark film in New Queer Cinema tells the story of a young Black lesbian (played by Dunye herself) who works in a video store in Philadelphia, navigating her personal relationships as she researches and desperately attempts to learn the history of “the watermelon woman,” an uncredited and unidentifiable Black woman performing the mammy stereotype in 1930s Hollywood.
Available to stream on Paramount + and Showtime
Saint Omer (2022) - dir. Alice Diop
Alice Diop’s first feature film is a perfect antidote to the exploitative nature of true crime. Inspired by her experience as a documentarian attending the 2016 trial of Fabienne Kabou, this French slow burn legal drama deciphers why a young woman committed infanticide. It’s a poignant meditation on race, immigration, womanhood, motherhood, gender roles, mental illness, class, isolation, childhood trauma and death.
Available to rent from $5.99 on Apple TV, Redbox, and Amazon Prime
Working Girls (1986) - dir. Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden’s indie drama from the 1980s depicts the boredom and mundanity of prostitution rather than sensationalizing it. This depiction of sex work was so groundbreaking because it humanizes the workers and destigmatizes the work they do, challenging the dominant narratives of sex workers as victims, criminals, or accessories. The film’s documentary feel and honest, genuine tone construct a vivid, sad, funny and all too intimate look at the gritty world where women eke out a living catering to the indulgences of disgusting men.
Available to stream on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) - dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily Amirpour’s moody black and white Iranian vampire horror Western subverts gender roles and expectations of female as prey, or damsel in distress, instead reclaiming the dangerous lonely streets at night with female agency, power and violence.
Available to stream on The Criterion Channel, Tubi, and Pluto TV
The Trouble With Angels (1966) - dir. Ida Lupino
Ida Lupino was an actress turned director who became one of the most famous female directors working in the 1950s Hollywood studio system. Her last feature film is her only with an all female cast. “The Trouble With Angels” is a coming of age story about two rebellious girls growing up at Catholic boarding school as they mature and come to understand the nuns as humans rather than solely authority figures.
Available to stream on Fubo TV and Crackle
Also Check Out: Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953), an examination of a man’s double life and the pain he inflicts upon the women he loves.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) - dir. Eliza Hittman
Eliza Hittman’s devastating drama chronicles the obstacles a young, isolated, angry, desperate, penniless Pennsylvania teenage girl faces in her journey to New York City to get an abortion, aided by her cousin.
Available to stream on Peacock
Also Check Out: Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant (2020), a teen girl abortion quest buddy comedy on HBO Max.
Miss Juneteenth (2020) - dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples
Channing Godfrey Peoples’ directorial debut (which she also wrote) is a movie that sheds light on the Black community through a beauty pageant competition. It follows a mother’s struggle to secure her daughter’s victory in the same beauty contest she won years ago. She had to give up her own educational opportunity she won from it to have her daughter, and wants her daughter to have the chance to thrive that she wasn’t able to actualize. It explores intergenerational trauma, poverty, beauty standards, and the complicated, painful, but ultimately loving relationships between mothers and daughters.
Available to rent from $2.99 on Amazon, Google Play, and Youtube
Also Check Out: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Little Miss Sunshine (2006), another pageant film that deconstructs beauty standards and feminine performativity, available to stream on HBO Max.
Kajillionare (2020) - dir. Miranda July
Miranda July’s kooky dramedy depicts an extremely strange and dysfunctional hustler family and their dynamic as it unravels. The demise comes as the daughter, Old Dolio (yes that is her name) develops into her own personhood by building a meaningful relationship outside of her insular family.
Available to stream on Freevee
Also Check Out: Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love (2022), which Miranda July narrated. Available to stream on Disney +.
Booksmart (2019) - dir. Olivia Wilde
Olivia Wilde’s teen comedy follows two smart, “good girls” who finally break out of their well-behaved shells when they come to realize everyone else who partied throughout high school got into just as good universities as they did. They let loose in search of joy and freedom on one wild night before graduation.
Available to stream on The Roku Channel and Tubi
Saving Face (2004) - dir. Alice Wu
Alice Wu’s 2004 lesbian romantic comedy was the first Hollywood movie focussed on Chinese Americans after nearly a ten year stretch since “The Joy Luck Club” (1993). Wu’s film portrays a young Chinese American closeted lesbian surgeon as she courts a dancer and tries to navigate her middle-aged single mother’s unplanned pregnancy.
Available to stream on Fubo TV
Also Check Out: Alice Wu’s The Half of It (2020), an LGBT high school rom-com, available to stream on Netflix
The Breadwinner (2017) - dir. Nora Twomey
Nora Twomey’s animated drama film is based on the popular novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis. It explores the life of a young girl in Kabul living under Taliban rule. When her father is arrested, she must put herself in danger, disguising herself as a young boy in order to support her family and save her father.
Available to rent from $3.99 on Apple TV, Amazon, and Youtube
Jennifer’s Body (2009) - dir. Karyn Kusama
Although it wasn’t a huge hit with audiences or critics when it came out, Karyn Kusama’s hilarious high school black comedy is now a cult classic for feminists, as it showcases the demonically deranged but still sexy and alluring Jennifer (Megan Fox) as her naive and nerdy best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) tries to stop her from wreaking havoc on their small town.
Available to stream on HBO Max.
The Assistant (2019) - dir. Kitty Green
Kitty Green wrote, directed, edited and produced this drama that often feels more like a horror film, inspired by the sexism she personally encountered in the film industry. It centers on a young female assistant at a production company as she is constantly barraged by sexist, unreasonable demands. It also delves into her internal ethical conflict as she witnesses a sinister exploitation at the hands of her superior that violates her moral sensibilities.
Available to stream on Hulu.
In the Cut (2003) - dir. Jane Campion
Jane Campion is definitely more well-known for her Academy Award winning “The Power of the Dog (2021)” and “The Piano (1993).” However, this erotic thriller was evidently before its time, torn apart by critics despite its strong cast, (Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Jason Leigh), incredible directing, visual look and story. It has since been reclaimed as a feminist cult classic for its female sexual agency and subversion of sexist tropes like the male gaze.
Available to stream on Hulu.
Also Check Out: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009), a beautiful romance about poet John Keats, available to stream on iQIYI.
Hustlers (2019) - dir. Lorene Scafaria
Lorene Scafaria’s black comedy about strippers is a testament to JLo’s starpower, showcasing her acting and dancing chops. Constance Wu shines, as well. With a drop off in big spenders due to the 2008 financial crisis, the women come to scam and exploit inebriated customers in order to maintain their luxurious lifestyles, until it all comes crashing down around them.
Available to rent from $2.99 on Amazon and Youtube.
Also Check Out: Janicza Bravo’s “Zola” (2021), another black comedy about a stripper based on a viral tweet, available to stream on Fubo TV.
Bend it Like Beckham (2002) - dir. Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha’s coming of age sports dramedy explores a young Indian girl living in London as she attempts to navigate the cultural clash between what her parents deem acceptable behavior, and what her heart wants—playing soccer—which she excels at.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Disney +, and Hulu.
American Honey (2016) - dir. Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold’s tender road drama follows a troubled, angsty young woman who comes to lead a nomadic lifestyle, selling magazines across the midwest with a seedy gang of delinquents and misfits, where she is intrigued and romanced by a charismatic upper member of the group.
Available to stream on Showtime.
Also Check Out: Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” (2009), a drama about a young troubled girl and her tumultuous relationship with her mother’s boyfriend.
The Farewell (2019) - dir. Lulu Wang
Lulu Wang’s hilarious family drama follows a young Chinese American woman Billi (Awkwafina) and struggling artist as she fights to balance her individualism and family values after her grandmother is diagnosed with cancer and her entire extended family chooses not to inform the grandma of her impending deadly fate.
Available to stream Fubo TV.
Obvious Child (2014) - dir. Gillian Robespierre
Jenny Slate shines in this unconventional rom-com that isn’t afraid to show a messy, strange woman who does not have her life together whatsoever. The narrative destigmatizes abortion, as director Gilllian Robespierre felt frustrated with unrealistic depictions of pregnancy for young single women in films.
Available to stream on HBO Max.
The Virgin Suicides (1999) - dir. Sofia Coppola
Daughter of the acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola, and critically derided for her acting in “The Godfather Part III,” Sofia Coppola is my favorite nepo baby because she’s demonstrated exceptional talent and a unique visual style. This psychological drama embraces the male gaze to explore how a community could fail a group of young sisters, ignoring their woes and focusing on their beauty and tragedy rather than their humanity.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and Paramount +.