A League of Their Own

Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Movies by Female Directors

This week’s theatrical release of ‘Wonder Woman’ not only showcases a strong female hero in front of the camera, but also seeks to prove that a woman director behind the lens can play in the big-budget blockbuster leagues just as well as any man can. In our latest Roundtable, we take a look at some of our other favorite movies directed by women.

Luke Hickman

At the end of each year, a few titles earn the label “Best Picture contender” before anyone has even see them. Most of the time, I walk away from movies hyped like this thinking, “Meh, it was OK.” However, one of the few that actually stopped me in my tracks and made me think, “Yep, that’s the one,” was ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘.

In my opinion, Kathryn Bigelow’s pictures leading up to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ all lacked some important needed elements. I’m one of the few who found ‘The Hurt Locker’ boring, heartless, predictable and disingenuous. To come back four years later with an exceptionally well-rounded film caught me off-guard. Despite with a lengthy 157-minute runtime, the film flew right by. As it ended, I took a deep breath, which felt like my first since the screening began, and started what seemed like a week-long analysis of it. There’s a lot to chew on, but the more I talked and thought about it, the more of an impact it had on me. A second viewing left me certain of its greatness.

Shannon Nutt

I’m sure I won’t be the only Roundtable member who picks Penny Marshall as their favorite female director this week, and perhaps I won’t be the only one who picks ‘Big‘ as the best of her movies. The film stars Tom Hanks playing a kid in a grown man’s body, and it’s not only a showcase for the actor (Hanks got his first-ever Academy Award nomination for his role), but for Marshall, who proved to Hollywood that a woman at the helm could deliver a movie just as good (and just as audience-pleasing too; the film was 1988’s fourth most successful movie at the North American box office) as any man.

Marshall went on to direct such popular titles as ‘Awakenings’ and ‘A League of Their Own‘, but back-to-back box office duds ‘Renaissance Man’ and ‘The Preacher’s Wife’ all but stalled her movie directing career. She now spends most of her time in the world of TV, directing series episodes from time to time. This year will mark her first direction of a film since 2001’s ‘Riding in Cars with Boys’, as Marshall will release a documentary about NBA player Dennis Rodman in October.

M. Enois Duarte

Although her recent work hasn’t drawn much attention, Amy Heckerling has directed three of my favorite movies. Of those, ‘Clueless‘ is arguably her best, and not just because she brilliantly updated Jane Austen’s novel ‘Emma’ to modern day Beverly Hills. The genius of the comedy is how it cleverly works as a commentary on 1990s social classes and a culture obsessed with appearances. As the main character soon discovers, the artificial, plastic world that has unknowingly consumed her is a vapid, empty existence lacking genuine human connection. I’m amazed that the movie still holds up twenty years later and continues to make me laugh.

Brian Hoss

Early in ‘Apocalypse Now’, Martin Sheen’s Willard pontificates, “When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” Into this state of mind comes Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker‘, a film in the modern landscape that easily rises above the typical war drama.

Philip Brown

Irritatingly out of print and unstreamable for years (even after a disappointing remake), Elaine May’s ‘The Heartbreak Kid‘ is a master class of awkward comedy with surprising insight between the laughs.

The movie stars an almost unimaginably young Charles Grodin, who marries the first woman who sleeps with him and then meets another one (Cybill Shepherd) that he considers to be his true love while on the honeymoon. So, he attempts to court Shepherd while dodging the affections of his new wife. The movie is excruciatingly funny in a cringe-worthy depiction of bad behavior. (Larry David must adore it.) It’s also cynically insightful in how it explores a certain type of pathology that prevents so many lost souls from finding partners because they perpetually seek what they can’t have over what they need. The final shot is a stunner, as beautifully perfect a sendoff as the coda to ‘The Graduate’, and says so much without any words. ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ is one of the great American comedies, even though it’s been unavailable for so long that precious few have seen this masterpiece.

Almost all of Elaine May’s work is tragically underseen, but her far-too-brief directorial career has no bum notes. Her murder/marriage comedy ‘A New Leaf’ is just as delightfully subversive as ‘The Heartbreak Kid’, if not as tightly constructed. Her lone drama, ‘Mikey and Nicky’, is wrenchingly bleak, and even her much mangled bomb ‘Ishtar’ is actually far better and funnier than you’ve heard. Sadly, May has been in director’s jail since ‘Ishtar’, working primarily as a script doctor ever since. ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ was the only movie she directed that came out in the cut she intended, and it’s so goddamn good that I can’t help but feel we were robbed of a brilliant career from one of the great comedy filmmakers. Find it, watch it, love it.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

When thoughts turn to women in the Golden Age of slasher cinema, gratuitous shower scenes and ravaged corpses almost certainly spring to mind. It wasn’t completely unheard of for there to be a significant female influence on the other side of the camera, however. ‘The Slumber Party Massacre‘ originated as a riff on the genre by feminist writer Rita Mae Brown, although its more satirical elements would wind up being blunted somewhat once the film went into production. It was directed by a woman as well: Amy Holden Jones, who went on to write ‘Indecent Proposal’ and the remake of ‘The Getaway’, among others. In fact, all three films in the franchise would be directed by women.

It’s fascinating to watch a film penned by a lesbian feminist in a genre so frequently perceived as misogynistic. Nearly every male character is a creep and/or moron, though it’s handled deftly enough that men watching the film may not even pick up on this. A greater number than usual of the women being attacked are portrayed as stronger and more intelligent than the usual slasher fodder. At the same time, the exploitative elements that are part and parcel of the genre are fully on display. The Driller Killer wields an unmistakably phallic power drill, and one of the most iconic shots in ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ sees it dangling between his legs as he stares down his prey. This oversized drill is the only way he’s able to penetrate women, so to speak. There’s even a point when the killer mutters “You know you want it” before attempting to plunge the whirring phallus into his next victim. Without his drill, the nameless killer is impotent in every sense of the word. The Driller Killer isn’t just defeated in the final moments of ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’; he’s emasculated. It’s a more clever, better written film than most slashers from the era. It has a greater emphasis on characterization, and it actually passes the Bechdel Test.

Josh Zyber

I’m almost tempted to say ‘The Matrix’ here, but officially that movie is credited to the “Wachowski Brothers” and neither of its sibling directors had come out as transgendered when the film was made. Instead, I’ll highlight a couple of small, perhaps obscure movies that I love.

Based on a classic novel by Virginia Woolf, ‘Orlando‘ stars Tilda Swinton as an inexplicably immortal 16th Century nobleman whose life through the centuries sees many changes, including at least one switch of gender. English filmmaker Sally Potter had a multi-disciplinary background in theater, dance and performance art, all of which she brings to the material. The very artistically directed film is intensely visual (it was Oscar nominated for its costumes and art direction) and extremely witty. It’s a delight to watch.

From the name alone, you might not even guess that Canadian director Brownwen Hughes is a woman. Nor does her 2003 movie ‘Stander‘ ever feel like a women’s picture – not that such a thing really needs to be defined. The crime drama stars Thomas Jane as a South African cop during the height of the Apartheid era who… let’s just say he gets involved in something he shouldn’t. To reveal much more would spoil the hugely entertaining plot twist that happens early in the picture. Seriously, don’t even read the back of the DVD case or the IMDb plot summary. I first saw this movie in a blind screening, having no inkling what I was about to watch, and that was absolutely the ideal way to first experience it. Of course, Sony had no idea how to market a movie like that, which is why it got next to no theatrical release and you’ve probably never heard of it. No worries, it got made and is still out there, quietly awaiting discovery.

What are some of your favorite movies directed by women? Tell us in the Comments.

22 comments

  1. Boston007

    I’m all about Point Break (original), and I might just be the only one that enjoyed The Heartbreak Kid remake.

  2. I don’t know about favorites, but I always look out for:

    Gillian Armstrong (Oscar & Lucinda)
    Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala )
    Julie Taymor (Titus)
    Jane Campion (The Piano)

  3. Csm101

    Karyn Kusama- Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation. All solid movies.
    Kathryn Bigelow- The Hurt Locker, Point Break, Strange Days, Near Dark, Zero Dark Thirty. A very impressive filmography.
    Antonia Bird- Although I think she came in to finish the job on Ravenous because the previous director was fired, I think the movie turned out awesome and is one of my favs. Unfortunately she passed away in 2013.

  4. Deaditelord

    While I’m not as big of a fan of Kathryn Bigelow’s war movies, I love Near Dark and especially Strange Days. It’s a real shame that Strange Days isn’t available on blu-ray or, better yet, UHD. That movie would look fantastic in 4k.

    • theHDphantom

      Agreed. Loved Near Dark. Very underrated horror film. As for her war films, well, Zero Dark Thirty was better than The Hurt Locker, but both were still pretty lackluster IMO.

  5. agentalbert

    Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” is the first that comes to mind for me. “The Virgin Suicides” is pretty good too.

    • Bolo

      It’s weird, I love ‘Lost in Translation’ and thought ‘Virgin Suicides’ was excellent, yet can’t even muster the interest to see anything Coppola’s done since. I actually forget ‘Somewhere’ even exists until I watch my blu ray of ‘Lost in Translation’ and the trailer pops up.

  6. Elizabeth

    Susanne Bier’s “Open Hearts” and “In a Better World”. For action, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break”.

  7. theHDphantom

    Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary is my choice. One of my very favourite horror films. Scared the hell out of me as a kid. Still holds up extremely well even today.

  8. Chris B

    I still love “Lost in Translation” and I’ve always been a big fan of Patty Jenkins’ “Monster”. Also, Jennifer Kent’s scary-as-hell “The Babadook” is one of my favorite horror movies from the last 10 years. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

  9. Plissken99

    Easy answer, Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird. It remains one of my favorite horrror movies for its soundtrack, intelligence and style!

  10. Bolo

    Christian Bale’s performance in ‘American Psycho’ was brilliant, but Harron’s direction deserves a lot of credit for getting the tone just right. The source material was really tricky in this respect and it was an adaptation that turned out way better than any one could reasonably expect.

  11. JERP

    Chantal Ackerman for the masterpiece Jeanne Dielman and Eleanor Coppola for Hearts of Darkness a documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now…….two amazing movies. I also like Ida Lupino’s the Hitch-Hiker.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      It’s a common mistake, but Hearts of Darkness was technically directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Most of the original home movie footage from the set of Apocalypse Now was shot by Eleanor Coppola, but the process of formally making a documentary out of the archive footage was done by Bahr and Hickenlooper.

  12. kurtutt

    Have to second Julie Taymor – Titus – being perhaps my favorite movie – (Though not a “movie” her Magic Flute opera direction was quite unique – up there with Kenneth Branagh’s WWI version)

    One of my Masters Thesis was on the Titus soundtrack (it had samples from Aliens in it!)

    Such an underrated and relatively unknown movie to the masses and sadly perhaps the worst HD Blu-ray transfer I own outside of 28 days later – I always dreamed of a Julie Taymor – Baz Luhrmann collaboration

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