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8 great movies by women directors you need to watch

March is Women’s History Month, and it’s a great time to celebrate all the influential women throughout history. This also includes influential women in the entertainment business, including those involved in making movies. From the actors to the cast and crew, women have made a difference in how cinema has developed throughout the 20th century and to the present.

In terms of directing, it’s shocking to learn that the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director was Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Since then, however, female directors have been increasingly in the spotlight with such films as CODA and Promising Young Woman. Here, we have rounded up eight great movies worth watching that all hail from female directors, including films from both the last decade and ones from the distant past as well.

The Woman King (2022)  

Viola Davis in battle gear, leading an army in a scene from The Woman King.   

Based on a true story, The Woman King is a historical action-drama movie directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Set in the 19th century, it tells the store of the all-female Agojie warrior unit that was tasked with protecting the West African kingdom known as Dahomey. Viola Davis stars as General Nanisca, the woman training the next generation of warriors, and she trained extensively for the role, which translates to a powerful performance on-screen.

The Woman King is not only a fabulous movie directed by a female, it’s also a movie that features a largely female Black cast. It tells a compelling story on an epic canvas, and deals with a real-life historical event with an honesty and sympathy rare for the action genre.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Jeremy Renner looks up at someone in a scene from The Hurt Locker.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

As noted, Bigelow became the first female director to win an Academy Award for directing The Hurt Locker more than a decade ago. The movie itself earned a total of nine Academy Award nominations and took home six, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay along with Best Director.

A war thriller, The Hurt Locker stara Jeremy Renner as Sgt. 1st Class William James, who leads the U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit during the Iraq War. The movie is as much about mental health as it is full of action and drama, focusing on the psychological toll the war took on the men and women fighting. Selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” The Hurt Locker is a must-watch and a game-changing movie for female directors.

Nomadland (2020)

Frances McDormand sits with her face crouched in her hand in a scene from Nomadland.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Chloe Zhao not only directed, but also wrote the screenplay for Nomadland, which won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 92nd Academy Awards. The slow-moving movie tells the story of a widow who, after losing her job, decides to leave the life she knows behind to travel across the U.S. as a nomad. She meets a number of others along the way, including real-life nomads playing fictional versions of themselves.

Nomadland, based on the nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, is cathartic, eye-opening, and powerful. It’s not only directed by a woman, but also centers on a female protagonist who, after losing everything, decides to take control of her life and go in a direction she never thought possible.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Jesse Plemon and Kirsten Dunst standing together holding coffee cups in a scene from The Power of the Dog.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Jane Campion continued the trend of female directors finally getting the recognition they deserve with The Power of the Dog, a powerful revisionist Western psychological drama for which she also wrote the screenplay.

Based on Thomas Savage’s book of the same name, The Power of the Dog follows Phil (Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness hero Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), two wealthy ranch owners and brothers who meet a widow and inn owner named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and have differing feelings about her. The standout performance, however, comes from Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, Rose’s young and effeminate teenage son who is constantly berated by Phil for being “weak.” It’s the type of movie that slowly builds, but the performances keep you glued to the screen the entire way through.

Selma (2014)

Oprah Winfrey in a scene from Selma, being restrained by authorities, a crowd behind her.
Atsushi Nitijima

Ava DuVernay is behind this historical drama based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches that were led, in part, by Martin Luther King Jr. Receiving multiple Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Selma earned praise for both David Oyelowo’s performanceas King, as well as DuVernay’s work as director.

With an almost perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating, critics praised how the movie “ draws inspiration and dramatic power from the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr.,” but Selma also recognizes we still have a long way to go. Selma is an important lesson in history (albeit with some historical facts questioned or missing) that educates as much as it entertains and informs.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Bill Murray sitting down, Scarlett Johansson beside him with her head on his shoulder in a scene from Lost in Translation.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Dating all the way back to 2003, this romantic comedy-drama stars Bill Murray as a former movie star suffering from a midlife crisis who meets a young woman named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) while visiting Tokyo. The two Americans have traveled there for different reasons, and in staying at the same hotel, they strike up a friendship that explores the themes of feeling lost, looking for companionship, and even finding unlikely love.

Directed and written by Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation received several Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, and won for Best Original Screenplay. Coppola was also nominated for Best Director, making her the third-ever female director to receive that nomination at that time and solidifying her position as a talented auteur.

American Psycho (2000)

A close up of Christian Bale looking angry in a scene from American Psycho.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Music video vet Mary Harron (she directed Madonna’s Like a Prayer music video) is behind American Psycho, not only as director, but also co-screenplay writer (alongside Guinevere Turner). The film, based on the book of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, is a chilling one about fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman. Charming, suave, and intelligent, Bateman (Christian Bale) is an investment banker by day and troubled secret killer at night.

The story has been told a thousand times, but it’s Harron’s interpretation, alongside the convincing performance by Bale, that makes this movie the one most people equate to the character and story. American Psycho has developed a cult following over the last more than two decades since it first premiered, and was a box-office success.

Women Talking (2022)

Two women and a man sit on grass in Women Talking.
United Artists

One of the newest films on this list, the superb film Women Talking is in the running for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 95th Academy Awards this year. Sarah Polley is both writer and director of the drama, based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, which was inspired by real events. Set in a Mennonite community in 2010, the women discover that the some of the men have been using cow tranquilizers to rape the women and girls, so they speak out, leading to the perpetrators’ arrests. Rather than stand by the women, however, the other men leave the women to defend their brethren. During their two-day absence, the women discuss what they will do next, and not all of them are on board with leaving or fighting back.

With a star-studded cast that includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Frances McDormand, Women Talking is not only a film directed and written by a woman, it’s also one that seriously discusses pertinent women’s issues from a female perspective. That may not sound like a lot, but in Hollywood, it’s still all too rare.

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Christine Persaud
Christine has decades of experience in trade and consumer journalism. While she started her career writing exclusively about…
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