Ranked: The Best Women Film Directors (and Their Films)

  • Publish Date: July 17, 2010
  • Comments: ↓ 19 user comments

Mind the gap

ImageMore than all right

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.

The directors

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.

Metascore Averages for Women Directors (Min. 3 Scored Films in Database)
Director # of
scored films
Average Metascore Average
User Score
Average Box
Office Gross*
1 Lone Scherfig 3 77 8.6 $6.5m

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

  Lucrecia Martel 3 77 8.0 $0.2m

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

3 Sofia Coppola 3 77 6.3 $28.3m

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

4 Agnès Jaoui 3 76 7.3 $1.2m

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

5 Claire Denis 5 75 6.7 $0.1m

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

6 Susanne Bier 4 74 8.3 $1.6m

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

9 Mary Harron 3 68 8.1 $9.1m

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

10 Jane Campion 5 67 7.0 $14.3m

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

11 Anne Fontaine 4 66 7.7 $1.8m
12 Kathryn Bigelow 3 66 6.5 $26.3m
13 Kasi Lemmons 3 64 8.5 $10.6m
14 Agnieszka Holland 3 63 7.6 $14.5m
The Europa Europa director has also worked in American television, directing episodes of Treme and The Wire
15 Gillian Armstrong 4 62 8.3 $18.0m
  Mira Nair 4 62 7.2 $12.6m
17 Deepa Mehta 4 62 8.7 $3.2m
18 Catherine Breillat 7 61 6.3 $0.6m
19 Gurinder Chadha 3 59 7.7 $13.5m
  Rebecca Miller 3 59 6.8 $0.8m
21 Catherine Hardwicke 4 59 7.4 $69.7m
22 Julie Taymor 3 58 7.6 $22.1m
  Katherine Dieckmann 3 58 7.6 $0.1m
24 Penny Marshall 4 58 8.0 $109.1m
25 Nancy Meyers 5 57 6.8 $145.4m
26 Vicky Jenson 3 56 7.3 $196.2m
27 Karyn Kusama 3 51 7.0 $17.2m
28 Amy Heckerling 5 50 7.2 $96.0m
29 Anne Fletcher 3 48 6.9 $113.0m
30 Betty Thomas 6 46 6.7 $110.9m
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
31 Nora Ephron 7 44 6.3 $101.3m
32 Penelope Spheeris 3 42 7.9 $99.4m
Not included in her score average are a trio of documentaries about the Los Angeles music scene, The Decline of Western Civilization
33 Clare Kilner 3 42 6.2 $19.4m
34 Mimi Leder 3 41 6.4 $119.7m
35 Julie Davis 3 37 7.7 $0.4m
36 Tamra Davis 3 20 7.3 $40.4m
Among the director's critic-unfriendly films are the 1998 drug comedy Half Baked 16

Excludes documentary films. Directors are ranked by average Metascore prior to rounding.
* Adjusted for inflation; U.S. grosses only. Source for box office data: Box Office Mojo.
** One of the director's films is still playing in theaters. Box office data accurate as of July 15, 2010.

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:

Highest Lifetime Cumulative Box Office Grosses for Women Directors
  Director Lifetime Domestic Gross * Average Gross Per Film *
1 Nora Ephron $810,462,500 $101.3m
2 Betty Thomas $776,402,800 $110.9m
3 Amy Heckerling $767,737,300 $96.0m
4 Penny Marshall $764,042,300 $109.1m
5 Nancy Meyers $726,866,100 $145.4m

* Adjusted for inflation; U.S. grosses only. Source for box office data: Box Office Mojo.

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.

Highest-Grossing* Movies Directed by Women (Since 1980)
  Title Director Year Metascore Users U.S. Gross*
1 Shrek Vicky Jenson 2001848.6$376.0m
2Look Who's TalkingAmy Heckerling198951n/a$277.0m
3What Women WantNancy Meyers2000476.3$263.1m
4Dr. DolittleBetty Thomas1998465.6$244.4m
5Sleepless in SeattleNora Ephron1993719.6$243.3m
6Deep ImpactMimi Leder1998403.6$238.1m
7Wayne's WorldPenelope Spheeris1992539.8$233.1m
8 Alvin & the Chipmunks: The SqueakquelBetty Thomas2009415.3$225.0m
9BigPenny Marshall1988707.4$222.4m
10TwilightCatherine Hardwicke2008565.6$213.4m

* Adjusted for inflation; U.S. grosses only. Source for box office data: Box Office Mojo.
Film was co-directed with a male director.

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).

Best-Reviewed Movies Directed by Women
  Title Director Year Metascore Users
1 The Hurt LockerKathryn Bigelow2009946.9
 Sita Sings the BluesNina Paley2010947.3
335 Shots of RumClaire Denis2009925.5
4Beau TravailClaire Denis2000917.6
5 American Splendor Shari Springer Berman 2003908.0
  PersepolisMarjane Satrapi 2007908.1
 Winter's BoneDebra Granik2010907.6
8Lost in TranslationSofia Coppola2003896.3
  The PianoJane Campion1993897.1
10Away from HerSarah Polley 2007888.0
11Little Women [1994]Gillian Armstrong1994879.2
12Boys Don't CryKimberly Peirce1999868.6
  The Kids Are All RightLisa Cholodenko 2010868.0
14 An EducationLone Scherfig2009858.1
  The IntruderClaire Denis2005855.0
  The Savages Tamara Jenkins2007857.4
17Old JoyKelly Reichardt2006845.5
  ShrekVicky Jenson 2001848.6
19Frozen RiverCourtney Hunt2008828.4
  The Namesake Mira Nair2007828.0
21Bright StarJane Campion2009816.9
 ChaosColine Serreau2003818.3
 Fish TankAndrea Arnold2010818.2
  The Headless Woman Lucrecia Martel2009816.6
  The Secret of Kells Nora Twomey 2010817.7
26 Little Miss SunshineValerie Faris 2006807.4
 Set Me FreeLéa Pool2000809.2
 Wendy and LucyKelly Reichardt2008806.2
29 City of GodKátia Lund 2003798.7
 Look at MeAgnes Jaoui2005797.7
 Whale RiderNiki Caro2003796.3
32After the WeddingSusanne Bier2007788.5
 Eve's BayouKasi Lemmons19977810.0
 How I Killed My FatherAnne Fontaine2002787.5
 InnocenceLucile Hadzihalilovic2005787.3
  The Last Mistress Catherine Breillat2008787.6
 Morvern CallarLynne Ramsay2002785.7
 Please GiveNicole Holofcener2010787.5
  The Taste of Others Agnes Jaoui2001786.8
40Fat GirlCatherine Breillat2001776.7
 Italian for BeginnersLone Scherfig2002779.8
 Monsoon WeddingMira Nair2002777.9
 Open HeartsSusanne Bier2003778.8
 Stephanie DaleyHilary Brougher2007776.8
 WaterDeepa Mehta2006776.7

Excludes documentary films.
Film was co-directed with a male director.

Worst-Reviewed Movies Directed by Women (Since 1980)
  Title Director Year Metascore Users
1 The In Crowd Mary Lambert 2000 14 2.5
 Mixed NutsNora Ephron1994146.4
3Billy MadisonTamra Davis1995168.7
 Half BakedTamra Davis1998168.7
5 I Hate Valentine's Day Nia Vardalos 2009 17 4.9
 Material Girls Martha Coolidge200617 4.0
7BeautifulSally Field2000235.2
8 Boxing Helena Jennifer Lynch 1993 26 6.6
  Filth and Wisdom Madonna 2008 26 5.8
  A Night at the Roxbury Amy Heckerling 1998268.9

Film was co-directed with a male director.

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Comments (19)

  • Why Hasn’t the  

    [...] mean they’re not producing award-worthy work, of course. Check out this comprehensive Metacritic ranking of the “Best Women Film Directors (and Their Films),” which drives home the point that [...]

  • Frances  

    Less than 1% of movies on Netflix are female directed, and they are hard to find. Recently I (and others) have created a cool website called FemaleDirectors.com, which helps you find these movies as well as play and/or add them to your Netflix queue (if you are a Netflix member). I hope you will use this site to support female filmmakers, and enjoy this special selection of movies

  • Chris  

    There's no link to Beau Travail. When you click on it nothing happens.

  • Meg  

    Actually, you can check out the website for the film www.thetreefilm.com and I was mistaken, it wasn't an all female crew, the executive producer was male. but everyone else was female.

  • Meg  

    Julie Bertuccelli deserves some recognition for her latest film The Tree. It was the closing film at the Cannes festival. Not bad for an all female crew.

  • Nestor  

    Shouldn't have left the movie equipment in the kitchen...

  • You  

    Wayne’s World, how much more can critics fail?

  • F  

    So this just means they aren't good enough. I dislike positive discrimination as much as regular discrimination. Should a male-direct film be excluded from the Cannes festival because a woman make a worse film? Did The Hurt Locker win the Oscar because the film was good enough or because the director was a woman? Articles like this make it seem she won because/despite being a woman.

  • Daelin  

    Well done Metacritic. Alhough I disagree with just about everything you say and do this is a very nicely compiled list of movies. I know you hate silly comedies because you have no souls but the fans appreciate them. Ignore the Meta ratings and just go with what the fans like.

  • Jim McBride  

    Hurt Locker was not considered to be a good movie by anyone I know was in Iraq. It is not realistic and made no attempt at an accurate portrayal but was an attempt to capitalize on current events and make money off of the war. the Americans are the good guys and do go out of their way to aid and assist the Iraqis however they deserve better the a mediocre flick like this.

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