The 20 Best Films Directed by a Woman

David Thomson recounts the 20 best films directed by a woman, despite advice from his wife suggesting that he shouldn't get into it.


"Don't get into it," my wife told me. "That's a mug's game."

I had just been asked by Movieline to offer a list of the 20 best movies ever directed by a woman. It seemed like an interesting sport. After all, it was all plainly a matter of opinion; if I ended up omitting Nora Ephron, Kathryn Bigelow, Martha Coolidge and Jodie Foster, I could still have Nancy Savoca, Elaine May and Larissa Shepitko.

"Larissa who?" asked my wife.

"There's a big part of the question," I said. "Larissa Shepitko was something, even if she is dead and Russian, and even if it is probably impossible for readers to see any of her films. After all, in other countries than America, women have done a lot better."

"Well," she said. "The real question is: how good are whatever 20 films you choose going to be?"

She had a point. I'm not saying my 20 are 20 great films. I'm not even sure there's one great film in the list--not at the level of Renoir, Welles, Hawks, Ozu, Bunuel or Bresson. Maybe picking 20 just draws attention to the problem--face it, do women really get movies? I know, I know, women write scripts, they edit pictures, they do costumes and design, and all of that. They produce. And, naturally, they are one of the eternal subjects of movies. But do women look and see in the way men do?

"You mean look with their pricks?" said my wife.

"Well," I sighed.

This is the crux of it all. Do women depend on being in the dark, watching this magical thing, for their very being?

"You mean, are we voyeurs?" said my wife.

"Exactly," I said. "Because, you know, while there are plenty of women directing--even in Hollywood--there are hardly any women directors of photography anywhere. Men don't like to trust women to look into the eyepiece--it's something primitive and proprietary."

My wife nodded and thought for a while. "What is a movie director?" she asked. "In general, I mean. Describe the type."

"Insecure, arrogant, boastful asshole," I suggested. "Manipulative. Devious. Lying. Conceited. Destructive. Self-aggrandizing. Sell their mother and children for a job."


"Unfit for society?"

"There you are," she said. "No woman with a life is getting into that."

So, for better or worse, in alphabetical order, here are my 20, some of which you'll never find on video. Next month: the 20 best by left-handed people. ("Don't get me started on that," said my wife. "I have never met a leftie I'd trust.")

__Big_ (1988)_ was big--it grossed $115 million at the box office and got Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Actor. So what, you say? It's all due to a great performance by Tom Hanks? Sure, Big hinges upon Hanks's outstanding performance as the 12-year-old who wakes up looking like a 30-year-old man. But then we might say that the power of Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce means that the actresses made those films. What's more important is that Hanks had never been as good before as he was doing Big with Penny Marshall. Give her credit for getting at the child in him. After all, in most families, aren't women expected to deal with and "understand" the children?

The Bigamist. Ida Lupino was an actress dose to rawness (witness They Drive by Night, The Hard Way and Road House), but in the late '40s and '50s she had her own production company for which she directed half a dozen movies. The one I like best is The Bigamist (1953), in which Edmond O'Brien plays a traveling salesman who has two wives and two homes--and is in love with both. At that time, a B movie with that title should have been a piece of sensationalism. But Lupino brings rare compassion to the situation, to the two women (played by herself and Joan Fontaine), and even to the man. Above all, within the confines of a genre movie. Lupino showed she could get the job done while bringing the quiet awareness of ordinary frailty to an area normally made lurid and melodramatic.

Children of a Lesser God. We all love Marlee Matlin, don't we? But is that a deep respect or just the sentimental response to someone being so beautiful, so handicapped and so brave? What I mean to say is that Children of a Lesser God (1986) would be more compelling still if the deaf woman Matlin plays were not so lovely. Still, Randa Haines's debut film is a fine treatment of isolation, talking, stubbornness, trust and the ways in which love does and does not rely on the conventional dynamic of "attractiveness." Yes, Matlin, is impressive in the film (though she hasn't really worked much since), but so is William Hurt, not the easiest actor in the world to direct. Look at the film again today, and you have to wonder if Haines wasn't quietly, inappropriately slotted into place as someone who did teary stories about handicaps--when this is actually a movie about outcast strength.

Clueless. Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995) doesn't just vindicate the buzz of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), it will endure as one of the best portraits of young women in the '90s. That it is based on Jane Austen's Emma is just a tribute to Heckerling's casual brilliance. Between Fast Times and Clueless, Heckerling may have drifted a little; the Look Who's Talking movies are wrapped in cute attitudes, whereas Fast Times and Clueless have a rare appetite for true freshness in people. Whereas the "gift" that Hollywood is most likely to impose on good young directors (of any sex) is prepackaged, prethought, predead product, Heckerling should be trusted to generate her own material.

Daisies. I don't know how or where one might see it now, but in the mid '60s, Vera Chytilova's Daisies (1966) was as important to the Czech new wave as anything by Milos Foreman or Ivan Passer. Chytilova had been a model in the '50s, and her film school graduation work was a study of how men exploit that profession. Daisies is a surreal, anarchistic celebration of the havoc two young women, Marie I and Marie II, make in an orderly, materialistic society. It's very funny, surprisingly violent, and it climaxes at a great banquet. It has that female awareness that the world is actually absurd, a stale process of male rituals, and that what really matters is being alive and disorderly.

Dance, Girl, Dance. Dorothy Arzner was the real thing--even if she dressed like a man and looked like William S. Hart. From the late '20s to the early '40s, she functioned steadily in Hollywood as a director, trusted by the system to handle important pictures with strong feminist themes. For example, in Craig's Wife (1936), Rosalind Russell plays a wife who is a control freak and who becomes the slave to her compulsive materialism. But Arzner's most entertaining picture is Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), about the working life of women in burlesque. Lucille Ball is outstanding as the pro who does what she can to help newcomer Maureen O'Hara. Arzner retired from moviemaking, but she became a fixture in the film studies program at UCLA, where her students included Francis Ford Coppola.

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