Whether you know it or not, women have been making absolutely stunning films throughout the years, even more so in the last decade, thanks to improvements in representation in the film industry.
From Greta Gerwig and Barbie to up-and-comers like Charlotte Wells and her directorial debut with Aftersun, there are plenty of female directors to hold high. It’s impossible to list them all, so we’ve picked 8 to highlight here in our list of the best female directors of all time. Give any of their films a try, and you won’t be disappointed.
First on our list of the best female directors is Domee Shi. You might remember her from her short film Bao and the feature-length film Turning Red, both of which were for Pixar. Bao was released in 2018 and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, receiving high levels of praise for its ability to capture the experience of many Asian immigrants, though the short can be relatable to just about any culture.
Turning Red was also a critical success, being nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. Audiences felt that the story of 13-year-old Mei was well-told, heartwarming, and beautifully animated. Domee Shi is certainly one of the best female directors in recent times, as with just one short and one animated film, she managed to steal the spotlight both times.
Cholé Zhao has an impressive list of feature-length films. There are only four (so far), but she wrote and directed all of them. Her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, immediately showed that Zhao knows how to tell a story and evoke strong feelings of empathy from an audience. Switching from a coming-of-age Native American drama to a modern western, The Rider is Zhao’s second film and was met with similar praise.
Zhao really shined with Nomadland, released in 2020. Many critics and audience members felt that Nomadland was one of the best films of the year, and they would be right, seeing as how it won Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, making Zhao the first Asian woman and second woman ever to win Best Director.
Her fourth film, Eternals, was met with mixed reviews, but Marvel hasn’t exactly been hot since the end of Phase Three, which leads some to believe that had more to do with the story at hand rather than Zhao’s talent. Regardless, Zhao is certainly one of the best female directors of all time, and she has decades to prove it again and again.
Having proven herself both critically and commercially, Greta Gerwig has certainly earned her spot on this list. She had some experience directing prior to Lady Bird, but this coming-of-age drama certainly solidified her position as a big-name director and writer. Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women, an adaptation of the novel of the same name, also received critical acclaim.
One of her most popular films, however, is Barbie. Gerwig co-wrote (Noah Baumbach is also credited with the screenplay) and directed 2023’s biggest blockbuster, which is certain to win numerous awards. Barbie was praised for its screenplay, acting, direction, and sound—really just about everything there is to praise in a film. Snow White is set to release in 2024, and judging by Gerwig’s past performances, it’s a film you won’t want to miss.
As the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, this list wouldn’t be complete without Kathryn Bigelow. The Hurt Locker was the film to win her that award, and for good reason. It’s one of the best war films of the 2000s and follows an explosive ordinance crew as they navigate different scenarios during the Iraq War. It’s a great look at the horrors of war, along with the psychological implications of combat.
She also directed Point Break, one of the best buddy cop films of the 90s, if not all time. Bigelow also directed Detroit, which was met with positive reviews but was, unfortunately, a box-office failure. Still, critics and audience-goers praised her direction and the ensemble cast in the movie.
A young (when it comes to directors) rising star, Emerald Fennell is best known for Killing Eve and Promising Young Woman. Killing Eve is, of course, the British spy series that stars Sandra Oh and Jodie Conner. It won numerous awards, but even then pales in comparison to Promising Young Woman. That film won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and was nominated for numerous others. It was praised heavily and is certainly one of the best films of 2020.
Although she has a somewhat short filmography as a director, Cathy Yan has proved herself as one of the best female directors. She began with a number of short films before tackling two feature-length films: Dead Pigs (which she also wrote) and Birds of Prey.
Dead Pigs is a critically acclaimed satirical comedy about late-stage capitalism, partially inspired by the real-life events of the Huangpu River incident, which saw over ten thousand dead pigs dumped into the river that supplies Shanghai with a portion of its drinking water.
Birds of Prey was also well-received, while her direction on Succession’s Season 3 Episode 3, “The Disruption,” got her nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. Yan is certainly a director to keep an eye on as she gets involved in more and more projects.
Nancy Meyers has been directing since the late 90s, but has been involved in the film industry for decades prior to that. Her directorial debut is an iconic film that every 90s kid has seen, The Parent Trap. While not a visually stunning film or something as emotionally deep as other films found on this list, The Parent Trap was a hallmark romantic comedy for years after it was released and is still enjoyable to this day.
Meyers has also directed Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday, and It’s Complicated, cementing her ability to reliably direct romantic comedies, although none would do quite as well as The Parent Trap. Regardless, she’s certainly one of the most commercially successful female directors of recent times, if not all time.
Someone to keep an eye on, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun with Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio is easily one of the best coming-of-age films in recent decades. Mescal and Corio’s acting, paired with Wells’ direction and original screenplay, made it an absolute roller coaster of emotions from start to finish. With a plot as simple as an 11-year-old girl on vacation with her divorced father, Wells evokes emotions all of us can relate to as we look back on our childhood with our parents in a different light, knowing what we know now.
Aftersun won an amazing amount of awards for a directorial debut, including the British Independent Film Awards’ Best British Independent Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Debut Director, and many more.