19 Best Movies by Female director On Max (HBO Max)

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In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, documentarist Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, My Country, My Country) lends her empathetic and incisive lens to a subject so passionate and imaginative, she ends up collaborating with Poitras to co-create the documentary about her life. The subject is Nan Goldin, one of the most influential photographers of the late 20th century. 

The documentary captures Goldin’s work as a queer artist and anti-opioids activist, intertwining both aspects to tell a nuanced and incredibly important story about freedom, identity, and self-expression. This incredibly complex, encompassing, and vibrant feature won the top award at the Venice Film Festival, besting 19 other films from around the world.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Bernard Herrmann, Cookie Mueller, John Waters, Leonard Bernstein, Nan Goldin

Director: Laura Poitras

A young bisexual woman attends a shiva, caught between her parents and their expectations, her ex, and her sugar daddy. Rachel Sennott’s Danielle is yet to find her path in life and everyone is determined to remind her of that. Taking place almost entirely in real-time, the film’s sharp wit is contrasted with constant anxiety, complemented by Ariel Marx’s horror-like score, full of discordant pizzicato that sounds like every last bit of sanity snapping. 

It’s a sex-positive take on 20-something life, treating bisexuality as wholly unremarkable and passing no judgment on Danielle’s sugar daddy income. Its specificities about Jewish customs and traditions are non-exclusionary, while its social claustrophobia is achingly universal. It’s comforting in the way it portrays the social horrors we all face, the feeling that everyone but you has life figured out, and that – ultimately – those who matter will pull through, eventually. One of 2021’s best.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Ariel Eliaz, Cilda Shaur, Danny Deferrari, Deborah Offner, Dianna Agron, Fred Melamed, Glynis Bell, Jackie Hoffman, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Rachel Sennott, Richard Brundage, Rita Gardner, Sondra James

Director: Emma Seligman

Rating: Unrated

At one point in the documentary, director Kristen Lovell says, “I wanted to archive the movement that was building between transwomen and sex workers,” and that’s exactly what she achieves with The Stroll, a well-researched, creatively edited, and deeply moving account of the trans-sex-work experience that defined New York for a good chunk of the 20th century. It’s both historical and personal, touching and rousing, as it recounts a history that’s often been forgotten even among the LGBTQ+ community. To do this, Lovell digs up archival footage, brings to life long-buried data, and strikes up heartfelt conversations with survivors of The Stroll, that street in New York where Lovell and her fellow homeless escorts used to pick customers up. Thanks to Lovell’s hard work in telling this extraordinary story of struggle and success, there isn’t a moment in this film where you’re not shocked, frustrated, or exhilarated along with them.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: RuPaul

Director: Kristen Parker Lovell, Zackary Drucker

In Cameraperson, documentarian and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson creates an incredible patchwork of her life—and her life’s work. Johnson has been behind the camera of seminal documentaries like Citizenfour, The Invisible War, and The Edge of Joy. Here, Johnson stitches together fragments of footage, shot over 25 years, reframes them to reveal the silent but influential ways in which she has been an invisible participant in her work. 

In one segment, Johnson places the camera down in the grass. A hand reaches into the frame briefly, pulling up weeds that would otherwise obscure the shot. Cameraperson is a must-see documentary that challenges us to reconsider and reflect upon how we see ourselves and others through the camera lens, and beyond it.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Jacques Derrida, Kirsten Johnson, Michael Moore, Roger Phenix

Director: Kirsten Johnson

Rating: Not Rated

This searing allegation of sexual abuse against Def Jam Recordings' Russell Simmons unfolds with the intelligence and tenacity of a world-class prosecution. But more importantly, On the Record remembers to fight for a justice that's restorative, too—paying proper tribute to Drew Dixon and many other equally creative and talented women behind the scenes in the American hip hop industry. With every new argument it introduces, this documentary encourages us not only to be open to new information, but to rewire our very way of thinking about race, intersectional feminism, and the music business. It may be a bit of a cliché, but On the Record really does leave you smarter than when you started, with a heightened awareness of how the present moment is inseparable from our history.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Shanita Hubbard

Director: Amy Ziering, Kirby Dick

Sometimes you can just tell a movie means way too much to the people who made it. That makes me want to watch it more than once, which is what I wanted to do with The Tale. But while I think it's such an amazing movie and everyone should watch it, I don't think I can stomach a second watch.. It is based on the director/writer Jennifer Fox's own story - recounting her first sexual experience at a very young age. It's about the stories we tell ourselves to deal with trauma, and in that sense, and with utmost honesty, it invites grief and closure for similar experiences. A powerful movie led by a powerful performance by Laura Dern as Jennifer.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, TV Movie

Actor: Chelsea Alden, Common, Daniel Berson, Deana Deatherage, Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, Emily Sandifer, Frances Conroy, Grant James, Gretchen Koerner, Isabella Amara, Isabelle Nélisse, Jaqueline Fleming, Jason Ritter, Jenson Cheng, Jered Meeks, Jessica Sarah Flaum, Jodi Long, John Heard, Juli Erickson, Katie Fairbanks, Laura Allen, Laura Dern, Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., Matthew Rauch, Mobin Khan, Noah Lomax, Paul Riley Fox, Pixie Hankins, Rebecca Chulew, Ricki Bhullar, Russell Bradley Fenton, Scott Takeda, Tarek Bishara, Thom Bishops, Tina Parker, Vincent Washington

Director: Jennifer Fox

Rating: Not Rated

The culture of propaganda and cover-ups that kicked off the pandemic is the subject of this compelling documentary by award-winning director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation). Wang, who traveled with her family to China in January 2020, saw and filmed the pandemic firsthand, and wrote to major newspapers like The New York Times to convince them to write about it. They never did. 

Media and government in both China and the U.S. played down the threat, and this documentary asks how different everything would have gone otherwise. More dauntingly, it's an examination of how the Communist Party in China managed to use the event to its advantage. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Nanfu Wang

A young girl is looking for her father while struggling to care for her family. The film is bleak and slow but great performances from the cast, especially the lead, will keep you engaged throughout. The story has a very real, raw, and natural feeling to it, so natural in fact that at times, you will forget it is a movie. And in many ways, it feels that Winter's Bone is to Jennifer Lawrence what The Believer was to Ryan Gosling, as her performance is nothing short of perfect.

Genre: Drama, Mystery

Actor: Ashlee Thompson, Casey MacLaren, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Isaiah Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Lauren Sweetser, Ronnie Hall, Shelley Waggener, Sheryl Lee, Tate Taylor

Director: Debra Granik

Rating: R

A recent holiday classic you likely haven't seen, Arthur Christmas uses its premise of the North Pole as a massive spy organization to touch on how commercialization tears people apart. It's a surprisingly smart film with a fascinating dynamic among its family of Santas, with an incredibly funny script full of dry, British wit. And while the animation may already look dated at first glance, Arthur Christmas more than makes up for its looks with truly imaginative art direction and director Sarah Smith's fast-paced set pieces. This is that rare Chirstmas movie that doesn't just surrender to schmaltz; the lessons learned by the characters here are unique, complex, and timeless.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Kids

Actor: Adam Tandy, Alistair McGowan, Andy Serkis, Ashley Jensen, Bill Nighy, Brian Cummings, Bronagh Gallagher, Clint Dyer, Cody Cameron, Danny John-Jules, David Menkin, David Schneider, Deborah Findlay, Dominic West, Donnie Long, Emma Kennedy, Eva Longoria, Hugh Laurie, Iain McKee, Ian Ashpitel, Imelda Staunton, James McAvoy, Jane Horrocks, Jerry Lambert, Jim Broadbent, Joan Cusack, Julia Davis, Kerry Shale, Kevin Cecil, Kevin Eldon, Kris Pearn, Laura Linney, Marc Wootton, Michael Palin, Peter Baynham, Ramona Marquez, Rhys Darby, Rich Fulcher, Rich Hall, Robbie Coltrane, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Sarah Smith, Seamus Malone, Seeta Indrani, Stewart Lee, Tamsin Greig

Director: Barry Cook, Sarah Smith

Rating: PG

Often considered Claire Denis’ best film, Beau Travail is an epic exploration of both masculinity and colonialism. Inspired by Melville’s Billy Budd, she transplants the story to Djibouti where the French Foreign Legion run seemingly aimless drills in an arid desert landscape while largely alienated from the local community. 

Denis inverts the male gaze and imbues charged eroticism to the bodies in motion as the men train and wrestle. Accompanied by the music of Britten’s Billy Budd opera, these movements transform into a breathtaking modern dance. Underneath her jaw-dropping direction is a cutting allegory on repression, desire, and violence, working on both the individual and geopolitical level. This incredible tale is capped off by one of the best end credit sequences of all time. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Dan Herzberg, Denis Lavant, Gianfranco Poddighe, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor, Mickael Ravovski, Nicolas Duvauchelle

Director: Claire Denis

Rating: Unrated

Although it opens on Janet Frame’s first steps as a baby, this Jane Campion-directed biopic of the celebrated New Zealand writer doesn’t take an exhaustive approach to its subject’s life. We frequently only learn of milestones — the many awards she won, the death of her mother — later on and in passing. In a beautiful gesture that feels like a tiny righting of the many wrongs done to Janet, it’s her perspective that guides the film. 

That embedded approach also makes the emotions that come with her heartbreaking yet uplifting story more profound. And there is much heartbreak here: alongside the several tragic losses Janet experienced as a child, she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic as a young woman and spent eight harrowing years in psychiatric hospitals. Throughout all of this, she wrote fiction and poetry, work that saved her life in more ways than one: as well as being a rare constant source of joy, it won her a literary prize just days before she was scheduled for a lobotomy, prompting her doctors to reconsider. Neither Campion nor Janet allowed this experience to define her, however, and the film empathetically grants her real moments of joy and choice throughout — making for a deeply sensitive and uplifting watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alexia Keogh, Alison Bruce, Alistair Douglas, Andrew Robertt, Brenda Kendall, David Letch, David Stott, Elizabeth McRae, Francesca Collins, Gerald Bryan, Iris Churn, Jessie Mune, Julia Calvo, Karen Fergusson, Katherine Murray-Cowper, Kerry Fox, Kevin J. Wilson, Mark Clare, Mark Morrison, Martyn Sanderson, Melina Bernecker, Paul Norell, Peter Needham, Robert Jayne, Timothy Bartlett, Willa O'Neill

Director: Jane Campion

Rating: R

For the longest time, American media coverage was skewed to justify the presence of US forces in Arab states. Control Room unveils that bias by following Al Jazeera at the start of the Iraq War in 2003. One of the biggest Arab media outlets at the time, Al Jazeera dared to cover both sides of the war, but by doing so put a target on its back. It was vilified by both the US government, which called it an Osama mouthpiece and the Arab world, which called it a Bush ally. 

Control Room shows the difficulty (if not sheer impossibility) of achieving journalistic balance, objectivity, and integrity. Through interviews with Al Jazeera reporters and US military officers, we witness how lines are blurred, loyalties are tested, and purpose is shifted in a state of war. A seminal work on media bias and press control, Control Room is vital and enlightening, a must-watch to understand the inner workings of the fourth estate. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush

Director: Jehane Noujaim

What Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher intentionally refuses to give you by way of plot or resolution, it more than makes up for in sharp visuals, a beautifully sparse score, and an unscratchable feeling of restlessness. It's a downer for sure, watching 12-year-old James hounded by guilt as he navigates the mundane bleakness of his everyday life. But in every detail and in every interaction he has in this rundown scheme in Glasgow is a window into the simple joys James wishes he could be enjoying. The more trouble the boy walks into, the more the guitar string tightens, and the more you wish something could finally break the cycle. There's still beauty even in these conditions, Ratcatcher tells us—but it isn't right that anyone should have to live like this.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Jackie Quinn, John Comerford, Leanne Mullen, Lisa Taylor, Rory McCann, Tommy Flanagan

Director: Lynne Ramsay

"Imagine a nightmare when you had to relive your adolescence," says Cecilia Aldarondo at the beginning of her third film, You Were My First Boyfriend. Indeed, the scene recalls a teen prom that could easily be yours (if you were one of the unpopular girls): neon lights, prettier dresses that are never yours, disapproving looks, and the impression that everyone around you is having the time of their lives, while you sit awkwardly in a corner. This image sets the tone for a self-exploration in documentary form that relies on a simple, yet imaginative premise, what if you could re-enact the formative events from back then, but do so today, by directing actors to step in for your past selves. Aldarondo approaches the topic sincerely and with curiosity. Not a pang of nostalgia there, but the heartfelt doc manages to reflect on the pasts that shape us in a witty way to promote self-acceptance and, ultimately, healing.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Cecilia Aldarondo, Gabriel Kristal, Laura Gallegos, Melissa Baker, Sarah Baker Butterfield

Director: Cecilia Aldarondo

Rating: PG

Contemplative English literature professor Vivian leaves New York for Reno, Nevada, to facilitate her divorce from a lifeless marriage. There she meets Cay, a sculptor and free spirit living relatively uncloseted for the time. What starts as an inspiring friendship soon turns to attraction. It is partly the story of Vivian's sexual awakening, partly a transformative love story persuasively depicted through earnest, unadorned dialogue and love scenes, and vulnerable performances. A heartfelt and tender romance, the scenes are delightfully set to a soundtrack of Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash singles and filmed over the expansive horizons of the Nevada desert.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alex McArthur, Andra Akers, Antony Ponzini, Audra Lindley, Dean Butler, Denise Crosby, Donna Deitch, Gwen Welles, Helen Shaver, James Staley, Jeffrey Tambor, Katie La Bourdette, Patricia Charbonneau, Tyler Tyhurst

Director: Donna Deitch