192 Best Movies to Watch by Female director (Page 2)

Staff & contributors

Persepolis is the true story of Marjane Satrapi, the writer and illustrator whose graphic novels of the same name the film is adapted from. It details in vivid animation the trials of growing up in war-torn Iran, but also, crucially, the joys of being raised by a loving family and the significance of forming one’s own ideals and identity. In between revolving dictatorships and tightening restrictions, Marjane comes into her own and discovers what it means to live a meaningful life.

It’s a testament to Satrapi’s many talents that Persepolis never feels too flat or cynical given its 2D style and bleak backdrop. The drawings impressively morph with Marjane’s every thought, as if the ink itself were alive, and her wit persistently comes through in sharp observations and dialogues. Equally impressive is the film’s commitment to portraying war and conflict in a nuanced manner. In an autobiographical tale that is about Marjane’s coming of age as much as it is about her country’s survival, it’s never been more true that the personal is political.

Nothing Compares weaves a poignant story about one of the most misunderstood artists of our time, Sinéad O’Connor. The iconoclast first made waves in the '80s with her catchy music, but she quickly reclaimed the reins of her own fame and used her platform to champion marginalized causes, long before pop stars were expected to do so. 

The documentary zeroes in on this part of O’Connor's life: what prompted her to music and how she used it as a tool of activism. The answers are multi-faceted and handled here with extreme grace. Like the many from her generation, O’Connor struggled with religion and abuse, such was the Catholic Church's hold on Ireland at the time time. 

The film contextualizes her once-shocking moments and reveals how they were all grounded on things she cared about. It’s a beautiful piece of work that reassesses and redeems a wronged artist who was ahead of her time.

Many films have tried to decipher the indecipherable bond between mothers and daughters. Lady Bird, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Turning Red, to name a few, center on this particular relationship, which to outsiders may seem strange at best and dysfunctional at worst. How can mothers yell at their daughters one second and coddle them the next? How can daughters treat mothers like their best friend and enemy all at once? 

One of the best films to explore this complexity is Petite Maman, a fantasy-like film that brings together mother and daughter in a unique situation, forcing them both to regard the other in otherwise impossible ways. It succeeds where others haven’t precisely because it accepts that this relationship is beyond dissecting, and the only way to honor it is in the poignant, poetic, and otherworldly way that it does. It’s a quiet film that manages to say a lot, not least of which is that it’s okay to feel and love and hurt as much as one does.

Like all great documentaries, Angry Inuk is about way more than its tagline. At first glance, it's about how anti-sealing activism has been harming Inuit communities since the 1980s, to the point of instituting the highest rates of hunger and suicide anywhere in the "developed" world. But beyond, it's about the complicity of the government of Canada. A crushed seal-based economy means that the Inuit have to agree to oil and uranium mining in the Arctic.

Angry Inuk is also about the corrupt behavior of animal rights organizations like Greenpeace: seals are actually not on the endangered animal list but NGOs focus on them because they make them money.

It's an infuriating but incredibly important documentary. One that is not about how Canada has a bad history, but about how Canada is harming the Inuit right now.

What starts out as as a summer camp of teenage boys not taking anything seriously grows into a rousing portrait of their hopes and dreams for the future. You wouldn't expect a documentary like this—shot like a reality TV show—to carry so much weight, but Boys State knows how to unearth the values that drive each of its incredibly well-rounded characters. So by the time these young men have assembled their mock governments and are casting their votes, it feels like the spirit of an entire generation is on the line. This is powerful, entertaining, and ultimately tear-jerking filmmaking that shows us how much work we still have to do and how much hope there still is.

One of the most notable avant-garde filmmakers, Su Friedrich is both a tour-de-force of documentary filmmaking and queer cinema. In Sink or Swim, Friedrich explores the complicated dynamic between a distant, work-oriented father and young daughter longing for his attention, approval, and love.

At just barely 45 minutes, Sink or Swim is cinematic poetry. The movie slowly unfolds across six vulnerable vignettes, through which Friedrich invites the viewer to meditate on the past alongside her. Through photographs, archival footage, and loose narrative storytelling, Freidrich shows that storytelling is a way of both healing the past and learning to live with its ghostly figures.

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.

In Playground, we follow seven-year-old Nora as she navigates friends and school. Through her eyes (and often on her eye level), we witness her and her brother trying and often failing to fit in.

The film is an unfiltered account of their formative years, and possibly a reflection of our own. Commercials and kid-friendly media would have us believe that childhood is simple and pure, but the truth is it isn’t exempt from the major pitfalls of humanity. Children will mimic whatever they see, reasonable or otherwise, and the resulting order won’t always be ideal. Case in point: in the schoolyard, free of adult supervision, Nora and her peers push and tease and harass one another. 

It’s painful but relatable, a microcosm of our own complicated world, and though the film doesn’t shy away from the cruelties of bullying, it’s also filled with moments of empathy and warmth.

The Tragically Hip was a deeply beloved band from Ontario that peaked in the 90s with hits like Grace, Too or Nautical Disaster. The Hip, as their fans refer to them, had just finished recording their latest album in 2015 when the lead singer was diagnosed with a fatal disease. This movie is about them deciding to go on one last tour to say goodbye to their fans and country. Mostly, it’s about the singer, Gord Downie, and how his personality and love for the music shined through his illness. Picture someone who is giving an immaculate performance despite being a few weeks away from death, and a packed stadium of people singing along in tears - this is this movie. It’s truly an incredible story of human ambition, empathy, and the bond that music can create between an artist and a whole nation.

Leave No Trace is the amazing new movie from the director of Winter's Bone, Debra Granik. It's the story of a father and his daughter who live completely off the grid in a national park in Portland, and their quiet quest to not be separated and remain off the grid. It's not the sensational, tear-jerker story that you'd expect something with this premise to be. Rather, and like Winter's Bone, it chooses a humane and realistic approach to the subject matter. The decision to live outside society is almost irrelevant to this movie. More so, its inevitability for certain people with certain mindsets is what is interesting. A stunningly quiet movie, really well-acted too.

It's heartbreaking to realize that Happening, a film set in 1960s France tracking a young woman's journey to dangerously and desperately terminating her pregnancy, is still very much relevant and relatable to this day. Around the world, abortion is still inaccessible, if not completely illegal, and women still struggle to lay full claim to their bodies. A lot of girls grow up with pregnancy statistics meant to instill fear, but Happening brings all that to brilliant life in intimate and unrestrained detail. The fears and wants of our protagonist Anne (played precisely by Anamaria Vartolomei) are palpable throughout. Nothing is held back in this film, and if you find yourself sick in parts, then it has achieved its goal of realistically conveying what it's like to stay alive in a society that fails to recognize your needs. 

 

This story of a filmmaker who stayed in Aleppo, Syria during the war, got married then had a child called Sama, is a mix of difficult and inspiring.

There are stories of unsurmountable loss, as the filmmaker’s husband is one of the 30 remaining doctors in Aleppo (a city of almost 5 million), and she films many of the victims that come to his hospital. But while this is happening, there are also uplifting stories of resilience and rare but profound moments of laughter and joy.

We’re growing too sensitized to violence in Syria, and this movie, possibly the most intimate account of the war, can stir back a much-needed awareness of the injustices that take place.

When things get really bad in the documentary, it’s hard not to wonder where the humanity is in all of this. You quickly realize that it’s right there, behind the camera, in Sama and her mother’s will to live.

This bittersweet film about a father and a daughter marks one of the more tender spots in Claire Denis’ brilliant filmography. Frequent collaborator Alex Descas plays Lionel (the father), while Mati Diop, now a director in her own right, plays Josephine (the daughter.) The film captures the two at a crossroads, with their closely-knit relationship tested as Josephine grows closer to her boyfriend, and Lionel must face the possibility of finally letting her go.

A melancholy lingers in the air as we learn more about their lives and the small community of neighbors and coworkers in their orbit. Meanwhile, the film's climax holds a mesmerizing sequence set to the Commodores’ Nightshift, which has to rank as one of the best needle drops in cinema from a director who already has an all-timer under her belt. (see. Beau Travail)

This is quite the movie. It’s based on the true story of Brady Jandereau, an ex-rodeo star who suffered from an injury that took him away from riding horses. This is the best part, in the movie, he actually plays himself. His friends in the movie are his real-life friends. And the horse taming scenes are real wild horses being trained (by him). The line between reality and the filmmaking process is so thin here. An absolutely mesmerizing movie, directed by Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao. The Rider. Don’t miss it.