Films by Julie Dash, Chantal Akerman, Chloe Zhao, Forough Farrokhzad, Jennifer Lee, and many other female filmmakers made the list.
10. “Daughters of the Dust” (Julie Dash, 1991)
Julie Dash’s groundbreaking 1991 historical drama is arguably one of the most significant films of the last 30 years. The first U.S. feature film written and directed by an African-American woman to receive a wide theatrical release, the story, which is set in the early 1900s, paints a vivid portrait of Gullah Geechee culture — communities descended from enslaved Africans who settled along the coast and Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Thanks in part to the stunning color cinematography of Arthur Jafa, the film captures the last gathering of the Peazant family as the younger generation prepares to leave the island and their matriarch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), for the promise of the mainland.
Powerfully summoning the Igbo Landing mythology of 1803, “Daughters of the Dust” still resonates today, most recently as an influence on Beyonce’s video album “Lemonade.” The film was recently restored for the first time with proper color grading overseen by cinematographer Jafa, ensuring that audiences can finally see the film exactly as director Dash intended.—TO
9. “Seven Beauties” (Lina Wertmüller, 1976)
In her dismissive review of “Seven Beauties,” Pauline Kael wrote that Lina Wertmüller “keeps her films moving by hurling salamis at the audience.” And maybe that’s true — after all, this withering dark comedy includes the most jarring close-up of a penis in the history of Holocaust cinema — but not in the way that Kael meant it. By 1975, the movies were already starving for new ways to visualize the greatest atrocity of the 20th century, which three decades of post-war cinema had already ossified into a dead language of digestible images. Wertmüller had to feed the people something.
In that sense, her magnum opus is one hell of a meal. A larger-than-life Giancarlo Giannini stars as Pasqualino “Seven Beauties” Frafuso, Naples’ horniest and most flamboyant hoodlum, and a man whose utter lack of dignity is ultimately his only hope of enduring the depravity of a concentration camp. Combining the picaresque lightness of an old fable with the unfathomable horrors of real life — and using the subversive pleasures of grindhouse cinema to reinvigorate a nightmare the world is always on the brink of forgetting — Wertmüller’s greatest and most grotesque film had the temerity to think of survival as a virtue unto itself. In committing to that idea until the bitter end, “Seven Beauties” was able to prevent the Holocaust from becoming just another genre. More than 40 years later, it still retains that same power. —DE
8. “Meshes of the Afternoon” (Maya Deren, 1943)
Some movies convey a dreamlike sense of wonder; Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” is the closest anyone has come to putting an actual dream on film. In under 14 minutes, this astonishing short film became a seminal achievement in the American avant garde movement, influencing generations of experimental filmmakers and beyond; with time, its appeal has tipped over into popular culture, in everything from visually ambitious music videos to David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” (It’s safe to say that the term “Lynchian” wouldn’t even exist if a young Lynch hadn’t been exposed to the lyrical possibilities of the medium through Deren’s work.)
Deren’s extraordinary 1943 vision, which she directed with her husband Alexander Hammid, portrays the disorienting experiences of a woman roaming through multiple identities, chasing a mysterious hooded figure through an empty home. From the moment an abnormally long arm places a flower on the ground, then vanishes, Deren executes a beguiling disruption of the senses: Everything looks familiar, but not quite how it belongs. The ironic opening title, “Made in Hollywood,” points to the movie’s shrewd agenda of subverting conventional storytelling to arrival at a more abstract, surreal plane. The result is a concise masterpiece that continues to transfix viewers and invite new interpretations decades later. —EK
7. “Cléo from 5 to 7” (Agnes Varda, 1962)
A score by Michel Legrand. Cameos from Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. A plot that hinges on tarot cards, existential dread, and internalized misogyny. “Cléo from 5 to 7” minted Agnès Varda as one of the defining auteurs of the French New Wave when it first premiered in 1962, but nothing about this film — not its effortless sense of being young, nor its profound anxiety over what comes next — has aged a day in the last 57 years. Cléo’s tragic mantra (“as long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive”) might as well be the title of a Lana Del Rey song. Or all of Lana Del Rey’s songs, for that matter.
That timelessness stems from the fable-like nature of Varda’s film, which spans the feverish 90 minutes that its blonde heroine spends waiting for the results of a cancer test. Cléo (Corinne Marchand) once thought she would live forever, and maybe she’ll live to think that again, but for one late summer afternoon everything that happens seems to underscore how transiently she’s passing through it; whether singing a pop tune, riding around in a taxi, or flirting with a soldier who’s doomed to return to the Algerian War, the self-obsessed Cléo is surrounded by omens of death. Careening from one masterful scene to another, and galvanized by a series of unforgettable mirror images, Varda’s breakthrough continues to resonate for how blithely it tries to reconcile the demand for beauty with the dangers of self-reflection. —DE
6. “Lady Bird” (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
The American coming-of-age story has been done to death, resurrected, and done to death again so many times it begs for a moratorium. The miracle of “Lady Bird” is that writer-director Greta Gerwig rises to the challenge and overcomes it with effortless charm and confidence in its vision. From the moment Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson dives out of a moving car to escape a pointless squabble with her well-intentioned mom (Laurie Metcalf), Saoirse Ronan has already delivered the role of her lifetime: a fierce, lived-in performance rich with attitude and curiosity about the world beyond her grasp, and her quest to make sense of the one around her. Lady Bird struggles through a series of hardships — a lame dude (Timothée Chalamet) who devirginizes her, a romantic interest who turns out to be gay, college application woes, family squabbles, and high school frustrations.
Set in 2002, the movie captures the distinctive generational experiences of teenage women growing up in a post-9/11 world laced with uncertainties about the future. The plot itself is largely familiar terrain, but it’s made new by Gerwig’s whip-smart script, a blend of sincerity and Lady Bird’s distinctive ironic tone. As an actress, Gerwig always subverted expectations of a goofy female lead, as her playful grin belied sharp intelligence just beneath the surface. “Lady Bird” follows suit, not only succeeding as a coming-of-age story but reinventing it for a new generation. —EK
5. “Daisies” (Vera Chytilova, 1966)
Filmove Studio Barrandov/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
A gloriously strange and innovative feature about the adventures of two girls (both named Marie) who are charmingly untethered from social mores, “Daisies” handily shows off why Věra Chytilová was such a pioneer in modern Czech cinema. The filmmaker, despite her importance to Czech filmmaking in general and feminist filmmaking specifically, abhorred labels and fought to do things her way (which explains why she so often ran afoul of the Czech government).
Chytilová made the film with the full support of a state-sponsored film studio, but ended up making a subversive classic that toys with depictions of women, truly silly imagery, and a sense of self that’s hard to match. Despite its initial support of the film, the government eventually deemed it as “depicting the wanton” and banned it from the country for nearly a decade. Relentlessly original by every metric, few artists have made such a case for the power of personal creation. (Also, “Daisies” is just really, really fun.) —KE
4. “A League of Their Own” (Penny Marshall, 1992)
Something powerful happened when the great Penny Marshall died late last year, besides one of the more sincere public mournings in recent memory: It finally became cool for cinephiles to profess their love for “A League of Their Own.” What tomboys raised in the ’90s knew in their hearts all along — that “A League of Their Own” is one of the great Hollywood movies of our time — was suddenly a belief openly shared by middle-aged film nerds with Wes Anderson fetishes. While all are welcome to enjoy Marla Hooch’s drunken serenades (“I’m singin’ to Nelson!”), or to marvel at Dottie snatching a fastball barehanded without flinching, there is a particular subset of queer people for whom this movie has always been gospel, and the movie’s high ranking on this list is dedicated to them.
From the heavily accented chemistry between Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell to the rousing tearjerker score by Hans Zimmer, there is not a single detail in this pitch-perfect baseball movie that doesn’t bear Penny Marshall’s indelible fingerprints. The montage should have been retired as a film technique after reaching its pinnacle in this movie. “There’s no crying in baseball” has endured as one of Tom Hanks’ most iconic lines because of the truly inspired performance Marshall brought out of him. There hasn’t been a more successful feminist, woman-filled movie since. “A League of Their Own” is a delight through and through because Marshall was an entertainer through and through. She knew how to reel ’em in: keep the jokes snappy, the characters lovable — and don’t forget to make ’em cry. —JD
3. “The Piano” (Jane Campion, 1993)
Jan Chapman Prods/Miramax/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Jane Campion’s sensibilities have always spoken to a consistent feminist mindset — they put women’s stories at their center and approach them with the necessary heft and respect. Her earliest works, including her daring exploration of the lives of two very different sisters in “Sweetie” and her intriguing biopic of the singular author Janet Frame in “An Angel at My Table,” are invested in the lives of women in refreshing ways. But Campion really hit her stride with 1993’s “The Piano.”
Set in the mid-19th century, the twist on the classic Bluebeard folktale imagines Holly Hunter as the mute and seemingly meek Ada, married off to an unfeeling stranger (Sam Neill) and shipped to his home on the isolated west coast of Campion’s own country, New Zealand. Accompanied by her daughter (Anna Paquin, who would win an Oscar for her work in the film) and the eponymous piano, Ada cares little for the wider world, instead immersing herself in her music.
“The Piano” isn’t just a big, grand love story; it’s also the intimate exploration of a woman coming to know herself. Ada’s life has been marked by a literal inability to express her desires, but once she has freed herself, she is able to actually demand what she wants. Even a last-gasp attempt at mutilation disguised as punishment from Neill’s unnervingly awful Alisdair doesn’t diminish Ada; it only fills her with more longing for ways of expressing herself. —KE
2. “Beau Travail” (Claire Denis, 1999)
The best film of the venerated film year 1999? Or maybe the best film by the greatest filmmaker working today? No matter what praise is heaped upon this masterpiece, none of it captures what a singular cinematic achievement it is. Melville’s “Billy Budd” is set against the French Foreign Legion in the African nation Djibouti as the seeds of jealousy are planted in an officer when a young promising recruit joins the regiment. Like “Moonlight” — a film very clearly spawned from the spirit of “Beau Travail” — the study of masculinity has one foot grounded in emotional realism, and another in a sun-drenched, cinematic dream.
Agnes Godard’s 35mm photography is a miracle, the glistening bodies-in-motion and wonder of the landscape never revealing that the bright, direct sun is a cinematographer’s nightmare. The film is pure visual poetry, reminiscent of a late era silent film, but clearly modern in its inventiveness, as Denis’ story of regret and use of the camera is boiled down to its essence. Every shot, cut, and movement is perfectly expressive. —CO
1. “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (Chantal Akerman)
If watching a single mother peel potatoes in real time by day and sell her body by night doesn’t sound like the essence of cinema to you, it’s time you finally saw “Jeanne Dielman.” Chantal Akerman’s magnum opus — which clocks in at 201 minutes and takes place almost entirely in its title character’s modest apartment — is very much a before-and-after moment in the history of film, and not just because it’s been rightly hailed as the medium’s first feminine masterpiece. There’s nothing else quite like it, not that Akerman didn’t influence an entire generation or two of filmmakers both male and female.
Delphine Seyrig’s haunting performance shows us a woman in the grips of domestic malaise, with limited dialogue but endless emotion in the way she carries out the most mundane of tasks over the course of two days. Each frame exudes tension and a quiet kind of excitement, making the film more of a bittersweet treat than a serving of cultural vegetables. To say that Jeanne’s chores are mere prelude to something far more eventful than dinner would be an understatement, as would simply calling “Jeanne Dielman” the best film ever directed by a woman. It is that, but it’s also one of the most important movies ever made, period. —MN