18 Women Film Directors You Should Know

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Photo Source: Atsushi Nishijima/Jaap Buitendijk/Steve Dietl/Netflix

Although women make up half of all film school graduates, the best director Oscar has nominated only nine women in the awards’ history, with just three women claiming the honor: Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker,” Chloé Zhao for "Nomadland," and Jane Campion for “The Power of the Dog.”

Thankfully, women have been in front of and behind the camera for some of the buzziest titles recently, among them Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” Celine Song’s “Past Lives,” and Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall.” Jennifer Lee’s “Frozen 2” (co-directed with Chris Buck) is the highest-grossing film helmed by a woman, with "Barbie,"  Anna Boden’s “Captain Marvel” (co-directed with Ryan Fleck), and Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” not far behind.

Below, we've assembled a list of the best female film directors you should know: a sorority of trailblazers, prize winners, household names, and indie darlings. All happen to be women, but none are mere “women directors.” With every “Action!” they yell, we get one step closer to retiring lists like this.

Desiree Akhavan

Desiree AkhavanThe daughter of Iranian immigrants, Akhavan first earned laughs and acclaim for “The Slope,” a web series in which she and co-creator Ingrid Jungermann portrayed a lesbian couple in Brooklyn. “Appropriate Behavior,” her feature directorial debut, was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award and a Gotham Award. She directed “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and a Tribeca Film Festival selection, and in recent years has lent her keen eye to several TV projects, including “Tiny Beautiful Things,” “I Love That for You,” “Hacks,” and “The Bisexual.”

Jane Campion

Jane CampionOne of only three women to ever win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (alongside Julia Ducournau and Justine Triet), Jane Campion was also the second woman granted a best director Oscar nomination, and the first ever with multiple nominations. The designations came courtesy of “The Power of the Dog,” for which she took home the prized statuette, and “The Piano.” Her body of work also includes the John Keats biopic “Bright Star,” the Henry James adaptation “The Portrait of a Lady” (which received two Oscar nods), “Holy Smoke!,” and the Emmy-winning series “Top of the Lake.”

Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola

As an infant, Sofia Coppola made her acting debut in none other than “The Godfather,” her father Francis Ford Coppola’s best picture Oscar-winning masterpiece. In 1999, she made her own acclaimed feature directing debut with “The Virgin Suicides.” Her sophomore effort, “Lost in Translation,” netted four Academy Award nominations, anointing her the third woman welcomed into the best director nominee category. Although she lost that trophy, she won best original screenplay and made history again with “The Beguiled,” which made her the first woman in 56 years to win the best director prize at Cannes. Her follow-up collaboration with Bill Murray, “On the Rocks,” was hailed as a critical masterpiece, as was the Priscilla Presley biopic, “Priscilla.”

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay filming OriginBehind the scenes of “Origin”

Ava DuVernay famously did not pick up a camera until she was 32 years old, first finding success in Hollywood as the founder of a public relations firm. In 2014, she directed her first Oscar winner, “Selma,” a best picture nominee. Her documentary, “13th,” delved into the systemic racism in the U.S. prison system and netted an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature. With Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” DuVernay became the first Black woman to ever helm a $100 million-plus live-action film. Her Emmy-winning Netflix hit on the Central Park 5, “When They See Us,” is considered a gold standard of TV miniseries, and she continued to impress with “Origin,” an ambitious adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”

Nora Ephron

Nora EphronLongtime journalist and celebrated wit Nora Ephron followed her parents into the screenwriting business, beginning with two projects for star Meryl Streep and director Mike Nichols. The first, “Silkwood,” garnered Ephron her first Oscar nomination, plus four more for her collaborators, while “Heartburn” was Ephron’s adaptation of her own best-selling novel. Besides also writing “When Harry Met Sally…,” she directed seven of her scripts, including two films for Tom Hanks (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail), plus additional features for John Travolta (“Michael”), Steve Martin (“Mixed Nuts”), and Streep (“Julie & Julia”). The year after Ephron died from leukemia complications, she received a 2013 Tony nomination for writing “Lucky Guy,” the play that brought Hanks to Broadway for the first time.

Emerald Fennell

Emerald FennellEmerald Fennell’s directorial debut, the subversive feminist thriller “Promising Young Woman,” earned five Oscar nominations and one win for best original screenplay. With “Saltburn,” an incendiary psychosexual class-conscious black comedy, Fennell solidified her position as one of the most exciting makers of movie magic. And as if her film directorial accolades weren’t enough, Fennell is also a multi-Emmy nominee for her work both on- and off-camera, for “The Crown” and “Killing Eve,” respectively, and even had a brief yet hilarious turn as perpetually-pregnant Midge in “Barbie.”

Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig behind the scenes of Barbie

Behind the scenes of “Barbie”

Speaking of “Barbie,” Greta Gerwig is three for three when it comes to her work as a solo director. Her fantastical film about the fashion doll brought to life made her the first female director with a billion-dollar movie. Replete with everything from fabulous accessories to fighting the patriarchy and a full-blown existential crisis, the film became a cultural phenomenon. Gerwig earned a nod for best adapted screenplay and the film received eight nominations total for the 2024 Oscars. Her self-reflexive adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” received six Oscar nominations and one win; and her solo directorial debut, the crackling coming-of-age film “Lady Bird,” earned five nominations.

Amy Heckerling

Amy HeckerlingAmong Amy Heckerling’s nine features are two iconic takes on the hierarchy of high school: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Clueless.” She also directed “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” and “Look Who’s Talking,” a massive box office success that generated almost $300 million worldwide, spurring two sequels. The writer-director has also been the architect behind episodes of “The Office,” “Gossip Girl,” “Red Oaks,” and “Royalties.” The Off-Broadway musical production of “Clueless” includes a libretto written by Heckerling.

Penny Marshall

Penny MarshallAfter becoming a ’70s sitcom star on “Laverne & Shirley”—a series co-created by her brother, the late director Garry Marshall—Penny Marshall began her own career behind sitcom cameras. Her film directorial debut came with the Whoopi Goldberg feature “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which she parlayed into six more movies before her death in 2018. Her biggest films include “Big,” “A League of Their Own,” “Awakenings,” and “Riding in Cars With Boys.”

Nancy Meyers

Nancy MeyersRom-com queen Nancy Meyers received an Oscar nomination for her first screenplay, “Private Benjamin,” which she co-wrote with her then-husband, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller. The couple collaborated until long after their divorce on projects including the “Father of the Bride” films, “I Love Trouble,” and the Lindsay Lohan version of “The Parent Trap,” Meyer’s first turn in the director’s chair. She went on to direct a series of nostalgia-inducing romantic comedies, including “What Women Want,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “The Holiday,” “It’s Complicated,” and “The Intern.”

Kimberly Peirce

Kimberly PeirceFor her first full-length feature “Boys Don’t Cry,” a dramatization of the murder of Brandon Teena, Peirce took home a pair of Spirit Award nominations and a National Board of Review honors for outstanding directorial debut. The film also won Hilary Swank her first Oscar for best actress. Since then, Peirce has helmed episodes of “The L Word,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Dear White People,” and “Kidding.” She also directed the “Carrie” remake, “Stop-Loss,” and has a forthcoming historical drama, “This is Jane,” about underground providers of abortion services.

Gina Prince-Bythewood

Gina Prince-Bythewood behind the scenes of “The Old Guard”

behind the scenes of “The Old Guard”

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s major career breakthrough came with the beloved cult classic “Love & Basketball,” produced by Spike Lee. Since winning a Spirit Award for that screenplay, she has directed other major features, including “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Beyond the Lights,” “The Old Guard,” and the award-winning epic historical action film “The Woman King.”

Dee Rees

Dee ReesDee Rees’ feature debut, the queer coming-of-age drama “Pariah,” was also produced by Lee, her former professor. The film won Sundance’s cinematography honors, was recognized with Film Independent Spirit and Gotham Awards, and became the first film directed by a Black woman to become part of the Criterion collection. Rees also directed “Bessie,” a TV film about blues singer Bessie Smith that garnered four Emmy Awards. Her feature film as a writer-director, “Mudbound,” was honored with four Oscar nominations, making Rees the first Black woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. She also helmed the adaptation of Joan Didion’s “The Last Thing He Wanted” and currently has several other projects in the works.

Celine Song

Celine SongIf getting two Oscar nominations for her very first directorial film debut is any indication, then Celine Song is a director to watch and keep watching. Song both wrote and directed “Past Lives,” an evocative film about romance, bifurcated cultural identities, and the profundity of choice. It seems more than likely that her next project, “The Materialists,” will similarly showcase her extensive talents.

Agnès Varda

VardaThe late French New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda received her first Oscar nomination mere months after Angelina Jolie presented her with the Academy’s honorary statuette at the Governors Awards. The prolific multihyphenate began directing in the mid-’50s with “La Pointe Courte,” which the native Belgian followed with feminist touchstones such as “Cléo From 5 to 7” and “Vagabond.” For nearly three decades, she was married to fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, chronicling his death from AIDS complications in her dramatic work “Jacquot de Nantes.” She also co-directed the documentary “Faces Places,” which received an Academy nod for best documentary feature and made Varda the oldest person to receive a competitive nomination.

Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Lily and Lana Wachowski

Known best for the cyberpunk, paradigm-shifting “Matrix” franchise, Lana and Lilly Wachowski also worked together on projects including “V for Vendetta,” “Cloud Atlas,” and Emmy nominee “Sense8.” In 2012, Lana was awarded the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award after being the first big-name Hollywood director to come out as transgender, and in 2016, Lilly also came out as a transgender woman. In recent years, they have branched out into solo projects: the TV series “Work in Progress” for Lilly, and the fourth “Matrix” film, "The Matrix Resurrections," for Lana.

Chloé Zhao

Chloé ZhaoChloé Zhao gained international recognition with “Nomadland,” a meandering, poignant depiction of being an outsider. The film received six Oscar nominations and won best picture and best director, making Zhao the second woman and the first Asian woman to earn the esteemed best director award. Her other projects include Marvel’s “Eternals” and the critically-acclaimed “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider.”