8 best female directors ever, ranked

It’s no secret that most Hollywood movies, particularly blockbuster movies, are directed by men. Some of the most influential movie directors include Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, Christopher Nolan, and others of the male persuasion. But as the tides change and we inch closer to equality in cinema, female directors are making waves.

Even though only three women in the 96-year history of the Academy Awards have won an Oscar for Best Director, these all happened in the 21st century, which suggests a move in the right direction. With a female director being one of the most talked about in 2023, and with Women’s History Month in full swing, it’s a good time to celebrate the best female directors ever.

8. Chloe Zhao

Chloe Zhao speaking with the backdrop of San Diego ComicCon.
Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

Known mostly for working on independent films, Chloe Zhao gained attention when she became the second female director to earn an Academy Award for Best Director, for Nomadland in 2021. Sadly, Zhao did not get the fanfare typical of the live ceremony since it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when everything was virtual. That movie also won Best Picture, further shedding light on Zhao’s tremendous talent.

Zhao went on to work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) when she was tapped to direct the movie Eternals, which she also co-wrote. Reviews were mixed, but Zhao may have plenty more up her sleeve. Citing directors like Spike Lee and Ang Lee as her influences, Zhao’s style is to look deep within characters to offer a level of authenticity and realness to the stories she tells on camera.

7. Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola sitting in a chair talking to an audience.
Ralph_PH / Wikimedia Commons

Hailing from a Hollywood family, Sofia Coppola is the daughter of famous filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Acting since she was an infant (she appeared in her father’s movie The Godfather as a baby, and again in The Godfather Part III as Mary Corleone), Coppola eventually shifted her focus to behind the camera, working as a director, as well as a screenwriter and producer. The first feature-length movie she directed was The Virgin Suicides in 1999. She won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for 2003’s Lost in Translation, but Coppola has yet to win for directing. She did, however, become the third woman director to be nominated in that category for this same movie.

Coppola tends to focus on movies with darker themes, including ones like Marie Antoinette and Somewhere. But she has also branched out to focus on themes of wealth and femininity with movies like The Bling Ring. This tracks with her latest biographical drama Priscilla as well, which chronicles the life of Priscilla Presley. While not every movie she directs is perfect, Coppola has made her mark in Hollywood as one of the best female directors on the scene.

6. Penny Marshall

Penny Marshall as Laverne looking sheepish in a scene from Laverne * Shirley.
ABC

A few of the biggest movies from the 1980s and ’90s hailed from the late Penny Marshall, including Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Big, Awakenings, A League of Their Own, Renaissance Man, and The Preacher’s Wife. She followed that up with 2001’s Riding in Cars with Boys before shifting focus to directing TV, including episodes of shows like According to Jim and United States of Tara.

Her films often focus on feminist themes, which are also central to her biggest on-screen role as Laverne in the popular 1970s and ’80s sitcom Laverne & Shirley. Marshall herself never received Best Director accolades at the Academy Awards, but three of her movies received Academy Award nominations, an impressive track record since she only directed seven high-profile movies in her career. What’s more, Big was the first movie directed by a woman that grossed more than $100 million at the box office in the U.S. Marshall’s acting career was more extensive than her directing career, but even if her list of acting roles is much longer, many of the movies she directed are still fondly remembered today.

5. Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay standing at a podium accepting an award.
Stephanie Moreno / Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications for Peabody Awards/University of Georgia, Wikimedia Commons

As a filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer, Ava DuVernay rose to fame with her work on Selma, which earned her the distinction of being the first Black woman to receive a Best Director nomination at the Golden Globes. The movie was also nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

DuVernay broke boundaries when she became the first Black woman to direct a movie that had a $100 million budget with 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time. Having worked on TV series as well, including the documentary Colin in Black & White, based on the teenage years of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, as well as the Netflix series When They See Us, DuVernay often homes in on pressing social issues and racial tensions in her work. Named to the Time 100 most influential people in the world list in 2017, DuVernay has also made strides to support Black filmmakers by founding her own production and distribution company called AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement).

4. Jane Campion

Jane Campion standing beside Benedict Cumberbatch, both looking into a camera in a behind-the-scenes from Power of the Dog.
Kirsty Griffin / Netflix

Jane Campion earned the second of back-to-back Best Director wins for a female when she took home the award in 2022 for The Power of the Dog the year after Zhao won for Nomadland. Her most high-profile movie up to that point was The Piano from 1993, which she both wrote and directed. That movie earned an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a Best Director nomination for Campion, and it also made Campion the first female director to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

She remains the only female director to ever be nominated for Best Director twice and is also the oldest female director ever to win. She has also achieved success on the small screen, earning three Primetime Emmy Award nominations for Top of the Lake, a TV series she co-created. Campion’s work is often praised for a raw and unfiltered examination of themes like sexism and misogyny, and it has likely inspired many other female directors to follow in her footsteps.

3. Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron standing beside Nicholas Pileggi and the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival red carpet.
David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons

If you watched a rom-com in the 1980s and ’90s, chances are that the late Nora Ephron had something to do with the film. The journalist, writer, and filmmaker is known for her work on some of the most classic rom-coms through these decades, like When Harry Met Sally… (as writer), Sleepless in Seattle (writer and director), and You’ve Got Mail (writer and director). She continued with hits through the 2000s, including 2009’s Julie & Julia, which she both directed and wrote the screenplay.

Ephron received three Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay during her illustrious career, but she was never recognized for her directing. The fact that Sleepless in Seattle was only her second major feature-length directing project and became one of the highest-grossing movies that year (and is still one of the most successful rom-coms ever) is a testament to Ephron’s tremendous talent.

2. Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow at an event holding a microphone.
Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons

Kathryn Bigelow become the first female director to ever win an Oscar for directing, even though The Hurt Locker also happens to be the lowest-grossing Academy Awards Best Picture winner in history. Nonetheless, she made history in this moment and paved the way for female directors who came after her. Bigelow earned the award in 2010 and it would be 11 years until another female director won for Best Director.

Despite its soft box office numbers, The Hurt Locker is often called one of the best war films of the 21st century. It earned nine Academy Awards in total and won six. Bigelow, who was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2010, is not afraid to shy away from tough topics in her work, from violence to politics and war.

1. Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig sitting with an interviewer, a Barbie backdrop in the background, laughing and speaking into a mic.
UKinUSA / Wikimedia Commons

Greta Gerwig might not make movies that are as hard-hitting as some of the other females on the list, but her fantasy comedy Barbie, which she also co-wrote, was a feminist masterpiece that took the box office by storm. The movie was the highest-grossing film of 2023, surpassing the $1 billion mark at the box office, making Gerwig the first female director to achieve this feat. The movie earned several Academy Award nominations as well, though interestingly, not for Gerwig’s direction.

She does, however, have an Academy Award nomination for Best Director under her belt for Lady Bird. Unafraid to deliver movies with powerful, feminist themes and unique styles often inspired by her own experiences, Gerwig was named to the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world in 2018. Dividing her time between directing, writing, and producing, Gerwig is a triple threat in the movie business, who, at 40, is just getting started.