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Our pick of 9 of the best female-directed films to watch on International Women’s Day

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Curzon)
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Curzon)

It’s International Women’s Day on Friday – that’s right, 24 hours for celebrating women and all their achievements. And one way to join in the celebrations is by watching an excellent film by a female director.

To help you select a film – quite a task given how many brilliant female filmmakers there are to choose from – here’s our pick of some of the best to watch this coming week.

It’s by no means a comprehensive list: tens of incredible films from directors such as Julia Ducournau, Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Nora Ephron and Ana Lily Amirpour have been left off the list. But we’ve chosen films that we particularly enjoyed or have made a lasting impact on us. They all, in different ways, explore the lives of women.

Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)

English film director Sally Potter’s Orlando has gained cult status over the last 30 years and remains one of Tilda Swinton’s most famous roles. Based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name, it tells the story of an androgynous poet who lives for hundreds of years and changes between sexes. “Nearly three decades later, Sally Potter’s Orlando is more topical than ever,” said one magazine in 2020. Potter was nominated for a Golden Lion for the film at Venice Film Festival in 1992.

Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001)

This glorious comedy-drama from Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair revolves around the organisation of an enormous, chaotic Indian wedding. It’s a joy on many levels – its musical score, composed by Mychael Danna, is fantastic, the film is a visual treat, and the storylines, which delve into family dynamics, are all-absorbing. Monsoon Wedding won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and has been described as one of the best romance films of the 21st century.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

Sofia Coppola is perhaps still best known for Lost in Translation, her 2003 movie which starred Bill Murray as famous actor Bob and Scarlett Johansson as photographer Charlotte. Both out of sorts and staying in a swanky hotel in Tokyo, after a chance meeting the duo strike up an unlikely friendship, which blossoms into a quirky kind of romance. The film is a triumph: brilliantly funny, gentle, reflective and aesthetically gorgeous as well.

Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour, 2012)

This 2012 Saudi Arabian drama was the directorial debut of Haifaa al-Mansour, who is often seen as the first female Saudi Arabian film director. A brilliant film to watch for International Women’s Day, it tells the story of Wadjda, a spirited 10-year-old from Riyadh, who wants to buy a bike. Her story is woven into the complicated picture of the lives of her working-class family members. The film, whose score was composed by Max Richter, was highly acclaimed, picking up three awards at 2012’s Venice Film Festival, and being selected as the Saudi Arabian Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry.

Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

This beautiful Turkish-language film from Deniz Gamze Ergüven follows the lives of five orphaned sisters as they grow up in a remote and conservative village in Turkey. A reflection on childhood, nascent sexuality and sisterly love, it was described it as having a “rooted sense of place and community, and rebellious spirit”. It was France’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2016, and won four César Awards the same year.

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

This brilliant comedy-drama from German film director Maren Ade is arguably one of the best comedies of the decade. Starring the lovely Sandra Hüller, it tells the story of a good-humoured and eccentric father who tries to reconnect with his workaholic daughter. His methods are somewhat unique: he creates an alter ego called Toni Erdmann who starts turning up to her work events. The film was highly-acclaimed, picking up five awards at the 2016 European Film Awards, and it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2017.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

Céline Sciamma’s 18th century love story is the kind of romance film that tears your heart out and then stomps all over it. Visually gorgeous, it tells the story of independent Héloïse, an aristocratic young woman who has been refusing to have her picture painted. When the painting is complete it will be sent to a suitor who will then marry her. Painter Marianne has been hired by Héloïse’s mother to try and secretly make the portrait. But the two quickly fall in love, which makes matters extremely complicated.

Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019)

Mati Diop’s supernatural romance film was selected to compete for the Cannes Palme d’Or, which outrageously made Diop the first black female director to compete at the festival. Atlantics follows the story of a young woman, Ada, who lives in the suburbs of Dakar. Ada is engaged to wealthy Omar, but cannot stop thinking about her lover Souleiman, who is with a group of workers trying to find employment in Spain. Then things start to become strange: there is an arson attack, tales of illnesses and possessions and so a young detective is called in to try and investigate matters.

Saint Omer (Alice Diop, 2022)

This exquisite legal drama from Alice Diop – known for her documentaries – tells the story of a Senegalese student who is on trial in France for leaving her baby on a beach. Literature professor Rama, who is pregnant and has a Senegalese mother, goes from Paris to Saint-Omer to watch the trial – she plans to use it as inspiration for her next book. The film was widely praised when it was released, with critics calling it “intellectually galvanizing and emotionally harrowing” and “complex, brilliant film”.