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'Little Women' and 20 other great films directed by American women

Is Greta Gerwig's adaptation "the best film yet made by an American woman"? Despite a century of inequity and bias, there are many other contenders.
Image: Great films by American women
Adrian Lam / NBC News

When the nominations for the 77th Golden Globe Awards were announced earlier this month, one notable snub astounded critics and film aficionados: Greta Gerwig, the acclaimed writer and director of "Little Women," was left out of the running.

The exclusion seemed to underscore the gender inequities and biases of Hollywood, particularly when it comes to the major awards ceremonies. The voting groups behind the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes have each nominated a woman for the directing honor only five times, and only two have won.

Gerwig, who was nominated for the directing Oscar two years ago for her debut film, the coming-of-age dramedy "Lady Bird," appeared to shrug off the snub. In an interview with "TODAY," Gerwig said "there's no way it's not a bummer," but added that more "worthy films" are being made by women every year.

"Little Women," the eighth feature-length adaptation of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott, drew rapturous reviews ahead of its release Wednesday, earning praise for its stirring performances and painterly cinematography. Gerwig, in particular, was hailed by many critics as a singular talent.

"Though we can't foretell whether time will be cruel or kind to Gerwig's 'Little Women,' it may just be the best film yet made by an American woman," The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote in his review, which will appear in the Jan. 6 issue of the magazine.

The inequalities and prejudices of the American film industry — the "boy's club" environment of studio executive suites and the long-standing barriers to female power — mean the list of films directed by American women is far too short. But it is filled with vital, historically significant works.

The list that follows, subjective and by no means comprehensive, is presented in chronological order and ranges from Oscar-winning classics to more obscure, little-known projects that richly deserve greater public awareness.

Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943)

Deren, a Ukrainian-born multihyphenate artist — dancer, choreographer, poet — and experimental filmmaker, collaborated with her husband, Alexander Hammid, on this mesmerizing and nearly indescribable 14-minute avant-garde short. The dreamlike atmosphere of "Meshes" was a clear influence on cult director David Lynch.

Ida Lupino's "Outrage" (1950)

Lupino, a British American actress, was one of the only female filmmakers active in the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s, and this searing drama was one of the few mainstream commercial movies from the period to tackle the issue of rape.

Shirley Clarke's "Portrait of Jason" (1967)

Clarke, a daring experimental filmmaker, trained her lens on gay African American hustler (and aspiring nightclub performer) Jason Holliday, who regales the camera with stories from his tumultuous life. The Library of Congress selected "Portrait" for preservation in the National Film Registry four years ago.

Elaine May's "A New Leaf" (1971)

May, half of a beloved comedy duo alongside the late Mike Nichols, helmed this riotous pitch-black comedy about a dim playboy (Walter Matthau) and an awkward botany professor (May). May's promising, distinctive directing career (which also included "The Heartbreak Kid") was unjustly cut short after the failure of the (misunderstood!) musical-comedy "Ishtar."

Barbara Kopple's "Harlan County, USA" (1976)

Kopple, a documentarian and activist, chronicled a 1973 miners' strike in southeastern Kentucky in this urgent, Oscar-winning portrait of the confrontation between labor and business. Kopple followed it with "American Dream" (1990), a documentary about an unsuccessful strike against the Hormel Foods company.

Claudia Weill's "Girlfriends" (1978)

Weill's quietly influential "Girlfriends" centers on a frustrated Jewish photographer who struggles to stay afloat after her roommate moves out of their New York City apartment. The frank, honest dramedy helped pave the way for Lena Dunham's "Girls" and Phoebe Waller-Bridge's "Fleabag."

Barbra Streisand's "Yentl" (1983)

Streisand has gone behind the camera three times, first with "Yentl" and then with "The Prince of Tides" (1991) and "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996). The musical icon stars in "Yentl" as a Polish Jew who dresses like a man so she can study the Talmud. "Yentl" made her the first, and so far only, woman to win the directing Golden Globe.

Donna Deitch's "Desert Hearts" (1985)

Deitch, a prolific television director, quietly made history with "Desert Hearts," one of the first mainstream American movies to depict a lesbian love story with sensitivity and sensuality. The underappreciated drama was released on Blu-ray and DVD by the prestigious Criterion Collection in 2017.

Joan Micklin Silver's "Crossing Delancey" (1988)

Amy Irving and Peter Riegert co-starred in this sweet-natured portrait of a Jewish bookstore clerk torn between two suitors. Micklin Silver, who last released a feature film in 1999, brought tenderness and wit to what otherwise might have seemed like a formulaic romantic comedy.

Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" (1991)

Dash's visually striking and poetic study of three generations of Gullah women on Saint Helena Island in South Carolina was a milestone. The film, financed independently, was the first directed by an African American woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States. Beyonce's visual album "Lemonade" paid it homage.

Penny Marshall's "A League of Their Own" (1992)

Marshall's high-spirited, crowd-pleasing comedy starred Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell as players for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and Tom Hanks as their manager. "League," a generations-spanning family favorite, will be theatrically re-released next year by Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies.

Allison Anders' "Gas Food Lodging" (1992)

"Gas Food Lodging" was a small-scale sensation in the heady days of the early 1990s independent film boom. Anders centered the story on a single mother trying to raise her two daughters while holding down a job as a waitress. J. Mascis of the rock band Dinosaur Jr. contributed several songs to the soundtrack.

Amy Heckerling's "Clueless" (1995)

"As if!" Alicia Silverstone stars as a wealthy, cunning and surprisingly soulful Beverly Hills teenager in this modern classic of high school hijinks, romantic comedy and adolescent sociology, with a plot inspired by Jane Austen's novel "Emma." Heckerling previously directed another teen landmark: "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Kasi Lemmons' "Eve's Bayou" (1997)

Lemmons, who directed this year's critically adored biopic "Harriet," made her debut with this wise, self-assured meditation on the mysteries of memory. The film revolves around a little girl (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who discovers that her father (Samuel L. Jackson) is having an affair, a revelation she does not fully understand. The late critic Roger Ebert championed the film.

Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry" (1999)

In a year filled with essential American movies, Peirce's second directorial outing stood out. "Boy's Don't Cry" was a compassionate and devastating portrait of a transgender man, played by Hilary Swank, who searches for love in the heartland but becomes the victim of a horrific hate crime. Swank won an Oscar for the role.

Patricia Cardoso's "Real Women Have Curves" (2002)

Cardoso's dramedy, starring a young America Ferrera (before she reached national fame on the sitcom "Ugly Betty") as a teenager finding her place in east Los Angeles, invigorated audiences at the Sundance Film Festival and remains one of the most significant Latinx-themed films of the last 20 years.

Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" (2003)

Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray made a mesmerizing pair as total strangers who bond over their loneliness and disaffection in a Tokyo hotel in this sophomore film from Coppola, who went on to charm and mystify audiences with the stylish "Marie Antoinette," "Somewhere," "The Bling Ring" and "The Beguiled."

Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" (2008)

Bigelow, a master of relentlessly entertaining genre films ("Near Dark," "Blue Steel" and "Point Break" among them) become the first, and so far only, woman to win the directing Oscar with this harrowing, stomach-churning, era-defining thriller about the Iraq war. "The Hurt Locker" scored best picture at the Oscars.

Ava DuVernay's "Selma" (2014)

DuVernay became the first African American woman to be nominated for a directing Golden Globe with this impassioned, brilliantly realized docudrama about the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches of 1965. (DuVernay's latest project, the Netflix miniseries "When They See Us," is just as essential.)

Chloé Zhao's "The Rider" (2018)

Zhao brought poise and insight to the real-life story of Brady Jandreau (playing a fictionalized version of himself), a rodeo star who suffers severe brain damage and must learn to forge a new path in life. Zhao's next project: Marvel's "The Eternals," slated for release late next year.

But wait, there's more: It is well worth exploring films made by Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right"); Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle"); Jodie Foster ("Home for the Holidays"); Debra Granik ("Winter's Bone," "Leave No Trace"); Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen"); Mary Harron ("American Psycho"); Marielle Heller ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?"); Nicole Holofcenter ("Walking and Talking," "Enough Said"); Patty Jenkins ("Wonder Woman"); Tamara Jenkins ("The Savages"); Miranda July ("Me and You and Everyone We Know," "The Future"); Karyn Kusama ("Destroyer"); Nancy Meyers ("Something's Gotta Give"); Sarah Polley ("Away from Her," "Stories We Tell"); Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love & Basketball"); Dee Rees ("Pariah," "Mudbound"); Kelly Reichardt ("Wendy and Lucy," "Meek's Cutoff"); Lorene Scafaria ("Hustlers"); and Susan Seidelman ("Smithereens," "Desperately Seeking Susan").