In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve rounded up 18 essential fantasy and sci-fi films directed by women (want horror? We’ve got a list for that, too!) And with projects like Black Widow (directed by Cate Shortland) and Eternals (Chloé Zhao) on the way soon, this list is just gonna keep expanding.
Though the sequels were a bit polarizing, there’s no denying the power, lasting impact, and tremendous influence of the Matrix films—especially the 1999 original. Over 20 years later, the sci-fi series created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski—about a man (Keanu Reeves) who realizes humanity is trapped in an oppressive simulation and bounces back and forth between worlds after joining a group of shiny-jacketed cyberpunk rebels—is still such a cultural touchstone that the fourth Matrix film (directed by Lana Wachowski solo this time), due later this year, seems likely to spark a full-scale series revival.
Cathy Yan’s vibrant, violent, feminist answer to comic book action flicks did indeed deliver the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn, as the movie’s full title promised. But it also gave us an outstandingly diverse ensemble cast, with Jurnee Smollett’s Black Canary, Rosie Perez’s Detective Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, and Ella Jay Basco’s Cass backing up Margot Robbie’s wildly attired, charismatic, egg sandwich-coveting Harley. Inventive, colorful, and hyper-energetic, Birds of Prey felt more like a standalone than part of DC’s expanded cinematic universe, something that made it all the more fun to watch.
Marvel’s first female standalone superhero movie—took ‘em long enough—was co-directed by Marvel’s first female director, Anna Boden, who helmed with her partner Ryan Fleck (next year’s Captain Marvel 2, however, will be directed solo by Nia DaCosta). While Carol Danvers’ turn in Endgame was kind of a non-event (to be fair, that movie had a lot going on), the movie showcasing Brie Larson’s debut as the character made great use of its 1990s setting while showing us important moments in Marvel history (Nick Fury’s eye, we hardly knew ye) and giving us one of the greatest sci-fi cats ever—while also emphasizing themes of empowerment, tolerance, the deep bonds of female friendship, and resilience no matter which cosmic jerkface is trying to keep you down.
No list of fantasy movies directed by women could leave off Wonder Woman—Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster reminder that, yes, audiences would very much like to see a fierce female superhero saving the world, spreading joy, and maybe even enjoying some ice cream and a fashion montage along the way. We were somewhat less taken with the sequel, but the goodwill forged by the first film still counts for a lot—especially that scene where Gal Gadot’s Diana rises up to charge a World War I battlefield as the movie’s iconic theme music swells in the background. Chills. Every. Time.
Some casual statistics: Jennifer Lee, who co-directed the Oscar-winning animated sensation with Chris Buck, is the first female director of a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature. (She also co-directed Frozen II and wrote both the Frozen and Frozen II screenplays.) Thanks to the film’s enchanting story of two royal sisters trying to navigate young adulthood without their parents, a situation complicated by one sister’s burgeoning magical powers—not to mention palace intrigue, snowman shenanigans, and an incessantly catchy soundtrack—Lee also became the first female director of any film that grossed over a billion dollars.
Nora Ephron co-wrote (with Delia Ephron) and directed this big-screen take on the supernatural sitcom, starring Nicole Kidman as a nose-twitching witch who stumbles into playing the lead in a Bewitched series revival opposite a buffoonish, egotistical actor (Will Ferrell). Not all the pieces fit together perfectly in this one (though the ensemble cast, which includes Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Kristen Chenoweth, and Steve Carell, is excellent), but comedy legend Ephron’s clever meta-approach is inspired; this Bewitched ends up being just as much about celebrity culture as it is about witchcraft, with fame being presented as kind of the ultimate spell.
Say what you will about its sparkly vampires and the questionable depiction of baseball, but for a moment in time there, Twilight was the hottest property in pop culture. In 2008, at the screaming height of Twilight fever, the feature film hit theaters—directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who’d broken out a few years prior with Thirteen, a very different (but also kind of similar) tale of a young girl’s troublesome coming-of-age. Twilight, filmed on a relatively small budget, became a huge hit, transformed googly-eyed lovers Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson into instant superstars, and made Hardwicke one of the most commercially successful female filmmakers to date.
Susanne Bier directed Netflix’s adaptation of Josh Malerman’s novel, which follows a woman named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) who desperately tries to keep a pair of children safe in a world that’s been invaded by aliens that’ll make anyone who catches sight of them immediately kill themselves. The movie flips between Malorie at the start of the invasion, dealing with the sudden fear and chaos, and Malorie in the present day—a weary but wiser survivor who has to resort to being a sort of bad-cop mother to the kids whose lives she literally holds in her hands. It’s tense (lots of unnerving blindfolded scenes), but somehow also tender, and Bier draws outstanding performances not just out of Bullock, but the entire cast.
Disney’s live-action adaptation of its own Mulan animated film wasn’t without controversy, but it’s still got the distinction of being directed by Niki Caro, one of few women (at that time, though the number’s still not huge) hired to direct a film budgeted over $100 million. Though covid-19 meant the film ended up bowing on Disney+ rather than in thousands of theaters worldwide, its dazzling visuals and action sequences still earned high praise, even when viewed on the small screen.
Teenage nerd goes to college, makes friends with misfits who’re as smart and weird as he is, and eventually, they all join forces to stop their slimeball professor from profiting off a fantastical invention they all worked on for what turned out to be sinister military purposes. Everything in 1985's Real Genius is pretty much wonderful—especially Val Kilmer’s performance as a brainiac slacker—and the movie’s tone of good-time geekery and stick-it-to-the-man rebellion, all wrapped up in a goofy college-campus setting, has made it a perpetual favorite. All hail director Martha Coolidge, who also directed 1983's Valley Girl and is therefore a hero to all fans of 1980s teen comedies.
Body-swapping comedies have been done to death. But Penny Marshall’s Big remains the gold standard, with Tom Hanks’ sincere yet hilarious performance anchoring its fantasy tale of a tween boy who wishes himself into adulthood—and then realizes how much he’s missed out on by suddenly making all his dreams come true. Marshall’s own comedy background no doubt helped immensely in making Big such a success, so much so that it’s now a genre classic.
The world is ending—imminently, thanks to an incoming asteroid—when this apocalyptic romantic comedy from writer-director Lorene Scafaria begins, and its narrative follows a pair of neighbors who are basically strangers (Steve Carell, Keira Knightley) as they figure out their true priorities while the doomsday clock ticks down. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is built around a gimmick, but it’s an endearing one, and it’s very effective in pushing its characters to extremes that they wouldn’t otherwise have dared to explore. Why not, when they’ve got literally nothing to lose?
Speaking of Earth and asteroids...1998 will forever be remembered as the year Hollywood tried to smash the planet twice with competing blockbuster movies. While Michael Bay’s Armageddon was a certified sausage party, Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact took a more emotional approach, following efforts in space and on the ground to not just figure out a survival strategy, but to grapple with the overwhelming, surreal fear that existence was on the edge of ending forever. The film endeavors to create characters we actually care about, like Téa Leoni’s ambitious cable-news reporter (whose big break is, unfortunately, the doomsday scoop), and Elijah Wood’s lovelorn teen, who shows remarkable speed when it comes time to outrun a tidal wave. Deep Impact is ultimately a pretty silly disaster movie—but it cares about feelings almost as much as it does explosions, which is saying something.
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s 2002 indie, which she wrote and directed, stars Tilda Swinton as a scientist named Rosetta Stone who creates three “Self Replicating Automotons”—clones of herself, also played by Swinton in a variety of glamorous wigs and colorful outfits. The clones survive by injecting themselves with human sperm, a harvesting process that soon begins to affect the men in their midst...oh, and they also run a porn site where they pass themselves off as robots. The end result is stylized, funny, and totally original.
Kathryn Bigelow—incidentally, still the only woman to win a Best Director Oscar, though we’ve got a good feeling about Chloé Zhao this year—made our horror list with Near Dark, and is back to represent sci-fi with Strange Days. It’s a noirish story set in turn-of-the-millennium Los Angeles, a place where everyone’s addicted to “jacking in” to virtual reality, preferring to experience horrible memories purloined from somebody else’s brain rather than face the grim, violent actual reality around them. The movie wasn’t a box-office hit, but in retrospect, it’s a pretty fascinating time capsule of how people in the mid-1990s viewed the coming of the year 2000 (and all the freaky new technology that was bound to follow). Also, it features one of Angela Bassett’s most ass-kicking performances.
Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel (the screenplay was co-written by Frozen’s Jennifer Lee) wasn’t perfect, but there was much to celebrate in its lavish visuals and the way it updated a story from 1962 to reflect a more contemporary sensibility. Storm Reid leads a diverse cast as Meg Murry, who embarks on an intergalactic adventure with her brother and best friend to find her missing father with the help of a magical trio of women (played by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and a sorta-distracting-but-what-did-you-expect? Oprah Winfrey). While A Wrinkle in Time faltered a bit when it came to pacing and plot, it was dazzling enough to make us eager to see what DuVernay—who has found great success in multiple genres—will accomplish when she makes her return to fantasy.
Lizzie Borden’s raw, radical 1983 film—pieced together with faux-documentary footage, news reports, and other elements—is set in an alternate, near-future version of the U.S., where revolutionary feminist groups fight back against sexism. It’s since become a cult film (some have called it life-changing) and, fun fact, it features an acting appearance by Kathryn Bigelow, who pops up as a newspaper editor.
This kitschy exploitation classic directed by Doris Wishman and Raymond Phelan is literally what it says on the tin: a nudist movie set on the moon. There’s ostensibly a plot about a pair of astronauts who travel to the moon (which looks suspiciously like Florida) and discover there’s a thriving nudist colony there—led by a Moon Queen, no less. But the plot isn’t the main draw here, and neither is the film’s theme song “I’m Mooning Over You (My Little Moon Doll),” as hard as that is to believe.
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