Whether it’s big-budget blockbusters, little-seen indie dramas, or experimental arthouse cinema, female directors have made a hell of a lot of amazing genre movies.
Whatever your tastes, there’s something out there for you. To get you started, we’ve compiled a list of 20 must-see genre titles and sci-fi movies directed by women, from billion-dollar superhero sagas to radical feminist docudramas.
The Old Guard
Based on the graphic novel by Greg Rucka, director Gina Prince-Bythewood brought the superhero story The Old Guard to life for Netflix in 2020.
Charlize Theron stars as one of a group of centuries-old immoral warriors who work as mercenaries through time. After being double-crossed, the group finds themselves fighting for revenge, all while a newly-discovered immortal joins their midst.
In a pop culture landscape of endless superhero movies, The Old Guard stands out for its slick pacing and unique blend of action, fantasy, and sci-fi.
It's also a welcome progressively minded tale, with a beautiful queer romance at its heart and a diverse ensemble. Hopefully, a sequel is just around the corner.
French director Claire Denis is a critical darling whose work spans genres, ideas, and scope. Her English language debut High Life saw her first venture into sci-fi with a hypnotic and often unnerving story of space travel.
Robert Pattinson plays one of a group of convicts who are serving a hopeless sentence onboard a vessel where they are forcibly experimented upon by a scientist working on a scheme involving artificial insemination. There's no freedom for them, and as the opening of the film reveals, Pattinson has been left all alone except for a child who is his daughter.
High Life is visually arresting and crawls under your skin in an unexpected way. It's often tough to watch and even grotesque at times, but Denis never shies away from the prickly themes she presents or the darker recesses of humanity.
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It’s easy to forget just how seismic an impact The Matrix made on the world of film when it premiered in 1999.
The Wachowski sisters’ blend of high-concept drama tangled up in philosophical concepts and jaw-dropping special effects seemingly came out of nowhere, and totally changed the game for Hollywood blockbusters and sci-fi as a whole.
Following The Matrix, every movie was using wire fu fight choreography or the now near-mythic "bullet time" VFX trick. The sequels may have disappointed, but the kinetic force of that first film remains, and sci-fi cinema as a whole would be much poorer without the startling path paved by The Matrix.
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Nowadays, Kathryn Bigelow — currently the only woman with a Best Director Oscar on her shelves — is best known for her serious political dramas.
Before films like The Hurt Locker and Detroit, however, she dabbled in the speculative in fascinating ways. Strange Days is a sci-fi neo-noir set in the highly futuristic Los Angeles of 1999.
Ralph Fiennes plays a black-market schemer who deals in electronic discs that can record memories. After a sex worker named Iris is raped and murdered, he works to uncover who killed her alongside his friend Mace, a bodyguard and limo driver.
The film was a huge flop on release, and almost killed Bigelow's career. But mercifully, audiences and critics alike have warmed to the movie over time ,and appreciate how Bigelow blends genres while pulling no punches.
It's a brutal and very adult sci-fi film, but one that deserves to be measured alongside the likes of Blade Runner in terms of cyberpunk classics.
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Long before superheroes and comic book adaptations were the default mode of blockbuster cinema, Rachel Talalay brought the underground comic Tank Girl to life.
A flop upon release, later audiences have warmed to the movie's gonzo chaos and balls-to-the-wall energy.
Set in a dystopian future where water has become a precious resource commodified by one villainous guy, the eponymous Tank Girl is a wisecracking weirdo who encounters mutant kangaroos, fights off a pedophile played by Iggy Pop, and forces an entire sex club to sing a Cole Porter song.
It's not as demented or radical as the comic books, but Tank Girl as a movie is an enjoyable throwback that retains a lot of its freshness even 26 years later.
Gwen, the protagonist of Jennifer Phang's Advantageous, sells cosmetic procedures for the Center For Advanced Health And Living, a corporate behemoth that has wholly defined life for a new generation.
Yet, despite her work, Gwen is broke and struggling to provide for her daughter. When she loses her job, she is offered a new one with a high price: she must volunteer to become one of the first people to have her consciousness transferred into a new body. If it works, she'll be younger, but also a different ethnicity, and her family won't recognize her.
Advantageous digs into the bleakness of a future where capitalism dictates every aspect of one's life, including their very identity. The film quietly and effectively depicts how such a system proves to be particularly exploitative of women, harkening back to incidents we're all familiar with in our daily lives.
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Born in Flames
Lizzie Borden helped to pioneer a new generation of radical feminist cinema in the 1980s. With a shoestring budget and mishmash of amateur and professional actors at her disposal, in 1983 she made Born in Flames.
Shot like a documentary, the film imagines an alternative United States socialist democracy. Two feminist groups in New York City spread their messages to the public via pirate radio, tackling topics as diverse as race, gender, violence, activism, and wage disparity.
Born in Flames uses the framework of a politically volatile future to examine the pertinent feminist issues of the time (all of which remain extremely relevant in 2021). There's a fascinating ferociousness to Borden's approach, and its unabashedly radical roots. It's a speculative glance into the future unlike anything else in cinema of the past or present.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Ana Lily Amirpour made her directorial debut with a film that can best be described as an Iranian feminist vampire Western, and yes, it's just as good as that summary promises.
Shot in black and white, the film's eponymous girl is a skateboarding woman in a chador who slides into the life of Arash, a young man trying to care for his addict father.
Simultaneously scrappy and sleek, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was always destined to be a cult favorite. It also brings a fresh new perspective to the overloaded world of vampire stories, and it's all scored to the coolest soundtrack ever.
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Regardless of the mixed critical reception their work often faces, nobody does it like the Wachowskis. As blockbusters are accused of becoming more homogenous, Lana and Lilly seem committed to being as energetic and ambitious and bonkers as possible.
Take their 2008 adaptation of the iconic manga Speed Racer. The Wachowskis translated the kinetic artwork of the original material and transformed it into something almost retina-burning in its slick vibrancy. It's a full-on live-action cartoon in the best way possible.
Speed Racer is a movie that has zero desire to be anything remotely close to real, and it's all the better because of it. For shame to the Razzie Awards for nominating this film, but thankfully, it's now become a cult favorite.
The arrival of Wonder Woman on the big screen was a long time coming. Arguably the most iconic heroine in 20th century superhero history, it took far too many decades for Diana of Themyscira to get her debut solo outing. Fortunately, it was worth the wait.
Director Patty Jenkins gave life to Wonder Woman in 2017, and combined the grit of a World War 1 drama with the inherent optimism and grace of Diana herself. The scene where she walks across No Man’s Land in her costume is the stuff of instant iconography. For many women, this was the moment they’d wated for for a very long time, and it was everything they could have hoped for.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Mexican director Issa López combined the bleakness of a modern crime thriller with the childlike fantasy of fairy-tale and Latinx horror in 2017's Tigers Are not Afraid.
Estrella writes magical stories as a way to distract herself from the ongoing devastation brought by the Mexican Drug War. Gifted with pieces of chalk that her teacher says will grant her three wishes, she heads home after her school is attacked, only to discover that her mother has gone missing and she's being haunted by ghostly visions.
With its blend of magical realism and documentary-esque realism, it's not hard to see why the film found comparisons with the work of Guillermo del Toro, who has become a big supporter of López’s films.
It remains somewhat ridiculous that it took Marvel Studios as long as it did to give a solo movie to one of their heroines. It’s not as if they were short on choice with their beloved ensemble of characters either.
Carol Danvers, A.K.A. Captain Marvel, burst into the franchise with a bang in this movie directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Brie Larson shines in the lead role, perfectly cast as the prickly and often sardonic Carol whose inherent goodness always wins out.
We're so used to superhero stories about the importance of being responsible with one's godlike powers, but it's refreshing to see Carol just have a good time with them. We eagerly anticipate the sequel, to be directed by Nia DaCosta.
Mati Diop was the first Black woman to direct a film featured in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (and her feature directorial debut Atlantics went on to win the Grand Prix there, too.)
The film is set in the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal, where a futuristic building dominates the landscape. A young woman and her lover, who worked on construction of this building, try to find peace together while he sets sail for a better life and she is betrothed to another man.
Whatever expectations you have for Atlantics, dispose of them now, because it subverts all of them. Imagine a political drama combined with a romance, sci-fi, and ghost story, and you're halfway there. It's a film that feels startlingly original and signals the arrival of a brilliant new director, whose only just begun to show what she's capable of.
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Agnieszka Smoczyńska made her debut with a retelling of The Little Mermaid that's part horror, part musical, and part tragic romance.
In a crumbling nightclub some time in 1980s Poland, two mermaids become regular performers and singers with a mediocre band. When one sister falls in love with the bassist, her sister tries to save her from sacrificing her mermaid nature for so-called love.
Packed full of musical bangers, The Lure is one of the best adaptations of Han Christian Andersen's divisive tale on the big screen. Smoczyńska fully exposes the cruelty of the tale, and its exploitation of the poor woman who has suffers horribly for a guy who doesn't deserve her in the slightest.
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No film on this list is as terrifying as The Babadook, a haunting story of motherhood and isolation that introduced director Jennifer Kent to the world with a bang.
The astounding Essie Davis plays Amelia, a troubled widow who struggles to look after her son Sam as he begins to exhibit some strange behavior. The arrival of a mysterious pop-up storybook about the pale-faced monster known as Mister Babadook only makes things worse. Is the Babadook real, or is Amelia so overcome with her own fear and grief that her own home has morphed into a hellish prison?
It's a truly provocative horror for adults–no cheap jump scares, or half-naked teenagers being stalked by masked killers here. Amid the truly unnerving frights are genuinely tough questions about the supposedly unconditional bond between a mother and her child.
Kathryn Bigelow doesn't just make sci-fi and war movies: She's got one hell of a vampire film under her belt, too.
1987's Near Dark totally strips the vampire myth of its lascivious classiness, and turns it into a neo-Western utterly devoid of glamor. A young man encounters a gorgeous drifter who bites him on the neck, which leads to his flesh burning in the sun. He later joins up with the drifter's crowd of vampires, but struggles to retain his humanity as he is encouraged to violently feast on humans.
Near Dark is extremely bloody, even by vampire movie standards, and rejects the sexy undead tropes that were popular in the genre at the time. That may be why it flopped upon release, but vampire lovers have flocked to Near Dark over the years thanks to its originality.
In 1998, two movies were released about asteroids that could collide with Earth and kill every single thing living on its surface.
While Michael Bay's Armageddon made more money, Mimi Leder's Deep Impact was far and away the better movie. Just as concerned with the human cost as it was with the foreboding disaster, Deep Impact explored an ensemble of connected individuals dealing with what could be the end of humanity.
Often thoughtful and mercifully quiet, its big action set-pieces are no less stunning for it. Upon its release, Leder became the highest-grossing female director of all time.
If you want a sci-fi film that's off the beaten track and the polar opposite of mainstream, then Teknolust has you covered.
Directed by filmmaker and artist Lynn Hershman Lesson, this unique effort sees the legendary Tilda Swinton play no fewer than four roles. An ambitious scientist injects her DNA into three self-replicating cyborg clones. In order to stay alive, they must digest a frequent supply of Y chromosome, which they choose to eat in the form of... well, semen.
Teknolust embraces its goofy conceit but also has a lot of radical questions to ask about sex, gender, identity, and autonomy.
Jane Arden was a true pioneer in British cinema. For a period in the 1960s, she was the only woman directing films in the whole of the UK, and her work was often deeply radical and experimental.
Her final film as a director and writer, 1979's Anti-Clock, is a fiery example of her skills at work. Arden's son Sebastian Saville stars as a suicidal young man forced into a series of psychological experiments.
It would be reductive to describe Anti-Clock as merely bizarre, although it is a somewhat fitting descriptor. Really, it's a daring experiment that tackles vast and complicated issues and refuses to play it safe at every turn. Little-seen for decades, Anti-Clock is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
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Into the Forest
In the near future, teenagers Nell and Eva, played by Elliot Page and Evan Rachel Wood, live off the grid with their protective father following a major power outage that seems to have sent the country into a complete technological collapse.
The family soon finds themselves further isolated as desperation sets in, and the crushing reality of their new world sends people into mass panic. Into the Forest is a more delicate take on the survival horror genre, focused mostly on the loving but often difficult relationships among the family. Here, the apocalypse doesn’t look especially flashy or dangerous, but its relatable coldness is all the more effective for it.