This is a year in which veteran actress Julie Christie moved us as a woman losing touch with her life ("Away From Her"), the charming Keri Russell touched us as a pregnant Southern woman in a bad marriage ("Waitress"), and a group of passionate book lovers made us laugh and cry ("The Jane Austen Book Club"). Each of those films, anchored by strong lead actresses, benefited from a woman's touch behind the camera. The respective directors – Sarah Polley, Adrienne Shelley, and Robin Swicord – are just three of the high-profile female filmmakers to make their mark in a year distinguished by releases by women helmers that received critical and audience acclaim. Among them: Mira Nair ("The Namesake"), Julie Delpy ("2 Days in Paris"), Tamara Jenkins ("The Savages"), and Kasi Lemmons ("Talk to Me"), to name a few.
Most of those films underscore the trend that the ever-burgeoning world of independent filmmaking – often financed by entrepreneurial investors – is opening more doors for women. The question is whether the success of these smaller films will translate into more opportunities for women at major studios, which are still largely the domain of men, bar the occasional filmmaker such as Nora Ephron.
"This question of how far women have come is one I've been asked for the last 20 years," says Jeanine Basinger, film historian at Wesleyan University in Middleton, Conn. "We creep slowly forward," she says, adding that women have made the most progress outside the studios. "Indies offer more opportunities for women."
It hasn't all been one-way traffic. Susanne Bier made "Things We Lost in the Fire," the tearduct-draining drama starring Halle Berry, for Dreamworks, while Julie Taymor created her fantastically psychedelic Beatles tribute, "Across the Universe," for Revolution Studios, until recently a partner of Sony Pictures.
But, as is so often the case, money is at the heart of who gets to direct and who doesn't, says Swicord, whose "Jane Austen Book Club" starred Mario Bello and Emily Blunt. So much of the industry is run by men, she points out, from the studio executives who greenlight a project to the producers and distributors.
They're more comfortable handing the reins of a multimillion-dollar, multiple-year investment to other men, agrees Michelle Byrd, executive director of the Independent Feature Project (IFP), in a phone call from New York. "That's the biggest reason change is so slow in coming," she adds.
One ray of hope: Low-budget, independent films such as "Away from Her," which may garner a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Christie, are an important pathway for women to gain the experience they need to rise through the ranks.
New, cheap digital technology has also opened the floodgates for an entire generation, says Swicord, talking by phone. The promise of quality moviemaking tools being available to the masses has opened the door to new voices. "This paradigm shift is the biggest force in favor of women getting their chance," she says.
The filmmaker, who has also written screenplays for films such as "Memoirs of a Geisha," says she is often approached for advice by aspirant filmmakers. "I tell them, don't even try to get into the big studios anymore," she says. "Just get a friend and a crew together, make your film, and get it up on the Internet. That's the future."
New distribution avenues have also made it easier for small or unusual films to find an audience. Women audiences tend to shy away from heavy action and more toward "stories from the heart," says Irish filmmaker Kirsten Sheridan, whose independent film, "August Rush," made a splash this past month.
But, adds the daughter of filmmaker Jim Sheridan ("In America"), her experience and increased confidence has made her eager to branch out into areas more typically associated with men, such as politics and social issues.
In the end, she says, what she would like most is for the moniker "woman" to drop from her credit as director. "It's nice that women are getting more opportunities," she says in a phone interview, "but we'll know real change has taken place when they just call us 'director.' "