The Cut-Out Club: Top 50 Animated Feature Films Directed by Women

Turning Red (2022) signals a coming-of-age for women in the animation industry.
Turning Red (2022) signals a coming-of-age for women in the animation industry.

Animation correspondent Alicia Haddick explores our newest official list—the 50 highest-rated animated feature films directed by women—where she finds a truly independent film at the top, legends in the mix, and Turning Red turning the tide.

Often, a celebration of the work of women in film can be just as much an occasion for joy as it is a call for action. In Turning Red, Pixar and Disney have delivered the first film solo-directed by a woman, prompting us to take the opportunity of this wildly late but very welcome development to identify and celebrate the Top 50 Animated Feature Films Directed by Women, according to members’ ratings.

These 50 films are an eclectic collection of women-directed animation old and new. Excitingly, the number-one spot is occupied by an independent musical magnum opus, The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia, from multimedia surrealist Jonni Phillips. “You owe it to yourself to have more Jonni Phillips in your life,” writes Cheesdip, one of the just over a thousand Letterboxd members to have seen and rated the 2019 film.

Jonni Phillips’ The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia (2019).
Jonni Phillips’ The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia (2019).

Indeed, to compile a top 50 of animated films with at least a 45-minute runtime, the Letterboxd team had to set the minimum number of logged views at a fairly low 1,000, which points to one of the sobering sides of this list: the industry still has far to go to achieve equality within animation at the creative level.

To understand why, we need to take a brief history lesson—luckily, the oldest film in our top 50 allows us to do precisely this. Meet pioneering German animator Lotte Reiniger, born in Berlin in 1899, whose influence cannot be understated. While not a household name today, Reiniger’s expressive silhouette cut-out animations, starting from her first 1919 short film in which two lovers profess their adoration, were celebrated at home and abroad.

Animation film artist Lotte Reiniger at work in London.
Animation film artist Lotte Reiniger at work in London.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed, her 1926 feature-length adaptation of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ folk tales, is the oldest surviving animated feature. (Fun fact: filmmaker Fritz Lang was among the audience members at the film’s “bursting-at-the-seams” preview.) Ranking at number nine on our list, Prince Achmed was also the film with which Reiniger pioneered development of the multiplane camera, seven years before Ub Iwerks invented a similar system at Disney for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).
Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

But Reiniger’s directorial work was a rarity in twentieth-century animation. Although women have often held an unspoken influence on the development of animation going back to the earliest days of the medium, there is a pronounced recency bias in our list. In the 1930s and ’40s, rejection letters sent to women applying for animator roles at Walt Disney Studios beyond the female-dominated (and lower-paid) ink and paint department cited these roles as being for young men only. Indeed, out of just five twentieth-century films that made the list, Reiniger’s work is the only one solely directed by a woman.

The fact that 35 of the 50 films were released after 2010—eight of those in 2019 alone—showcases how recent this shift is in women receiving directorial opportunities on feature-length animations. And without good reason: eleven out of the 50 share sixteen Oscar nominations and six wins, with Shrek, Encanto, The Prince of Egypt and Frozen receiving multiple nominations each.

Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird (リズと青い鳥, 2018), written by her frequent collaborator, Reiko Yoshida.
Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird (リズと青い鳥, 2018), written by her frequent collaborator, Reiko Yoshida.

Many films here are also celebrated beyond animation, with ten of them finding a home on Letterboxd lists for the Top 100 Films Directed by Women and eleven placing on our list of the Top 100 Narrative Feature Films by Asian Women Directors. And although we have limited this top 50 to narrative features, animated documentaries helmed by women are well worth seeking out (Leanne Pooley’s 25 April, Penny Lane’s Nuts!, Faith and John Hubley’s Of Stars and Men, for example). 2D fans should also have Felicity Morland’s upcoming Hand-Drawn: Documentary on their watchlists.

This narrative journey is a worldwide tour, taking us from Hollywood to Japan, from France to Latvia. Japanese animation is particularly prevalent, and on the whole, the list is balanced between films in the English language and not. In total, 43 women directors are featured across the 50 films. The ever-beloved anime director Naoko Yamada appears most often with four entries, including three films in the top ten, while Karen Disher, Nora Twomey and Jennifer Lee are just a few of the names to feature more than once.

The Breadwinner (2017), directed by Nora Twomey from a script by Anita Doron.
The Breadwinner (2017), directed by Nora Twomey from a script by Anita Doron.

It’s not just about representation behind the (metaphorical) camera. Many of these films specifically center the experiences of women and girls, including our newest entry on the list, Domee Shi’s hilarious and heartfelt red-panda puberty tale, Turning Red. Family is another core theme, an idea touched upon heavily in The Breadwinner, On Happiness Road and Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, and it’s also great to see LGBTQ+ stories take up a number of positions with anime like Dou Kyu Sei – Classmates, Liz and the Blue Bird and The Stranger by the Shore.

Also welcome is the presence of independent animation on this list, providing us with endlessly creative endeavors that stretch the limits of the medium. This includes the aforementioned film that takes the top spot, The Final Exit of the Disciples Ascensia. A superb passion project directed by CalArts graduate Phillips, it is the stand-alone final chapter of a larger anthology entitled Wasteland

With the assistance of a team who helped craft the film’s story, world and songs, Phillips blends everything from paper cut-outs to abstract watercolor for an introspective tale about what it means to exist and belong, through the eyes of a cult. There’s a rough charm to her DIY aesthetic that makes these films that much more personal. Deep subject matter combines with irreverent and random humor throughout Phillips’ work; check out her other wonderfully out-there shorts, such as ItemLabel themepark.

Jonni Phillips, surrounded by The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia art at her alma mater, CalArts.
Jonni Phillips, surrounded by The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia art at her alma mater, CalArts.

Phillips represents the next generation of animators, and the potential of the internet to enable creators to build both a voice and a following (and, in Phillips’ case, to go on to film festival glory). Her work also exemplifies the way that Gen Z’s relationship with the online world has evolved into the uneasy, all-consuming role it has today. As YouTube was hitting the mainstream and LEGO stop-motion films were all the rage, Phillips produced dozens of these shorts before she was even a teenager. She uploads independent animations to her own YouTube channel, and even worked with Sony Pictures Animation, Frederator Studios and Cartoon Hangover on a pilot called Rachel and her Grandfather Control the Island at just nineteen.

Producer Becky Neimann-Cobb and writer-director Domee Shi with their Oscars for Bao (2018).
Producer Becky Neimann-Cobb and writer-director Domee Shi with their Oscars for Bao (2018).

While the creativity of independent animation is happily recognized by avid indie animation fans, an artist can’t live off Letterboxd reviews and ratings alone, which brings us to the serious lack of animation opportunities within the studio system. While this top 50 celebrates the work of a huge number of women directors, very few feature as the sole person in the director’s chair. There are 31 different male co-directors attached to films on this list, some more than once.

Of course, raw numbers are a blunt metric. Larger studio films require huge teams, which is why directors often partner up. There is also mentorship and door-opening in these credits, and some deep, true partnerships. Tomm Moore co-directed The Secret of Kells with his longtime friend and Cartoon Saloon co-owner Twomey; she also helms sole-directing efforts such as The Breadwinner and the studio’s upcoming Netflix film, My Father’s Dragon

But the bigger studios need to catch up. When Frozen broke animated box-office records in 2013, it also broke a different record: Jennifer Lee became the first-ever woman co-director on a Disney animated project—and it only took the studio 53 full-length feature films to get there. Almost a decade later, Turning Red was both Disney and Pixar’s first film solo-directed by a woman, while Brave, also on our list and the only other Pixar film to feature a woman in a directing role, saw Brenda Chapman removed from the project before its completion. She’d later open up about the boys-club mentality in animation.

Brave (2012), directed by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews, co-directed by Steve Purcell.
Brave (2012), directed by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews, co-directed by Steve Purcell.

Maybe one of the studio’s many women animators could have been part of Disney’s venerated Nine Old Men, had she been given a chance to reach their same levels of influence. As it stands, women directors at the House of Mouse are rare enough to feel tokenistic, sometimes even appearing to be sidelined on movies they should feature on centrally.

Just look at their newly minted Oscar winner, Encanto. The credits name Disney veterans Jared Bush and Byron Howard as directors. Latina playwright Charise Castro Smith is credited as co-director—a brilliant leg-up after she was brought on to co-write—but that “co” credit meant only her male directing counterparts received the Animated Feature Oscar at the 94th Academy Awards, alongside producers Yvett Merino and Clark Spencer.

Yvett Merino with her fellow Animated Feature Oscar winners for Encanto (2021) at the 94th Academy Awards. — Photographer… Kathy Hutchins/​Alamy
Yvett Merino with her fellow Animated Feature Oscar winners for Encanto (2021) at the 94th Academy Awards. Photographer… Kathy Hutchins/​Alamy

It’s easy to point fingers at Disney as the symbolic representative for animation as a medium, and it certainly has the greatest resources to change the narrative, but it’s far from alone in this. A 2019 Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study reported that female directors made up just three percent of all directors on American-produced animated features, with just one woman of color reaching the director’s chair between 2007 and 2018. This is despite more women having joined the animation industry than men, in recent years.

It’s an issue that stretches across the animation-production pipeline through story and other creative department leads, which is why Embrace the Panda: Making Turning Red, with its focus on—let’s name them!—Domee Shi, Rona Liu, Lindsey Collins, Danielle Feinberg, Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh, is such a satisfying watch.

While the number of animated films from Japan suggests a more representative market in the country (it’s the most represented country outside the US in this top 50), even this comes with caveats: the sexist hiring practices Disney held in the 1940s remain an issue in Japan in 2022.

Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee directed the Academy Award-winning Frozen (2013).
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee directed the Academy Award-winning Frozen (2013).

There are some signs that the axis is shifting, with Turning Red the latest step on this journey. Particularly when we avert our eyes from film into the realm of TV, we find that while men continue to hold the majority of leadership roles, women and non-binary creators carry many of the most successful and glass-shattering series in recent years—especially in family animation.

Rebecca Sugar’s work on Steven Universe (represented on our list via its movie) broke new ground by featuring a gay wedding and a number of queer characters. Meanwhile, as Disney handles the fallout of its support for Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, Dana Terrace has pioneered the company’s first openly queer protagonists in one of the company’s animated projects, The Owl House.

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (L’Extraordinaire Voyage de Marona, 2019) was written by Anghel Damian and directed by Anca Damian.
Marona’s Fantastic Tale (L’Extraordinaire Voyage de Marona, 2019) was written by Anghel Damian and directed by Anca Damian.

Still, if you want to watch feature-length animation from women directors, this Letterboxd Top 50 shows you won’t find many of them in mainstream animation. Instead, you’ll find indie women animators on Vimeo and YouTube, and critically acclaimed European independent features like Rocks in my Pockets, Marona’s Fantastic Tale and The Swallows of Kabul.

Bubbling just under, hopefully to appear on this list when more Letterboxd members have seen it (or when we have enough women-directed feature films to expand to—imagine!—a top 100) is Aya of Yop City, an Ivory Coast-France production directed by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie. (While you’re at it, let’s get Mary Ellen Bute’s view counts up, too.)

The Swallows of Kabul (Les Hirondelles de Kaboul, 2019) was nominated for the Cannes Un Certain Regard in 2019.
The Swallows of Kabul (Les Hirondelles de Kaboul, 2019) was nominated for the Cannes Un Certain Regard in 2019.

A dive into the world of short animation reveals a far greater representation of current women directors including Flóra Anna Buda, 2022 Animated Short Film Oscar-nominee Joanna Quinn, Phillips’ collaborator Victoria Vincent, Letterboxd member and stop-motion Godzilla fan Cressa Maeve Beer, and many, many more. Historically, it is also worth seeking out the works of artists like Faith Hubley, Leeds Animation Workshop, Suzan Pitt and friends. Notably, though, it’s only outside the studio system that many of them have found their voice, and the leap to features requires that much more resilience, that many more resources.

Joanna Quinn’s 2022 Academy Award-nominated animated short, Affairs of the Art (2021).
Joanna Quinn’s 2022 Academy Award-nominated animated short, Affairs of the Art (2021).

This top 50 celebrates women directors and extraordinary animation, but the story we want to see brought to life is just in its prologue. The industry has much work to do. Advocacy group Women in Animation wants to see 50 percent of the creative roles in animation held by women by 2025 (currently, that figure is just 20 percent).

It’s useful to pause and recognize those who are deep in the process. Studios like Cartoon Saloon, of course, and Nickelodeon, which has lately focused on adding more women at its executive level. And the distribution powerhouse GKIDS, a champion of creators like Nina Paley, who made Sita Sings the Blues. GKIDS was founded by Eric Beckmann, who once ran the NY International Children’s Film Festival—that fest has long been one of the best showcases of new animation alongside the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, and GKIDS and Annecy together founded the recent LA-based addition to the festival scene, Animation is Film.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008) was an almost entirely solo effort for animator, writer, director and producer Nina Paley.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008) was an almost entirely solo effort for animator, writer, director and producer Nina Paley.

Audiences have a role, here, too. Animation lovers know what’s up. Our job is to get more films past the minimum-view threshold on Letterboxd, support more independent women and non-binary animators through their Patreons and other means, demand that our favorite shorts be turned into features, and reward the larger studios that are making good decisions in this area (and hold them to account when they don’t).

Silhouettes are the foundation of women’s animation, but we want to see the full, glorious frame filled in with all its messy layers, gorgeous textures and complex dimensions.

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