Kathryn Bigelow may not be a household name, but over the past 25 years she's been quietly building up an impressive résumé. Her action films Near Dark and Point Break have earned a rather rabid cult following. And now with her latest project, The Hurt Locker, she has crafted a bona fide art-house hit and is helping to make 2009 one of the strongest years ever for female filmmakers. The thriller about an elite bomb-defusing unit (which will be in wide release July 24) has already banked $1.1 million in just 60 theaters while earning glowing reviews. That's especially impressive for an Iraq-war movie, a genre once deemed box office poison. So what's Bigelow's secret? ''I think sometimes it takes a woman to make a man's movie,'' says Locker screenwriter Mark Boal. ''She has the ability to make a gripping, balls-out movie that also has characters who are humanistic and complicated. That puts her in a fairly select group.''
Come awards season, Bigelow could join an even more prestigious club: Academy Award nominee. Now that the Best Picture field has been doubled to 10 movies, odds for all filmmakers male and female have improved. That's good news for The Hurt Locker, which could have struggled otherwise given its hard-edged storytelling and unknown leading men. It could also bode well for Danish director Lone Scherfig, the woman behind the coming-of-age drama An Education, which has had people talking Oscar ever since it screened at Sundance this year. (It will be released in the fall.) In addition, Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia (out Aug. 7) and Mira Nair's Amelia (out Oct. 23) practically scream Nominate me! ''It's inspiring,'' MGM chief Mary Parent tells EW. ''The more women out there with success, the more other women see directing as a viable path.''
It's not just the female-helmed Oscar bait that's winning media ink and audience buzz. Crowd-pleasing rom-com The Proposal, directed by Anne Fletcher, is certain to become Sandra Bullock's highest-grossing film ever. Even the tiny indie comedy Humpday, directed by Lynn Shelton, opened last weekend to a solid $14,369 per-theater average. Upcoming films like the Roller Derby flick Whip It! (directed by Drew Barrymore) and writer-director Nancy Meyers' untitled romance starring Meryl Streep contribute to a landscape for female filmmakers that's never been better.
Of course, it is ridiculously unfair to lump these talented directors together based solely on gender. ''I really look forward to the day when I'm not called a female filmmaker,'' says Jennifer's Body director Karyn Kusama. ''Just a filmmaker.'' But consider this: If any woman earns a Best Director nomination come February, it will be only the fourth time in history.