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Best Films Directed by Women, Reaching Consensus

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 3, 2012 at 4:06PM

While we pore over the latest Sight & Sound film critics poll of the Top 50 Movies of all time, it's not surprising that most of the films are directed by men. The notable exception is Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman," which I saw in college but barely remember. On the other hand, I recall every frame of Maya Deren's "Meshes in the Afternoon." The poll, as many have commented, is dominated by older films, most of them pre-1960, a time when few women were directing, unless they were Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner or Leni Reifenstahl, who did not make the S & S list.
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Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow

While we pore over the latest Sight & Sound film critics poll of the Top 50 Movies of all time, it's not surprising that most of the films are directed by men. The notable exception is Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman," which I saw in college but barely remember. On the other hand, I recall every frame of Maya Deren's "Meshes in the Afternoon." The poll, as many have commented, is dominated by older films, most of them pre-1960, a time when few women were directing, unless they were Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner or Leni Reifenstahl, who did not make the S & S list. Even the great French and Australian women filmmakers--accepted and supported by their culture in a way that American filmmakers are not-- didn't get going until the 70s.

Many of the directors who made the S & S list had built up critical consensus around their top titles. Those who didn't got left off the list--such as Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, Preston Sturges and others. It's almost a PR issue--who gets written about the most, which movies stay extant in the conversation, retaining currency and relevance? So few films directed by women have become actual classics. When Cannes collected all the best filmmakers for a recent anniversary grouping, they included one woman: Jane Campion.

So let's collect the best movies directed by women. Give them some ink. Get the conversation, if late, at least started. So few women have directed Hollywood films of any size, and so many have made personal independent ventures. And so few have built longlasting careers with steady ouput. So many of the best foreign films have not been widely seen. It's the way it is. Please write in any notable films or filmmakers I have left off this list. I've picked each directors' best film, but you may differ. Then we'll come up with a poll for you to vote in. (Women in Hollywood is also doing this; they have their own list.)

Ten Questions for Bright Star's Jane Campion: "I've Never Made a Crap Film"

1. Jane Campion The Piano

2. Kathyrn Bigelow The Hurt Locker

3. Julie Taymor Frida

4. Susanne Bier After the Wedding

5. Deba Granik Winter's Bone

6. Lena Wertmuller Swept Away

7. Barbra Streisand Yentl

8. Mira Nair Monsoon Wedding

9.  Lisa Cholodenko The Kids Are All Right

10. Gillian Armstrong High Tide

SEE FULL LIST BELOW,  IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, BY DIRECTOR

This article is related to: Women in Film


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.