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Gender Matters: The Sight and Sound Top 50 Films Of All Time List

by Melissa Silverstein
August 2, 2012 1:26 PM
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Sight and Sound

Yesterday, the twittersphere went a bit wiggy with the once a decade Sight and Sound Top 50 Films of All Time List.  Thie list has been published every 10 years year since 1962 and Citizen Kane made number 1 five time. 

I have come to hate these lists.  They are usually just another indication of how far women still have to come in the film world. This list is no different.  It was announced at a press conference and from the noise in the blogosphere and the twittersphere is seems like it is a big deal. 

No surprise, there is only one woman directed film on the list of fifty; Chantal Akerman for Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles.

Now I know that women directors are outnumbered by male directors by like 95%.  No one is saying that the list needs to have all women or even equal women.  But the list needs to have more women.

I also know that women critics and writers are outnumbered by men.  But I also know that women make great films and that women critics and writers and experts react differently to films.

Sight and Sound polled 846 people and they got 2,045 films submitted.  I have no idea how many are women were polled.  I can't even venture a guess.  But I'm thinking it's not too many.  All I know if that I've gotten three lists from women who were polled and all three of those lists have more than one woman director on it.  While this is a very small sample and completely unscientific, it just makes me wonder how the list of films would have looked had there been more women polled. 

So again folks we have an indication of how much gender matters.

Here are some of the women directed films included on the list I have been sent:

Leni Riefenstahl - Olympia
Agnes Varda - Cleo from 5 to 7 (from 2 people) and Vagabond
Marzieh Meshini - The Day I Became a Woman
Chantal Akerman - Jeanne Dielman
Jane Campion - Sweetie
Larisa Shepitko - The Ascent
Lynne Ramsay - We Need to Talk About Kevin

Which women would you include on your list of top fifty films of all time?

50 Greatest Films of All Time

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  • Mark | August 13, 2012 1:52 AMReply

    I think the premises you give in your article undermine your conclusion. This list, having all of the history of film as its scope, tells us absolutely nothing about the state of filmmaking right now. I'm not saying you're wrong about that, but your comments on the matter are a logical non sequitur. If we accept your assertion that directors have been, cumulatively over the history of film "95% male" (even if they were, say, only 50% male in the present day), then ANY list of fifty films picked out from that pool is going to have a strong statistical bias towards males (to the tune of an expected 47.5 out of 50 films being directed by men, assuming that males and females have, on average produced roughly the same number of films per person). Divorce yourself from the isomorphism of the list and consider "having made the best film" as a property distributed randomly over fifty films of the aforementioned set of "all films ever made." It is just logical to expect that the vast majority of these films will be (1) made more than 20 years ago and (2) made by men, both of which are borne out by the numbers.
    Let's return to the "50/50" present day scenario. If n films have, on average, been released per year since 1900 (say n=1000 for simplicity's sake), then we can imagine that by the end of 2012, the total number of films will have expanded by 0.9% (1000/111,000) and half of those films will have been directed by women in our scenario. Now, again, using your "95% male" number, that means we can assume roughly 105,950 out of the 112,000 films we're assuming exist have been made by men. You can see the problem. Even if the film industry now is completely gender-equal (which I'm again sure it is not, and I'm not questioning your authority on that matter), if women produced 50% of all films for SIXTY YEARS, they would still have only produced roughly 21% of all films ever made.
    Now, obviously all of these numbers are plucked from thin air, including your "95% male one," but I think they illustrate the point. If you step back and stop looking to extrapolate a commentary, and just ask "how statistically likely is it that ANYONE who has made one of the 50 best films of all time is over is ?," you should find the results completely unsurprising. And I think you are smart enough to realise that by its very nature, any list like this will take at least several decades to reflect the state of women in film even several decades ago, making any conclusions you draw about the present state of women in film completely invalid. I agree with your premises, and I agree with your conclusion, but the connections between them simply do not exist.

  • Louise Fleming | August 9, 2012 5:05 AMReply

    I would add filmmakers Julie Dash - Daughters of the Dust [included in the National Film Registry/Library of Congress] and Sally Potter - The Tango Lesson, Jane Campion - The Piano and Ava DuVernay - Middle of Nowhere.

  • Dennis Bee | August 8, 2012 1:52 AMReply

    An Angel at My Table - Jane Campion
    Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond - Agnes Varda
    Jeanne Dielman - Chantal Akerman
    The Smiling Madame Beudet - Germaine Dulac
    Wanda - Barbara Loden

    I also certainly agree about Deren, Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). Would I be too much of an outlier if I plumped for Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, a personal favorite?

  • D27 | August 4, 2012 6:43 PMReply

    Olympia? Do we really need a Nazi (or at the very least a Nazi sympathizer) on the list? I'll agree to the other films, and I'll even add some more--Claire Denis' Beau Travail, Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl, and Claudia Weill's underrated Girlfriends. All three are intelligent, well-crafted representations of a mature worldview. I'm not trying to be too P.C., but I think there are better films made by women than Riefenstahl's agitprop for the Third Reich.

  • Xiao | August 4, 2012 8:15 AMReply

    among many others...

    Forugh Farrokhzad- The House is Black (1963, the first Iranian new wave film)
    Agnes Varda- La Pointe Courte (1954, the first French new wave film)
    Liu Jiayin- Oxhide (2004, a pioneer in digital filmmaking)

  • anon | August 4, 2012 5:17 AMReply

    The Piano. Jane Campion.

  • Ian Grey | August 3, 2012 4:30 PMReply

    Let's just look at who they ignore because of The Law ("A film if a 90 minute narrative about a man who.") Allison Ander, "Gas, Food Lodging", Catherine Breillat, "Fat Girl", Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker", Karen Moncrieff, "The Dead Girl", Debra Granik, "Winter's Bone", Vicky Jenson, "Shrek" and Sophia Coppola, and Maya Deren, and on and, and on and on. The deal is, S&S and most critics will automatically reject and and all of these films as a side effect of an increasingly right-wing critical establishment that bends gladly to The Canon, to masculinity as the only valid default storytelling mode, and is increasingly averse and even angry at any deviation from the laws of classical cinema (unless, ironically, studio PR has sold some new thing as a cool thing). And films that actively criticizes any of this, no matter how classically great--think Powell's Peeping Tom, which is ten times the film Psycho is, but implicates cinema and even cineastes in its crimes--well, fugehdabboudit.

  • U.T. | August 3, 2012 11:30 AMReply

    Maya Deren, who practically invented on her own some basics of film montage (subjective camera). Check out her work, the complete films can be found on the web as the copyright has run out 70 years after her death.

  • Sjef | August 3, 2012 11:08 AMReply

    How about 'Lost in translation'.

  • Kate | August 2, 2012 9:13 PMReply

    La Souriante Madame Beudet by Germaine Dulac. The films of Lois Weber have also been unjustly forgotten. She is a contemporary of D.W. Griffith whose films were just as popular as his, if not more popular. Although her films are very much of the time (as are Griffith's to be sure!) I find no reason to ignore their artistry.

  • Michael Medeiros | August 2, 2012 3:02 PMReply

    Uh...thanks, Ilvi...I guess. But one advantage of a man writing and directing this movie, essentially a film about women (the protagonists?), was knowledge of the man's perspective (the antagonist?) from the inside.

  • Anne | August 3, 2012 7:12 AM

    Michael, given that your movie was about women and based on your reasoning, ie knowledge of the man's perspective from the inside, Ilvi's point about having a woman writing and directing the film is well taken. (knowledge from the inside) It's not that I feel that men can't write and direct films about women. However, all too often, films written and/or directed by men and focused on women or including women either stifle the voices of women or present them (us) as stereotypes (weepy, cowardly, overly cautious, murderous, etc.) or as a minor part of the scenery.
    To the list of directors and movies, I would add Suzanne Schiffman (Sorceress). Now there was a female character whose dialogue rang true.

  • Ilvi Dulack | August 2, 2012 2:58 PMReply

    Women simply have to make more films. And they will. Tiger Lily Road, was written and directed by Michael Medeiros, but 4 of the 6 leads are women and in a way it should have been written and directed by a woman. But it wasn't. So get moving women directors!

  • sophie | August 2, 2012 4:19 PM

    @Ilvi Dulack
    "So get moving women directors!"

    I think this needs to be changed to:
    "So get moving studios, producers and audiences! Wake-up to the many women directors out there are fighting for jobs and passion projects every day but getting discriminated against."

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