Bird Watching – Considering the Greatest-Ever Films By Women

In the wake of last week’s release of the Sight & Sound list of the Greatest Films of All Time for 2012—a list that comes out once a decade, and is generated by collecting the opinions of hundreds of film critics—a conversation cropped up about the lack of representation of films directed by women. (Only one film on the list of fifty, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmann, qualifies.) Particularly on Melissa Silverstein’s Women and Hollywood blog, film fans threw out a wide variety of titles representing quality work by people who are not men.

Most of the films on the Sight & Sound list are more than fifty years old, from an era when the ratio of men to women in directing was even more dismal than it is now, by an enormous degree. The participants in the poll, overall, seem nostalgic in their assessments of the greatest films; evidently, a long legacy counts for a lot, and this puts more recent works by women at an even greater disadvantage than they might otherwise be.

No one is suggesting that history or present reality, as far as numbers, should be twisted just to come out with better gender representation on a list such as this. But perhaps having this conversation now will encourage contributors to consider a broader range of what is “great” when the list is next being compiled, ten years from now. In that spirit, here are five films made by women that I believe show qualities that should earn them consideration when the 2022 Sight & Sound list is being compiled. (As a side note, I would be greatly interested to know the diversity breakdown of those contributing to the poll, not just in gender, but in race/ethnicity and age, as well.)

1. Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962)

Cleo From 5 to 7 is quite possibly the best film of the French New Wave. I’ve not seen another film from the movement that tops it, and that includes ones I deeply admire, such as Godard’s Breathless (#13 on the Sight & Sound poll) or Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (#39). When a film this good doesn’t get the same level of attention and praise as its contemporaries, despite being just as fine a piece of filmmaking, it makes me wonder whether those doing the evaluating simply assume that a film made by a woman and concerning the life of a female character is inherently more slight, less important. Well, Cleo’s day waiting for a diagnosis that no one else will take seriously affected me more deeply than the plight of any number of male characters in other films of the movement.

Cleo from 5 to 7

Varda is often admired for being the only female director who was part of the French New Wave (which some actually argue she began, with her film La Pointe Courte in 1955). She should be admired for being one of its strongest filmmakers, with no regard to gender, and her film should be on that list.

2. The Piano, Jane Campion (1993)

The Piano is almost an impossible film, in my mind. To write this, and film it, and make it come together, requires a piece of genius I can barely comprehend. The main character is mute, and the audience is privy to her inner thoughts. The central relationship begins with such cruel manipulation that to have it develop as it does requires breathtaking feats of storytelling nuance. The bleak, haunting setting feels removed from any sort of real life anyone could have ever lived. And yet you never question a moment.

The Piano

Jane Campion makes films as physically gorgeous as anything anyone is making today (see Bright Star if you doubt me), and in The Piano she combined that ability with her talent for crafting characters of extreme emotional depth to make a work of incredible power. She became the second woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards; the film was nominated for Best Picture.


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Brandi is one of those people who worries about kids these days not appreciating black and white films. She also admires great moments of subtlety, since she has no idea how to be subtle herself.

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  • Allen

    That Agnes Varda box set will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.

  • No female directors were nominated for Cannes 2012 either. Maybe there hasn’t been much notable movies from them?

    There are movies that I loved which were directed my females, especially After the Wedding. It was pretty interesting.

  • Edmusinc

    You present a good and interesting list here. It is thoughtful and measured. You make a strong arguement.
    I feel like the issue of “great” films made by women in regards of these “Best of” lists is the same kind of issue we run into when talking about “great” literature by women and minorities. For instance, Charles Dickens is undeniably great. But if you want to name books from his same era written by black people or women you run into the issue of who had opportunities to create back then. I mean depending on the portion of history being discussed if you weren’t a white male you may not have even been able to read, let alone write. So the important works from these groups end up being newer.
    I think in the case of institutions like this Sight and Sound list there is an element of history to them. A lot of times critics and scholars want to see if a work will stand the test of time. Due to unfair opportunities I’m guessing films directed by women are more scarce the futher back you go. 100 years ago the ladies were fighting to get the right to vote and wear pants, so the progress towards actually being in charge of things like movie production wouldn’t come until much later.
    I’m not saying any of this is fair or right. I’m merely just grasping for possible reasons that would explain the disparity. I don’t think institutions like Sight and Sound are making their judgements based on chauvinism or bigotry. (Sure, there’s an arguement about things like this having a gender based blind spot that taps into a huge topic concerning gender politics, but in a comments section I only have so many characters to use). My guess is there is some deliberate consideration of historical impact that is being judged.
    Conversely, you are absolutely correct that broadening the criteria for what is “great” may be in order. The whole thing makes for an interesting discussion.

  • Allen

    Sight and Sound just released their complete list, and Cleo from 5 to 7 was tied at #202. In my opinion it should be higher.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    I think the list is just kind of nutty in general. I’m still not
    over Mulholland Dr. being so high.

  • Allen

    Well, I find lists over all to be silly, but a good place for discussion and debate. Plus there are good number of titles I haven’t seen yet.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    You are right, lists are great for creating discussion…and you make a good plus, it gives us suggestions for films to see. Even still…better than Godfather II? Let’s be real. ;-)

  • Brandi

    Beau Travail and The Piano are also on the extended list. But only 7 women directors total.