The Reel Breakdown

Adams on Reel Women: Sight & Sound proves blind and deaf to women directors

The Reel Breakdown

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Photo by Everett Collection/Summit Entertainment

I'm no list person. If I make one, it's a mental to-do list when a movie bores me. For the most part, assembling cultural best lists — like Sight & Sound's inflammatory Top 50 Favorite Films of All Time are an exercise in futility and self-aggrandizement. Look how smart we are (and you're not)!  Such published lists work best when viewed as a call for the reader to put together their favorites and rail about those snubbed. I mean, really, when you think about your favorite film, does their No. 1 "Vertigo," instantly pop up? Even longtime leader "Citizen Kane," now slipped to second, is brilliant but musty.

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The British Film Institute's Sight & Sound Top 50 list reflects the bias of the hive mind, since it was culled from a predominantly male, older-skewing clan of cineastes. I could make a list of male-directed films shunted aside — those by Howard Hawks, Robert Altman, Pedro Almodovar — but since here in this column we talk about women, we just have to ululate for a second about the fact that there is only a single woman-directed film, Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman: 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles." (Available from The Criterion Collection).

OK: crying over. Tears wiped. This is not about telling the S&S 50 they suck, but presenting alternate ideas and letting them germinate in the pop culture. Here's a viable top 10 list of films directed by women, listed alphabetically:

  1. Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
  2. Jane Campion, "The Piano"
  3. Lisa Cholodenko, "Laurel Canyon"
  4. Maya Deren, "Meshes in the Afternoon."
  5. Debra Granik, "Winter's Bone"
  6. Sally Potter, "Orlando"
  7. Nancy Savoca, "Household Saints"
  8. Mira Nair, "Monsoon Wedding"
  9. Leni Riefenstahl, "Triumph of the Will"
  10. Lina Wertmuller, "Seven Beauties"

Once the list-making begins, there are endless oversights even though there are fewer movies directed by women than men. When you choose Savoca, is "Dogfight" the better film to list, or Wertmuller's "Swept Away," which inspired the awful Guy Ritchie-Madonna remake? Why "The Hurt Locker" and not "Point Break" for Bigelow? Why Nazi-glorifier Riefenstahl? It's a controversial choice, but she showed what a female filmmaker could do with an unlimited budget and enormous "studio" backing from the National Socialist Party, even if that talent served to promote an evil regime. If ever there was a brilliant horror movie, this is it, and you can't watch "Star Wars" or Spielberg's "Raiders" saga without seeing images stolen from Riefenstahl.

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There are women-directed movies I would never put on a best list, like Barbra Streisand's "Yentl." Here are also some special mentions and, because I'm such an anarchic list-maker, feel free to pop them like Legos into higher positions on the list: Nora Ephron, "Sleepless in Seattle" (although I think she was a better writer than director); Gillian Armstrong, "My Brilliant Career"; Agnieszka Holland, "In Darkness"; Lynne Ramsay, "We Need to Talk About Kevin";  Lizzy Borden, "Born in Flames"; Vera Chytilova, "Daisies"; Sofia Coppola, "Lost in Translation"; Kimberly Peirce, "Boys Don't Cry"; Susan Seidelman, "Desperately Seeking Susan," Ida Lupino, "The Hitch-Hiker"; Liv Ullmann, "Kristin Lavransdatter"; Mary Harron, "American Psycho"; Claudia Weill, "Girlfriends"; Joan Micklin Silver, "Crossing Delancey";  and Miranda July, "Me and You and Everyone We Know."

And then there's Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages"; Nicole Holofcener, "Walking and Talking"; Diane Kurys, "Entre Nous"; Deepa Mehta, "Water"; Ann Hui, "A Simple Life"; Doris Dorrie, "Men"; Margarethe von Trotta, "Rosa Luxemburg"; Marleen Gorris, "Antonia's Line"; Claire Denis, "Beau Travail";  Catherine Breillat, "Fat Girl"; Lucrecia Martel, "The Holy Girl"; Maiwenn, "Polisse"; Elaine May,  "Ishtar"; Penny Marshall, "Big"; Amy Heckerling, "Clueless"; Penelope Spheeris, "Wayne's World"; Barbara Kopple, "Harlan County";  Agnes Varda, "One Sings, the Other Doesn't"; Farah Khan, "Om Shanti Om"; Liliana Cavani, "The Night Porter"; Barbara Loden, "Wanda"; Susanne Bier, "Brothers"; and Patty Jenkins, "Monster."

As B. Ruby Rich -- a straight-shooting UC Santa Cruz academic and critic that I respect and admire, and a member of the collective that chose the S&S 50 -- wrote to me: "For all our vaunted and very special cinephiliac sensibilities, the importance of films is fixed in the moment in our lives at which we see them — in a classroom, in a drive-in, in a rep house, in a festival or on a plane or computer screen or, gasp, iPhone." All lists are personal, and at this moment in time, my goal is to reclaim female directors of the past and encourage those of the future to get out there and blow our minds.  The purpose is not to get on some list but to enrich the movies that we watch together, men and women.

See the trailer for 'The Hurt Locker':

'The Hurt Locker' Theatrical Trailer

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