This Is a Man’s World: The Sight&Sound Top 100

So the big story this week is that Citizen Kane has finally been ousted from its position at the top of the Sight&Sound critics’ Top 100 list, by Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo. About time, I thought. It is a masterpiece, of course, but after half a century sitting pretty as the quote-unquote Best Film Ever Made, it seems about time for a re-evaluation. And there are plenty of credible arguments in favour of giving Vertigo the red rosette, as for any of the other films on the list. As always there’s been a multitude of analyses and post-mortems of these results, but the thing which has interested me most is that Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman is the only film on the list by a female director, ranking a respectable if not earth-shattering 37th. As far as I can tell, she is the only woman to feature in any of the 7 polls since 1952, and no films by women have ever made it into the top 10.

Does this matter? The criticism is often levelled (and fairly so) at the American Academy, that it is composed almost entirely of old, white men. The Sight&Sound critics’ polls have always lent significantly towards European and American film, discounting vast swathes of cinema from the rest of the world. There are obvious biases in any approach to film ‘greats’. Cinema has always been male-dominated, at least behind the camera, but equally there have always been women producing work to rival the finest male directors. Given that there are just numerically more films by men, I suppose it makes statistical sense that most of those considered the best will be by male filmmakers. And I’m not arguing that films by women should be included for the sake of it, regardless of quality, nor that films by men cannot represent the interests of women. It simply strikes me that the presence of one lone woman on this most respected of lists should provoke more discussion and consideration that it probably does. What about Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, Lone Scherfig, Mia Hansen-Løve, Margarethe von Trotta, and so on and so on?

Maybe it’s just that only in recent years have female directors built up a head of steam, begun really to be taken serious notice of. That it was only in 2009 that Kathryn Bigelow became the first female winner of an Oscar for Best Director says something. And of my previous dashed-off list of directors, probably only Agnes Varda has films that could be in serious contention as some of the best of all time. The Sight&Sound poll rarely includes very recent films, so maybe it will be another ten, twenty, thirty years before we start to see significant numbers of films by women acknowledged on the final list. Equally, there is a certain tendency towards a ‘tried and tested’ approach, with many films remaining high up the list decade after decade – a certain conservatism that may also have slowed the inclusion of female directors. Maybe there just haven’t been any films by women good enough to warrant a place, although I find this improbable.

It would be interesting to see how many of the over 1,000 critics polled are women – I suspect it must be a more proportionate number than the results themselves produced, but then that would suggest that both genders are equally oblivious to women filmmakers when compiling their favourites. I don’t have any definitive answers to this problem, nor do I completely subscribe to the valuation of a canon of films by a critical elite. But since polls of this type, and especially the BFI one, can be so influential and respected when it comes to determining classic greats of the cinema, the dearth of films by women has to warrant greater attention.

Harriet Cash

More on this topic:

  • This series of blogs on IndieWire makes interesting reading with regards how critics should make their selections
  • And you can read more about the methodology behind the poll here at the BFI
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