Ladies

Response to the AV Club‘s “50 Best Films of the 1990s” series was quickly characterized by the hot-button issue of female directors, or the absence thereof from the canon. Scanning the list, which was assembled from ballots by staffers and regular contributors, the “50 Best” is, unsurprisingly, a triumph of sameness, neither outrageous nor particularly heroic. All the usual suspects are present, from arthouse strongholds (Kieslowski’s Red, Egoyan’s Exotica) to cinephile fan favorites (Pulp Fiction, Rushmore) to consensus classics whose awards and accolades have survived the hangover purge of 10-15 years’ worth of hindsight (American Beauty falls, Schindler’s List survives). It’s pretty much the list you’d expect from a team of well-read critics.

The problem with this kind of thing, of course, apart from the fact that we seem to see these projects surface and resurface every six months or so (discussion of the 2012 Sight & Sound poll is still ongoing), is that anytime you assemble an aggregate of “Best of…” ballots, what you end up with is, unavoidably, less strange (read: more bland) than each contribution taken on its own. Having seen many of these “Best of…” polls, and having participated in a few myself, I can attest that, given the simple, merciless mechanics of aggregation, it’s not enough for a film simply to be good, to be (pace Willy Loman) well-liked, it also needs to have been seen by a sufficient percentage of the contributors.

This does not indict the AV Club. It doesn’t even indict the cinema – or, I hasten to add, the films that made the final cut, many of which deserve every huzzah and then some. To consider any of the above would be madness. If there is, in fact, a problem with female directors hitting a glass ceiling, and there certainly is, the sickness can be walked back across countless sociological and cultural layers. At every turn, there’s a challenge for the female director – just as there is for gay men and women, and ethnic minorities. It’s already difficult to make a film, to find the funding, to unite a cast and crew and to push them along an arduous schedule from the birth of a production through editing and marketing. For a woman, an LGBT filmmaker, a member of an ethnic minority, there are additional hindrances.

That can help to explain why, when confronted by the objection of “Why aren’t there enough films by women here,” contributors and spectators alike might take umbrage. They’re right to point out that it can hardly be said to be their problem – there’s a lot of blame to go around, and it can go almost everywhere: you, me, the whole circus.

Then there’s distribution, exposure, and diligent viewership. Even when you limit the frame to the 1990s, the sheer volume of what constitutes and/or passes for Required Viewing is incredibly daunting; nobody has seen all of it. For women/LGBT/minority filmmakers, this hill is longer and more arduous than it is for straight, white men. It’s getting better, but slowly.

At the same time, cinephiles and critics, paid and unpaid, should make the effort at least to have an idea of which films deserve to be classified as Required Viewing. This is not in evidence, except when it’s suggested by the poll’s corollary, “Orphans, Outliers, and Personal Favorites” (which frankly should have been the main event). I’ve no doubt that everyone involved with the AV Club is aware of Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, and Catherine Breillat. Probably the majority knows of Anne-Marie Miéville and Naomi Kawase. At least one person must know of Peggy Ahwesh, Kira Muratova, Kasi Lemmons, Julie Dash, and Helene Angel.

Only a few months ago, Melissa Silverstein wrote a post for Indiewire entitled, “What Are the Greatest Movies Directed by Women?” Her answer, and the ensuing discussion, provided the antidote to the chronic “Where Are the Women?” complaint – an organic, amorphous viewing guide for the active cinephile. Silverstein doesn’t solve the problem – the list she uses to start the discussion is way too short, and has some questionable selections, and comment boxers were quick to point out her omissions – but it’s just that, a start.

For my part, the birthplace of TheFilmsaurus, long before the now-defunct Unexamined/Essentials blog, was in a 1990s alt-canon that I put together in response to just such a “Best of,” poll, of which I was a participant. As became my practice with the other lists, the present incarnation of the 1990s canon & alt-canon is a two-tiered affair (well, four really, but the bottom two amount to sketches): Top Tier titles should be priority viewing for cinephiles, while the second tier, which I call Also Essential, really embodies the alt- aspect of the project: without a doubt, most definitely do go and see these you mugs, given sufficient free time.

Someone still might say, “There aren’t enough women.” I know. I tried, honestly I tried, and if there are any great masterpieces or near-great or just really worthwhile films by women that are missing from the 1990s canon & alt-canon or the other lists, let me know. Given that I tried to list as many great and/or worthwhile films as possible on these things, and that I draw from the expertise of many, many cinephiles who are far more adventurous than I could ever hope to be, I have to take the defensive position that not enough films, period, are being made by women – at best there’s like a 10 to 1 ratio of male-directed films to female-directed films. It’s getting better, but slowly.

If you want a quick and dirty guide, a primer, a few good leads (you know, the Glengarry leads), you could start with:

Elaine May (USA)

  • Top Tier: A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey and Nicky, Ishtar

Catherine Breillat (France)

  • Top Tier: The Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, The Last Mistress, Fat Girl, Parfait amour!, 36 fillette, Trouble at Night, A Real Young Girl
  • Also Essential: Sex is Comedy, Brief Crossing, Romance, Sale comme une ange

Forough Farrokhzad (Iran)

Top Tier: The House is Black

Claire Denis (France)

  • Top Tier: Beau travail
  • Also Essential: White Material, 35 Shots of Rum, The Intruder, Friday Night, Trouble Every Day, Nénette et Boni, I Can’t Sleep, Jacques Rivette – Le veilleur, Chocolat

Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)

  • Top Tier: The Headless Woman, La ciénaga
  • Also Essential: The Holy Girl

Agnès Varda (France)

  • Top Tier: Vagabond, Cleo from 5 to 7
  • Also Essential: The Beaches of Agnès, Cinévardaphoto, The Gleaners & I, Jacquot de Nantes, Le bonheur, Du cote de la Cote, La Pointe-Courte