It’s a man’s world: unpacking cinema’s ‘best-of’ culture

You don’t have to look too far (or even leave your home) to be reasoned into an argument over which films are the best, the greatest, most-essential, must-see-before-you-die of-all-time variety. The internet is teeming with hyperbolic lists dedicated to this. Here’s one the critics at the New York Times compiled earlier. The A.V. Club took a more cautious approach, sticking to the last decade and qualifying with ‘so far’. If you prefer your best-of lists through a singular lens, here’s Susan Sontag’s as pulled from her notebooks. The Guardian has made up their mind on some of the best – predominantly male – directors (using a mysterious points system that breaks down the maths of each individual’s substance, look, craft, originality and intelligence). By far, The British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll – renewed each decade – is ‘one of the most respected’, according to the late American film critic Roger Ebert. And now BBC Culture has published its own perspective on the last sixteen years of cinema: The 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films. But what do lists like this tell us about who gets to (visibly) make and influence culture?

I pored over the BBC’s list in particular because it was making a call on a period of cinema that I lived through. It was also a period of time in which I’d had the opportunity to train and work as a filmmaker and a critic. I’d heard about the numbers – out of 177 participants, only 55 (less than half) were women. Out of the 100 films, only 12 were directed or co-directed by women. These directors included Sofia Coppola, Maren Ade, Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, Sarah Polley, Kathryn Bigelow, Kátia Lund, Andrea Arnold and Ágnes Hranitzky. Only two women – Kátia Lund and Sofia Coppola – made it into the top fifty films. Spike Lee was the only black American featured on the list.

I did not grow up in a constant state of validation, knowing that my interests and enthusiasms would turn into career choices with great promise. I was not bombarded with images of successful women who looked like me – who won awards, were placed on lists, ranked above men, made the final decisions, got their way (or found it) or who placed themselves at the centre of their own stories. But I had time. Time to read all the books I could get my hands on. Time to watch every movie rental I could max out; forwarding and rewinding each individual picture frame with a remote control to figure out how time bent itself inside-out-backwards to tell a story. Time to wander around the suburban desert I was raised in with a camera the size of my head that recorded images onto a floppy disk, trying to figure out how to frame my point-of-view for someone else to see. Time to draw storyboards of detailed adventures that would never get made and type out elaborate stories that would embarrass me in hindsight. Time to see my thoughts scrambling out of my head and onto the page and grab each one with an ‘aha! There! I’ve got you’.

I wanted to demystify the ranking system behind the BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century. My research showed that each of the participating critics compiled an individual list of ten films, ranked one to ten. Ten points were given to their number one choice, and one point to their number ten. According to Matthew Anderson, the editor of BBC Culture, they ‘made sure to mention that animation, documentaries, short, experimental and any other type of movies were eligible for nomination – not just feature films’. Sadly, Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age story about living through the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and winner of the 2007 Festival de Cannes Jury Prize – was one of the films that narrowly missed out on being included.

To better understand the experience of contributing to a selection like this, I reached out to some of the film critics who participated in the list. Aisha Harris, an editor and culture writer for Slate and host of the podcast Represent, told me:

I was (…) very much aware that I wanted women and POC to be represented on this list; I’m very aware of my own biases that have been cultivated from years of living in a mainstream white and male society, and I didn’t want this list to only be comprised of the typical ‘auteurs’, (Coens, either of the Andersons, etc.) for the sake of including [them], especially since, while I appreciate much of their work, I’m not as immediately drawn to [them] as other cinephiles tend to be.

On Harris’s personal top ten, she included Inside Out (which made the top 100), Fruitvale Station, Before Midnight, When the Levees Broke and The Look of Silence.

When I attended film school I didn’t come across phrases like systemic racism or classism. I didn’t question why I chose to see or cast the protagonists I wrote about in my film scripts as a different cultural background than me. I didn’t expect Indigenous cinema or history to be taught alongside the voices of European cinema. These are some of the things I remember hearing in those lecture halls and classrooms: If you want to make a Hollywood film, go to Hollywood. If making a Bollywood film is your dream, or a kitchen-sink drama, that’s okay too. Don’t expect anything to happen before you turn thirty. Maybe your project’s a bit too ambitious. Maybe you’re just not a director. These aren’t the things that are meant to shape or define our careers. These are just comments; thinking out loud; subjective experiences passed down from one to another. But it makes you wonder, in retrospect.

Katarina Hedrén, a freelance film critic based in South Africa, told me she felt the challenge of picking based on the relevance of certain filmmakers and on historical moments in cinema: ‘Selecting a (…) limited number of films is ridiculously difficult and the list you get one day might look different to the list you’d get had you asked another day’. Among her picks were Dreams of a Life, Swedish film Eat Sleep Die, and Ava DuVernay’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Middle of Nowhere.

How did Hedrén feel female voices held up in the overall list? ‘They didn’t … because this is the nature of the male-dominated world of cinema, which is no different to the world in general. Not every woman film critic favours women filmmakers, of course.’

According to an infographic created by Kim Albrecht and Miriam Quick to accompany the BBC Culture list, In the Mood for Love received the highest number of votes from female critics. Released at the turn of the millennium but set in the Hong Kong of the 60s, it is a love story between two married neighbours whose partners are having an affair, which probes gossip, longing and unfulfilled desires. Made by a Wong Kar-wai, a resolute perfectionist who also often struggled to secure financing from the West due to a preference for improvising his film scripts, Love earned a reputation as one of the greatest films for what it left out of the edit: sex scenes, the whispered words at the film’s climax, the identities of the cheating spouses, who gave Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Mrs. Chen (Maggie Cheung) a reason to cross paths. Show, don’t tell is something we are often told – whether or not we want to hear it – as storytellers, writers, producers. We wonder, quietly, how this film may have been received if Wong Kar-wai were a woman.

In 2003, a young director named Sofia Coppola made a film called Lost in Translation. At once reviled for being a case study in Western culture’s self-pitying refusal to meaningfully engage with Eastern culture, history and tradition, it is also a subtle case study in the challenges of personal filmmaking with a female auteur at the helm. Coppola arrived in Tokyo for the shoot with maps, blueprints, sketches, photography and an iPod, ready to have more than words at her disposal to communicate what she was looking for. Ross Katz, the film’s producer, recalls in an interview, ‘She knew the movie upside down and backward. She spilled it right from her head onto the screen’. Retrospectively, Scarlett Johansson’s character was often attributed to Coppola: her sense of humour, her disillusionment, her search for personal direction. We wonder, quietly, whether her male peers face the same scrutiny in comparison.

Chantal Akerman, a Belgian filmmaker, who was exposed to the work of Goddard at a time when she felt both despondent about training to make films at school, and irate over the lack of opportunities for students and women to work in the industry, went on to make Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Made when she was only twenty-five, the film looked at the nothing’s-happening moments in one woman’s compartmentalised life with the precision and reverie of a thriller. One of her later films, No Home Movie, (voted for by one of the participating critics in BBC Culture’s list, but failing to make the final cut) was generally ignored and unavailable during Akerman’s lifetime, only to resurface and receive acclaim following her death in 2015. We wonder, quietly, whether the best works of women filmmakers and culture makers are only of value in their absence to be able to produce more upon request.

Hedrén mentioned that she found the individual top ten lists of each critic far more interesting to read than the overall 100. One of the films that didn’t make the final list was Tabu – a film that rearranges history, trekking through colonial Africa, contemporary Portugal and the places we only see in dreams; as well as many of the South Asian films that were voted on by Indian film critics and films by directors from the Middle East. Hedrén:

I don’t think that we will look back at the final list and say that all films on the list were indeed the best of that time. What they will tell us, however, is something about a time when these films were considered the best, and where other significant films did not appear. If the future is better, we will look back and shake our heads about how backwards we still were back then.

When I asked Hedrén whether this left her feeling full of hope or cynicism, she observed:

There is no point in feeling pessimistic about white male heteronormative domination in the field of cinema and everywhere else. Being pissed off and motivated to achieve change is better. Marginalised voices will never be silenced and I’m in awe of all the talented, innovative, courageous, persistent filmmakers and other artists who defy said domination and find ways to make themselves seen or heard. Of course I would like lists like these to be super diverse (reflecting the societies in which they were made) as a rule, and not include only one or two women filmmakers or racialised filmmakers or queer filmmakers etc., but the fact that this is not happening now and is not bound to happen soon, does not mean that these filmmakers do not exist. They do and their work is wonderful, even though they don’t appear in lists dominated by those who have an interest in marginalising or are too embedded in current dominant systems to even realise other voices exist.

I am baffled by what to think when, in my first week at a new role in the industry, the only person of colour I see happens to be the delivery man who brings in our lunch order. His face transforms from a frown to a look of surprise when he sees me. We exchange smiles with one another as he hands the abundance of food: his, the kind that my parents might give me when I pull off a small coup in my path towards adulthood; mine, the kind that says I hope I make something of my time in this industry.

Miriam Bale, an independent film programmer and freelance critic based in London, said: ‘I chose the films that I think about often still; films with really resonant themes or images, or ones I’m still wrapping my head around. Also, as in planning a meal, I always try to make sure the plate is not all one colour. And in this case that means not all-male, all-white, all-American, [but] a mixture of difficult and multiplex. But my list still skews white and, due to personal bias and also exposure, French.’ Bale’s list included Almayer’s Folly, Bamboozled and Goddard’s Film Socialisme.

She sees list-making as a form of curation in itself, and an opportunity to learn more about individual – rather than collective – taste: ‘With these things there’s always the temptation to try to “vote” for the ones that have a chance of getting on the top ten, but I always feel dirty when I do that. Plus, when I look at these lists, it’s only the individual lists that I find interesting. So I try to make an interesting personal list, as if curating a program of films’.

I ask about what lists like these should and could ultimately mean. Bale said: ‘These things always make me uneasy. The whole idea of “greatest” reinforces the cultural hegemony. It takes at least two or three [tries] to make a masterpiece, usually, and women (especially, but also black filmmakers) rarely get to make more than two films. Also, “greatest” implies some kind of perfection of established techniques, not introducing something new (which might be perfected later).’

Does the representation on this list inspire optimism or pessimism? Bale: ‘I feel optimistic, I guess. My own “best-of” lists have been half [made by] women last year, and so far this year. So I don’t know why anyone else’s won’t be. For black women, though, I still need to reach to music videos.’

Bale also offers that categorising ‘cinema’ as separate from any other form of audiovisual storytelling may be redundant, and stops lists like these from revealing something more representative of the times we live in; ‘Why differentiate between movies made for the cinema, movies available for home streaming, short films, and music videos?’

Recently at a press conference for her Netflix documentary, 13th, filmmaker Ava DuVernay reminded the audience that so much of what we think has been manufactured and given to us. ‘Definitive’ lists show that there is value in being purposeful; that people are hungry and itchy and hankering for cultural content that reminds them of themselves and the stories they share with loved ones.

But it also makes me question what it means to be a person who wants to make – and write about – films. At its best, even in the worst of times, art can create expression for an open wound – a way for those who have been ignored because of their gender, sexuality, class, culture – to sound out what it means to exist, and try to move through the world. If the data tells us that there historically aren’t – but should be – more directors from different countries or birth, and films in languages that don’t rely on English language narrative techniques to tell stories, we should be looking at new ways to acknowledge the development of non-traditional types of cinema.

For centuries, we have learned from the scripted lines, lived experiences, reinterpretations, tributes and opinions of white men who have had their perspectives broadcast on large screens around the world. We’ve had to dig into the depths of storylines and small details in the corners of frames to look for something; anything that may resemble something that speaks to us on our level. We’ve had to wonder why there aren’t more people of colour invited to join the Academy.

Ultimately, progress means that we who have been typically othered or overlooked will push past vote stacking or skewed demographics. We’ll tell stories and make content that those same white men can learn from, rather than be rushing to teach us; we’ll erase the stifling sameness and uniformity and make lists like the ones above look like quaint if largely unrepresentative artefacts of the past. Progress is slow, but desire and ambition coupled with resilience are powerful forces. And perhaps we won’t have to wait till the next century to see these forces shape our culture for the better.


Nathania Gilson

Nathania Gilson is a freelance writer and video editor based in Melbourne.

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