Top 100 Women Directors

Ella Kemp takes a deep-dive into our newest all-time stats addition—the top 100 films directed by women—and finds, to nobody’s surprise, that Agnès Varda is indisputably the GOAT.

There are countless ‘best of’ lists on Letterboxd to track your progress against; some are maintained by our staff, while others are contributed by passionate members. If you’ve upgraded to Pro or Patron level, there’s a section on your all-time stats page (accessible directly from your profile) where we’ve gathered twelve key lists against which you can track your progress at a glance (example below), and we’ve also added ‘Completed Collections’ for Patrons, showing all franchises of three or more films that you’ve seen in their entirety (excluding unreleased entries).

In the interests of promoting a diverse range of titles, we’ve recently added a Top 100 Women Directors list to your all-time stats, compiled by Jack Moulton and ranked by overall weighted average rating. In other words, these are the female-directed (and female-identifying-directed) films that you, the Letterboxd community, have chosen as the best.

To celebrate, we invited Letterboxd member, writer and Girls on Tops photographer Ella Kemp to cast her eye over the current list (it’s bound to change in future based on new ratings cast).

Encompassing thousands of votes to meticulously rate and root for the greatest films we have courtesy of women directors, Letterboxd’s newest all-time list offers a sobering dissection of the way we consume movies—and how much we recognize the women responsible for these works.

At first glance, a scroll through the list boasts a generous handful of posters designed in the last couple of years. Five features released in the past twelve to eighteen months have made it straight to the top 20 (Portrait of A Lady on Fire, The Farewell, Booksmart, Lady Bird and Capernaum) with one of those films—not even publicly released in cinemas yet, but making waves at festivals around the world—already sitting at number two. That’s the power of Céline Sciamma and her Portrait.

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019).
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019).

Diving deeper, Sciamma’s top-tier triumph exemplifies a few key patterns. She returns at number 64 with Tomboy, reminding us what a great shame it is that her excellent feature Girlhood didn’t make the list, but confirming that France appears to be one of the best countries in the world for women to make movies: the list comprises 23 French features, which, considering the US’s oft-perceived monopoly on the film industry, feels monumental.

But of course, it’s not accidental either. This year sadly marked the passing of Agnès Varda, indisputably the GOAT. She stands proud as the most prolific contributor with six features, two in the top 20. To grieve, to remember, at least we can always keep watching.

Another singular trailblazer is Scotswoman Lynne Ramsay. She has four entries, but what’s most impressive is that these are, well, all the feature films she’s made to date. Her fourth entry, Morvern Callar, sneaks in at number 100.

Elaine May and Chantal Akerman both have three entries, which may come as no surprise to cinephiles, but it’s also the same number of entries as Japanese animator Naoko Yamada (whose A Silent Voice sits in sixteenth place on our list). This reveals an open-minded slant, one that acknowledges the widely perceived touchstones but also embraces further-reaching works from lesser-known artists. Five features are Japanese, four are German, three Italian, and three Indian.

Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice (2016).
Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice (2016).

The lean still remains very much with the US, and yet few films on the list break records for eye-watering budgets. The Matrix, courtesy of the Wachowskis, was made for $63 million, and Shrek, co-directed by Vicky Jenson, had a budget of $60 million. Aside from these two, projects on the list seldom had more than $10–15 million to get the job done.

When looking at the list’s omissions, one almost unanimous absence is that of the highest-grossing films of all time directed by women. No Sleepless in Seattle, no Frozen, no Fifty Shades of Grey. No Nora Ephron, No Nancy Meyers. No Ava DuVernay. It’s a peculiar gap, as the influence of these writers and filmmakers is hardly one to be contested. And, to close the circle on big budgets, $120-150-million-wielding Patty Jenkins is also absent. The highest-grossing film directed by a woman (with no male directing partner)—a cool $821.8 million at the global box office—did not make the cut.

On this topic, there are sixteen films co-directed by women on the list. A co-directing mention is a crucial credit. It’s like the trust exercises that used to be taught in school drama classes—how would they work if one party wasn’t there to catch the other as they fell? What’s the point in being brave if you don’t also have some kind of promise of safety? Partners need each other, and these directors needed partners to reach the heights they did. City of God, co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, was nominated for four Oscars, and yet Meirelles was still the only filmmaker credited at the ceremony. The Academy chose to disregard Lund, but our list does not. There are five female co-directors in the top 20. One of the highest-grossing films on the list, Shrek, would not be what it is without Vicky Jenson.

Also curious: Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion makes the list, best director Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow does not. Overall, the list shows a vast body of skill, a crop of familiar names, some deeply felt absences and—hopefully—a whole lot of additions to watchlists. Further names that deserve to be sought out, in no particular order, include Mabel Normand, Maya Deren, Josephine Decker, Jennie Livingston, Mia Hansen-Løve, Dee Rees, Joanna Hogg, Gurinder Chadha, Barbara Hammer, and directors with new films soon to be released: Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Niki Caro (the live-action Mulan) and Kasi Lemmons (Harriet).

Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

Writing this breakdown gave me plenty of homework, and it shed light on a lot of works that I’m yet to catch up with. At first I thought it pretty normal to not have seen as many on the list as I would have liked, taking into account my age, access and time, but the further I went, the more names cropped up that I didn’t recognize, and the more I recalled my three years studying film at university and not having learned anything about so many of these women.

I should know more names. I should have been set more assignments regarding more of these names. I can do more, but so too can those above me, those who taught me and continue to teach others, about who makes the films that are worth learning about. We now have lists such as this one—it’s high time we start to properly use them.


Header image: Agnès Varda (with her own 1962 self-portrait) in Faces Places.

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