Saturday, August 30, 2014
Billy Wilder has always made some of my favorite movies. His track record is nearly unparalleled in cinema, but as a director I’ve always just sort of shrugged my shoulders at his style. Over the past couple of years I’ve really begun to notice that Wilder the director deserved just as much if not more praise than Wilder the screenwriter. Double Indemnity is a masterpiece of cinematic style and still THE definitive film noir. Sunset Boulevard is a textbook in shadow and deep focus photography. Ace in the Hole is still one of the most criminally overlooked social satires of the 50s. I haven’t even begun to mention how Wilder might be the best comedic director who ever lived. When your resume lists as many masterpieces as Wilder, it’s hard not to put him on this list.
19. Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront; East of Eden)
There are some people who frankly will never forgive Kazan for naming names. Instead of whining about saving his own skin though, Kazan turned his name naming into the basis of his greatest film. Sure the stakes between informing on suspected communists is a little different than mob violence, On the Waterfront is on the short list of the greatest films of the 1950s. Kazan helped usher in the new wave of method acting, and he had an absolute gift for coaxing legendary performances. Often like Ray, Kazan would use canted angles, subjective camera shots, and intricate framing to capture the psychological state of his protagonists. Like Wilder (and many others coming up) he also has one hell of an impressive list of masterpieces.
18. Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise; Design for Living)
The subtleties of Ernst Lubitsch’s directorial style have long been labeled as the “Lubitsch Touch”. They’re barely noticeable on first look, but the more of his work you watch the more you start to notice some similarities, and the better appreciation for his body of work you get. Ernst got his start as an actor before occasionally getting a chance to direct. After making some wildly successful historical epics and comedies in Germany, he became one of the first Germans to be seduced by Hollywood. It worked out to his advantage because Lubitsch literally became the face of the Jews for Hitler. His series of sly sophisticated bedroom comedies became a staple and no matter what style he worked in, these were always his bread and butter. Lubitsch also became one of the early masters of the film musical and in particular Love Parade and One Hour With You remain masterpieces of the genre. The more of his work I watch the better it gets, and I’m not sure there’s a better compliment for a director.
17. Robert Bresson (Au Hassard Balthazar; Pickpocket)
In terms of tone and themes, there probably isn’t another director further from Herr Lubitsch that I could have put here. The unquestioned master of austerity, Robert Bresson made a career of directing bleak, deconstructed, emotionless dramas. Like many other masters, he tended to take his sweet time between films. He directed only 13 films between 1943 and 1983, and all of them are must watch cinema. I was never as fond of his color films as I was his earlier black and white, but many disagree. Perhaps there’s something befitting the bleak outlook of his work with a lack of color. When it comes to singular visions, there is no one who made movies like Bresson.
16. David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia; Oliver Twist)
There was a time when Lean was damn near my favorite director of them all. It took me awhile to realize that so many of the best films I was watching happened to be directed by the same man. By the time I discovered his vastly different, but still excellent Noel Coward collaborations I became convinced Lean could do anything. He got his start working as a film editor but made a name for himself with Brief Encounter and two Charles Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations and Oliver Twist). Although he could make great romance films and comedies, his true legacy remains a trio of epics beginning with Bridge on the River Kwai. Lawrence of Arabia in particular remains the greatest Hollywood epic ever filmed, and also a film that could never be made again. Lean found a way to make a big budget blockbuster an art film.
15. John Ford (The Searchers; Grapes of Wrath)
Although he never served as his own screenwriter there is something unmistakably identifiable about the cinema of John Ford. There is no mistaking his Westerns for those of Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher, or Sergio Leone. Ford’s protagonists were flawed people whose heart seemed to be in the right place. Over the course of his career, Ford made upwards of 100+ movies and quite a few of them are essential American cinema. The only man to win a best director Oscar 4 times, it’s a testament to his versatility that none of those statues came from a Western. His version of the Grapes of Wrath is one of the extremely rare times that an incredible book got turned into an incredible movie. Then there’s The Searchers, just simply one of the greatest things cinema ever produced. If John Ford isn’t in your top 20 directors list, you’re not watching the right movies.
14. Jean Renoir (The Grand Illusion; Boudu Saved from Drowning)
The son of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean financed some of his earliest films by selling his father’s paintings. There must have been something in those genes though because Renoir wound up becoming quite possibly the greatest of all French filmmakers. During the 30s, Renoir was unstoppable, and seemed to produce about two masterpieces a year. He pre-dated Orson Welles with his innovative use of depth staging, and of course some lengthy takes. Renoir also overlapped dialogue like Hawks, and was the first great cinematic humanist, before Ray or Kurosawa. His later work is also well worth checking out but even if you stopped at Rules of the Game you’d know all there is to know about Renoir.
13. Kenji Mizoguchi (Life of Oharu; Sansho the Bailiff)
If I were giving out prizes for which director jumped the highest on my list, Kenji Mizoguchi would take that honor. There was a time when I’d probably put him as my third favorite Japanese director, but my eyes have been opened. His films are melodramatic, often heartbreaking, and sometimes too bleak for their own good. However his style of filmmaking is so beautiful and exquisite that it serves a perfect balance to the harsh subject matter. It took me many films and multiple viewings to even start to notice Mizoguchi’s craft. He has a virtuosity that is unmatched yet somehow finds a way not to draw attention to it. Thanks in part to David Bordwell’s excellent book, Figures Traced in Light I really got an eye-opener into just how brilliant Mizoguchi’s staging was. There really is no Japanese filmmaker whose work I look forward to watching more than Mizoguchi’s.
12. Joel and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski; Raising Arizona)
These two just can not be stopped. If you’re unfamiliar with their work, please stop reading my blog and never speak to me again. The Coen brothers have been doing things their own idiosyncratic way for thirty years now and rarely miss a beat. Last I checked Intolerable Cruelty might be the only film of their’s set in the present day. Therefore we should go ahead and crown them the masters of the period picture. I’ve probably seen Lebowski 50 times in the past decade and it will never cease to get old. Even the brothers “bad” movies are often just misunderstood. They’ve also managed to walk a fine line between hilarity and occasionally gruesome violence, which was never better showcased than in Fargo. Hell you’ve seen their work, you know how great they are. Next entry.
11. Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev; The Mirror)
There are a grand total of 7 feature length films directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. These might be the greatest treasures in all of cinema. Tarkovsky is everything an art house director should be. His films are puzzles, they make you think, they’re slow and contemplative, stylistically innovative, and so far removed from the mainstream it seems an insult to call them movies. His films are often epic in scope but surreal in nature. He never hesitated to take a break from the narrative to film some beautiful images. The opening of Andrei Rublev remains one of my favorite things in the history of ever, and the entire film of The Mirror is a collection of similarly breathtaking images. Tarkovsky was the first director I watched every film from, and from the first viewing to the last they have been truly spellbinding.
10. Woody Allen (Annie Hall; Manhattan)
Here we are, the top ten. Since about 2002, Woody Allen has had himself penciled into my top ten. The man is a phenom, making a film a year, every year for over 40 years. It’s bound to happen that they aren’t always winners, but it makes those great films even greater. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to like Annie Hall, it is the perfect film comedy, and a movie so good it shouldn’t even be called a romantic comedy. After Annie Hall, Allen got confidence and started trying his hands at more experimental work, channeling his heroes Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Perhaps no film better represents the two sides to Allen’s work quite like Crimes and Misdemeanors. It helps that last film of his I’ve seen, Blue Jasmine is probably his best in two decades, showing that your faith in Allen will eventually, always be rewarded.
9. Luis Bunuel (Los Olvidados; The Exterminating Angel)
Cinema’s greatest surrealist was Luis Bunuel. The man made movies from the silent era into the late seventies, and in some ways even seemed to get better as the years went on. He managed to infuriate the Franco regime in his native Spain on multiple occasions and it’s all the more reason to love him. No one really made movies like Bunuel either. He never believed the poor were noble down on their luck people, he thought everyone was pretty despicable given the chance. Los Olvidados was the anti-Neo realist picture and it’s better than every damn one of the films it mocks. He mocked everything from religion, to politics, to the upper class, working class, and the poor. Nothing was sacred to Bunuel and his films reflect a lifetime of defiance.
8. Federico Fellini (8 ½; La Dolce Vita)
Last time I made this list I decided to watch every film from the directors in my top 20. Some directors dropped down a bit after seeing some of their less than exemplary work others deserved a bump up. Fellini was one of the two who benefited from this project (the other is coming up). In terms of cinematic auteurs, Fellini is arguably part of the European Mt. Rushmore. He managed to make critically acclaimed films that even casual fans of art house cinema could love. In the 50s he went from co-screenwriter to world renowned director and never looked back. La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, and of course 8 ½ are enough to put him on the short list of greatest directors ever. You might have also guessed, this was the last of the “big 4” Italian directors I mentioned.
7. Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho; Strangers on a Train)
Seriously, do I need to tell you why Alfred “fucking” Hitchcock is on my list? Just stop, go rent a movie or a dozen, the man needs no explanation or justification.
6. Jean-Luc Godard (Weekend; Pierrot le Fou)
To me, JLG is the defining watershed moment in cinema. He is the point at which cinema forever changed. He was the most innovative and prolific of the early new wave directors, he never stopped trying to push the boundaries of cinema. His output has slowed down tremendously over the last decade, but he’s still just as crazy as ever. There is a certain subversive joy in his 60s work. A playful way he toyed with every convention of cinema. He knew the technical aspects of film, and cinematic language and used all of those to try and concoct his own new rules. In one decade he did more to change cinema than anyone since Melies and the Lumiere brothers. His films have gotten consistently more challenging but often times they’re worth it, but Godard has made a habit out of making you work for it.
5. David Lynch (Blue Velvet; Mulholland Drive)
There is no filmmaker whose work excites me quite like David Lynch. If I saw he had a new movie coming out, I’d stop what I was doing and lose my mind. Lynch is in many ways a cinematic godson to Luis Bunuel, but whereas Bunuel used surrealism to attack the establishment, David Lynch just thinks in dreams. I’d vote that Lynch understood and mastered the importance of sound in cinema better than probably every other filmmaker period. Lynch has even proven in the past he can make a conventional story, but to me that’s a waste of resources. No one has mastered the art of the surreal with occasional elements of horror, suspense, and art quite like Lynch. He is quite possibly the most gifted artist in film.
4. Orson Welles (Citizen Kane; Touch of Evil)
The other director who got a boost from my top 20 project a few years ago was Orson Welles. To me I always took Welles greatness for granted. I loved his films, but every critic loves his films. It was almost passé to say Welles was a master director, much like naming Citizen Kane as your favorite film. However like my love of Kane, I realized there’s a reason he got so much praise from everywhere, Welles probably was the greatest director who ever lived. The reason he clocks in at number four is because it’s my list, and also his career was too often marked by what could have been rather than what was. The word “genius” gets tossed around far too often in film, but when it comes to Welles there was no other word to describe him.
3. Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas; Raging Bull)
Another in my list of “needs no introduction”. Martin Scorsese has been the best American filmmaker for nearly 5 decades now. From Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street he’s been a force to be reckoned with. A film nerd in much the same way Godard was, Scorsese used the cinematic language to his own advantage. His films are full of references and the occasional homage to the cinematic past but almost always done with an emphasis on entertainment. His subject matter could get ugly but he never ceased to be must watch cinema. Scorsese understood the importance of film editing, and no matter the running time, not one of Scorsese’s films feel like they’re a minute too long.
2. Ingmar Bergman (Persona; The Seventh Seal)
For the past decade or so I’ve often flip-flopped between Scorsese and Bergman at #2. In the course of making this list though I had to give the edge to Ingmar. Now that his career is officially in the books, and now that I’ve seen pretty much everything he ever wrote or directed I feel fairly confident in saying Ingmar Bergman was the greatest European director who ever lived. The man had no shortage of personal demons but always seemed to find a way to turn those into legendary cinema. Even his two English language films are better than given credit for. Bergman simply brought everything I love about cinema to his work. He occasionally dabbled in surrealism, loved deep focus compositions, had many a long take, and thematically he seemed to touch on every philosophical idea worth exploring. Bergman and Scorsese are pretty much neck and neck in terms of masterpieces, but Bergman gets the edge if for no other reason the fact that he made Persona.
1. Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining)
Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be, I’ve made no great mystery of who my favorite director is, was, and probably always will be. From the earliest time I had a favorite director Kubrick has held that position. In many ways he’s the cinematic equivalent of Queen for me. I’ve written somewhat lengthy reviews of all of his films for this blog, and my take on Full Metal Jacket somehow is the most read entry here. Regardless Kubrick is the greatest of them all. He was nowhere near the most prolific of directors, but from 1956-1999 there were no bad movies. In fact there were no films I’d even consider average. To me Kubrick had two settings, great and phenomenal. Like Welles he preferred working with adaptations, and like Welles he was better at everything than everybody. The only thing really separating them is that Kubrick was that potential realized. He had the creative control and financial backing to make the best movies possible. So to me, Kubrick’s career is in many ways what Orson Welles should have been. There, list over. Now go watch some movies.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
40. Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express; Happy Together)
Wong might have a little push from the recency effect, that is to say I just watched The Grandmaster and Wong’s greatness is pretty fresh in my mind. Although a martial arts biopic, it is still so distinctively Wong. His work is allegorical in nature and his narratives often feel like dreams. That isn’t to say he’s a surrealist, it’s just that they tend to jump around and when it’s all over you barely remember what his movies were about, just about how they made you feel. Occasionally it seems Wong is capable of just shitting out a great movie with minimal effort, and in the case of Chungking Express that’s pretty much what he did. However that film happens to be one of the most delightful movies I’ve ever seen and encapsulates all the dizzying camera pans and lonely hearts he’s always been obsessed with.
39. Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Cobra Verde)
Damn near the best of all the West German filmmakers, Werner Herzog is also probably the craziest. He’s become more myth than man and I’m not entirely sure he doesn’t have super powers. Like Wim Wenders he’s also bounced around between fiction and documentary, but lately he’s steadily become one of the best documentarians out there. Grizzly Man probably remains the high point of his non-fiction career, but ask any of his fans and they’ll probably say his best work was with his best friend and fellow lunatic Klaus Kinski. Despite nearly killing each other while filming Aguirre, they managed to work together on four more films, all of which were excellent.
38. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Flowers of Shanghai; City of Sadness)
I had every intention of including Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-Liang on this list, but sadly they missed the cut. So we can resolve the greatest Taiwanese filmmaker debate right now. International cinema’s HHH, has been at the forefront of world cinema for decades. A descendent of the Mizoguchi/Antonioni school of long takes and elaborate staging, Hou is a director after my own heart. 1989’s City of Sadness is on the short list of the greatest of all Taiwanese films, but my money is on Flowers of Shanghai, where each scene is one continuous take, the type of stuff I get giddy over.
37. Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather; Apocalypse Now)
How much are a few great years worth? When it comes to cinematic high points, it’s hard to argue anyone ever was better than Coppola from 1972-1979. I’m even a fan of One From the Heart, but I understand it’s failure. Following his own loss of creative control, Coppola turned into a pretty mediocre low rent director of forgettable movies. There have been a few noteworthy blips here and there, but the man’s greatness can best be summed up by Apocalypse Now. If we counted the Godfather films separately, Coppola would be the only director to accomplish the astonishing feat of directing 3 of my top 10 films. He also served as the would be godfather of the American film renaissance of the 70s, although he cut his teeth where so many others did, working for Roger Corman.
36. Roman Polanski (Chinatown; The Pianist)
If it came to the award for most tragically unlucky man in film, Roman Polanski would probably top that list, as it is he’ll settle for 36 on my director list. A true international filmmaker, Polanski got his start in his native Poland before heading to the UK and for a time Hollywood. He’s since made movies damn near everywhere and some of them are just plain phenomenal. Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, The Tenant, Chinatown, The Pianist, Ghost Writer, Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, the man has a list of masterpieces a mile long. Polanski was also a fan of deep focus photography and dabbled in surrealism on more than one occasion.
35. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Berlin Alexanderplatz; The Marriage of Maria Braun)
The last of the big three in West German cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder has pretty much always been my favorite. I’ve written plenty about how amazing Berlin Alexanderplatz is, his other work was always worth it’s weight in gold as well. A fan of melodrama he was a Douglas Sirk for the 1970s. In the case of some of his films, notably The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, he employed my favorite long takes to wonderful effect. Fassbinder was also far and away the most prolific of his West German counterparts, and it’s taken Herzog nearly 30 years to catch up to his output.
34. Spike Lee (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing)
Once upon a time, New Jack Cinema was a thing and a wave of angry young black men began making movies. Of that bunch the only one to sustain any level of greatness was Spike Lee. Many people seem to know Spike more as that weird little Knicks fan, but he’s made some of the best American films of the last 30 years. Despite being born in Georgia, Lee is a true New Yorker, and he often seems like he could be a black Woody Allen. Like Allen, Lee hasn’t always made amazing films, but just when you think there’s nothing else worth watching, he’ll surprise you with another instant classic. Malcolm X remains the blueprint of what all good biopics should be.
33. Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List; ET: The Extra-Terrestrial)
It’s not hard to have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Senor Spielbergo. The man might just be the best technical filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock, but all too often his tendency for manipulation is too noticeable and often embarrassing. At his best, Hollywood has never had a better director, which explains why the man can probably do anything, but at his worst you have things like The Lost World happen. The older I get the more I tend to notice his tricks, but for pure escapist joy I can’t think of anyone better. Unlike a lot of other filmmakers on this list, I really shouldn’t have to tell you about him.
32. Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses Gaze; Landscape in the Mist)
If you’ve paid attention to the directors I love, this name shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you’re asking who the hell Theo Angelopoulos is, then I feel sorry for you. Even more than Jancso, Tarr, or Antonioni, Angelopoulos is the unquestioned master of long takes. His tracking shots are so lengthy and elaborate that they sometimes skip entire time periods within a single shot. He is the first and last name I think of when it comes to Greek cinema, but his films are definitely for the patient. Sadly Angelopoulos passed away in 2012, before completing his film The Other Sea, the final part of a planned trilogy. His remaining work is truly mesmerizing and well worth repeated viewings.
31. Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc; Ordet)
There are plenty of directors who made a successful transition from silent cinema to sound, but few used the transition to mark utterly distinct film styles. Dreyer was Denmark’s leading director who enjoyed a fairly prolific run of films during the 20s. From 1919-1928 Dreyer made 9 films in different styles. A couple comedies, two historical epics, and one certifiable masterpiece with The Passion of Joan of Arc. However between 1932-1964 Dreyer made a whopping four films (not counting Two People which he disowned and was pulled from distribution). These films featured extended takes (because of course they did), deep focus compositions and often were of a morbid and somber tone. Vampyr is one of the strangest would-be horror films of all time, and well Ordet might be the best religious film ever made. The one constant throughout his career was the man was a hell of a director.
30. Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her; All About My Mother)
I recently watched I’m So Excited and wondered just what the hell goes on inside Pedro Almodovar’s mind. His films are so distinctively his, filled with a frank depiction of depravity that always seemed just a bit on the silly side. For years he’s been simultaneously embarrassing the Spanish film industry while also serving as it’s reigning king of cinema. Almodovar is also one of the few European directors who has had the luxury of seeing every one of their films distributed to the US. Nobody makes movies like him, and with All About My Mother and Talk to Her he even topped himself.
29. Fritz Lang (M; Metropolis)
I’ll be honest, I didn’t think Fritz Lang would drop this far on my list this time. The greatest of all German filmmakers, Lang was also one who enjoyed a near seamless transition to Hollywood. Lang had a few obsessions, particularly the manipulation of the masses, mob justice, mind control, and constant shadows. Metropolis has been mangled and restored so many times, in it’s (Nearly) complete form it remains one of the most spectacular of all silent films. Lang’s first sound film though, 1931’s M is his masterpiece. Peter Lorre is absolutely terrifying as the child murderer, and on the strength of these two films alone I would have put Lang on my list. The fact that he managed to produce good to great movies for another thirty years after M only helped his cause.
28. David Cronenberg (A History of Violence; Videodrome)
My one and only Canadian representative, David Cronenberg was at one point considered a mere horror director. Then he got labeled as a Canadian David Lynch (a title Guy Maddin eventually took), but now it seems he is the equal of no one. Cronenberg has made a career out of making people occasionally uncomfortable and rarely if ever shying away from some gruesome stuff. Some of his films are head scratching puzzles, others are like strange disturbing dreams, and others still are just plain amazing. There are no shortage of masterpieces throughout his 40 plus year career, and I have little reason to doubt there won’t be more to come.
27. Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby; Scarface; the Shame of a Nation)
In the golden age of Hollywood Howard Hawks was truly unique. Hawks was never tied down to one studio and spent the 30s into the 70s picking and choosing his own projects. Along the way he made damn near the greatest classic gangster film with Scarface, the best screwball comedy with Bringing Up Baby, some of the best Westerns with Red River and Rio Bravo, and some quintessential film noir with The Big Sleep. He even took a turn at sci-fi with The Thing From Another World, but that was as a producer. There really are no directors with the kind of track record Hawks had and the unquestioned mastery of damn near every type of film. He was also the first director in the sound era to realize that multiple people talk over each other, and was an early pioneer in multi-tracking dialogue.
26. Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night; Rebel Without a Cause)
So much has been written about Nicholas Ray by so many that I don’t feel I can really do him justice. Ray was a champion of social misfits most likely because he himself was one. In an era of big bold Cinemascope productions, Ray got experimental with his framing, camera work, and staging. A complicated and troubled figure his films never ceased to be extraordinary. I’ve gone on and on about how utterly in love I am with the film They Live By Night and that is just pure Ray. Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger than Life, In a Lonely Place are all masterpieces in their own right. Even the worst of his films, like Born to Be Bad or Hot Blood are still more visually exciting than the overwhelming majority of 50s films. The man was a god to cinema, whose influence is nearly impossible to measure.
25. Abel Gance (Napoleon; J’Accuse)
Did I say influence? Abel Gance is quite possibly the most innovative filmmaker who ever lived. Gance pre-dated the Soviet montage movement with La Roue, and employed every trick in the book with his masterpiece Napoleon. What’s really staggering is how he took to sound cinema like a fish to water, and used sound for more than just dialogue in much the same way as Rouben Mamoulian. With the exception of La Roue, it took many years before Gance was given his proper due, and in many texts people seem to overlook just how innovative he was. Napoleon might very well be the best damn French film ever made.
24. Buster Keaton (Our Hospitality; Steamboat Bill Jr.)
In regards to the Chaplin-Keaton debate there really is no debate for me. Buster Keaton was far and away the better filmmaker, but suffered the unfortunate bad luck of losing creative control. The fact that his directorial career all but ended in 1928 is the reason he isn’t far higher on this list. During his period of creative control he probably established himself as the best actor-star of all time. There’s always some debate as to who directed what considering nearly every one of his films Keaton is sharing directorial credit with someone else. However with his deadpan expression, his incredible physical comedy, and cinematic innovation remained a constant.
23. Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai; Ran)
Arguably Japan’s greatest director and probably the one to have the greatest impact on cinema outside of his homeland, Akira Kurosawa is simply one of those giants of world cinema. From the 40s to the 90s he was an unquestioned master filmmaker. A huge fan of Shakespeare he brought out a unique perspective on some of the bard’s best known stories. Kurosawa was more than adept at contemporary as well as historical pictures and produced countless masterpieces in both. Ikiru is one of the most extraordinary Japanese films ever and manages to be profoundly touching as well as his most socially critical film. Like Renoir before him, Kurosawa was a humanist filmmaker, who clung to the notion that deep down people were good.
22. Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura; The Passenger)
The third of my big four Italian directors, Michelangelo Antonioni has the distinction of having the longest career. He died in 2007 at the age of 94, and continued sporadically making movies into his 90s. After a start as a screenwriter, Antonioni virtually redefined world cinema with L’Avventura a film that remains one of the most polarizing pictures ever made. It firmly established what would be his calling card. In Antonioni’s world, people were fickle, rich, bored, lonely, and lost. He was Italy’s master of the long take, and the final shot of The Passenger might very well be the greatest tracking shot in all of film (second only to the opening of Touch of Evil).
21. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction; Kill Bill)
Some of you might think I’m putting Mr. Tarantino too high, but well my list, my rankings. Another director I’m hoping every single reader of this blog is familiar with, Tarantino has been the best American filmmaker to come out of the 90s. Nobody writes scripts like him, and few people have inspired such over analysis as he has. Like the members of the French new wave, he wears his influences on his sleeves, but in many cases he far trumps them. He has managed to make exploitation genre pictures works of art. I’ll still argue with anyone who claims there is a better film from the 90s than Pulp Fiction. I’d also like to remind my readers to revisit Jackie Brown, a criminally forgotten film that’s as good as any of his other films, possibly better. He’s been taking his sweet time between projects, but when it’s Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, they’ve been well worth the wait. I sincerely hope he’ll crack my top 10 when his career is all said and done, let’s hope he keeps up the amazing work.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
There really are few directors quite like Terrence Malick. In terms of my 5 film rule, it took Malick all of about 38 years to direct 5 movies. Despite the scores of praise heaped on his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, I believe it is when Malick came out of his self imposed exile that his truly great work began. Thin Red Line, The New World and my personal favorite Tree of Life are all among the best films of the last two decades. Malick’s style also began to emerge, and with Tree of Life as well as Line, he really stuck a big middle finger up to conventional narrative and made films based more on feeling than story. Even if we get a film a decade, they’re almost always worth it.
59. Gus Van Sant (Elephant; Last Days)
Gus Van Sant has been among the leading independent directors for decades. His Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho were masterpieces of Generation X cinema. Van Sant was eventually tempted by things like money and more high profile gigs, and has even earned himself some recognition by the establishment for his work on Good Will Hunting and Milk. The smaller Van Sant films are always my favorites, and with some films like Elephant, Last Days, or Paranoid Park few directors are as relevant and good. He’s become something of a master of long takes, and well that’s something I always appreciate.
58. Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; It Happened One Night)
Although his major films all seemed to have a central theme, Frank Capra is probably the central figure in my greatness through great films debate. From It Happened One Night through It’s a Wonderful Life, there was no better director in all of Hollywood. He pulled down 3 best director Oscars in 5 years, a mark that will probably never be equaled, and on top of that all three films are still amazing today. It Happened One Night might still be the greatest of all screwball comedies, and every movie and show about insider politics owes a special debt of gratitude to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for my money the best film from the legendary year of 1939.
57. Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Marriage of the Blessed; The Cyclist)
There are always debates amongst film scholars between various figures. Do you go for Hou over Yang, Godard over Truffaut, Keaton or Chaplin, Szabo over Jancso, or in the case of Iranian cinema Makhmalbaf or Kiarostami? We can argue this point from now until forever but there has never really been any debate internally. Perhaps Kiarostami has enjoyed a more overall consistent career longer, but his high points to me never came close to Mohsen’s. Whether it was Marriage of the Blessed, Boycott, The Cyclist, Gabbeh, Moment of Innocence etc. his work has been the highpoint of Iranian cinema. Stylistically the man is a marvel, and much of what I know about Iran has come from his extraordinary work.
56. Ousmane Sembene (Xala; Camp de Thiaroye)
The unquestioned master of African cinema. Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene was an accomplished author before becoming his nations first true filmmaker, and he spent the better part of five decades making the best of all African movies. His films are highly critical, often full of dark comedy, and he has never allowed the many financial limitations get in the way of some truly extraordinary stories. If reading his name is making you scratch your head, please check out some of his work.
55. Sergei Eisenstein (The General Line; Battleship Potemkin)
We’re getting into some legendary territory here with Eisenstein, the master of montage and the figurehead of the Soviet film movement. Although he managed to complete three excellent sound features, Eisenstein’s greatest legacy remains his silent work. There might not be a more influential silent film than Potemkin, and Eisenstein’s films and writings have become a veritable textbook in film editing. His later work pioneered deep focus photography and established a unique bit of versatility.
54. Bela Tarr (Satantango; Damnation)
In the realm of depressing and dreary Eastern European cinema filled with bleak landscapes, long shots, and sad people Bela Tarr is in a class all of his own. Long a fan of lengthy takes, starting with 1987’s Damnation Tarr decided all his films looked better in black and white and hasn’t looked back since. Satantango is over 7 hours of awesomeness and before there’s a single cut in the film it’s a pretty clear indicator of whether or not Tarr’s style is for you. He is the extreme continuation of earlier long take existential European art house filmmakers and his predecessors I’m sure would be proud.
53. Frederick Wiseman (Public Housing; Titicut Follies)
When it comes to cinema verite the only name you really ever need to know is Frederick Wiseman. It’s hard to rank Wiseman amongst other filmmakers because he is the only one on this list whose primary work is in documentaries. Also he is nowhere near the master manipulator that most documentarians are from Flaherty to Moore. Wiseman picks a subject, films it and offers no commentary or analysis. There are no talking heads, no clever edits just his subject in it’s natural habitat. Over the last nearly 50 years he’s had some pretty exceptional subjects as well, which might help explain why his films are so damn good. I’ve seen probably two dozen of his movies and I have no idea how he manages to make them so compelling and worthwhile. Although with many directors on this list their greatest gift is their subtlety.
52. Max Ophuls (La Ronde; There’s No Tomorrow)
Whenever a director can make the claim that he was a huge influence on Stanley Kubrick I need to pay attention. Max Ophuls spent his career bouncing from one country to another carrying his extraordinary style with him everywhere. Even his few American movies remain among the best of the late 40s. Ophuls hit his stride in the 50s in France during the twilight of his career where his four late films perfectly captured his essence. Ophuls dealt mostly with the upper classes, in period pictures, romance, and filmed all of his movies as if they were one extended waltz. Ophuls was also one of those masters of long takes long before it was fashionable, and his style truly stood out amongst all his peers.
51. Yasujiro Ozu (Early Summer; Good Morning)
Amongst all the many idiosyncratic foreign directors out there, few created a style unto themselves quite like Yasujiro Ozu. Frankly put, no one seems to have even attempted to make a movie like Ozu in the 50 odd years since his passing. The king of Japanese cinema, Ozu spent his early days bouncing around different genres before eventually settling on the Japanese family structure. Many of his films are simply different aspects of family relationships and so many of those films are transcendent. I’ve always been a fan of the films that seemed a little out of character, whether it be Where are the Dreams of Youth?, Tokyo Twilight, or Good Morning, but it’s hard to argue with what his bread and butter were.
50. D. W. Griffith (Intolerance; Birth of a Nation)
When it comes to historical importance, few can even begin to match the legacy of D. W. Griffith. Granted much of that legacy was built up by Griffith himself, but in the 1910s the man had no peers in all of world cinema. Even today Intolerance remains one of the all time greatest films, and as polarizing as Birth of a Nation might be, it’s hard to deny what an extraordinary achievement it was in cinema. Griffith’s post Intolerance films are also pretty damn incredible, and he even managed to produce some unfairly overlooked sound films before fading into obscurity. You can argue though that without Griffith America might not have ever become the juggernaut of world cinema it has been.
49. Miklos Jancso (The Red and the White; Red Psalm)
Remember my comment about Szabo over Jancso a few entries back? Well this is my take on that debate. Miklos Jancso died earlier this year, but not without establishing himself as the greatest of all Hungarian directors. Jancso focused many of his films on historical events, and like Tarr after him loved to use extremely long and elaborate tracking shots. His films were often allegories of Soviet occupation and one of his most prominent themes was the abuse of power in his movies. From a purely visual sense though it was always amazing to watch this man work.
48. Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men; Y Tu Mama Tambien)
You might be noticing a pattern by now of my fondness for directors who can shoot long takes. Cuaron finally got himself a best director Oscar for his work on last year’s Gravity, and frankly it’s about damn time. Gravity is one of those rare films made where you scratch your head an wonder just how the hell they did it. In today’s Hollywood where everything up to and including the moon are CGI, it takes a lot to really impress people, and that’s what Gravity did. It doesn’t hurt that he also directed the best Harry Potter film (Prisoner of Azkaban), and I can’t praise Children of Men enough. As a filmmaker though I’m not sure if anyone is capable of making films as impressive as Cuaron right now.
47. Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise; Dazed and Confused)
It’s often a lame cliché to say someone is the voice of a generation, but when that generation is X, Richard Linklater seems to perfectly fit that description. From his first film, Linklater has been making uniquely personal films for those children of the early 90s. His animated work is extraordinary as well, and I can’t begin to recommend Waking Life and Through a Scanner Darkly enough. Dazed and Confused is still the ultimate in nostalgic high school comedy, and I haven’t even mentioned the Before trilogy. Before Sunrise, as well as it’s two follow-up films Before Sunset and Before Midnight are about the best thing to happen to cinema in the past twenty years. Oh yeah, and there are plenty of extremely long takes in those films as well, wouldn’t want to break the streak.
46. Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali; Distant Thunder)
Some topics of cinema aren't even up for debate, like who the master of suspense was or in this case who was India's greatest filmmaker. Satyajit Ray became an icon of international cinema on par with Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini during the 50s and maintained his status as the most important director in India for the next five decades. His films were a stark break from the mainstream Bollywood films, and he took more of a cue from Jean Renoir and the neo-realists, than his peers. Although best known for his Apu trilogy, Ray’s 60s and 70s work might have been even better. The absolute master of Bengali cinema.
45. F. W. Murnau (Sunrise; Faust)
Another in a long list of silent film pioneers, F. W. Murnau might damn well be the best of them all. During the 1920s Murnau became arguably Germany’s greatest filmmaker in a decade known for amazing filmmakers. He produced one of the most iconic horror movies ever in Nosferatu, which still might be the best vampire movie ever made. Before leaving for the US, Murnau also made the nearly title-less masterpiece The Last Laugh and the only truly exceptional adaptation of Faust. His first film in Hollywood, Sunrise however is the reason he’s on this list. It is on the short list of the greatest silent films of all time and is absolutely perfect. Sadly Murnau died a few years later before having a chance for further greatness.
44. Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating; Up Down Fragile)
Of the original five Cahiers du Cinema critics turned directors in the French New Wave, all took remarkably different paths. For Jacques Rivette, the most criminally overlooked of the bunch, he made a series of improvisational films with exceptionally large running times and a style unlike any other. His films have usually suffered a fate of poor distribution and for a very long time Out 1 (his 12 hour opus) was considered more the stuff of legend. I happened to be present for possibly Chicago’s only screening of the film over two days and it was one of those truly incredible cinematic moments. I’ve since tracked down as many of his films as I can and very rarely am I disappointed. His work is often challenging, frequently head scratching, but once in a while it’s just phenomenal.
43. Peter Watkins (La Commune: Paris 1871; Punishment Park)
The last time I made this list I might not have even known who Peter Watkins was. Over the last decade his work has probably been the high point of my movie watching. He has specialized in the mockumentary, but his films generally focus on two scenarios, either historical recreation, or hypothetical Orwellian narratives. All of his films are social commentaries, and he shoots his films like verite documentaries creating an eerie sense of reality. My first introduction to him was Punishment Park, and I honestly had to look up whether or not it was based on a real place after watching it, his movies are that damn good.
42. Francois Truffaut (Jules and Jim; The 400 Blows)
Another new wave veteran, Francois Truffaut enjoyed probably the greatest commercial success of his directors because at the end of the day he made movies he would have wanted to see growing up. Often times this resulted in lighter faire, and crowd pleasing efforts, but there certainly were some great films among them. His semi-autobiographical Antoine Donel films, particular The 400 Blows are French cinema at it’s finest. Few French directors captured the joy and wonder of cinema quite like Truffaut.
41. Roberto Rossellini (Voyage in Italy; Open City)
The second of my big 4 Italian directors, Roberto Rossellini was there at ground zero for neo-realism. Open City remains one of the most astonishing films of the 40s in terms of it’s content, violence, and in the simple wonder of how the hell it even got made. In the process Rossellini became a one man cinematic revolution. He did eventually outgrow the style, and his work with Ingrid Bergman helped usher in a whole new era of world cinema, the existential angst of the upper classes. Rossellini managed to influence damn near every filmmaker who came after him, and through him future directors like Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni got their starts.