Saturday, August 30, 2014
My Top 100 Directors: 20-1
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.