Thursday, August 28, 2014
My Top 100 Directors: 40-21
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.