Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Top 100 Directors: 80-61

80. Raoul Ruiz (Manoel on the Island of Marvels; The Three Crowns of the Sailor)
Chilean exile turned extremely prolific filmmaker, Raoul Ruiz made upwards of 100 films over the course of his career.  I’ve seen about a fifth of them, and that’s enough to put him on this list.  Like many of my favorite filmmakers Ruiz likes to make films in an often surreal fashion.  His early work especially is politically motivated, but Ruiz found a way to lend his style to every type of project he took on.  Some where glamorous, others were simply ways to fill his obsessive need to keep working.  I wrote about him during his passing, and I’m sure that eulogy did better justice than this paragraph.

79. Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels; Unfaithfully Yours)
Like Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges rose up the ranks at Paramount from screenwriter to director in the early 40s.  Whereas Wilder turned that into a long prolific career complete with numerous Oscars, Sturges had a star that burned incredibly bright before ultimately fading into obscurity.  One of the earliest writer-directors in the studio system to have creative control, he set the bar for film comedy in the 40s and his work still holds up remarkably well.  After his lucrative career at Paramount ended he bounced around and made a series of disastrous pictures that were either outright flops, or re-edited and buried.  However from Christmas in July through Hail the Conquering Hero, few in Hollywood were ever better.

78. William Wyler (Ben-Hur; The Best Years of Our Lives)
Another master of classic Hollywood cinema, William Wyler became a sticking point in the old auteur debate.  Some argued that his technical skill and excellent filmmaking skills were irrelevant because he didn’t put his own signature on his pictures.  A silly idea to me, Wyler falls between the two great schools of directors, he was great because of his great films, and those films were great because of him.  Wyler was using deep focus photography probably earlier than anyone in Hollywood, and it was his frequent collaborations with Gregg Toland that led to Toland working with Ford and eventually Orson Welles.  A great fan of staging in depth, Wyler was the ultimate Hollywood professional, taking home three best director Oscars, and making great movies in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. 

77. Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist; Last Tango in Paris)
There are a number of directors who seem charmed at the start.  A run of impeccable films that seem to get better with each release.  For Bernardo Bertolucci he was one of these filmmakers.  He got his start writing for Passolini, then almost at the same time directed his first film The Grim Reaper.  He steadily improved until the one-two punch of The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris, then came the downswing.  He followed those two masterpieces up with the overly long hot mess of 1900, then the bafflingly uncomfortable Luna, and the largely forgettable Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man.  He rebounded tremendously with The Last Emperor which wound up being his greatest success.  The years since have seen some hits and misses, but for a brief period in the early 70s Bertolucci seemed destined to be Europe’s finest filmmaker.

76. Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail; Brazil)
Terry Gilliam has made a long and interesting career out of being one hell of an oddball.  The only American in Monty Python, he was best known for those incredibly bizarre animated interludes in their Flying Circus.  In the post-Python era though Gilliam found himself making some truly bizarre and occasionally brilliant movies.  Nearly all of his films have a surreal angle to them, and like many of my favorites Gilliam was no stranger to wide angle distortions.  Recently he seems to have hit a wall with many of his projects falling apart in mid-production or outright failing.  However I challenge you to find another filmmaker with the same warped point of view on the world as Gilliam, whose visual sense has always been superb.  Not to mention the fact that he directed the funniest movie in the history of film.

75. Michael Powell (A Matter of Life and Death; Peeping Tom)
Along with his screenwriting/producing partner Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell absolutely dominated British cinema throughout the 40s and early 50s.  His eye for color was unmatched, and throughout the decade they just seemed to keep getting better.  Eventually the partnership fell apart and Powell made one spectacular movie that got him into enough hot water to earn a lengthy ban from filmmaking with Peeping Tom.  Considered a British answer to Psycho, the film was far ahead of it’s time in examining the psycho-sexual horror relationship.  Powell settled into something of an elder statesman after Peeping Tom, directing a few films but his legacy was firmly established in those multiple collaborations with Pressburger.

74. Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front; Of Mice and Men)
It’s a pretty safe bet that if you directed my second favorite film of all time you’ll probably wind up on a list of my top 100 directors.  Milestone actually got his start as a first rate comedic director, and helmed arguably Harold Lloyd’s best feature, The Kid Brother.  However with All Quiet on the Western Front Milestone was truly without peer in American cinema.  Milestone didn’t let the limitations of the new sound equipment get in his way and freely moved his camera all over the place.  Staging elaborate scenes in depth, constantly tracking all over the place, and perhaps best of all not using a note of a musical score for what’s damn near the greatest movie ever.  His career carried into the 60s, but arguably his last great masterpiece was 1939’s Of Mice and Men, a film so damn good and heart breaking I’ve been a little scared to watch it again.

73. Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses; Death by Hanging)
Every damn country had a new wave of some kind in the 50s and 60s.  Japan was arguably the closest to France in terms of overall innovation and impact.  Of the new school of Japanese directors, none were as interesting or enigmatic as Nagisa Oshima.  Oshima made plenty of auteur proponents scratch their heads because he simply refused to develop a signature style.  If he made one film exclusively in long takes, he’s follow it up with enough edits to make Sergei Eisenstein jealous.  Shoot a film in deep focus with a wide angle lens, next up would be a film with flat depth shot entirely with telephoto lenses.  His themes seemed to center on the morally depraved and like Shohei Immamura or Yasuzo Masumara he liked to deal with obsessed and often despicable people.  His greatest commercial and artistic success was In the Realm of the Senses and it’s still a film that’ll make you wonder how the hell it ever got made. 

72. David Fincher (Fight Club; Zodiac)
Arguably the best of all the filmmakers who got their start making music videos, David Fincher is an American stylist without peer.  It took quite some time for people to realize how damn good of a filmmaker he was, and believe it or not Fight Club was largely overlooked upon it’s original release.  By the time he made Zodiac however people were paying attention.  Fincher seems like a lock to get an Oscar nomination with each release now and he hasn’t really disappointed.  His work on House of Cards as well was simply outstanding.  Fincher might be the only director on my list with impressive cinema, TV, and music video credits on his resume. 

71. Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings; Dead Alive)
New Zealand’s best known director was a cult favorite of mine for years.  One of the first directors I decided I needed to pay attention to.  I tracked down old bootleg copies of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and the version of Dead Alive called Brain Dead long before Jackson went to the Shire.  The tremendous success of the Lord Of the Rings trilogy earned Jackson damn near all the money and put him on a short list of the best known directors working today.  His post LOTR work has been spotty, although I did love King Kong, I’m holding out hope that when he finishes the begrudging Hobbit films he’ll get back to doing something amazing, preferably with a lawnmower and some drug dealing muppets. 

70. Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times; The Gold Rush)
I know this might seem criminally low for Chaplin, but my list, I make the rules.  Chaplin had a truly unique career, one that enabled him creative control for 50 solid years.  It didn’t take long for Chaplin to grow out of the idiotic nonsense of Keystone, his first company.  He stumbled onto the formula of comedy + pathos = gold.  Chaplin was notoriously insecure in his private life and found himself quite the womanizer, leading to multiple marriages and enough children to fill a baseball team.  Chaplin was also never in any rush to get his work out.  He took his sweet time between projects, and often filmed without a script, just allowing for hours of improvisation where he’d hone his bits to perfection.  His stretch from The Gold Rush to The Great Dictator are among the finest films anyone will ever make.  Even his later sound career had a few outstanding films, notably Monsieur Verdoux and my favorite A King in New York.

69. Luchino Visconti (Rocco and His Brothers; Vaghe Stelle dell’Orsa)
The first of my “big 4” Italian directors, Luchino Visconti had undoubtedly the easiest upbringing.  Part of the aristocracy he found himself like many spoiled rich kids thinking about Marxism and fighting for leftist causes.  Not bad to take the left when living in a fascist state, Visconti’s earliest films, Ossessione, La Terra Trema, and Bellissima all focused on people far below the Count’s social status.  Great as some of these films were Visconti found himself hitting his stride when he started to tackle his own personal reflections, most famously The Leopard.  For my money though Rocco and His Brothers is about as great of an Italian film as you’ll ever see.  Whether dealing with luxury or poverty, Visconti always made his films compelling.

68. Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds; Kanal)
In the 50s, Poland was one of many Soviet satellites to open state funded film schools.  Of that first crop of Polish filmmakers none have had quite the impact as Andrzej Wajda.  Wajda has consistently turned a skeptical mirror up at communism and the myth of the state.  His earliest films, particularly Ashes and Diamonds are masterpieces of deep focus claustrophobia and self loathing and doubting would-be patriots.  With Man of Marble and it’s sequel Man of Iron, Wajda got even more critical of the cult of heroism often manufactured by the party.  Still active at 88, he’s received damn near every award you can name and has remained Poland’s greatest filmmaker.

67. Josef Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel; Anatahan)
One of the original auteurs, Josef Von Sternberg has long been the subject of many meticulous study and over-analyzation.  Von Sternberg was a world class master of light and shadow and frequently worked as his own un-credited cinematographer.  A temperamental director he fought with every producer he came in contact with.  When his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich began losing money for Paramount the director found himself struggling to find projects afterwards.  He did manage to direct a few worthwhile films, notably the Shanghai Gesture (1941) and arguably the best film of his career Anatahan (1953).  Von Sternberg’s best work though probably runs from 1927’s Underworld through The Scarlet Empress (1934).  The man was a walking textbook on movie lighting, and no matter how absurd some of his stories might have been, there was no comparison for the visuals.

66. Wes Anderson (Rushmore; The Darjeeling Limited)
The king of the hipster directors, Wes Anderson has been making variations on the same movie for the last 18 or so years.  Never one to get too serious or melodramatic his work is often hilarious without reverting to below the belt slapstick.  I can only say, seeing any of his movies is probably all you need to know about how the man operates.  We might also have him to thank for reminding the world how awesome Bill Murray is.  Not sure the man has a bad movie under his belt, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll release next.  When it comes to directors who make their movies great, I’d say Anderson is doing that as well as anyone these days.

65. James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein; The Invisible Man)
British born James Whale was one of the few standouts in fledgling Universal studios back in the early sound era.  He found himself a bit of a golden boy when Frankenstein forever linked the studio with movie monsters, and followed it up with some of the best films of his era.  Never one to take things too seriously, Whale made the sequel a slightly campy horror film with more than a touch of humor.  His rendition of The Invisible Man is still surprisingly dark, but Whale wasn’t just capable of making iconic monster movies.  He directed probably the best version of Show Boat (1936) and helmed one of the era’s best romantic melodramas with Waterloo Bridge (1931).  His film career ended far too early, but not before leaving a legacy of great, varied movies, all with a sense of incredible design and a little humor.

64. Glauber Rocha (Black God White Devil; The Lion Has Seven Heads)
Although he only lived for 42 years, Glauber Rocha had one of the most incredible careers in all of South American cinema.  I won’t even begin to make sense of some of his politics, the man was the loudest and most defiant voice in third world revolutionary cinema.  He was extremely anti-capitalist and even advocated abolishing money entirely.  Following a political change in Brazil in 1971, Rocha went into voluntary exile where he bounced around before ultimately dying of a lung infection.  His early films reflect an angry, enthusiastic, and often violent advocacy for change.  A fan of using mythology and folklore in his films, Rocha was truly one of a kind and the leading figure of the Cinema Novo movement.  His films are an experience unlike anything else.

63. Zhang Yimou (To Live; Raise the Red Lantern)
Yimou was once among my absolute favorite directors period.  The best known member of China’s 5th Generation of filmmakers, Yimou rose to international acclaim with a serious of beautiful, yet highly critical films in the late 80s and early 90s.  Following a sense of mellowed out politics following the domestic banning of To Live, he went low key and still produced some interesting films.  Starting with 2002’s Hero though, Yimou went full on sell out and ventured into the world of large scale martial arts films.  I happen to love Hero, as well as House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower but I do miss the old Zhang.  His films seem to get bigger and more polished with each effort leaving almost no semblance of the man who shook things up with Red Sourghum. 

62. Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia; Boogie Nights)
The other Anderson to emerge in the mid 90s, Paul Thomas is light years away stylistically and thematically from Wes.  The protagonists of PTA’s films are usually obsessive, often self destructive people who find themselves just barely surviving the wreckage of themselves.  Not always a pleasant watch, the handful of features PTA has made over the last 20 years have all been must see cinema.  For nearly all of his films though they seem to get better with each viewing, and several of his films particularly Magnolia are so full of clues, puzzles, and Easter eggs that every viewing reveals more to the overall mystery.  He has certainly earned the right to take his sweet ass time between projects, especially when the end result is as good as it’s been.

61. Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Once Upon a Time in America)
When it comes to the Western I don’t think there is any equal to Sergio Leone, and that includes John Ford.  Leone’s vision was unlike any other, and no one in all of cinema history exploited the full potential of the wide screen format quite like he did.  His trilogy of Westerns with Clint Eastwood are still arguably the three best films of the genre, and many people would say Once Upon a Time in the West was even better.  Although he wasn’t the most prolific of directors he did prove with his final film, Once Upon a Time in America that he was capable of making great cinema in another format.  A true master of space, composition, and how to get the most nail biting showdowns in all of cinema. 

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