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Category Archives: Best Directors – Living

The 50 Best Living Film Directors

Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche

I recently put together a highly subjective list of what I consider to be the 50 best living film directors. Below you will find my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As a longtime cinephile and compulsive list-maker, I’m a sucker for this kind of parlor game. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

The Top 10 (preferential order):

10. Johnnie To, Hong Kong, born April 22, 1955

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Johnnie To has directed over 50 feature films, many of them of astonishingly high quality. He’s often referred to as a “crime-film specialist” but he’s so much more than that — the best director of genre films in the world, someone equally adept with comedy, romance and fantasy as he is with the “bullet ballets” for which he’s best known. It is amazing how often To has been able to wring both genuine originality and surprising variation from familiar narrative elements, proving that filmic classicism is far from dead. As a visual stylist, his organization of space is unparalleled. And while most of his contemporaries from Hong Kong cinema’s heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s sought work opportunities abroad as soon as the industry went into seemingly irreversible decline, To admirably stayed behind; he started doing his best work after founding the production company Milky Way Image, Ltd, around the time of the 1997 Handover, and has almost single-handedly kept the local film industry alive. If anyone deserves to be referred to as the true heir of John Ford and Howard Hawks, it is Johnnie To.

Essential work: The Mission (1999), PTU (2003), Life Without Principle (2011)

9. Clint Eastwood, USA, born May 31, 1930

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Clint Eastwood’s slow, quiet transformation from stoic action movie icon to morally conscientious filmmaker who has thoughtfully deconstructed his own macho screen persona and examined the consequences of violence (in both movies and life) is one of the most gratifying success stories in the history of American film. In spite of the fascinating, occasionally brilliant work that Eastwood-the-director turned in from the early 1970s through the early 2000s (especially the one-two punch of Unforgiven and A Perfect World), it wasn’t until after 2002’s Blood Work, when he retired the Dirty Harry persona for good, that Eastwood began making his best films – dark, artful melodramas like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and that most elegiac of elegies, Gran Torino. In recent interviews he has vowed to keep working as long as Manoel de Oliveira. Here’s hoping.

Essential work: Unforgiven (1992), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), J. Edgar (2011)

8. Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, born 07/17/1956

Seeing Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time at Chicago’s old Film Center (in the back of the Art Institute) in February of 1995 remains one of the great film-going experiences of my life. I emerged from the theater as if from a strange and wonderful dream; who the devil, I wondered, had made this beguiling historical epic with its blurry, impressionistic fight scenes, mournful meditations on unrequited love and Ennio Morricone-style synthesizer score? Witnessing Wong’s signature style continue to unfold over poppy, contemporary, urban stories like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together was like awaiting new album releases from a favorite rock band, one that had managed to miraculously recapture the zeitgeist over and over again. Then with In the Mood for Love and 2046, Wong shifted gears, applying a more formal, stately and restrained visual style to his pet themes of romantic longing and the passage of time. After the minor, American-made My Blueberry Nights, Wong returned to Hong Kong — and returned to form — with the mature and profound kung fu epic The Grand Master.

Essential work: Chungking Express (1994), The Ashes of Time (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000)

7. Martin Scorsese, USA, born 11/17/1942

Martin Scorsese is the archetypal American cinephile-filmmaker, a passionate artist whose movies are informed as much by his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cinema as they are by his Catholic upbringing in New York’s Little Italy. He may always be best remembered for his work during the “movie brat” era (especially the modern classics Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), when he brought a European art-film sensibility to classic Hollywood genre fare and helped redefine American screen acting besides. But apart from a few missteps here and there (New York, New York, Bringing Out the Dead), the man’s entire career has been a model of intelligent, dependable craftsmanship, shot through with an obvious love for the act of making movies. I’m especially grateful for recent works like No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and Shutter Island (by far the best of his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio). Whatever Scorsese does in the future, I’ll be there opening weekend.

Essential work: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990)

6. Agnes Varda, France, born May 30, 1928

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At 87 years old, Agnes Varda is one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers as well as one of the last living links to the heroic era known as the French New Wave. Although less well known than Nouvelle Vague counterparts like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Varda virtually kick-started the movement single-handedly in 1955 with La Pointe Courte, a film about a crumbling marriage told against the backdrop of life in a rural fishing village. In the 60 years since, Varda has alternated between (and occasionally blended) documentary and fiction techniques in a series of provocative films that have often showcased marginalized figures, and the films always remain grounded in a vital feminist perspective.

Essential work: Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cleo de 5 a 7) (1962), Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) (1985) and The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse) (2000).

5. Richard Linklater, USA, born July 30, 1960

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Richard Linklater auspiciously burst onto the American movie scene with his 1991 feature Slacker, a plotless examination of the lives of dozens of Austinites that takes place over the course of a single day, and almost-singlehandedly spearheaded an indie filmmaking revolution in the process. Since then he has continued to admirably create films, inside and outside of Hollywood, that are both formally innovative and accessible to general audiences — including experiments in rotoscoping animation (Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) and narratives that experiment with extended real-time sequences, many of which take place in a span of 24 hours or less (Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, Tape, the Before trilogy, etc). Linklater’s films also tend to be good-natured comedies that are notably absent of villains while also never shying away from some of the harsher truths about contemporary American life (even Greg Kinnear’s fast-food advertising exec in the shockingly anti-capitalist Fast Food Nation comes across as likable and sympathetic). Perhaps most impressively, Linklater is the one director of his generation who has inarguably gotten better over time; his 12-years-in-the-making 2014 feature Boyhood stands as his masterpiece to date — with his beloved Before trilogy (1995-2013), perhaps the greatest motion-picture trilogy of all time, not far behind.

Essential work: Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014)

4. Claire Denis (France), born April 21, 1946

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France’s Claire Denis was a late bloomer: after working as an assistant director for years (to Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and others), she didn’t make her own first feature until 1988 when she was 42 years old. She has certainly made up for lost time, going from strength to strength in a series of innovative films that function as psychological x-rays of contemporary France — including its relationship to post-colonial Africa (Chocolat, Beau Travail, White Material) where she grew up. Denis has also often reworked motifs (the term “adapt” is not apt) by artists she admires — including Herman Melville (Beau Travail), Jean-Luc Nancy (The Intruder), Yasujiro Ozu (35 Shots of Rum) and William Faulkner (Bastards) in a highly personal vein that always emphasizes, to the consternation of her detractors, feeling over “story.” But Denis’ combination of tactile cinematography (by her longtime D.P. Agnes Godard) with non-linear editing and indelible music cues (usually courtesy of the soulful British chamber-pop group the Tindersticks) adds up to something singular, vital and very female-centric. There’s nobody else like her and it’s impossible to imagine contemporary cinema without her.

Essential work: Beau Travail (1999), The Intruder (L’intrus) (2004), Bastards (Les salauds) (2013)

3. David Lynch, USA, born 01/20/1946

David Lynch is the only true surrealist currently working in the American cinema and thus his contribution to the medium has been invaluable. The only thing more impressive than Lynch’s impeccable painterly eye and meticulous attention to sound design is his ironclad integrity; after selling out with Dune in 1984, Lynch has always ploughed his own furrow, seemingly regardless of critical or audience expectations. This has led to periods where the “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” has found himself commercially unpopular and/or critically unfashionable (in particular during the seven years encompassing the American release of Wild at Heart through the tepid responses to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway). But, my God, just look at the career highlights that can result when a boundary-pushing director works without a net: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, The Straight Story and the mind-blowing, experimental “twin peaks” of Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE.

Essential work: Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Mulholland Drive (2002)

2. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, born 04/08/1947

Barring John Ford, I doubt that any other film director has ever created a body of work that functions as such a thorough and highly personal exploration of his country’s history. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s unmistakable visual style, predicated on long takes, long shots and low-key performances, chronicles Taiwan from the beginning of the 20th century (the second segment of Three Times), through World War II (Good Men, Good Women), to Taiwan’s handover from Japan to China in the tumultuous postwar years (City of Sadness), to the migration of rural Taiwanese people to city centers in the 1960s (Dust in the Wind), to the depiction of aimless, disaffected Taipei youth at the turn of the millenium (Goodbye, South, Goodbye), to 21st century global snapshots of expatriate Taiwanese in Japan (Cafe Lumiere) and France (Flight of the Red Balloon). But like his hero Yasujiro Ozu, who was once considered “too Japanese” by western film distributors, Hou’s movies are timeless and universal enough to have shaken this American viewer to the core.

Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), The Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Three Times (2005)

1. Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, born 12/03/1930

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Would you please welcome the poet laureate of the cinema, the voice of the promise of the ’60’s counterculture, the guy who forced film criticism into bed with filmmaking and revolutionized the language of movies, who found Marxism and disappeared into a haze of armchair theorizing, who emerged to find video, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’70s and suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest work of his career beginning in the late ’80s…Ladies and gentlemen, Monsieur Jean-Luc ‘Cinema’ Godard!”

Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989 – 1998)

Runners-Up (alphabetical by family name)

11. Maren Ade (Germany)
Essential work: Toni Erdmann (2016), Everyone Else (2009)

12. Pedro Almodovar (Spain)
Essential work: Talk to Her (Hable con ella) (2002), The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (2011)

13. Paul Thomas Anderson (USA)
Essential work: There Will Be Blood (2007), Inherent Vice (2014)

14. Thomas Arslan (Germany)
Essential work: A Fine Day (Der Schone Tag) (2001), In the Shadows (Im Schatten) (2010)

15. Olivier Assayas (France)
Essential work: Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) (2008), Something in the Air (Apre mai) (2012)

16. Marco Bellocchio (Italy)
Essential work: Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca) (1965), Vincere (2009)

17. James Benning (USA)
Essential work: One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), Deseret (1995)

18. Kathryn Bigelow (USA)
Essential work: The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

19. Bong Joon-ho (S. Korea)
Essential work: Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006)

20. Charles Burnett (USA)
Essential work: Killer of Sheep (1977), To Sleep with Anger (1990)

21. Jane Campion (Australia)
Essential work: The Piano (1993), Top of the Lake (2013)

22. John Carpenter (USA)
Essential work: Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982)

23. Pedro Costa (Portugal)
Essential work: In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda) (2000), Colossal Youth (Juventude Em Marcha) (2006)

24. David Cronenberg (Canada)
Essential work: A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007)

25. Arnaud Desplechin (France)
Essential work: Kings and Queen (Rois et reine) (2004), A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel) (2008)

26. Stanley Donen (USA)
Essential work: On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

27. Victor Erice (Spain)
Essential work: The Spirt of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) (1973), Dream of Light (El sol del membrillo) (1992)

28. Abel Ferrara (USA)
Essential work: Bad Lieutenant (1992), Mary (2005)

29. David Fincher (USA)
Essential work: Zodiac (2007), The Social Network (2010)

30. Philippe Garrel (France)
Essential work: The Birth of Love (1993), In the Shadow of Women (2015)

31. Jonathan Glazer (UK)
Essential work: Birth (2004), Under the Skin (2013)

32. Philippe Grandrieux (France)
Essential work: La Vie Nouvelle (2002), Malgre la Nuit (2015)

33. James Gray (USA)
Essential work: Two Lovers (2008), The Immigrant (2013)

34. Alain Guiraudie (France)
Essential work: That Old Dream That Moves (Ce vieux rêve qui bouge) (2001), Stranger By the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) (2013)

35. Monte Hellman (USA)
Essential work: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974)

36. Werner Herzog (Germany)
Essential work: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Don Lope de Aguirre) (1972), Grizzly Man (2005)

37. Hong Sang-soo (S. Korea)
Essential work: Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), Woman on the Beach (2006)

38. Jia Zhangke (China)
Essential work: The World (2004), A Touch of Sin (2013)

39. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Cure (1997), Tokyo Sonata (2008)

40. Mike Leigh (UK)
Essential work: Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996)

41. Lee Chang-dong (S. Korea)
Essential work: Peppermint Candy (1999), Secret Sunshine (2007)

42. Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Iran)
Essential work: The Cyclist (1987), A Moment of Innocence (1996)

43. Terrence Malick (USA)
Essential work: Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998)

44. Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
Essential work: The Holy Girl (La nina santa) (2004), The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) (2008)

45. Elaine May (USA)
Essential work: A New Leaf (1971), Mikey and Nicky (1976)

46. Takashi Miike (Japan)
Essential work: Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001)

47. Hayao Miyazaki (Japan)
Essential work: My Neighbor Totoro (1988), The Wind Rises (2013)

48. Jafar Panahi (Iran)
Essential work: The Circle (2000), Offside (2006)

49. Park Chan-wook (S. Korea)
Essential work: JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), Oldboy (2003)

50. Christian Petzold (Germany)
Essential work: Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014)

51. Roman Polanski (Poland/USA)
Essential work: Chinatown (1974), Bitter Moon (1992)

52. Jean-Marie Straub (France/Germany)
Essential work: The Chrnoicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) (1968), Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse) (1984)

53. Bela Tarr (Hungary)
Essential work: Satantango (1994), The Turin Horse (2011)

54. Tsai Ming-Liang (Taiwan)
Essential work: The River (1997), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

55. Paul Verhoeven (Holland)
Essential work: Turkish Delight (Turks fruit) (1973), Black Book (Zwartboek) (2006)

56. Apichatpong Weerashathekul (Thailand)
Essential work: Syndromes and a Century (2007), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

57. Frederick Wiseman (USA)
Essential work: High School (1968), Near Death (1989)

Filmmakers once on this list who have since passed away:

Chantal Akerman (Belgium/France), born 06/06/50 – died 10/06/15
Essential work: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), La Captive (2000)

Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, born 12/11/1908 – died 04/02/2015

At 102 years of age, Manoel de Oliveira is by far the oldest director on this list. Incredibly, unlike a lot of the other filmmakers cited here (many of whom have either officially or unofficially retired), Oliveira is not only still active but prolific, having made at least one feature a year since 1990. This recent spate of films constitutes more than half of his body of work, which is extremely impressive considering he started directing in the silent era. Oliveira’s style is not for everyone: his movies, made in conscious opposition to Hollywood conventions, tend to be slow, deliberately paced literary adaptations centered on the theme of doomed love. But if you can find yourself in tune with the rhythm of his unique brand of filmmaking, Oliveira’s best work – including Abraham’s Valley (by far the best film adaptation of Madame Bovary I know of) and the brilliant triptych Anxiety (Inquietude) — can be both intensely cinematic and soul-stirring.

Essential work: Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraao) (1993), Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

Danièle Huillet (France/Germany), born 05/01/1936 – died 10/09/2006
Essential work: The Chrnoicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) (1968), Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse) (1984)

Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, born 07/22/1940 – died 07/04/2016

When Iranian cinema began making inroads at international film festivals in the 1990s, Abbas Kiarostami was its chief ambassador. His “Koker Trilogy,” comprised of Where is the Friend’s Home, Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, was for many viewers, including me, an exhilarating introduction to an heretofore unknown world of neo-neorealist cinema: one that astonished with its unique mixture of humanism and self-reflexivity, naturalistic performances and social criticism, formal elegance and documentary-style filmmaking techniques. Little did we realize this trilogy was merely the tip of the iceberg; from Close-Up to The Taste of Cherry to The Wind Will Carry Us to more experimental works like Ten and Shirin, to 2010’s transcendent Certified Copy, no other filmmaker of the past two decades, not even Jean-Luc Godard, has so intelligently and slyly provoked audiences to interrogate their own responses to the images and sounds of his filmography.

Essential work: Close-Up (1991), The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

Jerry Lewis (USA)
Essential work: The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963)

Chris Marker (France), born 02/29/1921 – died 07/29/2012
Essential work: Le joli mai (1963), Sans Soleil (1983)

Nagisa Oshima (Japan), born 03/31/1932 – died 01/15/2013

With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting “gay samurai” film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.

Essential work: The Sun’s Burial (1960), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)

Alain Resnais, France, born 06/03/1922 – died March 1, 2014

Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’ output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’ status as a giant of the medium.

Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Jacques Rivette, France, born 03/01/1928 – died 01/29/2016

Of the five core directors of the Nouvelle Vague, Jacques Rivette got off to the slowest start. Paris Belongs to Us and The Nun are good small movies but neither hinted at the greatness, the innovation or the mammoth, elaborately conceived structures of what was to come. In the four hour plus L’amour Four (1969), the twelve and a half hour Out 1 (1971) and the relatively lean three hour and thirteen minute Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Rivette pushed the cinematic medium as far as it could go. Each of these films exhaustively explored different facets of Rivette’s obsessions: the nature of acting, the relationship between performance and life, the paranoid conspiracy theory plot, the concept of secret societies, and the decline of the revolutionary ideals of May 1968. Out 1 alone confirms Rivette’s status as one of the greatest living directors; the extensive running time allows four seemingly separate narrative strands to very slowly become entwined in a manner that is reminiscent of literature more than cinema (Balzac’s La Comédie humaine is repeatedly referenced throughout) while simultaneously serving up pleasures that are uniquely, sublimely cinematic. The movies Rivette made between 1969 and 1974 are the apotheosis of the French New Wave. If his more recent work feels like a conventional retread of the same material, it is pointless to feel disappointed. Rivette set the bar impossibly high for everyone, including himself.

Essential work: L’amour Fou (1969), Out 1 (1971), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau – Phantom Ladies Over Paris) (1974)

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