A few days ago, I was speaking to someone who was carefully deliberating about his favourite ten living directors. Personally, it was something that I had not really considered, much to my chagrin. I love lists. I love writing lists and I love reading lists. Despite my disorganised and disorderly psyche, the rigid and definitive structure of lists gives me some strange form of comfort. I keep a list of every movie I see in the cinema each year, and rank them based on my personal preference (I already have ten films that I’ve seen this year that I would be more than happy to see remain on my end of year top ten). Of course I have considered who my favourite directors of all time are, but I had never compiled a list of my favourite living directors.
Then on the weekend, I read an article by Richard Brody in The New Yorker about the ‘twelve greatest living narrative filmmakers’, which you can read here.
It seems as though the stars are aligning. So, in a move of blatant intellectual plagiarism, I have come up with my personal twelve favourite living narrative directors (wow that sounds like a lot of caveats). I don’t want to write a magnum opus about each director, or analyse every single detail of their style, but rather give a succinct and unsubstantiated explanation of why I love them and what makes them unique. And if all the films in my top ten of all time seem to disinterest you, then hopefully you’ll find someone’s work in this list that interests you enough to seek them out. So, in alphabetical order, my favourite living directors are…
Woody Allen has been a bit hit-and-miss of late, but his status as one of the greatest directors ever is well and truly cemented. His best films are the ones that feel most like ‘Woody Allen’ made them – madcap, neurotic, scattershot and existentially philosophical. This is why he is one of the great auteurs; his films are consumed with constant, seemingly superfluous witticisms and a willingness to break form, expectations and every wall that surrounds him – especially the fourth one. Annie Hall is possibly the funniest film I’ve ever seen, and films like this and Hannah and her Sisters prove that he is the greatest architect of romantic comedies to ever grace our screens.
Essential works: Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours
Paul Thomas Anderson
I know that many people’s lists of favourite living directors will include a different ‘Anderson’, but Paul Thomas, rather than Wes, is the true cinematic master (pun intended). His early works, notably Boogie Nights and Magnolia are exceedingly ambitious but ultimately lack cohesion, and There Will Be Blood – widely considered his masterpiece – feels a tad too fragmented and episodic to me. Yet he has such a clear and grand vision that is undeniably powerful, deconstructing stereotypical American themes like capitalism, ambition and religion with uncompromising control over his craft. The Master is easily my favourite PTA film, as it brims with his grandiose vision without the expense of perfect writing, music and cinematography. Even though most of his films may not be perfect, every one of them has a lasting impact on you.
Essential works: Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master
Bertolucci is a filmmaker who fully understands the importance of the camera in storytelling. He uses the camera in an idiosyncratic way unlike any other filmmaker, making him one of the most easily identifiable auteurs. And yet despite his frequent use of obscure angles, surrealistic images and striped, incandescent lighting, many of his films are imbued with a pointed political awareness, ensuring his style is not an end in itself. The Conformist is a stunning film that narrowly missed out on my top ten of all time, as it offers not only a visual feast of weird, arthouse cinematography and histrionically arranged visual patterns and props, but also offers one of the best filmic commentaries on fascism.
Essential works: The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor
Jane Campion is probably the best director to emerge from the Oceanic (sorry Peter Weir). But unlike Weir who works in many different styles (directing everything from Picnic at Hanging Rock to The Truman Show), Campion’s oeuvre has a consistent sumptuousness that is engrossing to watch, even if her plots tend to be a bit thin. Underneath the extravagant, often period-set exterior of her films is an exploration of the difficulties of feminine self-expression and sexuality; an idea that is no more evident than in her extraordinarily simple yet original film The Piano, which is undoubtedly the pinnacle of her career.
Essential works: The Piano, In the Cut, Bright Star
Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen brothers are not only my favourite living directors, but are also my favourite directors of all time. Every one of their films is a postmodern subversion of genre and expectations, yet every one of their films offers something new to the Coen table. This makes the Coens some of the most interesting auteurs ever, with their deadpan dialogue, constant exploration of the concept of contentment and frequent collaboration with people like cinematographer Roger Deakins and actors like John Goodman, George Clooney, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand (who is also Joel’s wife). Blood Simple plays on film noir, Raising Arizona plays on the screwball comedy and No Country for Old Men plays on the Western genre. Then films like Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and Fargo are so wonderfully bat-shit crazy that they could be categorised in a multitude of genres, and thus transcend any categorisation at all. And, in case you haven’t heard, Fargo is my favourite movie of all time.
Essential works: Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
These Belgian brothers have an uncanny knack of creating emotionally beautiful and uncompromising films without a hint of sentimentality. Their films provide stark recollections of lower-class Belgian society, and the struggles of their young protagonists to integrate into the world around them. They won the Palme d’Or for Rosetta in 1999 and The Child in 2005, and consequently it is difficult to identify which film is their masterpiece. In my opinion, the majority of their films are subtle, heart-wrenching and unsentimental vignettes within one coherent whole about Belgian life.
Essential works: Rosetta, The Son, The Child
Until recently, I was unaware that Godard was still a prolific filmmaker. This year, he has a film coming out called Goodbye to Language. It’s in 3D. He’s 82 years old. This is the director who, along with the late Francois Truffaut, was one of the key players in the French New Wave. His hip, unpolished and dialogue-driven debut feature Breathless is an absolute landmark in cinema, influencing everyone from Soderbergh to Tarantino, and remains the highpoint of his filmography. Godard has a huge filmography that I have barely scratched the surface of, but I love everything that I’ve seen. He has described Goodbye to Language as a film about “about a man and his wife who no longer speak the same language. The dog they take on walks then intervenes and speaks”. What more do you need to know? He’s a genius.
Essential works: Breathless, Contempt, Weekend
Michael Haneke’s films get under your skin like no other filmmaker can, and often you can’t see how he is managing to do that. All his films are deeply disturbing, even 2012’s largely tender and humanistic Amour, and uncomfortable to watch, and yet I can never look away. He makes films with purpose and an utmost control over the craft, examining the nature of violence and filmmaking itself in an unsettling, uncompromising fashion. The polarising Funny Games (of which you can read my full review here: https://jcplikesfilms.wordpress.com/2013/06/30/10-funny-games-directed-by-michael-haneke-1997/) does this in the clearest and most didactic way, and yet films like Cache and The White Ribbon explore the lasting effects of violence in a more subtle manner. Love him or hate him, his films are always unforgettable.
Essential works: Funny Games (1997), Cache, The White Ribbon
No filmmaker captures contemporary Asia quite like Wong Kar-wai. His kinetic pacing is juxtaposed against his fluid photography and use of slow motion editing, giving an immersive and somewhat dislocating aura to his films. Rather than being a flaw, his jolting and expressionistic style, muted colours and restrained imagery distinguish Wong Kar-wai’s films as true modern works of art. His expressionistic style is no more evident than in the fact that he rarely follows a concrete screenplay, and his films involve stories that could not be portrayed in any other medium. Take 1994’s Chungking Express, the fable about the troubled love lives of two Hong Kong policemen, which is overflowing with frantic camera movements and vivacious bursts of colour, but somehow remains as beautifully restrained as his masterpiece In the Mood for Love – one of the best films ever made.
Essential works: Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, 2046
Iranian cinema exploded in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to filmmakers like Jafar Panahi, the director of The Circle (not the TV show with Chrissie Swan) and Asghar Farhadi, the director of A Separation, but the most important and distinctive of all the Iranian New Wave directors is Abbas Kiarostami. Few contemporary filmmakers are as languid, poetic and allegorical as Kiarostami, and his films transcend the boundaries of fiction and reality. Kiarostami manages to create a supreme sense of verisimilitude when he explores the ways his characters deal with death, but simultaneously distances his audience through extensive use of long-shots (as the end of Through the Olive Trees proves). Close-Up is his most astonishing film, showing his documentarian style in his allegory about a man who impersonates a real-life filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Essential works: Close-Up, Through the Olive Trees, Certified Copy
“It was kind of a wash for me in terms of learning something as an actor, because Terry uses actors in a different way – he’ll have the camera on you and then tilt up and go up to a tree, so you think, ‘Who’s more important in this – me or the tree?’ But you don’t ask him, because you don’t want to know the answer.” This was what Ben Affleck said about working with Terence Malick on To the Wonder, and I think it perfectly encapsulates Malick’s directorial style: you’ll either love him or hate him. His films are allegorical and impenetrable, slow and solemn, and are often concerned with the universal, rather than the personal. Days of Heaven is just as concerned with the American Dream itself as it is with the personal story of Richard Gere’s Bill, and The Tree of Life seems even more concerned with the origins of the universe and the transience of life than the esoteric story of a family in 1950s America. His films wash over you unlike any other director’s do (perhaps excepting Tarkovsky), and leave you physically shaken by the natural beauty he is able to capture.
Essential works: Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life
It’s hard to know where to starty with Marty. You’ve all seen at least one of his films, and though he is often associated with his gangster flicks, it is his versatile ability to carry his monumental talent with the filmic craft (and his knowledge of its history) across a range of engrossing stories that makes him one of the best filmmakers ever. It is Scorsese who has proven to be the most lasting of all the New Hollywood directors; while we rarely hear about Coppola and Friedkin anymore, Scorsese continues to make incredible movies. Though I didn’t care for Shutter Island, I absolutely love The Departed and even Hugo, and I’m itching with excitement for The Wolf of Wall Street. And he makes movies: epic and grand movies that immerse you into the vivid onscreen world of the characters, and really make you feel. There is an underlying continuity to Scorsese’s films, not only through his collaboration with actors (transforming actors like Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio into the actors of their respective generations) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, but also through all his films’ emotional scale. His films are all strikingly ambitious, kinetic and confronting, but in their own particular way – just look at the black-and-white photography of Raging Bull, or the lengthy Steadycam shot in Goodfellas. And he was willing to satirise himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is enough for me.
Essential works: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas
There are, of course, many directors who could not fit into my top 12.
Many apologies to Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, Roman Polanski, Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, Wim Wenders, Mike Leigh, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmush, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Kathryn Bigelow, Alain Resnais and Pedro Almodovar: you were just pipped at the post. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to Werner Herzog, who also just missed out on this list. If this was a list of filmmakers in general, rather than narrative filmmakers, Herzog would have easily made the list based purely on his prolific output of wonderful documentaries recently.
Do you agree with me? Who have I forgotten? Who are your favourite living directors?
Let me know in the comments!