To make things a bit different for my list, and to perhaps give some credit to deserving directors who don’t always get recognition, I am not doing a “Best Directors of All-Time” list. Instead, I’m going to look at who I believe are the ten best directors working now. Who is consistently delivering the most consistent, compelling cinema, right now? For this week, my top ten is in no particular order, as I don’t think it would be fair to rank a group of directors who are different, but all great in their own way. I hope you enjoy reading, and watching, and replying.
1) STEVEN SPIELBERG
Now, I know I said this is not an all-time best director’s list. But if it was, this man would surely be number one on my list. Yet, despite being the most successful, famous director working today, I actually believe he is underrated! The perception was that his films are too commercial, and they lack any sense of his identity, his authorial stamp. I don’t see the so-called commerciality of Spielberg’s films as a flaw, so much as an indicator of Spielberg’s great skill in tapping into the public imagination, though it should be mentioned that he’s made plenty of non-commercial films too.
Arguably Spielberg’s greatest strength as a director is his versatility, his ability to try his hand at just about anything – drama or comedy, period piece or sci-fi, blockbuster or small, personal film – and in most cases, pull it off absolutely convincingly. What other director could have made both “E.T.” and “Schindler’s List”? “Duel” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? “Jurassic Park” and “Saving Private Ryan”? “Jaws” and “Empire of the Sun”? “Munich” and “War of the Worlds” in the same year?
I admire the fact that Steven Spielberg is selfless as a director, as he will be truly serving the story, and creating cinematic worlds that truly draw you in. His films are accessible, and many cases seem to be simple, but the best ones are filled with enough hidden depths and nuances – or just dazzling iconic moments – to keep them fresh and exciting for viewing, after viewing, after viewing. For me, nobody truly captures the magic of the movies better than Spielberg.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: JAWS
There are so many wonderful, classic films can be chosen from his collection. But for me, his finest hour remains the film that propelled his career into the stratosphere in the first place. “Jaws”. Excellently acted, and hugely influential in the shaping of the summer blockbuster market, “Jaws” still stands best as a masterclass in directing. The exhilarating scenes with Brody, Hooper and Quint chasing the shark on the Orca are about as close to pure cinema as you can get.
Often hailed as the greatest director alive today, Scorsese finally got his long-overdue Oscar this year. As embarrassingly late as that Best Director Oscar was, I don’t think it’s fair that some have called it an apology award for past efforts, for a high standard of work long gone. Oh, without a doubt, his work in the 1970s, running into the 1980s, is fantastic. That highly influential “great period” has inspired many of today’s most revered directors, and actors too. But Scorsese has never been one to rest on his laurels. The 1990s saw Scorsese become more and more ambitious with the visual sty lings of his work, injecting a vibrant kinetic energy into the camera work of films as varied as “Goodfellas” and “The Age of Innocence”
Scorsese is a master of the character study. Or should I say character dissection? Because whether it’s the low-budget grime of “Mean Streets”, or the Oscar-baiting gloss of “The Aviator”, Scorsese’s films feel positively filthy. He has a real knack for taking us out of our comfort zone, and placing us in positions where we feel too intimate with a character.
Robert DeNiro, Ray LaMotta, Travis Bickle, and my personal favourite, the criminally underrated Rupert Pupkin are the characters who have insured Scorsese’s status among the all-time directing greats. But what gets him his place in this list of the best current directors is his newer monsters. Bill The Butcher in “Gangs of New York”. Howard Hughes in “The Aviator”, less monster than plagued with an illness that is slowly turning him into one. And in “The Departed”, there’s of course Jack Nicholson’s great performance as Frank Costello, but the real dark heart of the film is Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan. “The Departed” is a film full of character studies, character dissections. It’s the best film Scorsese’s made in years.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: GOODFELLAS
It’s better than “The Godfather”. Don’t tell anyone I told you that, though, keep it between us. The scene below is the textbook example of Scorsese’s aforementioned skill in making us extremely uncomfortable in the presence of an explosive character. Say hello to Tommy DeVito.
3) PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON
A real cinematic director, with his second film – “Boogie Nights” – Anderson (aged just 26 at the time) created a film hailed by critics at the time as the best Martin Scorsese film Scorsese never made. Indeed, the influence of other directors on Anderson’s work is often brought up. “Boogie Nights” is cited as his love letter to Scorsese. “Magnolia” is his love letter to Altman. “There Will Be Blood” is his love letter to Kubrick. But it would be doing Anderson a great injustice to characterize him solely as a director tributing the work of others, as with each of his films he brings a unique, vibrant energy that can truly be called his own.
More than any director out there today, Paul Thomas Anderson stirs up in me an excitement for the visual possibilities of film, the artistry and technique of constructing a scene. From the audacious opening whirly-tracking shot of “Boogie Nights”, to the fast-cutting assault on the senses of “Magnolia”, to the intense isolation of Barry Egan in “Punch Drunk Love”, to the ominous, unearthly opening fade-in of “There Will Be Blood”, Anderson can craft an image to instantly set the tone for the entire film ahead, and perfectly embody the heart of the film in its opening seconds.
But this technical skill would mean nothing if Anderson had no touch with the humanity of his dramas. And thankfully, his camera always seems to find its way back into the heart of a deeply personal conflict. Anderson’s films are filled with wretched fathers and angry sons, with people on downward spirals and quests for redemption. Anderson can take characters who are flawed, or even vile – Dirk Diggler, Frank T.J. Mackey, Daniel Plainview – and makes them not only captivating, but appealing too. He is just a master of drawing you into the drama. It’s no secret he makes long movies – “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” both clock in at around 2 and a half hours, “Magnolia” lasts for over 3, but his films never feel long. They whiz by in no time, so lost in his worlds and characters we become.
Some have labelled Anderson as pretentious. I disagree. Like I say, Paul Thomas Anderson is not for everyone, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, you’ll be treated to universally-excellent work from the man I believe to be the most exciting director working today.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: MAGNOLIA
This was a really tough decision to make. See, I just saw “There Will Be Blood” earlier this week, and it blew me away. I was astounded. It could very well be Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest work. But here’s the issue. “Magnolia” is my favorite film. If I concede that “There Will Be Blood” is superior, do I then have to accept “There Will Be Blood” as my favorite film? I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with that. It’s excellent. It certainly could be. But it’s too soon to decide. I don’t like to rank movies too highly until I’ve at least had a chance to put them under the repeat-viewing test. But for now, I’m still going to go with “Magnolia” as Anderson’s finest hour. Filled to the brim with excellent performances (probably the best ensemble of any film), the film starts off at a breakneck sprinting pace, and never lets up throughout.
4) PETER JACKSON
Of course, everybody knows Peter Jackson for his groundbreaking work on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. And he deserves all the praise he gets for that, it was a monumental achievement. But don’t be fooled into thinking Jackson is a one-trick pony. Since “Lord of the Rings”, he’s achieved the impossible: he’s directed a remake of “King Kong” which is worthy of standing alongside the classic original.
Of course, Jackson ain’t all about CGI epics. He originally cut his teeth on low-budget gorefests such as “Braindead” and “Bad Taste”. The films were trashy, yes, but they were also great fun, filled with quirky characters and quite simply a love for film. And I think what makes his Hollywood films so special, is that he’s brought that low-budget oddness and enthusiasm into big-budget fare. Take “The Frighteners”, his first big-budget Hollywood CGI film. A straightforward monster movie for the most part, until you consider the inclusion of FBI Agent Milton Dammers. Totally peripheral to the plot, this bizarre oddball ends up being the most memorable element of the whole movie. And when considering “The Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong”, these indy sensibilities give the films a darkness and an edge that sets them apart from standard blockbuster fare. No matter how big Jackson’s films get, they never feel soulless. That enthusiasm for film is as clear as it ever was.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: THE LORD OF THE RINGS
I can’t choose just one part of the trilogy, as I view it all as one big film. It was all filmed as one big film, and it is best viewed as one (bring a bucket to pee in, though). And, as a testament to how Jackson has such a great skill for zoning in on the personal and the human no matter how large the scale of the film is, in a trilogy full of epic battles and iconic scenes, the best moment of all remains one character’s conversation with…himself. Gollum is a marvel in technology, acting (by the hugely talented Andy Serkis) and, of course, directing, as it makes a CGI character more human than a lot of humans!
5) GUILLERMO DEL TORO
I struggled to decide whether to include Guillermo Del Toro in the list, or Tim Burton. I’m a huge fan of both. Both have a dark, vivid imagination, ideal for taking us on journeys into fantasy worlds. But while Tim Burton has more great films under his belt than Del Toro, in recent years, I fear Burton has fallen back too much on his reputation, and on giving “the Burton spin” on a number of remakes or adaptations, some with more success than others. Del Toro, meanwhile, has been venturing more into new territory, or at least visiting old territory in exciting new ways.
Guillermo Del Toro seems to have a fascination with childhood. Going right back to his first film, “Cronos”, we see children – and in particular children in peril – pop up again and again in his work. And this is because Del Toro astutely realizes that there are few things more captivating – or indeed, terrifying – than the world from the eyes of a child. In particular, his Spanish language films – “Cronos”, “The Devil’s Backbone”, “Pan’s Labyrinth” – unfold like dark fairy-tales, presenting to us world that are both familiar and strange, magical and sinister in equal measure. Del Toro’s imagination when it comes to bringing a variety of monsters to life seems nearly boundless, but in most cases, the most terrifying monsters of all have a human face.
Perhaps Del Toro’s Hollywood output is less consistent. “Mimic” and “Blade 2” are both good-not-great films, but even these both have their moments of brilliance. Take, for example, Del Toro’s glaring middle finger to the unwritten “kiddies can’t die in horror films” rule in “Mimic”. But Del Toro’s best Hollywood work so far comes in the shape of “Hellboy”. A sorely underrated film, this came out in the UK at the same time as “Spider-Man 2”, and while it was of course dwarfed in terms of cinematic success, I actually feel “Hellboy” has fared better under the DVD repeat-viewing test. Its success is what makes Del Toro a great director throughout all his best work. Beneath the monsters and the make-up, the story is a very human one. And no matter how into fantasy Del Toro ventures, he always insures his stories have a human core to relate to.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: PAN’S LABYRINTH
Del Toro’s masterpiece. All the good work in his previous films, and all the themes he explored in them, seemed to be leading up to this. It’s a credit to Del Toro’s skill that the real world remains every bit as compelling (if not moreso) than the fantasy world. Having said that, though, the terrifying scene highlighted here takes place as part of Ofelia’s twisted fairy-tale. Just keep telling yourself: it isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real…
6) THE COEN BROTHERS
The Coen Brothers had one hell of a hot streak. “Blood Simple”. “Raising Arizona”. “Miller’s Crossing”. “Barton Fink”. “The Hudsucker Proxy”. “Fargo” “The Big Lebowski”. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “The Man Who Wasn’t There”. The Coens set the standard for themselves so high, that when they made a couple of movies which were merely good – “Intolerable Cruelty”, “The Ladykillers” – they were derided as the great folly of the Brothers Grim, and a sign they were losing their touch and going mainstream. Ever the ones to defy expectations, the Coens responded with “No Country For Old Men”, one of their darkest, most challenging films yet.
Yes, defying expectation is what the Coen Brothers are all about. Don’t believe me? It’s right there, in the unofficial theme tune of their first film, “Blood Simple”. “It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning”. The Coens have made a career of visiting tried and true film staples – the film noir, the gangster movie, the caper comedy – and giving them their own offbeat twist. Their canon of films proves to be surprisingly varied, but each is done in a style so unique to the Coens that “Coen film” can almost be called its own genre.
So, what makes a Coen movie? Try the unnerving mix of comedy, tragedy, and even horror, often all in the one scene. For example, the scene I’ve highlighted below. It’s a scene of quite horrifying violence, but I won’t hesitate to say I laughed at several points while watching it. Then there’s the characters. A collection of oddballs and eccentrics that could only spring from the Coens’ wacky imagination. The Dude. Marge Gunderson. Anton Chigurh, the best Coen character the Coens never actually created, though they did a fine job bringing the villain of Cormac McCarthy’s novel to sinister life in the form of Javier Bardem. The Coens have brought some iconic characters to the screen in their time, but even setting those characters aside, their very direction feels unique to them. Their pacing, their rythmn, the attention to the little details, the Coens have the rare skill of making us feel both nostalgic, and like we’re seeing something completely new, all at the same time. It’s an effect that can’t really explained without watching their films, and if you haven’t….I highly recommend you do so, as soon as possible. I’m sure you’ll find the experience highly rewarding.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: FARGO
The Coens have a fair share of modern classics and hidden gems under their belt, but for me, “Fargo” remains their greatest cinematic triumph. The Coens have explored similar territory to “Fargo” in other films – namely “Blood Simple” and “No Country For Old Men” – but I think what sets “Fargo” above even those excellent films is its heart. The Coens have a real mean streak in them, with many of their dramas (and even some of their comedies) seeming to present a worldview that borders on the nihilistic. “Fargo” could very well have been one of those films. Thank God, then, for Marge Gunderson. For my money, the best female character in film history, Marge’s unwavering optimism in the face of violence, cruelty and death gives the film a note of hope which makes it that little bit more satisfying a cinematic experience. But as this scene shows, the film may have a heart, but it could very well be a black one.
7) CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
The best quote I’ve heard to describe Christopher Nolan is that, while other directors slavishly work to imitate the techniques of Hitchcock, Nolan is busy making the films Hitchcock would have been making if he were alive today. It is a good point. Nolan could very well be Hitchcock’s successor. His films deal with similar themes of obsession and guilt, toying with perception and expectation, providing us with morally dubious protagonists. But at the same time, Nolan gives his films a 21st Century spin, the chronology of his films shifting and spiralling in unexpected directions. Nolan employs memory as an indicator of character or a key plot point, in much the same way as Hitchcock used props.
Nolan is a very consistent filmmaker. He’s yet to make a bad film. And it is all the more impressive that Nolan has retained his vision through a variety of genres, through films stemming from a variety of source materials. From his own creation in “Following”, to the adaptation of his brother’s short story in “Memento”, to the literary adaptation of Christopher Priest’s book in “The Prestige”, to the Hollywood remake in “Insomnia”, to the big-budget blockbuster comic book movie in “Batman Begins”, each of the stories – despite being so seemingly different on the surface – seem to share the same black heart. There is a little bit of Leonard Shelby in Bruce Wayne, and the duplicity and double-dealing of “Following” seems eerily familiar to the goings-on in the same place (London) over a hundred years earlier in “The Prestige”. And “The Prestige” says a lot about Nolan as a director. He presents you with a scenario, where you think you know what to expect, before pulling the rug out from under your feet – upsetting your expectations – and delivering something completely different. Quite simply, Nolan is a cinematic magician.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: BATMAN BEGINS
This may seem like a controversial choice. “Memento” and “The Prestige” are both excellent, and I’d absolutely understand most people ranking one of those as Nolan’s best work. But for me, the Nolan film I find to be the most rewarding is “Batman Begins”. It works on so many levels. It stands as a Christopher Nolan film, all his hallmark themes present and correct. But it also works as a great comic-book movie, revitalising Batman for a new generation of film fans. Its arguably the best superhero movie to date, ironically because it doesn’t play like a superhero movie. It plays like a sweeping crime drama, where the hero happens to be dressed as a giant bat. And because the superhero elements are used more sparingly, they feel all the more dramatic when they do show up. Roll on “The Dark Knight”!
8) DAVID FINCHER
Few directors working today can capture atmosphere the way that David Fincher can. His films – yes, even “Alien 3” – seem to share a washed-out, colour-drained look that compliments the grim, pessimistic nature of his stories. His films tend to revolve around men (or, indeed, women) struggling against apparently insurmountable odds, faced with seemingly impossible-to-resolve conflict. And the endings are rarely happy. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that “Zodiac” is a murder mystery that is never solved. And Fincher’s protagonists seem to exist in cold, uncaring societies every bit as cruel as the villains dwelling in them. This is seen blatantly in the urban hellholes of “Fight Club” and “Seven”, but also more subtly in a film like “Panic Room”, where the neighbours would rather close the blinds and go to sleep than help a family in mortal danger.
But Fincher’s true strength as a director comes in his mastery in manipulating tension. Look at “Zodiac”; ostensibly more a drama than a thriller, the film is nevertheless filled with moments that leave you more on the edge of your seat than a lot of horror movies. The opening introduction to the Zodiac killer. The murder in broad daylight. Robert Graysmith’s visit to Bob Vaughn’s house. Fincher has such a fine grip on the dynamics of dread. Same thing can be seen in the likes of “Panic Room”, his sweeping tour through the house playing like the first shots of the Nostromo in “Alien”. Speaking of which, his direction ensures that what could have been a disastrous follow-up to “Aliens” ended up a good film, albeit not quite on the level of its predecessors. The very fact that the then-unknown Fincher was able to follow Ridley Scott and James Cameron shows that he is a director of real worth. And he’s just kept on getting better and better since.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: SEVEN
“Fight Club” may be Fincher’s most popular movie, and “Zodiac” his most mature and technically-proficient, but for me, “Seven” still stands as his best. What could have been a pedestrian crime thriller (in the vein of the countless rip-offs that followed in its wake) was elevated through a top-notch cast and excellent, atmospheric direction into a profound, heartbreaking cinematic experience. Of course, it works just fine as a thriller too…
9) DAVID LYNCH
Hollywood’s Wizard of Weird, David Lynch’s distinctive approach to film is often imitated, but never bettered. Lynch began as an artist, and branched out into film, seeing it as another medium for expressing his unusual artistic vision. And this explains the bizarre nature of his films, surreal, dreamlike explorations of the subconscious. Complaints that his films make no sense are perhaps missing the point, as I don’t think they’re supposed to, not in a conventional sense at least. Usually, Lynch’s films are best enjoyed when you’re less concerned with following the plot, and more with just being absorbed in the cinematic experience. This, to me, is the level Lynch works on best, as he is incredibly gifted when it comes to tapping into our emotions on a stripped-down, primal level, particularly when it comes to triggering fear. This is often achieved through something as simple as setting the background noise to just the right pitch. Few, if any directors have a handle on sound the way David Lynch does.
This is not to say that Lynch is incapable of coherent plotting. Far from it, Lynch has applied his unique style to more straightforward narratives in great films such as “Blue Velvet” and “The Elephant Man”. But they are no less nightmarish for being positioned closer to the real world: Something still feels inherently unearthly and dreamlike about them. This tension between the real and the surreal can be found with Lynch’s hugely influential TV series, “Twin Peaks”, where the mystery of who murdered Laura Palmer descends into the bizarre, frightening realm of the Red Room.
Something admirable about David Lynch is that he has refused to “go mainstream”, to compromise his vision for a wider audience. He funds his films largely through independent sources, to avoid the trials of studio intervention in his films, and to allow him to make the films he wants to make. Indeed, his films have become more and more abstract and experimental as his status grows, confounding new fans as he gains them. His latest brain-melting epic, “Inland Empire”, could very well be his most “Lynchian” film yet. It seems the last thing Lynch wants is to be defined, or pigeon-holed. He wants to remain as elusive and unusual as his unique brand of films.
MUST-SEE MOVIE: MULHOLLAND DRIVE
Skilfully treading along the middle ground between a Lynchian dreamscape and classic storytelling, “Mulholland Drive” is one of, if not the most exhilarating cinematic experiences of the 21st Century so far. I still remember the first time I saw it, and how it completely changed my outlook on film, and its potential.
Now, among these directors, a guy who directs cartoons may on the surface seem like an unusual addition. But consider the films he has directed. First making his name on “The Simpsons”, Bird went on to direct the underrated animated film, “The Iron Giant”. But it was his association with Pixar that elevated his profile to new heights. His work on “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” produced some of the studios finest ever films, and set a new benchmark for computer animation.
Bird’s great skill is, that his films don’t feel like cartoons. The way shots are framed, the way the reactions and emotions of his characters are captured, it is like he is directing a live-action film. With “The Incredibles”, we have moments of humour so small and nuanced, that they were surely meant for an older audience, on a level more mature and enduring than the winking pop-culture of, say, the “Shrek” series. And in “Ratatouille”, I recall one specific shot – from the street looking up – of some Paris scenery, where I actually turned to my friend and praised the great cinematography, only to be reminded the film was all animated, and there wasn’t a camera to film the action, not in the traditional live-action sense of things, at least. And when working with superheroes, talking rats, and giant robots, making your viewer forget they are watching a cartoon is quite a commendable skill.
MUST-SEE FILM: RATATOUILLE
Surely as close to a big hug as a film can get, “Ratatouille” tugs at the heart-strings in the way few animated films since the Disney heyday have been able to do. (source: filmonic)