Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Top 10 Directors (English Language)

Top 10 Directors (English Language)

When I first became interested in movies as a kid, I used to look forward to certain genres more than others. Science fiction and superhero movies were firm favorites at that early stage. As I got older, I began to look for my favorite actors, such as Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, or Bruce Willis. Now that I am all grown up, I look for upcoming movies by my favorite directors. I find this is the best guide of all as many directors produce movies that are similar in tone or style.

What names would make my list of favorite directors? It's actually very difficult to name just ten, even with my somewhat limited knowledge of film history. To make things easier, I have decided to make two lists; the first will focus on English language movies, while the second will consist of directors who make films in a foreign language. To help me even more, I'm listing them alphabetically rather than ranking them in order of preference.

Should I include directors who have impacted me with one or two great films, or should there be a minimum requirement of four or five titles? I decided to go with a minimum of four, so that rules out Frank Darabont, even though The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are both ranked in my overall Top 10. The majority of the people on this list have been responsible for ten or more films, but there are exceptions.

Other directors who just missed out include Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Sidney Lumet, Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Ron Howard. I consider some of those as merely responsible for a large number of entertaining movies, while a few make wonderful films and might make my Top 10 one day as my knowledge increases.

So who is in?

Wes Anderson

Favorite films: All seven of them, but Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, and Fantastic Mr. Fox in particular.

Not every type of humor makes me laugh. Some even annoys me to the point where I can't watch it. But Anderson manages to hit the mark every time and balances drama with intelligent humor. He's fond of deadpan or bizarre comedy, but his films have a lot more to them than that. I identify with most of the themes, whether it is family, friendship, parenting, romance, or daring to be who you really are.

His films are also stylish, and feature vivid color palettes. I particularly like the choice to depict children as serious characters and making them sound like adults. Anderson often writes and works with Owen Wilson, while Bill Murray appears in all of his films. I'm not usually a fan of Murray, but I think he's produced his best work in his collaborations with Anderson.

Here's one of my favorite examples of Anderson's comic style:

Joel and Ethan Coen

Favorite films: Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, Blood Simple, and The Big Lebowski.

I've only seen 12 Coen brothers movies, but I feel that I have enough information to determine how much I like their work. The first two films listed above are superb, but quite different. Fargo is fast-paced, despite containing a lot of dialogue. No Country for Old Men is a slow-burner with excellent performances from the three main characters.

The Coens aren't confined to one genre by any means, but each of their movies has a distinct offbeat style. The humor, when present, is smart and dry. You'll see Westerns, thrillers, comedies, heists, murders, and some movies which blend several genres.

Here's one of my favorite scenes from Fargo:

Clint Eastwood

Favorite films: Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby, Absolute Power, and Hereafter.

I've been a fan of Eastwood since I saw Dirty Harry in the 1970s, but he may be even better as a director. I don't like everything he has directed, but the majority are worth seeing or owning.

His work in the past decade has become more reflective, and it's these films which appeal to me the most. Eastwood doesn't shy away from realism, and I would label many of his films as important, as well as entertaining. He tackles such weighty subjects as war, death, and racism, and usually draws good performances from his actors.

I like Eastwood as an actor too, and he seems to be capable of performing both roles effectively. I think the Oscar recognition is fully justified.

Here's a scene from Gran Torino:

Alfred Hitchcock

Favorite films: Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, and Dial M for Murder.

Has there ever been a more influential director in the history of film? I remember many of my friends claiming that Hitchcock directed horror movies, but that's misleading. Psycho and The Birds contain horror elements, but most of his films are mysteries, often with a lot of suspense. Some can even be described as comedies.

I think it says a lot when something made in the 1940s or 1950s still stands up well today, and that's true of several Hitchcock classics. Fans must be delighted that so many of his films have been released on Blu-ray this year. If you haven't seen much of his work, there has never been a better opportunity.

Hitchcock managed to work with most of the best actors of the time during a career spanning more than half a century. James Stewart frequently appeared in his films, including two of the best (Vertigo and Rear Window). Hitchcock's plots often featured the MacGuffin, which were plot devices with no actual purpose other than to give the characters a motivation for their actions. Some of his films appeared to be one thing, such as a romance, and ended up being something else entirely.

With more than 50 features to his credit, Hitchcock's legacy is hard to measure. How many horror movies were influenced by Psycho, I wonder?

Here's a discussion where he explains how to create tension:

And here's a scene from The Birds:

Stanley Kubrick

Favorite films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and The Killing.

Kubrick was reportedly a hard man to please, and he regularly demanded excessive takes to get something just right. One of the things I love about his 13-film career is his ability to switch genres. I believe he gave us the best science fiction film ever made, and the best horror film a few years later.

The Killing is a fun heist movie and was ahead of its time. He tackled war in an intelligent manner with Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, and was not afraid to push the boundaries with efforts such as Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut, not to mention the dark comedy of Dr. Strangelove. There are plenty of people who would rank A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon ahead of everything else, but I am not among them. However, I do admire the sheer audacity and ambition of both films.

Kubrick worked with Jack Nicholson, Peter Sellers, Malcolm McDowell, James Mason, Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden, among others.

It's easy to look back at some of these films now and miss just how innovative they were. 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably the best example. Can you remember, or have you investigated science fiction movies before Kubrick released his masterpiece? Most were laughable monster movies. There are a few exceptions, such as War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but nothing that came before was even remotely similar to 2001. Think of the special effects, and how difficult they were to produce; the spinning pen in zero gravity, the image of Earth from space, an intelligent computer, the use of classical music, and the sparse dialogue. Kubrick even got the details right, correctly observing that there is no sound in space. Here was a science fiction film which treated its audience with respect. It's not an easy film to watch, but multiple viewings are worth the effort.

Here's a scene from 2001:

David Lynch

Favorite films: Mulholland Dr., Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and The Elephant Man. I must also mention the best TV show ever made, Twin Peaks.

My favorite film of all time is Lynch's Mulholland Dr. and I could spend a week explaining why. I credit it as the film which transformed me from a casual watcher of movies to a passionate film buff. I started to think about what was on the screen, and the hidden meanings which weren't so apparent. Like most of Lynch's films, Mulholland Dr. won't work for everyone. He loves to play with dreams, alternate realities, and imagined events, so it can be a lot of work figuring out what's real.

Lynch is a craftsman. He is very particular about every little sound and the way something looks. If he can't find the right prop, he might just gather together some junk and build it himself. He's easily one of the most polarizing directors, and I often hear people complaining about how they will never have back those two hours of their life after seeing one of his films. The reason I continually champion his work is that those who have the kind of mind and personality required to dissect his stories often name them among their favorites.

If you own all of Lynch's movies, you'll know that he likes to work with the same actors at every opportunity. Regulars include Kyle McLachlan, Laura Dern, Jack Nance, Brad Dourif, Grace Zabriskie, and Harry Dean Stanton. Throughout most of his work, you'll hear the haunting sound of Angelo Badalamenti's music.

Lynch is weird, but in a good way. His films are mainly challenging, although The Elephant Man and The Straight Story offer more conventional experiences. Both are incredible studies of human nature.

One thing I love about Lynch's worlds is that they keep you off balance. Moments of tranquility can be interrupted by violence. Bizarre humor can be inserted at any moment, so you never know what is coming next, But on reflection, everything flows well and makes some kind of sense.

Here's a clip from Mulholland Dr. to illustrate my points:

Christopher Nolan

Favorite films: Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception.

All of the four films listed above are memorable, but they are very different. Memento tells the story of a man who can no longer form any short term memories. He can remember everything up to one moment in his life, and nothing more. Nolan shows how he tries to function with this handicap, and puts the viewer in the position of the main character by telling the story in reverse. That may be hard to comprehend, but watch it and you'll understand what I mean.

Nolan also made a superhero trilogy which I can enjoy. That's high praise because I find the vast majority of movies in the genre forgettable and without substance. The Prestige takes us back in time and tells the story of rival magicians, while Inception tells a futuristic story which has five series of events happening at the same time, but all at different rates of speed. Throughout all this complexity, Nolan never loses his audience. His writing is intelligent, and he makes interesting films with incredible stories.

Actors who have worked with Nolan include Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Guy Pearce, Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Leonardo DiCaprio, and many more of note.

I'm not sure whether we have seen the best that Nolan will ever produce, but I have enjoyed everything he's given us so far.

Here's a clip from Memento:

Jason Reitman

Favorite films: Up in the Air, Juno, Young Adult and Thank You for Smoking are all close to perfect.

This may be the most surprising name on my list, but I can't stop watching Reitman's films. It would be wrong to label them as comedies, because there is so much more to them, but comedy is certainly present in each film.

Up in the Air is my favorite George Clooney film, and contains Vera Farmiga's best performance to date. Anna Kendrick is also vital to the mix and the three play off one another to perfection. The dialogue is fast-paced and genuinely funny. Beneath the comedy, the subject matter is serious and relevant to the modern world.

Juno is another masterful blend of drama and comedy and includes a memorable performance from Ellen Page. Again, the dialogue is key, with the ability to make me laugh, or occasionally reflect more seriously on life. 
Young Adult and Thank You for Smoking don't quite reach the heights of Reitman's other two movies, but I love them all the same. Charlize Theron and Aaron Eckhart play their respective roles superbly. I'm looking forward to Reitman's next film, Labor Day, which arrives in 2013 and stars Kate Winslet.

I thought for a long time before deciding to include a director with just four full-length movies to his name, but I love them so much that it feels like the right choice.

An added bonus is that J. K. Simmons has a part to play in all four films.

Here's one of my favorite scenes from Up in the Air:

Martin Scorsese

Favorite films: Taxi Driver, The Departed, Goodfellas, Hugo, and Gangs of New York.

With more than 20 features to his credit, Scorsese has covered a lot of ground over the course of his career. Many of his films include stories about the Mafia or crime, but he's also created human interest stories in Raging Bull and Hugo. It must have been hard to go wrong working with Robert De Niro at the height of his career, but I think Scorsese was responsible for De Niro's best performances. Four of his films in the past 10 years feature Leonardo DiCaprio, and he also worked with Daniel Day-Lewis.

I like that Scorsese tried something new at this point in his career, so Hugo was an unexpected delight, telling the story of a forgotten filmmaker.

Scorsese creates gritty worlds for the most part, and I feel as if I am a part of them for the duration of the film. His style completely transports the viewer, in a similar way to that of David Lynch.

Here's one of my favorite scenes from The Departed:

Quentin Tarantino

Favorite films: Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill 1, Kill Bill 2, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds, and Reservoir Dogs.

I hope Tarantino makes a lot more films, because I will happily buy anything that he's involved with. Even the weakest of the bunch, Death Proof, has enough redeeming qualities to make it worthy of a place in my collection.

Tarantino has a unique style. He's often accused of ripping off older movies, but that's totally unfair. Sure, he pays homage and references other movies frequently, but his style is all his own. He does things which simply shouldn't work, such as writing the names of characters next to them on the screen. He utilizes all kinds of techniques, changing aspect ratios, switching to animation or black and white, and messing with the traditional linear story structure. Whatever he does, I love it.

As well as incorporating bizarre and intelligent humor into his stories, his use of music has to be mentioned. He has the ability to perfectly match the music to the scene, whether it's the theme at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs, Bowie in Inglourious Basterds, Bang Bang or the theme from Twisted Nerve in Kill Bill, or the unforgettable Stuck in the Middle scene in Reservoir Dogs. Other directors do it well, but Tarantino is a master when it comes to choosing the right song.

Hitchcock would probably appreciate the opening scene in Inglourious Basterds, where the tension is increased during a 20-minute conversation. We know that it's going to end badly for someone. If that's not Tarantino's best scene, then it would have to be Christopher Walken's watch scene in Pulp Fiction or the conversation between Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance (which Tarantino wrote, but didn't direct).

If there was a machine that could tell everyone their ideal career in life, it would tell Tarantino to keep doing exactly what he is doing. I can't think of anyone who is more enthusiastic about their occupation. I imagine I'll be in a cinema on Christmas Day, watching the first showing of Django Unchained. Genre has no meaning when it comes to Tarantino; he has created a genre of his own.

Here's the watch scene from Pulp Fiction:

That concludes my list of favorite (English language) directors. Thanks for making it to the end if you're still reading. I'll rest my brain for a while and tackle foreign language films in the coming days.

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  1. Great list. Big fan of all of these men :)

  2. Nice list, Steve. Good to know your favorite directors, I haven't seen much from them except for Jason Reitman. I really want to see more from Wes Anderson. And with Lynch, his movies surprised me every time. With Nolan, I find his recent movies to be a little bit over the top. But I loved Memento.

    1. Thanks Andina. Everyone's taste is different so I can't say that you MUST see films by these people. Many of my favorite films come from this group though.