Sunday, October 23, 2005

My 101 Favorite Directors, 1-10

This is it. The final list. My 10 favorite directors of all time. More or less. I'm sure, in a few years, it will change. British magazine Sight & Sound does a poll every 10 years of film critics and filmmakers, asking for the Ten Best Films of All Time. And every decade, the picks change, even though almost no post-70's films ever appear on there. People just keep changing their minds about what are the best old movies. My tastes are pretty fluid (Does that sound gay? I can't tell...), so I'm sure my list is no different.

I guess I don't have too much left to say on this subject after 10 of these lists. I know my friend Ari has been inspired to come up with his own list, so be sure to check in with his blog occasionally. Cause it's sure to be very very different from mine. Way more Asian guys, for starters. And more sci-fi. And I doubt John Hughes will find his way on there.

10. Sergio Leone

I guess it's odd that many of the most famous, iconic and beloved Westerns were made by an Italian guy. I mean, Westerns should totally be our genre. They take place on our land, intermingled with our history, in our language. And yet a bunch of Italian guys, working in Spain, managed to capture the spirit of our nation's history more vividly, with more personality and more gritty realism than almost any American filmmakers. Leone's films are generally remembered as outlandish, thrilling and fun action-adventure films. And, of course, they are. But they're also terrifically observant and fiercely intelligent. These are action-adventures with a real point of view and a strong message, movies that often take up stridently liberal causes with near-revolutionary fervor. But of course, more than the wit and thematic sensibilites of the films, it's the iconic imagery and grace that most will remember. Leone really knew how to use cinematography, not just for impressive backgrounds or beautiful pictures, but as a tool for immersing an audience into a story. It's easy to get completely lost in his grand desert scenery. So effective is Leone as a visual storyteller, the films can go for long stretches with no dialogue, and barely any sound, and remain comprehensible and absorbing.

MY FAVORITES: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistfull of Dynamite (a.k.a. Duck You Sucker), Once Upon a Time in America

9. Alfred Hitchcock

Critics and writers often invent words out of filmmaker names. I describe things as Cronenberg-ian in conversation surprisingly frequently, and I've even heard Tarantino-esque thrown around before. But no other filmmaker's name is truly synonymous with a genre like the name Alfred Hitchcock. How did he manage to repeatedly work within the same, rather narrow, type of filmmaking for so many decades, in two different countries, without constantly repeating himself? Without growing horribly stale. I mean, right there at the end, with lesser efforts like Family Plot, I suppose the Master of Suspense did eventually run out of steam, but still...There are so many superior thrillers with his name attached, it's near-impossible to even name them all without IMDB handy. There's so much to say about Hitch's genius, I could write 100 blog posts, but what I've always appreciated about his sensibility best is his playfulness. He was making movies about murder, spycraft, intrigue and betrayal, and yet all of his films find ways to work in humor and a sense of fun, letting you know that there was someone behind the scenes having a terrible amount of fun. Take the masterful Spellbound, in which Hitch, guest director Salvador Dali and stars Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck riff rather ludicrously on Freud. Near the end of the film, we get a first-person POV shot of a man aiming a gun at himself, an impressive camera trick that calls all manner of attention to itself. This is a serious moment, goddamn it! And he's still goofing around, showing off. It's that almost childlike sense of play that makes these movies live, even after you know what's going to happen because you've seen it 100 times.

MY FAVORITES: Vertigo, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Rope, Marnie

8. Steven Spielberg

There was some early speculation as to whether or not The Beard would make it to the Top 5. If I were ranking directors by how many times I had actually watched their films, Steve would probably be #1 (followed closely by...I'm not sure...Mel Brooks, Terry Gilliam and John Landis would all stand a decent chance...) But instead, I have to balance my early love of everything Steve touched with my recent, curmudgeonly rejection of some of his sentimental, and quite frankly half-assed, efforts from the 90's on. The man remains, to this day, the King of the Set Piece. Is there a more naturally talented, confident crafter of exciting, memorable and intense action sequences in American film history? I mean, when you even begin to add up the number of set pieces devised by Spielberg that have become an intrinsic part of the grammar of American filmmaking...Jaws eating a teenage girl alive. The Mother Ship touching down in front of Devil's Tower. Indy outrunning that boulder. The Mine Cart chase. The T-Rex bearing down on that van with those kids inside. E.T., hidden in a basket, flying those bicycles right over the cops, with the full moon in the background. His movies inspired an entire generation, and I am a part of that generation, so he's allowed 100,000 missteps as far as I'm concerned. As long as they're mainly better than Hook, I'll likely remain forgiving.

MY FAVORITES: Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Minority Report

7. Jean-Luc Godard

Man, Godard would be so pissed to be on this list right next to Steven Spielberg. You see, Jean-Luc is kind of a snooty French jerk, the kind of guy who expects people to refer to him as "The Master." Here's some insight into the personality of Jean-Luc Godard. In one of his more recent films, the insufferably bitter anti-American, anti-common sense, anti-entertainment rant In Praise of Love, Jean-Luc has a character (obviously echoing his own sentiments) who decries Steven Spielberg for stealing European stories. (In particular, he's upset about Schindler's List, as he feels the Holocaust is not an appropriate subject for a film regardless of the director's nationality). What an obnoxious crank. The claim is even more hypocritical because Godard, in all his best and most famous films, borrows stories from American movies and repurposes them. His films are no more French in origin or inspiration than Paris Hilton. If he weren't such a genius, I might actually dislike him. But he actually has the talent to get away with this sort of arrogant, pompous behavior. Godard and his New Wave peers back in the late 50's and 60's did nothing less than reinvent the concept of cinema. We always hear about the "auteur" concept, that great films were not so much collaborative efforts as they were pieces of art authored by directors. But Godard films are also when movies turned inward for inspiration. His pastiches riffed on other movies, on the pop culture of the time, on French history, on current events, on the idea of film genre. But most of all, they riffed on themselves, on the fact that they were trying to look at the small details of how people lived rather than trying to tell elaborate and fictional stories. Today, they remain vibrant, lively, entertaining, frequently ingenious and funny, but it's hard to even get your mind around how innovative they must have seemed at the time, these wacky non-sequiteur metaphysical crime comedy-dramas.

MY FAVORITES: Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le Fou, Contempt, Masculine-Feminine

6. Roman Polanski

Both Roman and the director at #4 are forever doomed to have their work constantly overshadowed by the bizarre details of their personal lives. It's a shame. I hate having to comment on whether or not I think Polanski is a pervert every time I bring up one of his films. His proclivities for underage women notwithstanding, the man has made some of the best psychological thrillers, mysteries and even comedies of any filmmaker alive. I can think of no one else whose films reflect such a deeply nuanced comprehension of paranoia and claustrophobia, whose work resonates with such an immediate understanding of the mechanics of human fear. His Repulsion ranks as one of the most viscerally unsettling movies I have ever seen, and it features almost no dialogue, only one central performance, and not even a whole lot of actual incident or action. It's one of the most perfectly-directed films ever made, a virtuoso example of tone, pacing, style, editing...the whole package. Unfortunately, his legal troubles and exile from Southern California have prevented him for some time from getting A-level material for some time, and it's impossible to say how many more great films he might have made if he could travel freely in the U.S. But even with this professional handicap, the guy is responsible for some of the highlights of the entire horror/suspense catalogue.

MY FAVORITES: Chinatown, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant, Knife in the Water, Frantic

5. John Huston

Interestingly, one of the key cast members in my #1 Polanski pick Chinatown. Purely a coincidence, I assure you. Huston is responsible for several of the greatest American films of all time. These aren't just movies that are well-made and entertaining, movies that you throw on in the midst of a lazy afternoon to pass a few hours before you take a nap. These are groundbreaking films of startling originality and impeccable craftsmanship. These are movies that birthed entire genres. In the 1940's and 50's, Huston went on a tear, churning out a series of so many classics, its depth might just be unequaled in American film history. On another list, I mentioned that Kinski-Herzog was among the great actor-director pairs in cinema history. I'll add another coupling to the list: Bogart-Huston. Together, they gave the world The Maltese Falcon, Across the Pacific, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, Beat the Devil and The African Queen. Wow.

MY FAVORITES: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Key Largo, The Man Who Would Be King, Beat the Devil

4. Woody Allen

Twice in my life, I have enjoyed a piece of art that gave me the same, very immediate and sudden chill of recognition. A feeling that the author isn't just expressing an idea that has previously occured to me personally, but that they are expressing this idea in the very same way I would think to express it, were I personally a brilliant writer. Once, it was while reading Phillip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint." The other time, it was watching Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Many of the details of Woody's films - the upper-class elite Manhattan settings, the 20's jazz soundtracks, etc. - don't match up with my experience at all. But the sense of humor in his films, their point of view, their outlook, the subjects he chooses to address...I don't know if, since I grew up watching his films, I have simply adopted them, or if I've had them all along and we're just similar people. Allen's movies are so full of well-drawn characters and, of course, tremendously funny and snappy dialogue, it's easy to forget how haunting and beautiful they can be as well. He works with some of the best cinematographers and editors in the world, and though he's ridiculously prolific, he clearly strives to give each of his movies their own look and feel. When people say he's always playing the same character, or his movies are all alike, what they really mean is that they're not paying attention. Or that they've only seen one or two of his films and want to sound like they've seen more. In reality, the Woodman has one of the most impressive filmographies of any American director, ever. Comedies and dramas that have remained as hilarious, insightful and vital as they were upon their debut.

MY FAVORITES: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters, Deconstructing Harry

3. Stanley Kubrick

As great as all the filmmakers on the Top 101 list have been, very very few of them have perfect filmographies. And most of the ones with perfect filmographies have only directed a few films. Kubrick worked off-and-on from the 1950's until his death in 1999, and though I haven't seen some of his earliest and least-known films, all the available films he made in that time are brilliant works of art. Every single last one. The guy, as you may have heard, was something of a stickler for perfection. His movies are bold, thoughtful, ambitious and even a bit coolly distant. He wasn't one for telling emotional human stories (although there is always emotion there if you know where to look), and he wasn't one for thrilling, Kubrickian set pieces (although several of his films include some). Instead, like a maddeningly insightful, compelling essayist or social philosopher, his work carefully dissects human weakness and frailty, as well as humanity's interconnection with technological innovation and the natural world. I find that, as I age, my favorite Kubrick film changes. As a teenager, I was all about his chilling, warped retelling of Stephen King's haunted house story The Shining, with its spazzy Jack Nicholson performance and gruesome, perverse atmosphere. In college, I delighted in the cynical, bleak, dryly comic masterwork A Clockwork Orange. (Also, the first hour of Full Metal Jacket, which isn't just dazzlingly photographed and outstandingly performed, but is also perhaps the most quotable hour of cinema ever filmed). And now, in my mid-20's, I find myself revisiting the elegant, densely-layered period piece Barry Lyndon most often.

MY FAVORITES: Barry Lyndon, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory

2. Martin Scorsese

Marty was probably the filmmaker who first showed me the full potential of what movies could accomplish. As a young person, he grabbed me, because he's maybe the most visceral, immediate and involving filmmaker of all time. You don't watch his desperately try to grab hold as they throttle past you. Maybe it's a function of the way he moves the camera combined with the energy of the performances and the booming rock-heavy soundtrack, but whatever it is, there's something about a Scorsese film that's vivacious, buzzy and alive. And though he's best-remembered for his remarkable, massively endearing gangster and crime films, Marty's among the most versatile directors working today. From period epics to biopics, comedies to musicals, documentaries to experimental films to chamber dramas, the guy has shown he's equally adept with a variety of material, styles and genres. For some reason, there's been a resistance to his recent films, particularly the somewhat messy but immensely compelling Gangs of New York. I frankly don't understand it at all. To my mind, the guy's talent hasn't faded a bit since his heyday in the 70's. He remains the definitive modern American filmmaker, a guy whose movies express who we are today and how we live better than anyone else's.

MY FAVORITES: Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Casino, Gangs of New York

1. Orson Welles

The great tragedy in film history is the sidelining of Orson Welles during what should have been his busiest and most productive years. The fact that he was only twice in his life allowed to release his preferred version of a film, and that both of those films are immaculate masterpieces that reinvent their respective genres. The fact that there are nearly a dozen projects he began and was unable to complete. The fact that his name is synonymous with perhaps his single greatest achievement, but that all his other tremendous work is overlooked by everyone except hardcore movie fans. The fact that, though revered by other filmmakers, in his later years he was reduced to supplying narration for children's cartoons and doing frozen pea commercials for radio. This stuff makes me angry to this day, and Welles died when I was six years old. His films represent precisely what I desire most out of cinema - they tell insightful and humane stories in a way that is innovative, imaginative, personal, thoughtful, provocative, fanciful and, perhaps most importantly, entertaining. And Welles' own playful, rakish sensibility comes through in every film he helmed, even after studios took them away and chopped them to pieces for release. In the trailer for Citizen Kane, Welles studiously avoids describing what the film is actually about. Perhaps his sensed that a film about the rise and fall of a newspaper magnate sounds dry. But how could he describe in a few minutes the wealth of ingenuity and good humor that permeate the entire film. How to get across just how entertaining the movie will be for an audience? Welles' solution was to fill the trailer with his own personality, to humorously narrate an introduction to the film and its cast. He's telling the audience, "you'll like this film because it will be like spending 2 hours with me, and I'm goddamn delightful." And you know what? The guy is pretty fucking delightful, as a storyteller and even occasionally an actor (in his own films and many others, including his memorable turn as Harry Lime in Carol Reed's classic The Third Man). I always enjoy spending a few hours with him.

MY FAVORITES: Citizen Kane, F for Fake, The Lady from Shanghai, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, Touch of Evil, The Stranger, Mr. Arkadin


Anonymous said...

Merde! How is it put me with stupid Americain imbecile! Merde! Otherwise great list, you Vert Jour Americain Idiote!

Anonymous said...

Merde! Forget to mention je suis le Maestro Godard!

Horsey said...

You know there are a couple of directors there whose films I've never seen. I'm once again ashamed--Netflix save me!

Ace Cowboy said...

And let us never forget Scorcese's best work: The Last Waltz.

drummer510 said...

Wut about Richard Linklater- Some really amazing films. Woody Allen?!?!?!? booooo!!! I'm part jewish and i think Allen is a complete douche bag.

bj said...

David Fincher in the 80s?

Tony Kaye? okay perhaps he's credentials are a tad bare, but still.

on the whole, well informed (i dont think i could name even 50 directors, and effort is evident.

i almost made a comment along the lines of naming unknowns doesnt make you sondd cool, but hell, with 100 spots to fill

Anonymous said...

nice top 10 list.