Thursday, October 20, 2005

My 101 Favorite Directors, 11-20

We're getting very close. This is the second to last list.

For some of the filmmakers in this little crop of 10, I may have favored them a bit because they are so underappreciated by the world at large. I feel like I'm always encouraging people to rent John Carpenter and Brian De Palma movies at the store because these are great movies that are really fun and accessable that, shockingly, tons of people haven't seen. I mean, aside from The Untouchables and Scarface. And a guy like David Cronenberg has his small culty fan base, but isn't really known outside of that, even though people are usually familiar with The Fly or The Dead Zone. I guess I want to root for the underdog, for the guys who have been making great films for decades under the radar. I'll admit to favoritism in that way.

And, just to give you a head start in figuring out who didn't make the cut, let me give you a head start. No Fellini, as I mentioned before. No Bertolucci or Rosselini or Visconti either. No David Mamet, who I had kind of expected to include, nor Terrence Malick which is sure to earn me the ire of Thin Red Line fans everywhere. No Richard Lester, even though I think Hard Day's Night is one of the best rock movies ever and Superman II rules. Tons of great old time noir directors - guys like Siodmak and Dmytryk and Raoul Walsh - just didn't quite get there. Often it was my fault - I just haven't seen enough of their films.

One thing this has really driven home to me...You can never see all the great movies out there. Never. We're talking 100 years of cinema, dozens of countries, thousands of people in every country making their own movies...It's an impossible task. You'll never see them all. Someone will always know way more than you. Frustrating, yes, but also exciting and full of possibility. And it makes an activity like listing your favorite directors, while distracting and amusing, rather pointless. They're only your favorites because they're the ones you like best out of what you've managed to see. Your real favorite could be on some compilation of the Best of Burundi Cinema that you'll check out when you're 45.

20. John Carpenter

Big Trouble in Little China was my first taste of the work of John Carpenter, a man whose name has rightly become synonymous with tongue-in-cheek, stylish, gory 80's horror. I faked illness one afternoon to get out of school and watched the movie, and I can now say with absolute certainty that I learned more playing hookey that day than I ever would have in 7th grade geometry. Like Big Trouble, and with the exception of his massively creepy remake of The Thing, Carpenter films aren't typically that scary, but they were always amazingly fun to watch, sly and creepy little treasures suffused with Carpenter's sarcastic sense of humor and healthy fondness for camp.

MY FAVORITES: The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween, Escape from New York

19. Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam earns automatic god-like status for me as a member of Monty Python, the single greatest comic troupe in the history of mankind. All 6 of those guys are personal heroes, despite their varying degrees of post-Python success. Even though he was the least visible Python during their actual tenure, Gilliam's had the best go of things since the break-up, turning the vivid imagination he once applied to Python's unique animation to fanciful, serio-comic entertainments of a surprisingly vast scope. Gilliam always seems to have a terrible time raising suitable funds to launch his creative projects, but it has given him the amazing ability (shared with non-list maker Robert Rodriguez) of turning low-budget features into beautiful effects films crammed full of dazzling imagery.

MY FAVORITES: Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits

18. Francis Ford Coppola

I mean, what can you say? Godfather, man. The Godfather. It's a perfect movie. There's not a false moment, not a single dispensible scene or character, impeccably shot, realistic, heart-breaking, memorable. An ideal film. And Francis didn't stop there. He would go on to direct one of the definitive Vietnam films, one of the great paranoid thrillers ever made (featuring quite possibly Gene Hackman's best career performance), a pair of solid S.E. Hinton literary adaptations, a passable musical, even that Michael Jackson 3-D movie from Disneyland! Francies, come back to us...I demand you stop making derivative trash like The Rainmaker and Jack immediately.

MY FAVORITES: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather II, Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish

17. David Lynch

Surrealism is all but dead in the cinema. Back when movies were silent and black-and-white, by nature they were more expressionistic, less tied to strict realism. So more filmmakers would experiment with absurdist situations, Freudian imagery and non-linear storytelling. Modern audiences regrettably have no interest in stories of this nature, preferring to know in general terms exactly what will happen in a movie from one moment to the next. For whatever reason, David Lynch (and, to some extent, Canadian maverick and non list-maker Guy Maddin) has managed to rise above such expectations, creating vibrant, hallucinatory, introspective and witty films full of ambiguity and dream-logic. But even though he has the eye of an avant-garde filmmaker, his canny ear for dialogue and idiosyncratic sense of humor keeps the films grounded, prevent them from becoming too obtuse or dull. It's that delicate balance which defines Lynch's best films.

MY FAVORITES: Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead

16. David Cronenberg

There are a number of horror filmmakers in the Top 20, and even more if you include filmmakers who dabbled in horror along with other genres. I'm not quite sure what exactly about horror films so appeals to me. I suspect, on one level, that seeing extremely violent acts depicted for my amusement takes some of the actual terror out of them. But on another level, there's just some aspect of human life that is only explored in horror films like those of David Cronenberg - the odd collision of biology and psychology, of brain and flesh, and a sort of universal existential paranoia often referred to as "body horror." Cronenberg films pit protagonists not against some external enemy, but against their own bodies and minds. The enemy is within ourselves, which in many ways is scarier than any sort of black lagoon creature or invisible man. Plus, the man is just a natural filmmaker whose movies are trippy, genuinely frightening, full of tremendous effects work and visual imagination, and even eerily beuatiful in spots.

MY FAVORITES: Videodrome, The Fly, Scanners, Existenz, Naked Lunch

15. Werner Herzog

Remember when I said that Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder were one of the best matches of director and performer in film history? There have been a few filmmaker-actor duos on the list already (John Carpenter-Kurt Russell, for example). Well, this is the best one. The films Werner Herzog made together with Tuetonic wildman Klaus Kinski are absolutely breathtaking. Passionate, grandiose, frenetic, startling and deeply moving films about the endless struggle between ambitious men and a cold, cruel, unflinching universe. In addition to these masterpieces, Herzog completed several brilliant documentaries and films without Kinski (including this year's apparently mesmerizing Grizzly Man, which much to my shame, I have not yet seen). His films are among the most honest, brutal, epic, heart-breaking and visually resplendant in the cinema. Oh, yeah, and sometimes they're also hilariously funny.

MY FAVORITES: Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fitzcarraldo, Stroszek

14. Brian De Palma

Quite possibly the most misunderstood filmmaker of all time, and clearly among the least respected of the Great American Filmmakers of the 70's. Everyone just says he rips off Hitchcock, which is to overlook the obvious. He takes Hitchcock films and make the subtext the text. Hitch was making sleek, stylish but mainstream thrillers that just had a lot of subtle and unspoken perversions around the edges. De Palma focuses his entire films intensely on those perversions. So whereas a film like Rear Window hints at the voyeuristic thrill inherent in watching films while telling a story about a possible wife-killer, De Palma's Body Double features a main character who is a shameless Peeping Tom and stalker, following around a neighbor lady in a drunken stupor for lack of anything better to do. But it goes beyond his homages to the Master of Suspense. All of De Palma's films obsessively bring to the forefront the sex, violence and plain weirdness that other films leave only hint towards. There are many filmmakers on this list I have praised for their impeccable taste and subtlety. De Palma is not one of those guys. In a film like Scarface, a gory gangster tale, he sees no need to keep the death-by-chainsaw off-screen, or to mince around the fact that Tony Montana wants to fuck his sister. It's right there in the movie. If you don't want to see that shit, if you want something feel-good and upbeat that keeps all the real anguish, misery and depravity of everyday life comfortably off-screen, go rent a Cameron Crowe film.

MY FAVORITES: The Untouchables, Scarface, Sisters, Carlito's Way, Carrie

13. Akira Kurosawa

Samurai films are often compared to Westerns, and there are certainly similarities between the genres. But Kurosawa's samurai films incorporate elements from just about every genre of film I can think of. They are rousing adventures full of wonderfully-choreographed, intense swordfights and sweeping cinematography. They are deep, contemplative character studies about duty, compassion and honor. Sometimes, they are adaptations of Western films or even Shakespeare. Provocative, sensual, exciting, epic, Kurosawa's best films rank as some of the definitive works of art in the cinematic canon. And many of them work purely as entertainment, including his departures from the samurai genre, like the amazing noir-y kidnapping thriller High and Low and the delightful late 40's cop movie Stray Dog.

MY FAVORITES: The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, High and Low, Ran

12. Joel (and Ethan) Coen

Hard to decide whether or not to put them both on here. They're often referred to as "The Coen Brothers," but technically the credits say Ethan writes the scripts and Joel directs, and they share producer credit. Anyway, until the disappointing Intolerable Cruelty and the completely flat and tedious The Ladykillers, the Coens had a remarkable streak of phenomenal films dating all the way back to their stellar debut, the gritty Texas noir Blood Simple. These guys are visual stylists of the highest order whose have brought their trademark quirky wit, graceful cinematography, quotable dialogue and eye for detail to a variety of genres with equal success. It was a conventional wisdom back in the 90's that the Coens were cold and distant filmmakers who hated their characters. But how many artists in any medium have given the world so many memorable creations, from Nicholas Cage's frantic H.I. in Raising Arizona to M. Emmett Walsh's shitheel detective in Blood Simple to Paul Newman's stoic and corrupt executive in Hudsucker Proxy to Michael Lerner's spastic studio head in Barton Fink to John Goodman's sublime Walter Sobchek from the now-landmark Big Lebowski to John Turturro's weasely Bernie from Miller's Crossing to Frances McDormand's Oscar-winning work as small-town sheriff Marge Gunderson in Fargo to Billy Bob Thornton's best-ever performance as the soft-spoken barber in The Man Who Wasn't There. I want the old Coens back...

MY FAVORITES: Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy

11. Luis Bunuel

One of the figureheads of the early 20th Century Surrealist movement in the arts, and one of the most transgressive auteurs in movie history, Bunuel directed great films from...get ready for this...1929-1977. Yeah. And almost all of them are good. Back in '29, his career began with a 10 minute movie he directed alongside another artist of whom you may possible have heard, a Spaniard with a goofy moustache named Salvador Dali. Their landmark surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou remains required viewing in film schools to this day. (At the time, Bunuel so feared an angry and confused audience reaction, he famously carried rocks in his pocket to the premiere). And in '77, he made the terrific send-up of obsessive male lust That Obscure Object of Desire, which uses the gimmick of replacing the actress playing the lead role halfway through the film to charming success. (It's a trick borrowed earlier this year by Todd Solondz for his terrific Palindromes). In between, Bunuel made a variety of films, some free-wheeling and alinear and some more narrative in nature. All of them share his wicked sense of humor, his elegant use of light and shadow, his perfect selection of soundtrack music and his sly intelligence.

MY FAVORITES: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour, Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel


Jonathan said...

For the record, on all their films, Joel gets director credit, Ethan produces, and they both share writing credit. It is well known in Hollywood, however, that they share all roles pretty equally. They also often co-edit their films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.
By the way, I think Kurosawa/Mifune might give Herzog/Kinski a run for their money, in the Best Actor/Director Duo category.

Lons said...

You're right that the projects are collaborative, and it's impossible to say exactly who does what, but the movies DO say "directed by Joel Coen," which is supposed to be the criterion for inclusion on this list, so I wanted to be as fair as possible about Ethan's appearance.

There are a number of solid actor/director mash-ups here in the Top 100. Certainly Kurosawa/Mifune is up there. And the Coens/John Goodman. Some more good ones:

John Carpenter/Kurt Russell
Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell
John Woo/Chow Yun Fat
Wes Anderson/Bill Murray

Interestingly, there are many more terrific examples in the Top 10, but I don't want to give anything away. (Although I bet you can guess a few, including arguably the most celebrated actor-director team in American film history).

Anonymous said...

Surprised me with the Buñuel. Nice job, ese.

Anonymous said...

Disappointed to not see Boorman yet.

Lons said...

Uh oh...Someone hasn't been reading diligently and taking notes!


66. John Boorman

Okay, so Beyond Rangoon isn't really all that. Back in the 70's and early 80's, John Boorman helped define arguably the greatest decade of American film. His movies were outrageous, brutal and hallucinatory, and some of the imagery in his films has become nothing short of iconic. Though he's generally associated with violent crime films and thrillers, he's also responsible for, thus far, the definitive King Arthur film, Excalibur.

MY FAVORITES: Point Blank, Deliverance, The General

Anonymous said...

Dammit! I'm a horrible protege.

Cory said...

A little Hitchcock/Grant in our future perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Try to find, if you can, a video of Siodmak's "Christmas Holiday," one of his best and most striking films noirs. Also see "The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry" (a very different George Sanders than the one most people are familiar with); and "The File on Thelma Jordon," Siodmak's last great American noir. Also see his British noir "The Rough and the Smooth," cynical and gloomy with a wicked femme fatale (Najia Tiller).

Lons said...

Excellent advice, Greco, I'll check them out as soon as I can hunt down a copy (particularly "Rough and the Smooth," as I'm a great fan of British noir films). I'm proud to say, I have seen "The File on Thelma Jordan," thanks to the UCLA Film Archive several years back).

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