Thursday, October 06, 2005

My 101 Favorite Directors, 41-50

We're at the halfway point with these lists. One thing I discovered while putting the whole thing together is that it's not quite as rote as you'd expect. I had always thought that anyone from my generation who put together a Top 50 Directors list would include a lot of the same names. And, of course, some of my Top 10 or 20 is quite predictable for people who know my personality and tastes. Friends have even been making fairly accurate guesses in the Comments section.

But there's a lot of subjectivity to it as well. Just the other day in the store, a co-worker made a crack about Sam Peckinpah, implying that his catalogue of films was overrated. Clearly, I disagree (he's below at #44). And in my entire life, I have never seen the man at #41 on any list of Great Directors, despite the fact that his films are among the most popular, entertaining and influential of anyone's in the entire list. It just demonstrates how varied and eclectic the last 100 years of filmmaking have been. Even people with similar tastes who have seen mostly the same movies can have wildly divergent opinions about what represents the "best" in cinema.

50. Sidney Lumet

I feel like I'm already down to my absolute favorite filmmakers, and I still have 50 more entries to go. Lumet is a pioneer of socially-aware, politically transgressive American filmmaking who has never shied away from controversial subjects. His 1964 film The Pawnbroker was among the first American films to openly deal with the Holocaust, and his classic Network, of course, is all about the rejection of media indoctrination, and was one of the first mainstream films to openly attack America's consumer culture. Plus, his work is just extremely engaging and fun to watch, full of memorable dialogue and great performances.

MY FAVORITES: Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Network, Q&A

49. Peter Weir

Weir's films tend to focus on makeshift communities, formed by neccessity rather than personal choice. The rifts and tensions that arise in these isolated social clusters are always situation-specific, and yet can be easily reapplied to everyday human interactiosn on a global level. A thoughtful and allegorical filmmaker, Weir's movies are nonetheless engaging and easy to watch, suffused with bold, sweeping cinematography and crafty, subtle intelligence.

MY FAVORITES: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Truman Show

48. Howard Hawks

Hawks' catalogue reads like a Film Guide's list of Best American Films. Seriously, the guy produced at least 4 classics per decade, three decades in a row. It has got to be some kind of record. And like Michael Curtiz, they come from a variety of genres and styles. The only thing uniting many of the films is Hawks' impeccable sense of timing, skill with actors and consummate professionalism.

MY FAVORITES: His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Scarface

47. David O. Russell

#47 of all time isn't bad for a guy with only 4 proper fictional movies and one semi-released documentary. All four of those movies, though...they're terrific. Russell's a really funny, intelligent writer, so he begins with these fresh, thoughtful scripts and makes them into dreamy, stylish, frequently hilarious and always idiosyncratic comedies. One movie of his in particular, Three Kings, is a tragically overlooked modern masterpiece, one of the smartest and most insightful of recent American movies, an extremely prescient action-comedy set during the first Gulf War that works on about ten levels at once.

MY FAVORITES: Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, Flirting With Disaster, Spanking the Monkey

46. Robert Zemeckis

Zemeckis over Hawks and Lumet? BLASPHEMY! I can hear myself being discredited by all the cinematic purists out there even as we speak. But what can I say? Spielberg's star pupil hit his stride just when my obsession with movies started officially. He had a string of tremendously entertaining audience-pleasing comedies in the 80's that ideally combined old-fashioned storytelling with cutting-edge effects. (Even the flawed 90's flop Death Becomes Her features tremendous computerized effects technology and a funny turn from Bruce Willis.) Yeah, okay, so Back to the Future III sucks, the right-wing diatribe Forrest Gump is a tragic blight on his record and all his films now have a ponderous, self-important tone. I'm willing to forgive and forget.

MY FAVORITES: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone

45. Mel Brooks

I remember seeing Spaceballs in a movie theater in New Jersey with my dad and a friend of our family's, a neighbor named Neil. I remember being shocked that the film was a PG movie, which had been directly marketed to me, a child, and yet it felt so dirty. Rick Moranis at one point says "fuck," a word I didn't, at the time, realize he even knew. It was more like a movie you'd sneak into than one you'd see with your dad right next to you. So, of course, it became one of my favorite movies, and I found that the same gleeful, and gleefully mild, raunch runs through all of his films. It was only later that I'd discover the real classics of Brooks' oeuvre, his collaborations with Gene Wilder, one of the best matches of performer and director in American movie history.

MY FAVORITES: Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers

44. Sam Peckinpah

As we move along here, it's going to become increasingly obvious this list was created by a man. Not only are there no female directors on the list at all (though I doubt most women with anything less than encyclopedic film knowledge could do all that much better), but it's full of macho action filmmakers like Peckinpah, telling stories about tough guys fighting a losing battle against their personal demons. Women, I suppose, might have trouble relating to some of Peckinpah's films, and in truth, as a young non-alcoholic, sometimes I do, too. But they are, in addition to testosterone-fueled bloodbaths, searing portraits of human weakness and absolutely riveting, dynamic, essential action films.

MY FAVORITES: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Straw Dogs, The Getaway, The Wild Bunch

43. Milos Forman

I want to place Milos higher, if only because I have such respect for his background, the much-needed perpsective he brings to American film and his dark sense of humor. But, hey, we're striving for total 100% accuracy here. Forman made a few delightful comedies in his home nation of Czechoslovakia before emigrating to America in 1968 to escape Communist oppression. Here, he specialized in films about non-conformists pitted against a cruel system attempting to break their delicate spirits. Coincidence? Most of these films, with the possible exceptions of Man on the Moon and Valmont, are rightly considered classics.

MY FAVORITES: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Amadeus, The Loves of a Blonde

42. Paul Verhoeven

I love Paul Verhoeven movies, for sure, but even more than that, I love the idea of Paul Verhoeven. A Dutchman with an anarchistic streak who made serious films, war films, in his own country, and then came to America and found our uptight Puritanical bullshit so amusing, he committed himself to pushing the envelope for sexual and violent content more and more with each new project. I interviewed him at the junket for his brilliant, hilarious sci-fi satire Starship Troopers, and he told me that (1) he hired young actresses based on breast size, (2) he wanted to make an entire film about CG dinosaurs behaving as dinosaurs might have really behaved in the wild (as he said, "eating, shitting and fucking") and (3) he was proud when Total Recall was tagged as "the most violent American film ever made." Awesome.

MY FAVORITES: Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers

41. Chuck Jones

Chuck Jones was one of a number of geniuses and pioneers working out of Warner Brothers famed "Termite Terrace" in the 40's and 50's. Is there anyone out there who doesn't recognize the incredible genius of Looney Tunes? They aren't just the all-time definitive cartoons...they are the bedrock of almost all contemporary "ironic" or post-modern comedy. Without Jones' remarkable contributions to animation, and his self-aware, irreverent and non-sequiteur humor, there would be no "Ren and Stimpy," no "Beavis and Butthead," no "Spongebob Squarepants," no "Simpsons," no "South Park," no "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," no Toy Story or Iron Giant or Shrek or even Evil Dead 2.

MY FAVORITES: Duck Amuck, Rabbit Seasoning, One Froggy Evening, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

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