Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Top Ten Things: Film Directors

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

Today I'll be discussing my all-time favorite filmmakers.  As a cinefile I've spent years seeking out quality films made by gifted directors, and there have been more than a few whose careers I've followed very closely, at least for a while.  Some directors fell off my radar after a downturn in quality (Rob Reiner anyone?), but in each of the below cases I actively seek out films by these directors.  In some cases they are essential viewing for me.

Here now is the list....

10. Paul Thomas Anderson

One of Hollywood's quirkiest, most adventurous directors, Anderson has made a career of creating non-traditional films centered around flawed protagonists.  He often wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve, but always injects his own style and sensibilities into every picture.  His noirish debut Hard Eight garnered positive reviews, but it was his sophomore effort which brought him to my attention.  Boogie Nights chronicles the rise and fall of adult film star Dirk Diggler, set against the messy transition from the artsy smut of the 70s to the more utilitarian, VHS-driven industry of the 80s.  Anderson created such a fully realized universe and cast of characters in this movie I couldn't help being totally immersed, and Boogie Nights remains one of my all-time favorite films.  He followed it up with the uneven but superbly acted Magnolia, the Kubrick-esque opus There Will Be Blood, and the puzzling but never dull The Master.  Even in light of his two (in my opinion) misfires Punch-Drunk Love and Inherent Vice, Anderson has enjoyed a stellar career thus far, directing two masterpieces and three other uniquely admirable efforts.

Top Three Films: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Magnolia

9. David Fincher

Perhaps no other director seized my fascination so early on in his career as David Fincher.  His debut film Alien 3 (which he later disowned) disappointed me severely, but there was still something about his visual style that struck me.  His ability to play with light and darkness lent Alien 3 a richness that its script sorely lacked.  He brought that sense of intensely tangible dread to the forefront in his second film, the overwhelmingly bleak Se7en (another one of my all-time favorites), and again in his Hitchcockian thriller The Game.  But it will probably always be Fight Club that audiences most closely associate with Fincher.  This mindfuck of a movie had such a profound impact on our cinematic lexicon, and along with The Sixth Sense, made plot twists a must-have in any thriller for several years.  Much of Fincher's recent work has been a little more conventional (but often still excellent), from the police procedural Zodiac, to the Gump-esque Benjamin Button, to the darkly droll The Social Network.  His two most recent films (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl) were both based on bestsellers, with mixed box office results, but they cemented Fincher as a visually gifted event filmmaker.

Top Three Films: Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network

8. F.W. Murnau

One of cinema's earliest visionaries, Murnau created some of the most optically stunning images ever photographed for a film.  At a time when most moving pictures featured static, flat camera angles, Murnau brought expressionist atmosphere and movement (In The Last Laugh for example he used a swing and a wheelchair to create motion).  He also made use of deliberately fantastical special effects to lend his films a moody, dreamlike quality.  Consider the opening passages in his horrific epic Faust, which depicts a struggle between God and Satan.  These effects don't strive for realism, yet they're more effective in conveying the story than some of our modern CGI.  Undoubtedly Murnau's most famous film is Nosferatu, the first major adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.  Murnau set the bar for all future versions of the immortal Count, inventing a loathsome, disease-spreading apparition.  Some of film horror's most iconic images came from this film and it remains mandatory viewing every Halloween.  Murnau was sadly killed in a car accident shortly after being imported by Hollywood, and it's a tragedy we never got to see his intended American filmography.  His first American film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, won three awards at the first Oscars ceremony.

Top Three Films: Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh

7. Charlie Chaplin

Probably the greatest comedic director of all time, Chaplin got his start in vaudville before emigrating Stateside and being signed by slapstick legend Mack Sennett.  At Keystone Studios he demonstrated an increasing aptitude for creating comedy with substance, at a time when the conventional wisdom was "Make them laugh quickly and often, and then get 'em out."  After becoming an auteur Chaplin was one of the first directors to make a full-length comedy feature, as well as one of the first to truly lend his comedies weight and pathos.  The promise of laughs got audiences to watch his pictures, but the possibility of tears made them lasting, must-see films.  Chaplin's prowess at physical, wordless comedy is unparalleled in cinema, but he could evoke nearly any emotion he wanted from the audience.  His iconic character The Little Tramp was featured in nearly all of his films, yet somehow each of them was unique.  He is responsible for easily a dozen illustrious silent film sequences and images; the starving gold prospectors eating a shoe in The Gold Rush, the heart-stopping tightrope sequence in The Circus, the dream of angels in The Kid, the factory machinery gone haywire in Modern Times, the satirical Nazi oration in The Great Dictator, and for me the most poignant, the blind girl in City Lights who now can see.  Chaplin took the simplistic language of physical comedy and made it a backdrop for touching stories about the human condition.

Top Three Films: The Gold Rush, City Lights, The Circus

6. Christopher Nolan

Over the past 18 years this cerebral English director has already compiled an extraordinary body of work, creating a singular brand of intelligent, crowd-pleasing blockbuster films.  I first became aware of Nolan with 2001's Memento, an unusual, disorienting thriller about a man with no short-term memory, shown in reverse.  Immediately Nolan made his affinity for challenging films apparent.  He followed up Memento with a robust remake of the Swedish police thriller Insomnia, and was then launched into the mainstream stratosphere with his sublime trilogy of Batman films.  Where previous adaptations of the Caped Crusader tended to be cartoonish and sometimes very low-brow, Nolan reimagined Batman as a deeply flawed real-world hero trying to redeem his broken city.  2008's The Dark Knight remains one of my very favorite films and has raised the bar for comic book movies impossibly high.  Nolan's non-Batman work since 2005 has also been first-rate, from the labrynthian period piece The Prestige to the kinetic sci-fi thriller Inception, to the futuristic space adventure Interstellar, to the harrowing World War II film Dunkirk.  Every new Christopher Nolan film is truly event viewing for me, and I look forward to many more of his remarkable cinematic feasts.

Top Three Films: The Dark Knight, Inception, Batman Begins

5. Coen Brothers

These co-director brothers have built a tremendously diverse and idiosyncratic slate of films spanning multiple genres.  Often their movies involve film noir elements and seedy criminals, but sometimes they just like a sardonic comedy or scathing satire.  As far as following the Coens I more or less jumped in at the beginning, with 1986's Blood Simple, a gritty film noir about a man putting a contract out on his wife and her lover.  Next up was the screwball heist comedy Raising Arizona, the gangster noir Miller's Crossing, and the darkly comic, genre-defying Barton Fink.  But it was in the mid-90s that the Coens reached the next level, with the dark crime comedy Fargo and the transcendently hilarious The Big Lebowski.  These two films would be career highlights for any director, but the Coens added three more unequivocal classics to their collection with 2007's crime thriller No Country for Old Men, the 2010 western True Grit, and the oddball early 60s folk dramedy Inside Llewyn Davis.  The Coens have made some middling films as well (Burn After Reading and The Ladykillers come to mind) but I always take notice when a new Coens film is on the horizon.

Top Three Films: The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men

4. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick was one of the true film auteurs, creating a unique visual style characterized by fluid camera movement, unnervingly symmetrical deep-focus photography, and often a cold emotional detachment.  His films often contained deep subtext and were generally much more about humanity as a whole, than about the fate of the individual characters.  He built his stories around lofty philosophical concepts and themes, hammering them home with every sequence.  Kubrick's perfectionism was notorious; he often asked for dozens upon dozens of takes before he saw one he liked, and demanded strict continuity on the set.  Considering he was active for over 45 years his filmography was quite sparse, and in later years his filmmaking process was so painstaking it became infamous.  His last film Eyes Wide Shut for example was in production for a staggering 17 months, and he just barely lived long enough to see its completion.  One of the most controversial, divisive, and thought-provoking filmmakers of all time, Kubrick left behind a stunning body of work containing some of the most amazing visuals ever put to film.  The Stargate sequence from 2001, the elevator of blood in The Shining, the bomber pilot riding a nuke through the air in Dr. Strangelove; all classic moments in cinema lore.  Lending themselves to varied analyses, his films demand repeated viewings and tend to reflect humanity's virtues and (more often) deep-seated flaws.  Kubrick was a visual pioneer and one of film's most logically-minded, thought-provoking directors.

Top Three Films: The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove

3. Quentin Tarantino

Exploding on the scene in 1992, Tarantino brought a "film geek" sensibility to Hollywood, having absorbed decades of movies while working as a video store clerk and using his natural stylistic ability to create a new genre of films.  He sold his first two screenplays to the studios before making his directorial debut with the heist-gone-wrong parloresque drama Reservoir Dogs, and then became a household name with his second film, the genre-bending neo-noir epic Pulp Fiction.  Since then Tarantino has created pastiches of crime dramas (Jackie Brown), samurai films (Kill Bill), Westerns (The Hateful Eight), and even horror movies (Death Proof) with unabashed glee and incredible attention to memorable characters and quirky dialogue.  My favorite of his recent works is the revisionist World War II dark comedy Inglourious Basterds, a triumphant celebration of anti-Nazi violence and cinema itself.  When you sit down to watch a Tarantino film you know you're getting an unforgettable (and likely very uncomfortable) cinematic experience.

Top Three Films: Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill

2. Steven Spielberg

Spielberg has probably given my generation more universally-beloved classics than any other director.  His extraordinary forty-plus-year career has yielded more than a handful of truly iconic films, and he's renowned for his uncanny ability to craft intelligent, thoughtful movies we can all relate to.  Whether he's making a summer action movie or a contemplative historical epic, Spielberg excels at imbuing his movies with substance and relatable everyman characters.  His best work demands multiple viewings over decades, and there probably isn't another director alive who's repeatedly demonstrated such pure storytelling ability across such varied genres.  He more or less invented the summer blockbuster with the hair-raisingly scary Jaws, co-created the quintessential action/adventure in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and two of its sequels), made us all cry with E.T., brought dinosaurs to terrifying life in Jurassic Park, subjected us to an unflinching look at the horrors of the Holocaust with Schindler's List, turned the war genre upside-down with the uber-realistic Saving Private Ryan, and gave us an intimate look at one of our greatest Presidents in Lincoln.  Spielberg's genius is unbound by categorical convention or target audiences.  He is capable of making a great film on nearly any subject, in a way that appeals to all demographics without pandering to any of them.  It's no surprise that Spielberg's films have grossed more than those of any other director; his films truly capture the imagination.

Top Three Films: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, Jaws

1. Martin Scorsese

In my estimation there is no greater director in film history than this diminutive, sickly kid from Little Italy in New York.  Scorsese spent his childhood looking out the window and observing people and events in his neighborhood, and this predilection for people-watching translated into some of the most incredible filmmaking of all time.  His films are often unforgiving looks at profoundly troubled characters (Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Henry Hill), yet Scorsese finds a way for us to empathize with them, at least enough to want to spend a couple hours in their company.  Many Scorsese films deal with hardened street criminals, harkening back to the seedy lot he observed in his neighborhood.  While crime dramas are his bread and butter, Scorsese's filmography also includes religious epics (The Last Temptation of Christ), lighthearted children's fare (Hugo), suspense thrillers (Cape Fear, Shutter Island), biopics (The Aviator, Kundun) and lush period dramas (The Age of Innocence).  In compiling this piece I was torn between Spielberg and Scorsese for the top spot.  Three of my all-time top 20 films belong to Spielberg, but where his recent catalog hasn't stacked up as well as his younger years, Scorsese remains at the top of his game; in fact his post-2000 output ranks among some of his best work.  Starting with Gangs of New York in 2002 he's made nary a misstep this century, and any film of his is almost guaranteed to be one of my favorites of that year.  For my money Martin Scorsese is the greatest film director of all-time.

Top Three Films: Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull

Well that's all I got today.  Comment below with some of your favorite directors, and thanks for reading!  Join us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube!

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