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The Fifty Best Living Directors

March 4, 2010  |  7:30am
The Fifty Best Living Directors

Few artistic endeavors are more collaborative than filmmaking. From marquee actors, screenwriters and cinematographers to the underappreciated grips, editors and extras, it can take a cast of hundreds or thousands to bring a story to the big screen. But an individual man or woman (or occasionally a pair of siblings) must coordinate those players, orchestrating the cinematic symphony. This month, we celebrate 50 of our greatest living directors, all of whom have redefined the art of motion pictures. Josh Jackson

50. Mel Brooks
Born: 1926, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Crowning Achievement: Blazing Saddles (1974)
The way Mel Brooks worships comedy is contagious, even when the fever is slow to catch on. Brooks’ 1968 movie, The Producers, which starred Gene Wilder in his first comedic role, was so audacious in its depiction of a frolicking Führer singing “Springtime for Hitler” that it was virtually boycotted by the public until it won an Academy Award. Brooks is a true comedic auteur: The public didn’t tell him what was funny—he told them. And he was right. He was a Jew who fought in World War II, saw firsthand the atrocities mankind wreaked on his heritage, and came out understanding that laughter is the most powerful weapon and remedy. Later, with Buck Henry, he created TV spy spoof Get Smart. Few remember how much this series did to target and annihilate the stifling fear people still harbored due to the Cold War.

Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both released in 1974) are two of the greatest comedies ever made. More than just simple send-ups of the Western and horror genres, they used the most unlikely settings to skewer modern racial sensitivities. Nobody knew better than Brooks the necessity of attacking subjects of common public offense. That’s why his comedies are still so therapeutic: His is a world where it’s impossible to take yourself, or anything else, too seriously. Hollis Gillespie

49. Charles Burnett
Born: 1944, Vicksburg, Miss.
Crowning Achievement: Killer of Sheep (1977)
It’s crazy that we’ve seen so few major films from Charles Burnett. The MacArthur Fellow has toiled quietly in TV for many years (he was one of several directors who worked on Martin Scorsese’s 2003 PBS series The Blues), and has abided as a definitive voice expressing the roots and lore of African-American culture. Killer of Sheep—the 16mm, black-and-white feature he wrapped in 1977 on a $10,000 budget while a graduate student at UCLA—didn’t see proper release until 2007. Then, finally, these unflinching (yet lovely) scenes from the hard-knock life of a working-class black family living in Watts, Ca.—set to a lambent soundtrack of midnight jazz and deep blues—were greeted with a rhapsodic tide of rediscovery. Critics compared Burnett to Rossellini and De Sica, Cassavetes and Robert Frank, calling him an American neo-realist visionary. His 1990 film To Sleep with Anger, starring Danny Glover as a character who can only be called “the blues walking like a man,” proved Burnett to be a magical realist, too, evoking Mississippi-crossroads myths and black snakes moaning. Burnett’s compassionate social conscience seems out of joint with 21st-century pop culture, but his profound, graceful understanding of human nature endears our hearts to the flickering screen. Steve Dollar

48. Errol Morris
Born: 1948, Long Island, N.Y.
Crowning Achievement: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Errol Morris’ unique approach to documentary filmmaking diverges from the cinema-verité in vogue while he was in school. Instead of verité’s on-the-spot shooting, Morris shoots with the precision of Hitchcock. And instead of attempting to show what’s happening as it happens, he pieces his films together retrospectively. But above all, instead of declaring that truth can be captured with a camera, Morris recognizes the limits of his form and uses them to his advantage. In his search to find a truth beyond images, Morris trashed the genre’s rulebook. Documentary cinema has never been the same. Sean Gandert

47. Jim Sheridan
Born: 1949, Dublin, Ireland
Crowning Achievement: My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989)
Jim Sheridan has shown that honest, unflinching portrayals of families can succeed both critically and commercially. His first feature, 1989’s My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown, garnered five Oscar nominations—including Best Picture and Best Director—and earned actor Daniel Day-Lewis his first statue. Sheridan continued to lean on his Irish roots with In the Name of the Father, The Boxer and the semi-autobiographical In America before tackling last year’s vivid Iraq War homecoming story, Brothers. The powerful, driving force behind each of his films is family. Tim Basham

46. John Sayles
Born: 1950, Schenectady, N.Y.
Crowning Achievement: Lone Star (1996)
John Sayles epitomizes the idea of an independent filmmaker: a writer/director of singular vision, making intimate movies on shoestring budgets financed outside of the studio system. But he’s also used that very system to his great advantage. He’s financed many of the 16 films he’s written and directed by working for others—cranking out B-movie scripts for Roger Corman, directing Bruce Springsteen videos like “Born in the USA,” rewriting blockbusters like Apollo 13 and The Fugitive, even taking a commission from Steven Spielberg to write Jurassic Park IV. But his brilliance lies in his examinations of personal relationships and his astute, nuanced observations of everyday politics. He also elicits fantastic performances from casts that include David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, Kris Kristofferson, Angela Bassett and many other greats. Highlights include Return of the Secaucus 7, Passion Fish, and The Secret of Roan Inish. Tim Regan-Porter

45. Sofia Coppola
Born: 1971, New York
Crowning Achievement: Lost in Translation (2003)
With just three full-length movies in 10 years, Sofia Coppola has not only squelched any accusation of nepotism (she’s the daughter of Francis Ford and the cousin to all of Hollywood), she’s established a small, beautiful oeuvre. Each film varies just enough in setting and subject: The Virgin Suicides captures the breathlessness of adolescence in 1970s suburbia, while Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette address the perils of young womanhood—namely, that of a newly married photographer in present-day Japan and the queen of France in the 1700s.

Coppola approaches her stories with enough imagination and empathy to make Bill Murray a sex symbol and the woman who said “Let them eat cake” seem sympathetic. While Marie Antoinette was as frothily ornate as one of Kirsten Dunst’s frilly dresses, Coppola is generally a restrained stylist and assured storyteller, threading her tragedies with compelling ambiguities.

Perhaps what most distinguishes Coppola is her complex conflation of soundtrack and dialogue, which allows music to express the emotions her characters cannot bring themselves to divulge—think of the neighborhood boys playing “So Far Away” over the phone to the Lisbon sisters, or of Murray and Scarlett Johansson flirtatiously disclosing their deepest desires via karaoke. Coppola re-imagines the ways pop culture can function onscreen, making her modest catalog far more compelling than many directors’ more expansive canons. Stephen M. Deusner

44. Cameron Crowe
Born: 1957, Palm Springs, Calif.
Crowning Achievement: Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe was only the second director to grace the cover of Paste. (Wes Anderson was first.) As Crowe prepared to release 2005’s Elizabethtown, we asked him to discuss each of his previous films:

Say Anything (1989, Writer/Director)
“My favorite film. It’s because of Lloyd. And I love the collaboration that happened with John Cusack, where he brought anger and resentment and pain to the character of an optimist, and in that it was something really timeless, and every time I watch it I feel like it’s lightning in a bottle and in that character.”

Singles (1992, Writer/Director/Co-producer)
“I guess I was always a little sad that the movie was on the shelf at Warner Brothers until grunge exploded and they had a reason to release it. And in some quarters, at the time, it was felt that somebody had gone out and immediately made a movie to capitalize on the grunge scene, when in fact it was a labor of love, to kind of help spotlight a lot of the local bands I really loved. And it was sort my version of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.”

Jerry Maguire (1996, Writer/Director/Co-producer)
Jerry Maguire took a long time to write, and the gift of working that long on a script was that the cast was perfect. Everybody was perfectly cast and dying to come to work every day. I knew that when we saw the rough assembly that it worked, and I wanted to do this for life—that I wanted to be a director for life, that it was a craft that you could actually get better at and learn on the job and do.”

Almost Famous (2000, Writer/Director/Co-producer)
Almost Famous was the movie I always had in my back pocket, that I knew, one day, if everything worked out, I’d be able to make, and it would be a love letter to rock. And I was lucky enough—because of the success of Jerry Maguire—to make it.”

Vanilla Sky (2001, Writer/Director/Co-producer)
Vanilla Sky felt like a real kind of palate cleanser of a movie to have done. We were trying to beat an actors’ strike. We made the movie like the way people talk about having made their punk-rock albums: ‘Bash it out! Do it! The truth will come from that process.’ So I’d done that, but it didn’t feel totally like me or the version of the writing that I know I can do when I have time to kind of marinate with it and really get my heart into it all the way. I was not prepared for how polarizing it would be, but I think you can’t keep making the same movie, nor should you, and that ended up being as personal, I think, in its own way, as many of the other things that I’ve done.”

43. Terrence Malick
Born: 1943, Ottawa, Ill.
Crowning Achievement: Days of Heaven (1978)
Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, is currently in post-production—merely five years after his sumptuous, breathtaking The New World. That’s cause for fans to rejoice, as decades have often passed between transmissions from his secluded world. Ever since his ruminative 1973 debut Badlands, Malick has been out of step with the modern age, his gaze slowly taking in the surrounding world. The tremendous agricultural drama Days of Heaven regards animals as well as actors, while war story The Thin Red Line melds voices so as to suggest a greater underlying humanity. Andy Beta

42. Jane Campion
Born: 1954, Wellington, New Zealand
Crowning Achievement: The Piano (1993)
The anxious, sometimes ominous sexuality in Jane Campion’s films is unmistakable. Beneath her movies’ lyrical, understated surfaces—she thrives in period settings—is a fierce longing for erotic intimacy and release. It’s intense enough that her undisputed masterpiece, Piano, ultimately explodes into one of the most horrific scenes of cinema violence imaginable. Be it misunderstood psychosexual thriller In the Cut or last year’s gaspingly romantic, PG-rated drama Bright Star, Campion explores the terrains of desire, sexual possibility and mortality with an undiluted passion. Jeffrey Bloomer

41. James Cameron
Born: 1954, Kapuskasing, Canada
Crowning Achievement: Avatar (2009)
In U.S. cinema, “big-budget blockbuster” is euphemistic shorthand for “pandering to the lowest common denominator.” But while James Cameron’s personality and production costs are best described as “outsized,” few can match his visionary talent for creating whole cinematic worlds that achieve both commercial and critical success. Aliens, the first two Terminator movies, Titanic and Avatar are all modern epics in their own right—films that offer engrossing plots and affecting characters wrapped in layers of technical wizardry. Cameron’s movies are that ultimate rarity in modern filmmaking: moviegoing experiences in which suspension of disbelief doesn’t even factor. Michael Saba

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