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 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
40. Guillermo Del Toro
Born: 1964, Guadalajara, Mexico
Crowning Achievement: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
An overgrown kid with a sprawling imagination, Guillermo Del Toro makes movies the way we would, if we could remember what it was like to be seven years old, under the covers with a flashlight and a comic book (or a collection of Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft)—alone in the dark, with all those noises coming from the bushes outside the window. A filmmaker who brings poetic eloquence to his fascination with “insects, clockwork, monsters, dark places and unborn things,” Del Toro has a marrow-deep understanding of the primal scenery that animates our most essential dreads and longings (and he knows those often amount to the same thing). As he’s frequently said, it’s the monster he loves, and this love gives his putative horror films their humanity. During the the last decade, Del Toro was at the detonator—alongside colleagues Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros)—as Mexico blew up on the cinematic radar. Like his countrymen, he’s made small, cherished art-house films (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) and graduated to the über-budget franchise epics. But even the pulpy vigor of the Hellboy series fails to obscure this fevered demonologist as he composes a fabulist fugue most of us only get to see in our sleep. SD
39. Jacques Rivette
Born: 1928, Seine Maritame, France
Crowning Achievement: La belle noiseuse (1991)
As much a magician as an auteur, Jacques Rivette approaches narrative cinema as something that can appear and disappear, as if a rabbit from the top hat Juliet Berto dons in Celine and Julie Go Boating (the 1974 identity-swap fantasia that may be his most popular film). As the landlord of what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called the “House of Fiction,” Rivette ushers his audience into parallel realities of improvisational fancy, conspiracy, process, arcane literary allusions, whole generations of beautiful French actresses, extended duration (his mysterious Out 1, missing-in-action for decades before a 2006 revival, is said to have run 743 minutes), mad love, theatrical doubling and evanescence. An able old master of le nouvelle vague, Rivette is still busy making movies as he begins his 82nd year. SD
38. Spike Lee
Born: 1957, Atlanta, Ga.
Crowning Achievement: Do the Right Thing (1989)
No one captures a burnt-lens Brooklyn sunset (Do The Right Thing) or sculpts ornery heroes unafraid to shout about Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke), cry when mama dies (Crooklyn) or take solace in sex and saxophones (Mo’ Better Blues) the way Spike Lee does. Thanks to him, we have one of Stevie Wonder’s best songs (“These Three Words,” from Jungle Fever) and a definition of blackristocracy. When Lee sets his crazy characters adrift on camera dollies in wide-angle shots down city sidewalks, we float right along with them. Kristi York Wooten
37. Pedro Almodóvar
Born: 1949, Ciudad Real, Spain
Crowning Achievement: Talk to Her (2002)
Pedro Almodóvar communicates his unique visions with unparalleled precision. The stories he tells often capture life’s dark, tragic moments, but he paints each film with such complex humanity that light almost always shines through. Almodóvar doesn’t pass judgment on his characters, attempting only to understand them and their choices, making each sympathetic and relatable.
Inspired by strong, passionate female characters, his films encompass everything true and powerful in filmmaking. Known for dedicating time to each department, his directorial choices are clear in the vivid production design, fluid cinematography and bold editing. The loyalty he inspires in those around him—from cast to crew—is a testament to his leadership.
Despite his films’ commercial success, each grew from an independent heart inspired by far more than box-office numbers. Almodóvar understands the power of words and knows that the reaction to an event can be stronger than the event itself. He’s a writer/director/producer who’s not afraid to follow the path his characters take him down—wherever it may lead. His only regard is for the story and creating a world in which to tell it. Erica Dunton
36. Richard Linklater
Born: 1960, Houston
Crowning Achievement: Before Sunset (2004)
In Richard Linklater’s feature-length dreamscape Waking Life, a character named Boat Car Guy declares, “The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure, while always arriving.” In anyone else’s parlance it would be a glib paradox, but for this writer/director it’s a delirious mission statement—open incentive for his characters to charge ahead even if it’s not clear where they’re going.
Linklater, who turns 50 this year, is in the company of directors like Steven Soderbergh in that his movies often feel connected only by his name being at the top of the credits. Over the years, he’s directed a bank-robber flick, a rotoscoped sci-fi epic and a mass-appeal Jack Black comedy. And yet his films all share the trademark Linklater preoccupation—a hungry, at times breathless, drive for conversation.
From his shaggy early features like Slacker and Dazed and Confused to more elegant recent work like Me and Orson Welles, Linklater’s camera often idylls after characters rapt in some digressive encounter. His 2001 thriller Tape gleans its suspense solely from a long, increasingly ominous exchange between three people in a motel room. Though he first came to attention as a scrappy disciple of the inventive Austin film scene, Linklater’s old-fashioned insistence on dialogue for its own dramatic sake has made him an essential filmmaker. JB
35. Ridley Scott
Born: 1937, South Shields, England
Crowning Achievement: Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s chops are as vast as his trademark shots of impossibly detailed cityscapes, and every bit as compelling. He began his career as a TV director for the BBC and quickly matured into a filmmaker whose love for his craft is writ onscreen both small and large. He’s tackled Napoleonic period drama in The Duellists and ancient Rome in Gladiator, and he launched a sci-fi-moviemaking renaissance with Alien and Blade Runner. Scott weaves together threads of exposition, a seeming paradox that produces vivid and eminently watchable cinematic tapestries. MS
34. Gus Van Sant
Born: 1952, Louisville, Ky.
Crowning Achievement: Good Will Hunting (1997)
Gus Van Sant allows us to be flies on the wall without the stain of voyeurism—and regardless of his subject matter, his films echo the realness of life. Whether the protagonist is a gay politician, a semi-automatic-rifle-wielding adolescent, or a reclusive author mentoring a kid who loves to write, Van Sant makes you feel like their moments are your own. Having had the honor of working with Van Sant on my first film, I see why his work is so easy to relate to. Even though I was only 16 and it was my first acting gig, he allowed me to find my way. At times he had to take the crayon away from the kid, but he didn’t mind if I colored outside the lines every now and then. That type of freedom helped me explore and find what felt most natural. But most importantly, beyond his talents as a filmmaker, he’s a wonderful human being. Rob Brown
33. Alain Resnais
Born: 1922, Vannes, France
Crowning Achievement: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Though many have tried, no one has ever made anything quite like Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Renais’s sublime and elegant puzzlement. This bizarre love triangle set in the twilight zone of a European resort became a high-art brainteaser back when glittering doses of la dolce vita and Old-World ennui were cinematic exotica for American moviegoers. Even now, much of its purgatorial chic lingers in the uncanny limbo of David Lynch’s films, in those silly commercials for Calvin Klein’s Obsession and in the twisty mindbending of temporal huh?-fest Lost. Part of the Left Bank school of filmmakers that paralleled the French New Wave of Godard and Truffaut in the 1950s, Resnais has never coasted on his art-house pedigree (which includes textbook classics Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour). At 87, he has slipped into a freewheeling style that combines the insight of age with the verve of someone 60 years younger. His forthcoming Wild Grass, starring wife Sabine Azéma and Gallic heartthrob Matheiu Amalric, seems less like the swan song implied in its theme (midlife crisis with a side of brie) than a crafty exercise in sly wit. SD
32. Michael Haneke
Born: 1942, Munich, Germany
Crowning Achievement: Caché (Hidden) (2005)
Michael Haneke can be vicious. His most notorious movie, Funny Games, is one long torture session, and he shot it twice—once in Austria and again in America. Depicting a sadomasochistic relationship between musicians, The Piano Teacher doesn’t flinch when it delivers the brutal rape of its main character. Superficially, Haneke comes across as a practitioner of shock who satirizes cinema’s stylized depiction of violence and cruelty by bringing it boldly to the forefront. As you recoil, he asks, “Isn’t this what you wanted?” In that regard, he can be didactic and blunt, but his best movies finesse the viewer into discomfort, introducing a central mystery that not only remains unsolved, but calls into question the very principles of filmmaking. Caché, perhaps his most unsettling work, pits its upper-middle-class Parisian characters—each tracing a uniquely desperate trajectory of paranoid breakdown—against an audience surveilling them by proxy and a director who won’t let anyone off easily: not them, not you, not even himself. SMD
31. Chris Marker
Born: 1921, Neuilly-sur Seine, France
Crowning Achievement: Sans Soleil (Without Sun) (1983)
Early on in Chris Marker’s epochal 1983 documentary/travelogue/meditation Sans Soleil, the unnamed narrator says, “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember; we rewrite memory much as history is re-written.” For over half a century, the mysterious Marker—who’s never been photographed—has mused on the cognitive and amnesiac qualities of the human mind, and society at large. His earliest films documented Peking, Cuba, Paris, even Washington D.C. amid political upheaval, while his groundbreaking 1962 short La Jetée poetically blended circular time, static frames and the persistence of—what else?—memory, to devastating effect. That the bulk of his work remains out of print gives Marker an intangibility befitting one of his favorite images, that of the disappearing Cheshire cat. AB
30. Danny Boyle
Born: 1956, Radcliffe, England
Crowning Achievement: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Eight films and 16 years into his career, Danny Boyle has one of the most varied filmographies of any director on our list: the dark thriller Shallow Grave, the stylish druggie movie Trainspotting, the post-apocalyptic zombie favorite 28 Days Later, the feel-good family film Millions, the ambitious sci-fi of Sunshine and the surprise hit Slumdog Millionaire. Even more remarkable, only two of his films—the romantic comedy A Life Less Ordinary and the mishmash of The Beach—disappoint. No matter the genre, story or visual style, the director conveys an enthusiasm for his characters, and for moviemaking itself. Boyle is a true master of the language of film, full of surprise and delight. TRP
29. Christopher Nolan
Born: 1970, London
Crowning Achievement: The Dark Knight (2008)
Nothing spells success like the rescue of a franchise, and after spinning gold with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan out-blockbustered himself with sequel The Dark Knight. But it’s his ability to make a dramatic moment both epic and intimate that sets him apart, along with his mastery of plot turns that leave his audience in a constant state of expectation—particularly in his mind-blowing breakthrough, Memento. Films like 2006’s The Prestige twist with ease, yet never seem too caught up in their own cleverness. And his dabbling with the supernatural is about to be writ large with this summer’s Inception. Tim Basham
28. Claire Denis
Born: 1948, Paris
Crowning Achievement: Chocolat (1988)
“My films, sadly enough, are sometimes unbalanced,” Claire Denis told me back in 2004. “They have a limp or one arm shorter or a big nose, but even in the editing room when we try to change that, normally it doesn’t work.” I nearly choked on my tea. Denis’ films are as graceful as they come: bold and musical, warm and intelligent, they’re so subtle they often seem to work on a subconscious level. Revisiting her movies invariably turns up something new, something placed carefully in the flow of the story by a sure hand, something that went previously unseen. A big nose? A limp? More like Fred Astaire.
Denis’ hallmark is an elliptical storytelling style requiring an active audience, and her films, though not quite puzzles, are full of gaps and undercurrents; she trusts the audience to put everything together. Such maturity makes sense from someone who made her first film at the age of 40, and only then after she’d worked as an assistant director for such legendary filmmakers as Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Denis co-writes all of all her pictures, and draws inspiration from a wide variety of resources, including Melville and Faulkner and her own experiences growing up in Africa and France. She combines all this in films that are both cohesive and cinematic. Where a novelist might spend a paragraph describing a character’s thoughts, Denis will convey something similar in a fleeting shot. Robert Davis
27. Terry Gilliam
Born: 1940, Minneapolis, Minn.
Crowning Achievement: Brazil (1985)
When children recall their favorite movies, songs and bedtime stories, they usually focus on the strangest things: the color of the butterfly’s wings, the old witch’s funny hat or the giant machine that (for some reason) has a hamster wheel tucked into its guts.
Terry Gilliam’s storytelling speaks to that little kid within all of us. From his early work with Monty Python (the only American of the sextet) came some truly brilliant animation, but not until the 1980s (with Brazil, Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and ’90s (The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) did Gilliam emerge as one of the most unique, unpredictable, and plain-old-fascinating filmmakers alive. In the ’00s he gave us wildly varied experiments like Tideland, The Brothers Grimm and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Even his lesser films are loaded with more ideas in one scene than most movies attempt in two hours. Gilliam is equally brilliant and demented, passionate and eccentric, child-like and cynical. He’s still the master of the odd little detail. Scott Weinberg
26. Jim Jarmusch
Born: 1953, Akron, Ohio
Crowning Achievement: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Jim Jarmusch makes action movies without action, Westerns without heroes and dramas without resolution. Influenced by the French and Japanese exports he saw in his youth, his gift to cinema has been a foreign perspective of his own country, as he’s lit the wick of a slow-burning ambiguity that echoes through his introverted characters and decompressed plots. Along with the work of Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant and John Sayles, Jarmusch helped redefine independent film in America. He began filming at New York University, where he made Permanent Vacation with with money from a fellowship grant; the feat exiled him from college but propelled him to craft engulfing visual poems about outsiders roadtripping through a lonely, awkward America. Later, he fused his singular vision with Eastern philosophy in Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control. Whether he’s channeling the French New Wave, punk No Wave or arranging an impromptu meeting between Bill Murray and RZA, Jarmusch has continually taught Hollywood that spontaneity and a lingering camera are the best special effects money can’t buy. SE
25. Wim Wenders
Born: 1945, Düsseldorf, Germany
Crowning Achievement: Wings of Desire (1987)
Before his fascination with movies—especially American B-movies—led him to direct, Wim Wenders studied medicine and philosophy, then dropped out of school to try painting. Perhaps this varied background accounts for the ambition and distinctiveness of this auteur, who can take a four-continent road trip (Until the End of the World), tell of a supernatural love affair via mundane details and philosophical musings (Wings of Desire), or document the Cuban music scene (Buena Vista Social Club) and mark them all with his unmistakable fingerprint. They are all pieces of a whole, united by Wenders’ love of music (Bono, Nick Cave, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno have lent their talents to his films), concern for love and lost souls, uniquely philosophical and tactile lens on the world, and a visual style and sense of pacing that mixes French New Wave, American melodrama, a dash of Noir and a good-sized dose of Bergmanesque heft and silence. Wenders can be difficult—his films often reveal themselves in the spaces between the conceits of action, drama and dialogue—and he sometimes falls flat (The Million Dollar Hotel). But when he gets it right (see Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas), he delivers a masterpiece that reveals his true genius. TRP
24. Tim Burton
Born: 1958, Burbank, Calif.
Crowning Achievement: Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton reigns as the wiry-haired, eccentric professor of film, routinely concocting such fantastic, gothic playgrounds as the underworld in 1988’s Beetlejuice and Gotham City in 1989’s Batman. These locales may seem like pure popcorn escapism, but they stem from Burton’s childhood dreams of escaping the trappings of his staid, suburban upbringing in Burbank. His outcast status as an awkward kid more comfortable drawing than socializing has fueled his excellence at bringing misfits to light in all their marvelous glory. Even the famous title character of his latest film, Alice in Wonderland, with her restless adherence to restrictive English mores, fits easily among his cadre of fringe protagonists alongside Pee-wee Herman, Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd. But Burton’s most enduring exploration of freakdom remains 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. The cinematic manifestation of his childhood isolation, it’s a condemnation of polite society’s dark underbelly, an emphatic case for Burton’s conviction that uniqueness be not just accepted, but celebrated. Cory Albertson
23. David Cronenberg
Born: 1943, Toronto
Crowning Achievement: A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg doesn’t have a squeamish bone in his body. The Canadian filmmaker spent much of his career making films that defined “body horror,” a genre that preys on the fear of infection. And from Shivers (1975) to Dead Ringers (1988) to adaptations of “unfilmable” books like Naked Lunch (1991), Cronenberg’s work plays with the link between the psychological and physical. Recently, he’s turned toward broader accessibility, resulting in his two best films yet: A History of Violence (2005) depicts an enigmatic fugitive with a dark past, and Eastern Promises (2007) is equal parts thriller and mafia fable. For someone who directed his first feature in 1969, it feels like Cronenberg is just getting started. Alissa Wilkinson
22. Agnès Varda
Born: 1928, Brussels, Belgium
Crowning Achievement: Vagabond (1985)
We should all be so lucky to live as long and productively as 81-year-old Agnès Varda. And if we do, let’s hope to greet the winter with the sheer (pardon my French) joie de vivre that illuminates every frame of The Beaches of Agnès, a perfect composite of everything that qualifies her as one of the most vital filmmakers going. This 2009 autobiographical spree travels back and forth through time and memory, common themes explored by Varda and her 1950s Left Bank cohorts Alain Resnais and Chris Marker (who appears in the film as a cartoon cat). Images and reflections shuffle like postcards as the scenery circles back to the seasoned photographer’s leap into film: 1956’s La Pointe-courte, the intimate story of a collapsing marriage in a Mediterranean village, which Varda says she made having seen almost no movies other than Citizen Kane. Subsequent efforts, toggling between fact and fiction, saw Varda evolve as the resonant female voice in the New Wave boy’s club, from Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) to Vagabond (1985), which made a star of teenaged Sandrine Bonnaire. Varda’s consuming interest in film as a medium for artistic and sensory inquiry, rather than a mode of entertainment, is a quintessentially French trait. It is also, for this lover and maker of images that live beyond their frame, a trusty bohemian credo. “You had a remarkable career in an age when women didn’t have careers,” offered an interviewer in a recent issue of The Believer. “I had a world,” Varda replied. “I don’t think I had a career. I made films.” SD
21. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Born: 1970, Bangkok, Thailand
Crowning Achievement: Syndromes and a Century (2006)
Southeast Asian cinema, often inhibited by zealous censors and corrupt government film boards, has long been marginalized even within the Asian market, which is dominated by Japan and South Korea. But up to bat comes Apichatpong Weerasethakul (you can call him Joe) whose films not only absorb and reflect on Thailand’s cultural and spiritual idenity, but do so in bold, strange and elliptical ways. He’s been dubbed a “Buddhist David Lynch,” but that seems too reductive for a 39-year-old original whose films leap from the inscrutably sublime (Syndromes and a Century) to the giddily ridiculous (The Adventures of Iron Pussy). SD
20. Hayao Miyazaki
Born: 1941, Tokyo, Japan
Crowning Achievement: Princess Mononoke (1997)
Ever dream in Japanese? If you’ve seen the animated works of Hayao Miyazaki, the answer is likely yes. His movies rise from subconscious pools, burst from Jungian jungles. We witness waking dreams in swarms of gorgeous electrons. The Japanese animation master made his name internationally with Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001). The latter remains the best-selling movie in Japanese history, topping even Titanic and (so far) Avatar. Both hold elements common to the Miyazaki oeuvre: a plucky female protagonist, a reverence for nature (and fury over ecological failings), flying themes (Miyazaki’s father made rudders for Japanese Zeroes), and mythology from Eastern and Western traditions.
My own love for Miyazaki comes from his earlier animations. I have watched Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) a dozen times with my daughter. Miyazaki tells of a young girl who must leave her family to become a good witch, to make her own way in the world. My child and I thrill to this tale, especially its palette of 400 colors. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is also burned into memory, a nature tale in which a young girl from a troubled family befriends forest spirits. (Surely, there’s some Totoro in Avatar.) On the headboard of my own bed I keep a forest spirit—Totoro himself, the stuffed-toy version. He watches over my dreams. Charles McNair
19. Clint Eastwood
Born: 1930, San Francisco
Crowning Achievement: Mystic River (2003)
Clint Eastwood has dissected America through his films for nearly 40 years, and he’s only improved as a director, proving that age need not dull your bite. Eastwood’s movies look so much like classical Hollywood, but the façade is a trap, leading people into theaters expecting formula and then finding instead some of the most hard-hitting, visceral filmmaking since Sam Fuller. Eastwood tackles the difficult questions of personal and national identity without pulling any punches, making modern life’s moral ambiguity more digestible. He isn’t a showy director, but his languorous, contemplative style is groundbreaking in its own silent way, forcing audiences to think about what’s happening onscreen; in his hands, cinema is no mere escapism. Eastwood has had plenty of missteps, but you can be sure he truly believes in every frame. That kind of integrity is something that’s both exceedingly rare and especially important. SG
18. Abbas Kiarostami
Born: 1940, Tehran, Iran
Crowning Achievement: Taste of Cherry (1997)
The most poetic of Iran’s directors, Abbas Kiarostami won the Cannes Palme d’Or for his austere 1997 film Taste of Cherry, shifting the world’s focus to the stark, neo-realistic cinema of post-revolutionary Iran. In Kiarostami’s claustrophobic Ten, our gaze remains stuck on the woman driver and any number of her passengers as the agitated conversations touch upon the plight of Iranian women, as so many of the best Iranian filmmakers have done. Through the Olive Trees uses long takes and silences to map the emotional terrain of his female lead. But Kiarostami’s concerns extend beyond the feminine, to questions of mortality, justice and the mystery of life. These riddles lie at the heart of his greatest works. AB
17. David Fincher
Born: 1962 in Denver, Colo.
Crowning Achievement: Fight Club (1999)
When David Fincher stormed Hollywood in the early ’90s, he changed the face of the postmodern thriller in a way that would’ve made Hitchcock jump out of his chair with joy. Se7en (1995) was one of the defining thrillers that inspired me to work within the genre. It made perfect sense that the director of such an iconic, unique film was previously the video director of choice for music icons like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Sting. Fincher had set the bar high, but in 1999, Ed Norton, Brad Pitt and a bar of soap enthralled fans in the mega-hit Fight Club, landing Fincher among the ranks of Hollywood’s legendary directors. His mastery of the genre is exemplified in his distinct, cool-headed, fast-paced directing style. And the subtle way he weaves digital effects throughout films like Panic Room and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button makes him an artist worthy of envy and admiration by his contemporaries. I’m just one of many directors who have been inspired by his compelling contributions, and who anxiously anticipate what he’s going to do next. Marc Clebanoff
16. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Born: 1947, Meixian, China
Crowning Achievement: Hao nan hao nu (Good Men, Good Women) (1995)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is known for his ambitious aesthetics, but, despite the power of his long takes and careful compositions, he stays attuned to his characters and the politics of the world surrounding them. Always fascinated by a sense of passing time and dislocation, his style is motivated by some of the most poignant substance ever put to film. With his longtime screenwriter Chu Tien-wen, Hsiao-Hsien has boldly explored the repressed history of China and Taiwan and simultaneously blazed new trails in cinema with films that are improvised yet calculated, minute yet epic, universal yet uniquely Taiwanese. Even after 30 years of filmmaking, every Hsiao-Hsien movie still breaks ground. SG
15. Lars von Trier
Born: 1956, Copenhagen, Denmark
Crowning Achievement: Breaking the Waves (1996)
Amongst international directors, Lars von Trier is the class clown in a room full of serious straight-A students, free to joke and play games because he knows he’s just as smart and talented as the rest of them. But his antics wouldn’t be the least bit interesting if he weren’t making top-notch work to back them up. After establishing his reputation with films like The Element of Crime and Zentropa, he used the 1998 Cannes Film Festival as the platform to announce the Dogme95 manifesto, a list of 10 rules designed to shift the emphasis of filmmaking away from flashy technique (something he’d become known for) and onto the performers. Whether it was a sly joke or not, the manifesto and the ideas behind Dogme95 have had a broader, deeper impact on filmmaking than anything else in my lifetime. The manifesto coincided with the creation of cheap digital cameras and ushered in a new generation of filmmakers. Of course, von Trier abandoned the Dogme philosophy after one project, but you can’t expect the most exciting filmmaker in the world to follow any set of rules for long—even his own. Joe Swanberg
14. Francis Ford Coppola
Born: 1939, Detroit
Crowning Achievement: The Godfather (1972)
He made The Godfather. Also, Apocalypse Now—an all-time classic war film. Also, Godfather II—which everyone on Earth acknowledges as the world’s greatest sequel. Also, The Conversation—a slept-on study of paranoia. Also, some other movies. But mostly, he made The Godfather—an epic parable of power, a wrenching examination of family dynamics, a sprawling tale of immigration and ambition. It may well be the single greatest movie by any living human. If he’d never made another film, he’d still belong on this list. Nick Marino
13. Werner Herzog
Born: 1942, Munich, Germany
Crowning Achievement: Grizzly Man (2005)
The more you learn about Werner Herzog the more his life sounds worthy of a Werner Herzog documentary. The 67-year-old filmmaker—who’s produced, written and directed more than 50 films, and was once shot by a sniper’s air-rifle during an on-camera interview, but kept on chatting—grew up in a remote Bavarian village, mostly isolated from the modern world (he didn’t make a phone call until he was 17). Despite his sequestered upbringing, Herzog always knew he wanted to pursue film, making his first picture at age 19. His greatest contribution to the cinematic world was his 2005 film Grizzly Man, which documented the exploits of Timothy Treadwell, a bleach-blond outdoorsman who dedicated years of his life to “protecting” a group of bears in Alaska, only to be eaten by a grizzly in 2003. It’s a strange tale, the kind Herzog was perfectly suited to tell. Anna Swindle
12. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Born: 1951, Awirs, Belgium; 1954, Engis, Belgium
Crowning Achievement: L’enfant (The Child) (2005)
The canon is rife with movies about the seedy underbelly of one society or another. But rarely are they as gently told and ultimately affecting as those of the Dardenne brothers. They first emerged with La Promesse (1996), and since Rosetta in 1999, each of their films has competed at Cannes and won a major prize, including two that won the prestigious Palme d’Or—the only Belgian films to win the prize in Cannes history. In work like Le fils, L’enfant and last year’s Le silence de Lorna, the Dardennes introduced their audience to homeless youngsters, day laborers, addicts, mobsters—people on the fringes of Belgian society looking desperately for redemption. Though characters betray one another, commit crimes and otherwise act heinously, these stories—told without sentimentality or sensationalism—treat their subjects with a quiet empathy. Given slightly different circumstances, we might be them. AW
11. Wes Anderson
Born: 1969, Houston
Crowning Achievement: Rushmore (1998)
If there’s one term associated with the films of alterna-auteur Wes Anderson, it’s that go-to and played-out shorthand for idiosyncratic art: capital-q Quirk. It’s a lazy summation of his meticulous directing and corresponding obsession with rostrum camera shots—but it’s also, well, true. The baroque specificity about the most trivial aspects of Anderson’s characters, sets and costumes is precisely why he’s a figurehead of modern cinema. After his breakout 1998 bildungsroman Rushmore, a new template for critical success, modest-to-good box office returns, and cult-classic status energed. The era of hermetically-sealed, impeccably soundtracked films about introverts and their ornate biographies had arrived.
For more than a decade, Anderson has spun ornate, unforgettable yarns about broken families, lost loves and the sundry foibles of his characters, usually played by some configuration of Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and the Wilson brothers. His films have been set on inky high seas (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and a perpetual procession of sun-baked Indian terrain (The Darjeeling Limited), but Anderson is most interested in a more treacherous landscape—human relationships. No living director has his prodigal knack for taking life’s small, seemingly meaningless moments—and yes, all its quirks—and making us realize they’re damn near universal. MS
10. Wong Kar-Wai
Born: 1958, Shanghai, China
Crowning Achievement: In the Mood for Love (2001)
There’s a perfect moment not long into Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s 2001 masterpiece In The Mood for Love. In beautiful slow motion, a woman in a breathtaking dress ascends a staircase, followed by a graceful man in a suit. It’s a few seconds of footage that I could watch for hours on loop. Like most of his films, it’s lavishly costumed—Maggie Cheung wears six different immaculate dresses in the first five minutes alone—and lovingly shot. This love story luxuriates in the absence of consummation, which only adds to the allure. And then there’s 1994’s brilliant Chungking Express, with its depiction of desperate big-city loneliness, the cinematic equivalent of a Hopper painting. Quentin Tarantino famously announced that he wept with sheer joy when he first saw it. Ordinary filmmakers don’t elicit these kinds of reactions. Michael Dunaway
9. David Lynch
Born: 1946, Missoula, Mont.
Crowning Achievement: Mullholland Dr. (2001)
After Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, many filmmakers laid claim to the mantle of Quintessential Modern Filmmaker. But few have borne that elusive “-ian” suffix on their last name as completely and naturally as David Lynch. His films play out as reconfigured versions of Kubrick’s existential meditations, bursting the pigeonholes in which mystified critics often attempt to place him. Lynch’s formative years were spent in several rural and suburban towns, a tableau which served him well as a setting for many of his films and the cult-classic TV series Twin Peaks. He exploded to the forefront of avant-garde cinema in 1977 with Eraserhead, a dark, violent neo-noir set in an industrial wasteland (a not-so-subtle nod to his college years in Philadelphia). Lynch’s style is wholly unique: the geographical version of Cronenberg’s body horror, where the oft-nightmarish surreality lurking beneath the orderly façade of small-town American life suddenly materializes in a barrage of half-recognizable imagery. Lynch’s films are beautiful, disturbing and convoluted. They’re unflinchingly true-to-life for those very same reasons. In episode eight of Twin Peaks, the Log Lady asks, in her Cassandric style, “Do answers come in dreams?” The viewer might not realize it, but the show’s creator is the one posing the query, and it’s entirely rhetorical. In Lynch’s oeuvre, as in life, the questions and their mystifying answers only brush with the outer contours of consciousness. MS
8. Quentin Tarantino
Born: 1963, Knoxville, Tenn.
Crowning Achievement: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Over the last two decades, the most common criticisms of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking have aged badly. The claim that he’s merely imitating previous films can’t account for truly original ideas like rewriting the end of WWII, or staging the Buddhist path to enlightenment as a series of kung fu masters who must be defeated. His tics—violence as a resolution to all problems, an unabashed love for all things pop culture—remain, but these aspects of his filmmaking are both the easiest to imitate and least important. What’s unique is how Tarantino satisfies his audiences’ most puerile impulses while forcing them to consider the full ramifications of those desires. This allows him to pay loving homage to certain genres while blowing them up—both literally and figuratively. Nearly 20 years after his first full-length work, there’s still no one who makes films that look like Tarantino’s, and there never will be. SG
7. Woody Allen
Born: 1935, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Crowning Achievement: Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen—auteur, comedian, nebbish narcissist, existentialist, clarinetist—is not exactly a man of many hats. He’s just spent his 45-year directorial career wearing the same hat in all manner of styles. Marked by a colossal wit and a comically nihilistic worldview, Allen’s imprint is so distinct it’s impossible to imagine his movies—be they comedies, psychodramas or films whose ostensible subject is Scarlett Johansson’s cleavage—as made by anyone else. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Woody at his best. Adam Wilson
6. Paul Thomas Anderson
Born: 1970, Studio City, Calif.
Crowning Achievement: Magnolia (1999)
You know when the lights come up at the end of the movie, and you feel like you’ve been taken on such a whirlwind journey that you actually have to calm down for a few minutes before you can stand up? This happens to me at most once a year, and five of those occasions were the collected works of P. T. Anderson.
Magnolia alone would make him one of the greatest living American directors. Who else could drop thousands of frogs from the sky midway through an otherwise grounded tale of lonely souls in the San Fernando Valley, and somehow make us feel that it’s only thing that could have possibly happened at that moment? That’s an insane command of one’s craft!
He was only 26 when he made his first feature film (Hard Eight), and he’s always had an inborn instinct for creating the perfect dialogue, music cue, camera move or juxtaposition of images. He knows when to be fancy and when to be restrained.
But all of his movies have serious balls: In Punch-Drunk Love, he brilliantly deconstructed Adam Sandler’s screen persona. Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood—each movie is a soup of his influences, thematic obsessions and source material. And it’s all filtered, cooked and re-cast in service of his unmistakable voice.
Anderson operates on a higher plane than most of us who claim to “direct movies,” and he’s not even 40 years old! One of my biggest filmmaking heroes is younger than me! What the hell? David Wain
David Wain is the director of
Wet Hot American Summer
and Role Models, and the creator/star of the online series Wainy Days.
5. Steven Soderbergh
Born: 1963, Atlanta, Ga.
Crowning Achievement: Traffic (2000)
Most major filmmakers have what jazz musicians used to call a “bag.” A bag is a creative trademark, like “The Master of Suspense.” Tim Burton shoots phantasmagorical tales, always with Johnny Depp. Todd Haynes’ postmodern style never fails to remind us of his semiotics degree from Brown. Steven Soderbergh’s bag is that he doesn’t have one. Over the course of 21 films in two decades—he’s probably finishing no. 22 as you read this—the man has applied himself to every kind of genre, every size of budget and every kind of movie.
Who else, in the same year, delivers a four-hour panoramic war epic redolent of vintage David Lean (Che) with an Oscar-winner in the heroic lead, then turns around and makes a wholly improvised, no-budget experiment (The Girlfriend Experience) whose only professional actor is a porn star (though tellingly, one who cites Jean-Luc Godard as her favorite director)? Neither film got much conventional theatrical distribution: Che toured like an old-fashioned cinema roadshow. GFE, befitting its callgirl-as-metaphor plot, was available on demand.
At heart, Soderbergh is as indie as he was in 1989, when Sex, Lies and Videotape announced a new wave in American moviemaking. His skill at harnessing the celebrity power of all his Oceans Eleven buddies—Clooney, Damon, Roberts, etc.—to drive Academy Award nominations and the occasional box-office bonanza shows he’s savvier than most. And he never stops shooting (literally: Soderbergh is often his own cinematographer), letting commercial projects feed his off-season ventures into avant-garde narrative and documentary. (The new And Everything Is Going Fine is a posthumous tribute to Spalding Gray.) Though parts of his oeuvre are dated or quixotic, Soderbergh’s commitment to new technology and his drive to anatomize the complex ironies of contemporary life make him the most complete filmmaker working. He’s got too much going on to fit into anyone’s bag. SD
4. Joel and Ethan Coen
Born: 1954 and 1957 in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Crowning Achievement: Fargo (1996)
Flannery O’Connor once argued that if a story is going to try for wholesomeness, it needs to start by being whole. Whichever way we interpret the universe of Joel and Ethan Coen, we’re compelled to admit that the brothers have created just that world: one scandalously, enigmatically and often embarrassingly whole. They run us through the ringer (or the woodchipper) while we wonder what exactly they had in mind, and why.
Their films tease us with incongruent details that ultimately tie their vision together. Take Fargo, in which pregnant police investigator Marge Gunderson (played by Coen regular—in work and matrimony—Frances McDormand) finds her murder investigation interrupted by an ambiguous meeting with a depressed high school flame who proves to be a pathological liar. What does this have to do with that? Why does Gabriel Byrne’s Reagan in Miller’s Crossing have a recurring dream about losing his hat? Where do we place the constant references to the Book of Daniel in Barton Fink?
As with all classic artistic expressions, these films are gifts that never stop giving. Their meanings are ever dawning. But the Coens themselves generally eschew any hint of the highfalutin’. A connection between O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Homer was publicly acknowledged just long enough for the brothers to insist that neither of them had ever read it. And few Coen characters are destroyed with as much meticulous, painstaking care as the pretentiously socialist playwright Barton Fink (masterfully portrayed by John Tuturro). “I guess I try to make a difference,” he intones. But for the Coens, his self-professed love for “the common man” is as incoherent as the distinction between high and low culture. They’re in it for laughs, and will leave no sacred cow untipped. In A Serious Man, they go to great lengths to place the lyrical wisdom of Jefferson Airplane squarely within the ancient tradition of rabbinic wisdom, one more morsel of cosmic plainspeak useful for our instruction. It’s a folk process that demands constant comedic refurbishment and relentless retelling. This is how the work gets done.
Whether’s it’s Sam Elliott’s Stranger avowing that The Dude abides, “takin’ her easy for all us sinners,” or Moses the Clockman deriding the delusions of Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy, our guides constantly discourage us from thinking too deeply or obsessing over where to file the tale we’re being told. Worrying over such questions (tragedy or comedy? fact or fiction? should I be laughing or crying?) is the sort of fastidiousness that will stand in the way of paying heed, of seeing what we see. Whether looking hard upon dysfunction or dignity, the Coens are hellbent on giving us the whole. And if we remember the way The Big Lebowski only came to life, for most viewers, years after its theatrical release, we might do well to reconsider the supposed flops (The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, The Man Who Wasn’t There). The classics, after all, take time. David Dark
3. Steven Spielberg
Born: 1946, Cincinnati, Ohio
Crowning Achievement> Schindler’s List (1993)
More than anyone else on this list, Spielberg understands and embodies the contemporary blockbuster. So while we have him to blame for Transformers (which he executive produced), we also have him to thank for Avatar (which, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the immortal E.T., he foreshadowed). Crass commercialism for the masses? We don’t think so. We think Spielberg works in the tradition of Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz. He likes his movies big. We appreciate intimate art-house fare as much as anyone, but sometimes we like our movies big, too.
So a tip of the cap to the man behind 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, the prototypical action/adventure flick. Three cheers for Jurassic Park, which left us gobsmacked back in 1993 at how real those freaking dinosaurs looked. And a hearty huzzah for 1975’s Jaws, which still sends tremors of fear through any ocean-going swimmers who stop to consider what’s lurking just beneath their bare feet.
His catalog isn’t all fluff. Terrorism? Slavery? The Holocaust? Serious people who like serious films can spend a whole weekend pondering Munich, Amistad and Schindler’s List. The man’s pedigree is unimpeachable. NM
2. Jean-Luc Godard
Crowning Achievment: Breathless (1960)
In his 1966 film Masculine-Feminine, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard flashes an intertitle proclaiming, “Philosopher and filmmaker share a way of being, an outlook on life that embodies a generation.” As the audience reads that line, gunshots ring out in the darkness. The viewer’s mind ponders as the body is made to flinch and jump, the intellectual process riddled with gangster-film tropes. Between highbrow art house and pop fare (or as another intertitle puts it, “The children of Marx and Coca-Cola”), therein resides Godard.
No single essay can summarize five decades of filmmaking. A scrutinization of Godard’s prolific first seven years of work—14 singular, stunning, still-enigmatic manifestos bookended by 1960’s Breathless (the first shot fired from the French New Wave canon) and his au revoir to narrative cinema, 1967’s Weekend—is a daunting task. Godard, like Dylan in America, became a philosopher and unwitting spokesperson for his generation, putting those turbulent times before his audience’s eyes and j’accusing: “But something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you?”
Godard’s massive body of work bridges the gap between classic cinema, be it American post-war studio fare, France’s golden age of film, or Italian neo-realism and the hyperactive consumer culture that followed. His filmmaking reveals a ravenous and omnivorous intellectual appetite, taking in the deepest epistemological and semantic concerns—Dadaism and anarchy, the political upheaval and brutality of war and the latest in pop trends—and making them into heady, mesmeric cinematic statements. He anticipates our own 21st-century tendencies toward assimilation and multitasking; it’s not unfounded to consider him the first blogger, able to process disparate strands of thought and release them in real time.
Examine any one of his films and you see where Godard’s head is. For his punk-rock debut, Breathless, he’s taken with B-movie house Monogram Pictures, Humphrey Bogart, French-noir director Jean-Pierre Melville, and his star-crossed female lead, Jean Seberg. 1967’s postmodern Two or Three Things I Know About Her juxtaposes the urban development of Paris with suburban prostitution; the failure of cinema to truly convey sensorial data dovetails with a sense of helplessness about the escalation of Vietnam. He tackles the banality of modernity, the worthlessness of consumerism. Godard’s harrowing 1976 effort, Here and Elsewhere combines the Palestinian massacre with the futility of film to change the world.
And yet Godard has changed the world of film. In our top 10 alone, we can gauge his lasting influence: Soderbergh, P.T. and Wes Anderson, Tarantino, Wong Kar-Wai. Surprisingly, many of Godard’s nouvelle vague contemporaries remain, several of them making our list (see Agnès Varda #22, Chris Marker #31, Alain Resnais #33). For all his insouciance and disavowal of “bourgeoisie” filmmaking, Godard had become an old master himself. For 2001’s In Praise of Love, he visually echoes fauvism, Bresson’s Pickpocket and Cocteau’s Orphée, while slighting Steven Spielberg and the American revisionism of European history. His outlook on life continues to influence a new generation. AB
1. Martin Scorsese
Born: 1942, Queens, N.Y.
Crowning Achievement: Raging Bull (1980)
He’s the name most likely dropped by aspiring film students as their role model, the Oscar-winning (finally!) American master crusading to save museum film programs and rescue deteriorating reels of rare classics, the burly-browed motormouth who spoofs himself in American Express commercials and inspired Rob Reiner’s loving caricature of him as rock documentarian Marty DiBergi in This Is Spinal Tap. And, yeah, he’s shot at least one movie—1980’s Raging Bull—that is damn near perfect.
As the art form of the 20th century radically transforms in the face of the new millennium and its emerging technologies, the asthmatic Catholic boy who once abandoned the seminary for the silver screen looks more and more like cinema’s greatest hero.
He’s one of the good fellas, an artist whose devotion to the medium flickers with the awestruck majesty of movies at their most epic, old-fashioned peak. He seems to have swallowed film history whole, from D.W. Griffith to Roberto Rossellini to Michael Powell to Elia Kazan to John Cassavetes. Biographers latch onto his sickly childhood spent hooked on WOR-TV’s Million Dollar Movie, and captivated by Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs. The young Marty may have been too fragile for the fisticuffs that were as natural as breathing in the Italian-American neighborhoods that nurtured him. But an obsessive self-schooling in swords, sandals and Cinemascope fired an ambition and imagination that would translate the elemental intensity of his immediate world into the visceral images, staccato verbal riffage and shattering emotional themes of his movies.
Coming of age in the 1960s and beginning his real career in the 1970s, Scorsese belonged to the generation of directors who would eventually have the same impact on American film that Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut had in Paris in the late 1950s, when they broke every imaginable rule of French cinema. Scorsese put his signature on New York stories: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—a trilogy so potent that people now probably forget he got a leg up with Roger Corman (Boxcar Bertha) and was a feminist-for-hire with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which won Ellyn Burstyn an Oscar. New York, New York would indirectly do even more for the career of Frank Sinatra (who Scorsese is soon to consider on film, says the Internet Movie Database, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Ol’ Blue Eyes). The Last Waltz may be the most cherished concert documentary ever made, a farewell not only to The Band, but ostensibly to the 1960s as a whole (although he has since cirlced back, time and again).
Regardless, the director’s Big Three pictures remain central to his legacy, partly thanks to Robert DeNiro’s coiled and crackling presence of at the core of each. Scorsese’s alter ego, playing off of regulars like Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, is a lightning rod for violence and self-destruction; whether as doomed punk Johnny Boy, psychopathic would-be assassin Travis Bickle or animalistic boxing champ Jake LaMotta, De Niro gives urgent, bruising performances that decimate the screen. Meanwhile, Scorsese’s camerawork and editing do as much to keep the pace in the grimy, neon noir of Taxi Driver’s Times Square as in the luminous black-and-white of Raging Bull’s 1940s Bronx. Guilt, loss, trauma, loyalty, betrayal, psychological and physical torture, bloodshed and redemption are all part of a machismo that can’t easily articulate itself in words—“You talkin’ to me?”—but nonetheless succeeds through dialogue as forceful, and painful, as a bare-knuckled punch.
Critics and audiences will debate all that Scorsese has given us since (which includes the new 1950s thriller Shutter Island, starring DiCaprio, his recent leading-man of choice), but the guts and vitality never left Scorsese’s pictures, even those that don’t immediately come to mind. Sometimes it’s more revealing to gauge a director by efforts thought to be less essential. The King of Comedy One of Scorsese’s very best, a stupendously cracked meditation on the nature of celebrity, and a natural sequel to Taxi Driver, with the oddest ménage a trois imaginable: De Niro, Sandra Bernhard and Jerry Lewis, all playing it straight. The Color of Money. A key entry in the canon of Paul Newman’s “lion-in-winter” portrayals, and a scene (set to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”) that harnesses a hyper Tom Cruise with choreographic zeal. After Hours? A satirical anatomy of downtown Manhattan in the Slaves of New York era that has the sly glimmer of Bunuel—and an amazing moment with Verna Bloom. Cape Fear> De Niro, once again a menace to society, able to strike terror with four nonsense syllables: fee-fi-fo-fum. And how about Gangs of New York? A messy disappointment, but absolutely brutal commitment from Daniel Day-Lewis—with the martial mojo of Othar Turner’s Rising Star Fire & Drum Band rumbling through the soundtrack.
Even when Scorsese isn’t striking major chords, he has reached a level of mastery that can elevate almost any ordinary moment to what cornballs call “movie magic.” Goodfellas, the 1990 mob saga that is arguably Scorsese’s most enduringly popular film, blasted through the viewer’s consciousness much like the endless cocaine bumps that turned rising wiseguy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) into a jittery paranoid fiend. The movie gives you an exhilarating contact high and then faceplants you smack into Hill’s deflated reality as a gangster forced to change identities and start life anew as a total Joe Schmoe. Perhaps this is all a flashback to the director’s troubled spell after making The Last Waltz, when he was nearly consumed by his own addiction. And maybe that’s why Goodfellas’ showstoppers feel so fully visceral: the elegant, extended tracking shot in the nightclub, the manic “Monkey Man” montage.
Scorsese’s love of rock ’n’ roll, blues and vintage American pop pulses through his films. He’s made concert movies concussive with technique (Shine a Light, with the Rolling Stones) and encyclopedic documentaries (No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) which will stand as the definitive word. His narrative films are sometimes such relentless jukeboxes—The Departed, Casino—that it feels like overkill. Yeah, man, I love “Layla,” too, but can I just sit back without all the rock-historical resonance and enjoy this moment with Jack Nicholson and that severed hand in the Ziploc baggie?
Then again, nah! C’mon, it’s Marty. No way do you get to sit back and study on anything. He’s reaching out with both hands and dragging you head-first into all the tension and chaos and blood and glory his characters are experiencing. And when it’s all done, you’re going to be rattled and shaken and really, really alive.
Again and again, Scorsese returns to the elemental American stories; mythologies written in the blood of immigrants and their children, and framed through the prism of film history. No other living director’s catalog is as complete, or could read so compellingly as visual literature. Maybe the notion of the Great American Novel has long gone out the window because it was such a concept of the ’50s and ’60s—the eras that shaped Scorsese—but one day we will see the passionate totality of his work for what it really is: some of the finest literature of our time, penned on celluloid. Steve Dollar