The Fifty Best Living Directors

Movies Features Martin Scorsese
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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