The Fifty Best Living Directors

Movies Features Martin Scorsese
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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