The Fifty Best Living Directors

Movies Features Martin Scorsese
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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