The Fifty Best Living Directors

Movies Features Martin Scorsese
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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

Born:1930, Paris
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