Filmmaking is a collaborative medium where a number of different personalities harmonize together on a single project. As with any symphony, a group is only as good as its conductor. As I approach the end of this blog, here are ten directors who provide that unifying element of genius throughout their decorated filmographies.
- Hayao Miyazaki
The “Walt Disney of Japan,” in a lot of ways, surpasses Disney. Miyazaki’s animated features are family-friendly (except for Princess Mononoke (1997), that is) without being condescending, and his storytelling style is distinctly Japanese without resorting to the post-Pokémon cartoonishness of anime that Western audiences have come to expect. In any culture, at any age, there’s a lot to be learned from Miyazaki, and even more to marvel at in his cinematic skillset.
MASTERPIECE: Spirited Away (2001)
- Ernst Lubitsch
Known for his “Lubitsch Touch,” this German-born artist in the Golden Age of old, classical Hollywood was an auteur before “auteur theory” was even a thing. It’s a topic of scholarly debate as to what, precisely, makes films like Trouble in Paradise (1932) so unique in the experience you get from watching it, not just in the content itself; whatever the answer to that question may be for you, Lubitsch is the quintessential example of a European Jew who fled to the United States during World War II and helped turn young Hollywood into a cultural touchstone on par with the ancient historical landmarks in his own home continent, and influenced generations to come after him. His romantic comedies are actually romantic, they’re actually comedic, in an intelligent, important way, and you walk away from them feeling starstruck, which is the purest effect of cinema imaginable.
MASTERPIECE: Ninotchka (1939)
- Joel and Ethan Coen
Even their weaker efforts are a scream to watch. Raising Arizona (1987) got a one-and-a-half-star-out-of-four rating from film critic Roger Ebert, whereas Fargo (1996) was an Academy Awards darling. Either way, the Coen Brothers’ quirky charm is inimitable, and unbeatable.
MASTERPIECE: No Country for Old Men (2007)
- Martin Scorsese
Marty Scorsese is a film scholar, but it takes more than just a knowledge of film to produce the work that he does – it takes talent, and the marriage of academia and artistry is the breeding ground for cinematic genius. Cape Fear (1991) is one of the hardest times I’ve ever had watching a movie because that’s just how intense it is, and Casino (1995), though a derivative work of his own GoodFellas (1990), is proof that his formula works, no matter what context it’s in. His creative partnership with editor Thelma Schoonmaker has resulted in some of the most exciting unions ever between image and sound, between image and image, and that’s what moviemaking is all about.
MASTERPIECE: GoodFellas (1990)
- Christopher Nolan
In Memento (2000) and Inception (2010), Nolan achieves the rare feat of taking a truly innovative concept and making it watchable. He also gets bonus points from me for his use of practical effects in an industry so oversaturated with CGI that the movies may look more “real,” but they feel more “fake.” Part of why I hate Interstellar (2014) so much is because it’s such a pretentious piece from an otherwise unpretentious-but-still-brilliant artist, and so is the Nolan-produced Man of Steel (2013); let us hope that this superstar of his generation will leave behind the legacy he’s earned and not a parody of it.
MASTERPIECE: The Dark Knight (2008)
- James Cameron
Save for his paycheck debut, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), all of Jim Cameron’s movies have been consistently high-quality. Say what you will about the originality of Avatar (2009), but y’all still went out and paid for the movie tickets that made it the highest-grossing motion picture ever released (not adjusted for inflation), and y’all did it for a reason. His texts may not be “works of art” in the strictest sense of the term, but, hey, filmmaking got its start in the late nineteenth century, when carnivals reigned supreme in the Western world as a form of popular entertainment, so “showmanship” and “spectacle” are as “cinematic” as anything else.
MASTERPIECE: Titanic (1997)
- Brian De Palma
De Palma shamelessly and unapologetically worships style over substance, so much so that his style is the substance. Titles like Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981) are so full of techniques blatantly “borrowed” from other directors – Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michelangelo Antonioni in particular – that they’re infused with the richness of many different films in one, some of the greatest ever made (Hitchcock’s “Big Three:” Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960); Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966); Coppola’s The Conversation (1974)). I could write for paragraphs about De Palma, because I could write for paragraphs about each one of his “mentors” – suffice to say, you can’t look away from a De Palma, and you can’t stop thinking about a De Palma, even if you don’t understand why you can’t, even if it doesn’t make rational, cognitive sense, and that visceral, otherworldly logic is axiomatically faithful to the spirit of fiction, and the spirit of the cinema.
MASTERPIECE: Carrie (1976)
- Stanley Kubrick
Obsessive and neurotic, Kubrick’s mise-en-scène is as detailed as a painting, and his camerawork is as measured as a concerto (much to the detriment of his actors). Human beings and real life may not occur in this cold, controlled vision of the world, but Kubrick’s darkness shines more light on the truths about human nature and the human condition than our blindingly chaotic universe is open to reveal by itself. With a penchant for literature and genre experimentation, Kubrick’s filmmaking teams probably would’ve been happier if he’d isolated his demanding ambitions to the solitude of writing, but he challenged them to rise to the standards of his artistry, and, together, they created classic after classic after classic.
MASTERPIECE: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
- Quentin Tarantino
The antithesis to Martin Scorsese, Tarantino didn’t go to film school, but, instead, educated himself, just by watching the movies at the video store where he worked and touring the Los Angeles grindhouse and exploitation theatrical circuit. Ironically, his influences are less “artistic” than Brian De Palma’s (kung fu imports from Hong Kong and low-budget Spaghetti Westerns), yet Tarantino is the more “artistic” postmodern director. It’s not style over substance, it’s style and substance, and this alchemic ability to imbue “low-culture” source material (samurai epics) with “high-culture” meaning (nonlinear metanarratives) makes Tarantino the most exciting director working today and The Hateful Eight (2015) one of my most anticipated films of the year.
MASTERPIECE: Kill Bill (2003)
- Sir Alfred Hitchcock
The greatest filmmaker who ever lived, Hitchcock is responsible for the greatest film ever made: Vertigo (1958). To the casual moviegoer, he’s the “Master of Suspense,” the go-to for mysteries and thrillers. For film critics, he’s an endlessly complex study, a thematic romantic with Gothic overtones, a director who had his peak period in 1950s and 1960s Hollywood but whose best works (the mesmerizingly obsessive driving scenes in Vertigo, the dialogue-less shower scene in Psycho) harken back to his roots in the silent-era British studio system; Hitchcock understood that sitting silently in a dark movie theater is the only chance we ever get to indulge in the voyeuristic and morbid fantasies we all keep secret, to explore the curiosities we have with other people and ourselves, since, in the end, we’re all we’re ever going to have, and for that reason, as well as his status as a pop culture icon, he’s not only the top filmmaker of all time, but he’s also one of the great artists of the twentieth century in this part of the world.
MASTERPIECE: Vertigo (1958)