Entertainment Weekly recently posted a list of the top twenty-five active film directors. These lists will forever cause disagreement and controversy but some of the inclusions, and subsequent exclusions, on this list are pretty unforgivable. Even if you don’t find it too irratating, as a film fan and blogger I feel it only necessary to present some arguments both against the inclusion of some and against the exclusion of others while I would also like to take some time to argue for the inclusion of a few that I think may brook argument elsewhere.
EW’s Original List:
25. Jon Favreau
24. Pedro Almodovar
23. Paul Greengrass
22. Paul Thomas Anderson
21. Ang Lee
20. Ron Howard
19. Clint Eastwood
18. Danny Boyle
17. Darren Aronofsky
16. Zack Snyder
15. Sam Raimi
14. Judd Apatow
13. Tim Burton
12. David Fincher
11. Guillermo Del Toro
10. Joel and Ethan Coen
9. James Cameron
8. Michael Mann
7. Quentin Tarantino
6. Ridley Scott
5. Steven Soderbergh
4. Christopher Nolan
3. Martin Scorsese
2. Peter Jackson
1. Steven Spielberg
Against The Inclusions
- I like Iron Man, I’m entertained by Elf, I haven’t seen Zathura. With this knowledge in my mind, I have to say that including Jon Favreau on this list is completely ridiculous. The action in Iron Man was okay but nothing to send pictures to Grandma about and Elf was passable and sweet but nothing representing visual flair, shot choices or directon of actors made this seems like Favreau was even remotely in the category of auteur. He did a huge amount of work to bring Iron Man to the screen in the form it comes in, but that really just marks him out as a hard-working and likeable fellow, not a great director.
- Ron Howard is a skilled technician and delivers very entertaining films. But every one of them is entertaining but nothing beyond. His films are filled with unspectacular direction in which he exhibits a great understanding of what will make audiences tick, but displays no ability to understand the psychological motivations behind characters, or at least fails to show he understands this on film. I don’t think you could ever watch any of his films and consider its a ‘Ron Howard film’. He’d likely say this is because he has no set style and just works in a way that will best serve the story he is telling. I would say it’s because he is a competent but entirely unspectacular director.
- Zack Snyder is certainly making a name for himself but, until the world has seen and been able to judge Watchmen, he cannot even remotely be considered great. Dawn of the Dead is a lot of fun but 300 is lifeless, if imaginative. He has chops but I am entirely unconvinced at present that he is ‘great’.
- Judd Apatow is a highly influential producer and writer. He has pioneered a new comic genre which currently shares a mantle alongside the Ferrell/McKay axis as the top box-office comedy type of this current generation. But, he is a director with very little again in any sort of visual flair and with little self-editing ability. Both the 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up are excellent but both go on for too long and rely more on the quality of chemistry between actors and the scripts/improv than his work. You could argue he has much to do with the quality that you see in the chemistry, but I’m not too sure on that.
- Tim Burton used to be something of an enchanting genius. Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood will stand up for eternity while he has other good works in his past with Beetlejuice and the Batmans. He even proved adept at toning himself down slightly for Big Fish. But now, despite the success of that, he has retreated back into his gothic comfort zone and continues to droll out only-okay pictures. His Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was creepy and filled with poor choices. Sweeney Todd was beautifully designed but so far into what we expect from Burton that any sense of excitement is taken away. Now he is moving on to do Frankenweenie and Alice in Wonderland, neither of which promise anything different from the man. If he could grow a pair and test himself a little more, I would be far more inclined to place him amongst these top players.
- James Cameron is a genius on his day, but are we really excited so much by the new film from a guy who has done nothing for a decade outside of 3D experimentation and nature documentaries? Avatar sounds incredible but I would be hesitant to get too excited, especially given the place of Titanic as a superb spectacle film with excruciating dialogue and generally hammy acting. Avatar may look amazing, but it may end up disappointing the legions desiring something life-changing beyond the credits.
- Ridley Scott is another with incredible films in his back catalogue but who has not really delivered anything of real value since Gladiator. He now seems to occupy an odd space where a select group of actors want to constantly work with him on projects which seem interesting. Then, he turns in films which are technically brilliant but have nearly no heart or depth. American Gangster is the prime example, a work which should have been fascinating and engrossing, instead turned into a long, well-acted and well-made episodic gangster movie-by-numbers.
- Peter Jackson did direct Lord of the Rings and you will find no arguments for me on the brilliance of those films. No doubt he should be on the list. But King Kong was an epic fumble that would have bumped him back a few places for me and though his early splatter career in New Zealand is filled with energy, and Heavenly Creatures is very good indeed, I just can’t quite build the enthusiasm I would need to defend his position above, yes above, Martin Scorsese.
In Defense of
- Danny Boyle is likely to come in for criticism that he is placed on this list purely because of the Slumdog Millionaire hype. I disagree intensely. Here is a director adept across a number of genres who made two of the defining British films of the 1990s (Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) and possibly one of the most stylistically influential of the 2000s (28 Days Later). He has worked across these genres with varying degress of success but he has always shown a visual and narrative flair which should not be discounted, especially if it can be partnered with good actors and a strong script, as evidenced by Slumdog Millionaire itself. If you want a true representation of how good he can be, check out Millions, the small British kids film he made a couple of years back which perfectly presents his ability to find heart and soul in abundance when the material serves.
- Sam Raimi managed with the Spiderman films to incorporate so much of his own style into a mainstream piece of filmmaking. He, like Boyle, has had varying success across genres and I’m not fully sure I could justify how high he is placed, but he delivered two excellent superhero movies which paved the way for the new generation to come through and, if you want any other argument, directed Evil Dead. Nuff said.
- Christopher Nolan will likely come under criticism from some corners for how high he is placed in the list. I might agree with that but his inclusion is absolutely warranted. I didn’t fanatically love The Dark Knight in the way many did, but Nolan is a director of incredible skill and intelligence and you cannot fault the ambition shown in The Dark Knight to try and transcend the stereotypes of a genre, even if not everything works. Beyond that, Memento and The Prestige are both superb and I suppose I would just say that I look forward greatly to what he will take on next outside of the Gotham universe.
- Terrence Malick may not be prolific by any standards but he must be considered among the finest filmmakers currently working. Badlands and Days of Heaven are timeless works of art while The Thin Red Line and The New World are both outstanding and worthy of reassessment.
- Outside of Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron is the most versatile and talented of the new wave of Mexican filmmakers which came into force during the early part of the 2000s. He had been working for some time before, breaking through with Solo Con tu Pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria) in the early 1990s but really came to prominence with Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother Too), the engrossing, sexy rites-of-passage road trip before delivering the best Harry Potter film to date and then one of the defining sci-fi works of our time in Children of Men. He is technically masterful and I can’t wait to see what he delivers next.
- Yes, he’s seen some diminishing returns in the past few years, but Wes Anderson is growing as a visual filmmaker and, should he see the value in reuniting with Owen Wilson in writing in the near future, could deliver a script to match his growing skill. If you want to look back too, he has delivered some of the most interesting films of his generation, most notably his charming first two efforts, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore.
- Shane Meadows is a more personal choice for me, but fans of his would surely be able to back the robust argument for his inclusion. His first few films are imbued with a visceral verite style but more than anything, he is as finer humanist as anyone currently working. His work explores the heart of working class youth in Britain with amazing skill and, if you need to test out and see why he is so vital to the modern filmmaking world, watch Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England. The former is an emotional revenge film with killer performances from Paddy Considine and Toby Kebbell while the latter is his masterpiece, managing to blend an exploration of the difficult socio-politcal environment of the Thatcher era with a coming of age tale about a disenchanted and hurt teenager. He is also a visually interesting filmmaker and, as evidenced in A Room for Romeo Brass and This is England, a skilled practioner with actors, specifically managing to draw amazing performances from child cast members.
- Julian Schnabel wouldn’t have made the list until The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, his astonishing biopic treatment of the biography by former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. His other works are lively and interesting and both, Basquiat with Jeffrey Wright and Before Night Falls with Javier Bardem, have amazing central performances. With Diving Bell though, his artistic tendencies were streamlined into creating a moving and visually fascinating whole product. Now I will wait with baited breath to see his next full project.
- Gus Van Sant is one who has been plugging away for some time now, generally delivering good films if often flitting so openly between mainstream and hyper-indie styles. This year we were treated to the two sides of his personality which solidified his place amongst the best of his generation. Paranoid Park was in keeping with his independently-styled works like Gerry and Elephant, employing superb cinematography from Christopher Doyle and allowing Van Sant to draw out the kind of naturalistic performances from his actors which he has cultivated in his recent work. Milk then works on the other end, delivering a the same sort of intimacy and style but on a larger platter with Van Sant not having to rely on non-professional actors to bring him through. After his marquee twelve months, he is now placing himself amongst the finest filmmakers working, able to infuse mainstream, Academy-baiting product with his own eye for visual flair.
- The lack of British filmmakers will always jar a little for us on this side of the pond, but how on earth can Mike Leigh not be on the list? Just looking at his catalogue, he has pretty much created a flawless ouevre, peaking with the incredible Naked and Secrets & Lies. In the past few years too he has shown his ability to flit across non-genre filmmaking, delivering the backstage musical palate of Topsy Turvy, the hopeful optimism of All or Nothing and Happy Go-Lucky and the biopic of Vera Drake. He stands as maybe the best British filmmakers of his generation and, although excitment is rarely palpable for his work, at least some anticipation should be built considering how much brilliance often flows from his work.
- Errol Morris is among only a few, and probably the only true, auteurs working within the documentary field at present. His work is so far removed from the work being done by his peers and so much his own work, you cannot help but be excited by his projects. Standard Operating Procedure was not among his best, but consider the life-changing Thin Blue Line, not to mention the probing eccentricity of the likes of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida for further evidence. If you want anything to hold up though, alongside the Thin Blue Line, as a mark of his brilliance, try Fog of War, a piece which must be considered among the greatest interviews ever conducted.
- You could never expect his inclusion, and he is as erratic as anyone on the list, but Guy Maddin is nothing if not interesting. Anticipating his films is filled with moments of trepidation and confusion, heightened further when you actually see the films and need to watch multiple times to find the genius working within. That doesn’t happen every time, but I would argue he has made at least five stunning films during his career, surely enough for consideration.
- Spike Jonze has only made two full-length features to date, but after Adaptation proved that Being John Malkovich was no fluke, he must be considered among the most fascinating talents currently working. He has created some of the best music videos of all time and those two movies are worth the time of anyone interested in watching something truly original. Where The Wild Things Are is my most anticipated movie of the coming year, should it come to fruition, and I can’t wait to see how that turns out. He doesn’t have the history of many of the names but, really, is there any film fan in the world more interested in watching a Jon Favreau movie over a Spike Jonze?
- Michel Gondry probably falls into a similar category as Jonze. At this point though, we are forming a fuller picture of his restless, childlike genius. He slipped early with Human Nature but then made one of the defining romantic films of the decade in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His work in both Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind sometimes borders of the edge of twee, but he is such an ingenious stylist whose enthusiasm and eccentricity flow through his work.
- Michael Winterbottom is another filmmaker from the UK who you could term the Danny Boyle slightly further into the leftfield. His work is fiercely independent, again avoiding any cliche or generic restrictions to create a catalogue of interesting, sometimes flawed work. It doesn’t always work but when he is at full-pelt, notably with 24 Hour Party People and the underrated A Mighty Heart, he draws fantastic performances from his actors and has a probing, intrusive sense of what the camera should see, meaning he always produces original, visceral work.
- Of all the omissions, how can be possibly leave Werner Herzog off? One of the greatest, most individual filmmakers of all time, adept and making epic, sweeping pictures and intimate, probing documentaries. This is the man who had his crew haul a boat over a mountain. Who gave the world maybe the best opening shot in movie history in Aguirre, Wrath of God. I don’t feel an argument is necessary to make. If you’ve seen Herzog’s work, just ask why he’s not on the list.