"Ten at a Time" is a series of my top ten lists of movies and movie-related content. Most of the movie lists will be retrospective, now that I've had the chance to view a lot of films I might not have seen in the cinema. These aren't definitive lists of what are the best of a particular area but are my own personal opinion.
The following is my list of the top ten directors working today — that is, directors who are still alive and making movies. They are directors I feel have given us some truly great films over the course of their careers and particularly those who are putting out great work in the present. Another important factor is whether they're talents to watch out for in the coming years evidenced by past and current work.
Primarily they will be directors who work in the English language or in general mainstream cinema, although that doesn't necessarily exclude anyone out of that range. On top of this, my love for the director will also be a reason for their inclusion on the list.
So without further ado, enjoy.
10. Guillermo del Toro
It’s taken a while for this Mexican filmmaker to gain mainstream recognition but with the Hellboy franchise (some would say even with Blade II, although I don’t think general audiences would know he was the man behind that one) and the phenomenal Pan’s Labyrinth people are just beginning to recognise just how much of a talent this man is. Even when he makes a painfully slow film like Cronos, there’s still a technical (particularly visual) flair on display. He's one of those directors who's very much hands on with the projects he takes on, particularly when it comes to the character design. Undoubtedly they come from his imagination and it's one of the many key aspects which make him a truly great talent. And personally I think since he’s been locked down for The Hobbit I see this man becoming a household name within the next five or so years.
9. Werner Herzog
Although his best work is behind him — Aguirre, the Wrath of God in particular — he is still one of the best the world of movies has to offer. His grasp of what goes into making a quality film is astounding and it comes shining through more than most others in his films. Not many directors could take 120-plus hours of nature footage shot by a man killed by wild bears, for example, and make it into functioning film, but somehow Herzog found a way to accomplish it with the harrowing Grizzly Man. He recently went to areas of Antarctica that have rarely been captured on film before with Encounters at the End of the World, not just making the film but truly immersing himself in the process by actually braving the harsh conditions to capture what he wanted to. It's an example of the kind of commitment you don't often see with filmmakers. I really believe the movie world would be an inferior place if this man didn’t exist.
8. Quentin Tarantino
Yes, that’s right, Death Proof rocked your socks off. Tarantino’s misunderstood semi-masterpiece (whatever that means) was a tribute to the films he has loved ever since he was a young boy. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and a couple of Kill Bills – this is undoubtedly one of cinema’s greatest talents of the modern era. He’s one of the few who is both a fan favourite, mainly because he turns pretty much everything he touches into a bucket of cool, and actually knows how to craft a motion picture. And it's not just film he directs himself; even when he just pens the script something sharp and ultra-cool comes out of it (see From Dusk Till Dawn, True Romance, Natural Born Killers). Perhaps he's a better writer than he is a director, but as a filmmaker he’s one of the best at this point and time.
7. Steven Spielberg
How could you omit him from a list such as this? Yes, he’s trailing as of late, which is why he’s not higher on the list, but when you look at his body of work you can’t deny is he a master of his craft. From the inception of the great Indiana Jones right up until the masterpiece that is Munich, he is simply brilliant. With such a large body of work it’s inevitable that he will have a couple of bad ones; some would say his latest go at the Indy franchise certainly “nuked the fridge”, but even the best of ‘em have a bad day at the office. He’s a director that both critics and fans alike can cherish. He's not just a director, he's a writer and mega-producer, sometimes executive, sometimes not. On top of his skill at crafting films he's also incredibly business savvy — he knows what will make money. And sometimes, yes, quality is sacrificed in lieu of that. But when he makes something that he truly puts 100% effort into with focus on quality rather than money, as with, for example, Catch Me If You Can and Schindler's List, he proves just how good he is. One of the most prolific directors, particularly for someone working in the mainstream, but also one of the best.
6. Martin Scorsese
Passed over for a Best Director Oscar five times before they finally gave it to him for The Departed last year, Scorsese definitely deserves his place on a list like this. Again, another filmmaker whose best work is clearly behind him, because let’s face it, he ain’t gonna make something as good as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas again, but even his recent work shows he’s still got it. Casino saw the end of a gangster style that’s become synonymous with his name; The Aviator was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, Kundun is considered by many to be perhaps his most under-appreciated work and even though Gangs of New York could have been so much more and frankly was a bit of a mess, I still felt I got my money and time’s worth. Probably one of the most respected names in Hollywood right now and rightly so. Even though he's not quite matched some of his older work as of late, he's still sharp as hell and I’m sure he’s still got quality stuff to give us for years to come.
5. David Fincher
Most people will think of Fight Club whenever this guy’s name comes up. That’s because it’s his most beloved film, especially amongst men (“The ultimate guy’s art film,” as a friend once stated). It’s certainly my favourite of his work. But let’s not forget this is the guy who was behind the camera with Seven, a film that is considered to be an “all-time great”. And rightly so; the mood, tone, and almost unbearable tension conjured by Fincher in that film is a sign of a true master filmmaker. Panic Room was exhilarating, and unjustly bashed by some, and Zodiac was one of the best films of last year (you watch — in years to come, that film will be revered). The Curious Case of Benjamin Button looks magnificent, and I’m sure the actual product will warrant that description, and it should see him be flooded with praise and Oscars that Zodiac failed to garner. He has a gritty style that is often replicated but seldom matched and since he's not the most prolific of directors you just know he believes in a project whenever he decides to work on it. Not many filmmakers could take on a story about a man who is born old and ages backwards, and to me Fincher has proven himself more than enough already and subsequently he gets the benefit of the doubt every time.
4. Christopher Nolan
This guy is five for five (technically he has six films, the sixth being the under-seen Following, but even he has discounted it, not considering it his first foray into filmmaking); Memento (my personal favourite), Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. Every movie he has directed has been at least good, most have been great and a couple exceptional. The latter would apply to Memento and The Dark Knight, the good would be Insomnia and the great being The Prestige and Batman Begins. This guy takes the art of filmmaking so seriously, committing himself 110% every time. And the effort shows; you can see in every one of his films a certain conviction and love for the actual art of film itself. Out of the “new breed” of filmmakers to appear in the last ten years I would pick Nolan as the one to watch. He has the potential to be the next Spielberg; if he keeps carrying on with the quality he's producing at the moment he could go down in history as one of the best.
3. David Lynch
Not only now my favourite director (it used to be Tarantino) but also one of the most creative, imaginative, and unique directors out there (in fact I would go as far as to say he is at the pinnacle of those characteristics as far as modern cinema goes). Again, a director whose best days are behind him, but his dreamlike, intoxicating style remains probably one of the most unique cinematic experiences you’re likely to have. Blue Velvet is his best work, a film that manages to be horrific and terrifying without technically being a horror film per se, and Mulholland Drive is my favourite. Wild At Heart was his homage to The Wizard of Oz and Elvis; his debut Eraserhead is about as bewildering and weird as a motion picture is likely to get (with his most recent Inland Empire coming a close second in that department) and even Lost Highway (probably the least revered film of his later years) has many an element worth experiencing. The Elephant Man, the only film to earn him a Best Director Oscar nomination, is a masterpiece of direction and also of acting on the part of John Hurt. The Straight Story is a film that gets better with age and repeat viewings amongst other things and of course there's his wonderful TV series Twin Peaks and subsequent movie Fire Walk With Me (the only one of his films I’ve yet to see). The only weak link in the chain is Dune, the only film where he didn’t have control over it and instead sacrificed that for a truck load of money to create the effects needed. But even as a hardcore Lynch fan I can admit the film is awful, on pretty much every level. All things considered, though, the man is a master filmmaker and I can see no reason why he won’t continue delivering films that are as special as the last.
2. The Coen Brothers
I think it’s okay to count these two guys as one entity, because they make all of their films together, including the directing, writing, and producing, taking it in turn on each respective project. These guys are true filmmakers, masters of their crafts, drifting from genre to genre with what seems like effortless ease. They exploded onto the scene with what many consider to be one of the best debuts in the history of cinema, Blood Simple. The Big Lebowski (my personal favourite), Fargo (their best), Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink… the list goes on. The only semblance of a weak link is Intolerable Cruelty, which was a sore disappointment, but even then there’s flashes of what makes them so great. They can be zany, silly and even slapstick at times (see The Big Lebowski, O, Brother Where Art Thou? and most recently Burn After Reading) and then suddenly veer into deep, dark and meaningful territory (Blood Simple, Fargo, and recently No Country for Old Men) without blinking an eye or sacrificing quality. These guys can do no wrong, I’m sure that’s in stone somewhere.
1. Paul Thomas Anderson
What? A director who’s only made a handful of films tops the list? Yes, that’s right. So why? Well if you look at those five films you’ll see just how damn good this guy is. Hard Eight (or Sydney as it’s known in a lot of places) wasn’t the most revered or even seen films but looked back on now you can see this guy had bigger and better things for us to come. Boogie Nights is a masterful exercise in character interaction. It plays as a kind of homage to Pulp Fiction (which was, itself, an homage to much older films), at least it has the same feel. The characters are all fantastically well written, from Mark Wahlberg’s porn star Dirk Diggler (his brilliant debut performance, I might add) to Julianne Moore’s messed up, nurturing mother figure. The dialogue is also something so good it defies his inexperience. Magnolia is an astonishing study of the lives of people and their problems, a film which asks questions of fate and chance that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go for its surprisingly long three-hour runtime. Punch-Drunk Love is a lot of fun; peculiar, quirky and definitely unique, it’s the Adam Sandler film you’re allowed to like. But Anderson really showed people the talent he has with last year’s absolutely extraordinary There Will Be Blood. Most people focus on the all-time great performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, and so they should. And not to take anything away from how good that performance is but if you look at everything around Lewis it is one truly fantastic example of filmmaking. The musical score, the characters, the landscape, the cinematography, and, of course, the control of it all on Anderson’s part — it’s filmmaking at its highest level. Along with Day-Lewis's performance this will go down in history as one of the all-time greats; I personally believe that in 30 or 40 years it will be taught in film schools across the world.
Anderson has inexplicably become one of the best to have ever lived, perhaps even on the merit of There Will Be Blood alone. I believe him to have the greatest potential of any director to go on to do magnificant things, as he's proven in the past to the reach the level of. I think he has such a great mind for filmmaking, such a great eye for what not only makes great film but great art. The films he makes are the ones that need to be cherished, to be revered and I'm so glad that with There Will Be Blood especially (which by its content defies its wide appeal and popularity) he's getting the much deserved attention and praise. To me, taking into account what he's done already and what he potentially has to offer the world of film, he is the very best director working today.
Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, Chan-wook Park, Terry Gilliam, Spike Jonze, Takashi Miike, Michael Mann, Tim Burton, Michel Gondry, Richard Linklater.