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The Top Ten Directors Working Today

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"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.

Honourable mention:

Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, Chan-wook Park, Terry Gilliam, Spike Jonze, Takashi Miike, Michael Mann, Tim Burton, Michel Gondry, Richard Linklater.

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About Ross Miller

  • Jordan Richardson

    Interesting list.

    I would go with, in no particular order (other than the obvious, of course): David Lynch, Scorsese, Terrence Malick, David Cronenberg, Alexander Payne, Ang Lee, Takeshi Kitano, Alfonso Cuarón, Hayao Miyazaki, and Gus Van Sant.

  • Dusty Somers

    You have to consider Sidney Lumet for this list – the man has made plenty of legendary films over his almost 50-year career (12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) and you could make the argument his best work is behind him, but Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was extraordinary; it’s hard to believe an 83-year-old man directed it.

    I agree with Jordan about Cronenberg and Cuaron. I would even say Wes Anderson has potential to be one of the best, despite his last two disappointing efforts.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “[QT] is undoubtedly one of cinema’s greatest talents of the modern era.”

    He’s a two-hit wonder and ever since been a hack who keeps repeating himself, an utter bore whose run out of ideas other than ripping off someone else’s movie. “Death Proof” could have been a great half hour, but the only way it comes close to a masterpiece is that it was once again QT mastur-bating with a movie camera. No shock that almost every character is him and they are uninteresting.

    “From the inception of the great Indiana Jones right up until the masterpiece that is Munich, Spielberg is simply brilliant.”

    How is Jaws not included in this range? Munich a masterpiece? Here’s a film that couldn’t stop repeating the point it was making. An hour could have been cut from this and no on would have noticed.

    “I can see no reason why Lynch won’t continue delivering films that are as special as the last.”

    INLAND EMPIRE was an absolute mess. It wasn’t even a film. Just a collection of ideas strung together with no cohesion, as he repeats themes that aren’t as good as the first time he covered them. It’s special like a kid in special ed is special.

    “Boogie Nights is a masterful exercise in character interaction. It plays as a kind of homage to Pulp Fiction”

    You must be joking. see Robert Altman’s Nashville.

    “Mark Wahlberg’s porn star Dirk Diggler (his brilliant debut performance, I might add)”

    considering Boogie was Mark’s sixth film, I wouldn’t add it.

    I would put the films of John Lasseter, Alexander Payne, and Ridley Scott up against anyone on this list. I would also consider honorable mention for Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings alone. Baz Luhrman is always interesting to look at. How about documentaries? Ross McElwee, Ron Fricke, Errol Morris.

    Aren’t lists fun?

  • http://www.movie-world.moonfruit.com Ross Miller

    @Dusty Somers,

    I almost put Lumet on the list (in fact I actually just forgot to put him on the honourable mention part, damn…); you’re right it was incredible that a 80+ year old made Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Cronenberg, perhaps is earlier stuff but I think his recent, violent work is extremely overpraised (particularly A History of Violence). And Wes Anderson is fun but I don’t think warrants to be on this list (although I do LOVE The Darjeeling Limited though).

    @El Bicho

    I belive Tarantino to have one of the best talents for writing dialogue, I really don’t understand why people didn’t respond to that in Death Proof – it was the equivalent of the dialogue in Reservoir Dogs only it was with women. I just blieve that for what Death Proof was paying homage to, it did it fantastically. And I think generally he applies his writing in great fashion, he knows what he’s doing.

    Yes I believe Munich to be a masterpiece. And just because I didn’t mention Jaws doesn’t mean I don’t include it in his list of greats in general.

    Inland Empire was not a mess, if you think for one second that was unintentional…..The film isn’t supposed to be looked at the way you do others, it’s an experience. If you take it in not trying to figure anything out (something that Mulholland Drive calls for but not this) and just let it flow over you…it’s an astonishing piece of not just film but art.

    What I meant about comparing Boogie Nights to Pulp Fiction was simply the feel. Perhaps homage was a bit strong but it has a remarkably similar feel I think.

    Oh shit you’re right, Boogie Nights was Wahlberg’s sixth performance. Hold my hands about about that one, I always thought it was his first. Well I think we can say it was his breakout performance, for sure.

    Those you mentioned are great (some I haven’t seen enough to include on the list), but those I included I just feel warrant being on the list more.

  • zingzing

    won kar wai?

  • zingzing

    that’s wong kar wait…

    and bela tarr?

  • zingzing

    oh shit

    ok… steady hands…. wong… kar… wai…

    now, i hit publisheses.

  • Jordan Richardson

    I like Tarantino. He makes good, fun films that work well as homage pieces. I wouldn’t consider him a masterful director, but he is gifted and I’ve been highly entertained by each of his pictures.

    I prefer Robert Rodriguez, though, as I think he’s more innovative and creative in a visual sense.

  • http://www.movie-world.moonfruit.com Ross Miller

    @zingzing,

    I haven’t, unfortunately, seen enough of Wong Kar Wai’s work to be able to judge him fairly (as far as how good he is now to what he used to be etc etc). I do LOVE 2046 though (funnily wasn’t so keen on In The Mood For Love the first time I saw it, perhaps I need to give that one another watch), but I thought, as an example of one of his I’ve seen, that My Blueberry Nights didn’t work on the levels that I feel were aimed for. I just don’t think his style works in the English language.

    @Jordan Richardson,

    I hold Tarantino higher up than Rodriguez (although I love his films too) as I just think he has a bit more grit and substance to him. I mean if you compare the work of them – Pulp Fiction to Desperado, Reservoir Dogs to From Dusk Till Dawn (although Tarantino did write that one funnily enough:P)– I just think Tarantino has more to grasp onto, if you get my meaning.

  • zingzing

    yeah, my blueberry nights wasn’t great. it had moments. chungking express is your next stop.

  • http://sterfish.blogspot.com Sterfish

    I agree with most of the picks on this list. I was intrigued by your top choice of Paul Thomas Anderson but then I thought back to every movie of his I’ve seen. They usually draw me in almost in spite of myself. I barely could bring myself to pause There Will Be Blood when I rented it on DVD.

    I noticed that some of the commenters mentioned directors of animated films (John Lasseter, Hayao Miyazaki). I think a list of great directors of animated films would be really interesting since they are rarely part of a discussion of great directors.

  • Joseph

    What about James Cameron? HE GAVE US THE TERMINATOR FOR CHRIST SAKES.

  • senorelmac

    Scorsese.
    coen brothers.
    paul thomas anderson.
    fincher.
    Aronofsky
    Tarantino
    eastwood
    nolan
    spielberg

  • senorelmac

    Cameron