Sunday 12 May 2013

My Top 10 Film Directors

Much like picking your favourite films (which I did last year), selecting your favourite directors is a difficult task. On what criteria do you base yourself, consistency, talent (whatever that might mean!), personal connection? What if one makes a few masterpieces and a flew clunkers too? What if one has only made three films? The best way is not to actually take any criteria in consideration and just follow your heart (that sounds so self-help!). I am no professional critic, just a film lover, and that list is about the directors I love, not those who I feel should be on the list.

10) Atom Egoyan

Not one of the most consistent directors on my list, and, for having seen him in person at a Q&A, not one of the most likeable either. Furthermore, he is one who is harder to pinpoint than anybody else on my list. Nevertheless, he still deserves his spot, having had a very interesting if uneven career. He has also directed one of my favourite films ever, Exotica, a beautiful and hypnotic enigma. And he has developed his own style, even if not as instantly recognisable. Often flirting with perversion (but in a more clinical way than the more organic David Cronenberg), especially early in his career (see the hard to find The Adjuster if you can), he is at his best when he develops some cerebral and understated yet intensely atmospheric dramas such as The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia's Journey and even the flawed but intriguing Adoration. He also made a really interesting and almost Lynchian drama/mystery film called Where The Truth Lies, set in Hollywood, which I thoroughly recommend, even though it is not exactly his most personal film.

The funny thing is, having been to Toronto several times, it is his cinema I instantly think about every time I'm there, and I feel he has perfectly captured the essence of big Canadian cities. They might appear roughly similar to American ones, but there is always an unusual and almost contradictory sense of urban quietness and oddness among them, which echoes in his films.

Favourite films: 1) Exotica 2) The Sweet Hereafter 3) The Adjuster

9) Park Chan-wook

South Korean cinema is one of my favourite in the world, and they must have some pretty amazing film schools over there as so many of their films exude such assured qualities as great storytelling and wonderful visual prowess. They must also have a specific "Bloody Revenge Scriptwriting section", considering how prevalent that theme is!

And nobody epitomises those qualities more than Park Chan-Wook. Crash landing on the international scene with his vengeance trilogy, he has gone from strength to strength since. Despite his obvious visual talents, Park Chan-Wook is never just about pretty but empty pictures, he totally gets what directing a film is all about, with a great sense of composition, and never a scene which seems out of place. His films are crazy, desperate, violent, full of rage and passion, and his truly incapable of dullness. He can even venture out of his comfort zone and do a mental and unique kind of comedy such as I'm A Cyborg But That's Ok. He has also managed to perfectly negotiate the move to Hollywood (when so many other foreign directors have failed), with his supremely assured Stoker, one of this year's best.

Favourite films: 1) Thirst 2) Oldboy 3) Stoker

8) Wong Kar-wai

The director from Hong-Kong has long been accused of being all style and no substance, although he managed to silence his detractors with his beautifully melancholic romance In The Mood For Love, one of the very few recent films to find a place on the Sight & Sound top 100 of the best films ever made.

Whenever I wander around a neon lit Asian city at night, I'm always reminded of his highly stylised films and their gorgeous and evocative images, as he has long celebrated their unusual poetry. He is a man of exquisite taste, who can film women like no others: Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Rachel Weisz... have never looked so stunning and glamorous than under his direction. And he is capable of distilling some quietly understated emotions within all his visual flourishes.

Favourite films: 1) In The Mood For Love 2) 2046 3) Happy Together

7) Lucky McKee

The indie world is where it is all about at the moment with horror films, and no director has been more consistently delivering the goods than Lucky McKee recently. He has been carving up a niche with his unique and instantly recognisable style despite his relatively short career, in a genre which has suffered so muchwith lazy remakes and derivative trite over the last decade.

Most of his films could be described as grungy and sad modern fairy tales, with a brilliant indie soundtrack and a solid dose of black humour. They all kick a mighty punch, with characters you actually care about (not always a priority in the genre), and he has found a kindred spirit in Angela Bettis, who has starred in many of his films, and has perfectly embodied the fragile and twisted kind of character he specialises himself in. And make no mistake, despite generous doses of gore, he always manages to establish an emotional connection with his viewers, and has written some of the best female characters in films, in a genre that is not generally known for being always kind to women! He is, quite simply, my favourite horror film director currently working.

Favourite films: 1) The Woman 2) May 3) Sick Girl

6) Brian de Palma

The American director might have earned a spot on this list, but even I recognise that seldom has somebody had such a wildly uneven career. And he is actually responsible for two of the worst films I have ever seen, Mission To Mars and The Black Dahlia. Nevertheless, when he shines, he goes supernova! Some have dismissed him as a mere Hitchcock imitator, but there is so much more to him than mere nods to his idol. I just love the playful way he weaves in references to the Master within his own inimitable style and subvert them. The fact that he is one of the most gifted visual virtuosos of the last few decades is undeniable, never being afraid to go completely OTT, which is why I love him so much, and his films often zigzag across the fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous (take the completely insane Raising Cain).

And as a further proof of his great talent, he is perfectly capable of taking on some seemingly less personal projects, such a Stephen King adaptation (Carrie) or the start of an action franchise (Mission Impossible, still one of my favourite action films of the last few decades) and making them completely his own. I have great hopes for his recent Passion, despite a less than stellar reception, as he seems to have gone back to his playful fireworks.

Favourite films: 1) Dressed To Kill 2) Body Double 3) Carrie

5) Peter Greenaway

Not exactly the most popular choice (not that Peter Greenaway has ever been all that popular, especially in his own country), and one who seems to have vanished into semi-obscurity recently. Nevertheless, rarely has a director brought such a unique style to the screen. More akin to a painter (which he is too), he has the knack for presenting some sumptuous and carefully intricate images, often under an almost mathematical design, splicing them with his favourite obsessions (the carnal kind). It is almost as if he likes to design some painfully elaborate and almost clinical set ups, and then unleash an organic wave of human desires and bodily fluids upon them.

Some have accused him of being a misanthrope and a misogynist. Some should just carry on watching The King's Speech and leave us well alone in the company of this misunderstood esthete.

Favourite films: 1) Drowning By Numbers 2) The Pillow Book 3) The Belly Of The Architect

4) Eric Rohmer

As hard to believe as it might be for outsiders, Eric Rohmer suffered a bit of a backlash in the 90's in France, where his style was deemed unfashionable and dated even, against flavour of the month types such as Matthieu Kassovitz (who has since descended into a bizarre spiral of forgettable films and rants against the industry). Non-French speakers might not fully appreciate how the very particular acting in his film sounds so laboured and unnatural, but this is part of his films' charm. I just cannot think of anybody who has dealt with the joys and complexities of the matters of the heart with such accuracy and lightness.

Ironically, I do find that none of his films have actually aged that much, with the dialogues and the issues dealt with being timeless. It might never descend into drama, or even melodrama, but make no mistake, behind the light facade, it handles some pretty serious themes but with his own charming and unmistakably French touch. His films make you want to be on a holiday by the coast, endlessly musing about love. And just to show that he was never a one trick pony, he even managed late in his career one of the most interesting espionage films of the recent years, Triple Agent.

Favourite films: 1) Full Moon In Paris 2) Summer Tale 3) The Green Ray

3) David Cronenberg

What I am about to say is exactly what annoys die-hard fans, but I cannot help finding the latest part of the Canadian director's career disappointing, having gone all "serious" and important, even though I have enjoyed a few of his later films. I truly appreciate that he could not have gone on making the same kind of film over and over again, but some have managed to stay true to their roots while evolving. Nevertheless, he still deserves to be very high in this list, thanks to a string of early masterpiece his twisted mind has created.

Like any great directors, you can tell right away when you are watching one of the films of his golden era. His tales of organic nightmares have conjured some of the more unforgettable images in films, with the confused and unfathomable scripts (often written during the shoot as he went along), adding up to the intense and mysterious atmosphere. David Cronenberg has delved into the pustules-ridden cracks of the human psyche and picked the mental scabs, and is never better than at its most radical (see the story-free, clinically insane Crash).

Favourite Films: 1) Videodrome 2) Scanners 3) Crash

1 ex aequo) Pedro Almodovar

I get a bit annoyed how some, even within his fans, cannot actually always see through the provocation and perceived slightness of his cinema, even though I can completely understand he might not be to everyone's taste. To me, he is a true humanist, who has directed some of the most poignant and emotionally affecting films. No matter how eccentric and over the top his characters might come across, they feel real and are never one-dimensional. Yes they are often tragic and not always likeable, but his love and respect for them not matter what their flaws are always shine through.

His striking visual style, which he developed as his budgets got bigger, has become a perfect match for his blend of melodrama. He has also written some of the best and most beautiful female characters, ever, in all of their complexities. For all the fun and madness, he has also never been afraid of delving into darker territories, with the harrowing Matador and The Skin That I Live In. Eric Rohmer's films might be about love, but Pedro Almodovar's films are about passion, an all consuming, Earth-shattering passion, and his best film on the subject is undoubtedly Law Of Desire. He also has one of the most consistent career of all the directors on my list, and my love for his work has grown with every film.

Favourite Films: 1) Law Of Desire 2) All About My Mother 3) High Heels

1 ex aequo) David Lynch

Again, one director who is up against many misconceptions. Some accuse this tzar of the bizarre of merely conjuring some bizarre but meaningless films, which is missing the point completely. His stories might not be as straight-forward, but there is always the sense that he is in full control of what he is doing, offering us some seductive enigmas which we are always on the cusp of grasping but not quite, tapping directly into our subconscious. But above all, David Lynch is a director of pure class and elegance, with his universe being among the most instantly recognisable and dream-like among modern cinema, with the carefully orchestrated soundscape he likes to plunge his films into, and the beautiful images, at once glamorous yet mysterious, often with echoes of a retro America that is at once idealised and nightmarish. I remember the poster he designed for the Cannes film festival a few years ago, in which he managed to epitomise all of his cinema in just one picture, as below, with the glamorous yet mysterious woman, the pervading sense of threat, the nod to old school Hollywood...

And just as a way of silencing the haters, he has also made two of the most emotionally arresting films of the last decades, Elephant Man and The Straight Story, which showed a warmth and humanity you might not have always expected from him. That he has decided not to make films any longer is an absolute tragedy.

Favourite films: 1) INLAND EMPIRE 2) Blue Velvet 3) A Straight Story

The reserve list:

There are so many other directors which I feel the need to mention but who did not make the cut for different reasons. Some just bubbled up under the surface, with Claude Chabrol and Lars Von Trier at number 11 and 12. Others I just have not seen enough of their work yet, even though the little I have seen makes me think that they might deserve a spot on this list at a later stage. I'm thinking Frederico Fellini, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lucio Fulci... Others have been too wildly uneven, such as Dario Argento. And then there those like Neil Jordan and Stephen Frears who have made some of my favourite films ever, but a lot of average ones too, and lack a clear and unique style in my books. It will be an interesting list to revisit a few years down the line.

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