10 Of The Most Innovative Filmmakers Working Today
Cinema is well over a century old now and we have been blessed to experience the films of several masters over this time period. Breaking new ground was relatively natural in the early parts of the past century because of the relative youth of the art form. While cinema is still much younger than the traditional fine arts, it has become more difficult for filmmakers to distinguish themselves from their predecessors (CGI and modern technology notwithstanding).
Most aspiring filmmakers recognize and acknowledge their influences; they also want to be identified as unique artists who aren’t relying too heavily upon the practices of those who came before. This list of 10 filmmakers is just a few of the artists who are succeeding in that regard. Most of these directors are well known, but a few are up-and-comers in the industry.
It should be noted that this list is not all-inclusive by any means. There are a vast number of original filmmakers who are not listed here for the purpose of brevity. Also, innovation is not synonymous with quality. Some of these filmmakers bit off more than they could chew on some of their projects and made poor films, even if they were innovative in their construction.
1. Darren Aronofsky
Aronofsky is on the short list of filmmakers who are hard to categorize, as his films tend to be quite distinct from each other. In 1998, he made waves with his feature-length debut Pi, a taut 84-minute film that tells the story of a partially insane mathematician who believes the world and its activity can be explained through patterns of numbers.
While Pi was certainly an eye-opening film to many filmgoers, Aronofsky truly broke out with Requiem For a Dream in 2000. The film benefited from spectacular performances (especially Ellen Burstyn as an elderly woman obsessed with infomercials), great editing, and of course superb direction from Aronofsky. His innovative screenplay combined with his brilliant use of cutting (especially in the film’s final act), helped elevate the film into one of the most memorable films of the 2000s.
His next film, The Fountain (2006), is seemingly a meditation on the cycle of life, death and the passing of time as it follows a doctor desperately trying to save his wife from a brain tumor. The film was not received as well as his previous efforts, though much of Aronofsky’s ambitions were praised. The film makes for an interesting viewing because of the film’s nontraditional narrative and impressive use of different filmmaking techniques including frequent match cutting. In recent years, the film has seen a resurgence in popular appeal, so perhaps the film will be regarded more highly in the future.
In 2008, The Wrestler marked a distinct departure from his previous work. Inherently a character study of a professional wrestler named Randy, ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke in perhaps his best role), Aronofsky brilliantly eschews the stylistic visuals associated with his previous successes and instead lets Rourke carry the film with his heartbreaking performance. The film is an excellent character study and is also a rare glimpse into the world of professional wrestling.
Black Swan (2010) was a worthy successor (or companion piece) to The Wrestler and also a return to the more visually and narratively challenging themes introduced in Aronofsky’s earlier work. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of an overworked and desperate ballet dancer is remarkable and is probably her best performance. Aronofsky was inspired by Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, The Double, among others.
Like The Wrestler, the film was shot using Super 16 which gives the film a realist / documentary visual style vice the 35mm film more commonly used on other big budget films. Ironically, the grainer Super 16 film allows the effects-laden sequences in the film to feel more organic and thus more believable for the audience.
Aronosky’s latest film, Noah (2014), is his most ambitious project to date. The film is a retelling of Noah’s portion of the Old Testament and is a project that Aronofsky had always dreamed of. Noah’s place in the actual scripture is rather minimal, so Aronofsky inevitably had to take some artistic liberties with the story and characters. Public and critical reception was surprisingly positive considering that films of the Bible are bound to attract controversy. While not as innovative as most of his earlier films, the film is structurally sound (not unlike the Ark itself) and is driven by strong performances and impressive special effects.
Noah leaves cineastes wondering if Aronofsky will continue pushing the envelope or become more comfortable working on high budget projects. Either way, the past 15 years have been quite the ride.
2. Paul Thomas Anderson
Certain filmmakers have tremendous expectations for their films, and among modern filmmakers, P.T. Anderson may have the highest level of expectation. Carefully selecting the films he chooses to direct, Anderson has created a number of modern masterpieces. These include Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), There Will be Blood (2007) and his most recent, The Master (2012). With the exception of a few stylistic and thematic similarities, his films remain strikingly distinct from each other and fans eagerly wait for what each new groundbreaking film will bring.
Many great filmmakers went their entire careers using similar techniques throughout all of their films. Hitchcock, Kubrick and Scorsese are among the auteurs who had/have distinct visual traits that make their films almost immediately identifiable with their creators. Anderson differs in that his recent films have shifted away from some of the techniques that his earlier films memorable.
In Boogie Nights and Magnolia (and to a lesser degree, Punch-Drunk Love), Anderson thrived on the use of long, Steadicam shots that capture scenes with a high amount activity and movement and show a youthful exuberance on the part of the director. These early films showed echoes of some of Scorsese’s best films. With There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson instead uses slower movement, and carefully controlled framing within the lengthy Steadicam shots. The purpose of this shift in technique is related to the shift of emphasis in his films from an ensemble, to films that focus instead on 1 or 2 characters.
Thematically, Anderson’s films run the gamut from dysfunctional families and surrogate fathers to the relationship between capitalism and religion. With entertaining screenplays involving the porn industry, the early oil industry and a thinly veiled critique of L. Ron Hubbard and scientology, Anderson takes his audiences into worlds that are rarely explored. Filmgoers eagerly wait for what is next for Anderson.
3. Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier’s career has now spanned over 20 years, and unlike most other filmmakers over that period of time, Trier has managed to stay relevant by continuing to take risks with his films. His films have become more controversial with time, and the controversy surrounding Trier and his films have served as a brilliant marketing tool. Everyone is excited to see what cinema’s bad boy is up to and the reception is usually divisive.
Much of Trier’s canon has consisted of films that can be loosely grouped into distinct thematic trilogies. The first of which is the Europa trilogy, comprising The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991). These films examine the social standing of postwar Europe and what lies ahead for the continent through its examination of idealistic and naïve characters. The influence of Film Noir on Trier is evident upon viewing these films.
Trier’s second trilogy is his ‘Golden Heart Trilogy’, featuring Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), and Dancer in the Dark (2000). In Trier’s words, these films were about “good women overwhelmed by a bad world.” These films were brutal in their depiction of the female main characters and their struggle against outside forces. The Idiots was received with a great deal of controversy with its depiction of unsimulated sex, which was almost unheard of in films that aren’t of the pornographic nature. Because of the brutality inflicted upon the women in these films, it was the first time (it wouldn’t be the last) that Trier was accused of misogyny.
Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) were part of his US trilogy and were films taking place in the US on near-barren soundstages, which was a highly unusual turn for Trier. These two films examined the darker past of America and dispelled the notion of a moral high ground that sometimes plagues American patriotism. Trier calls these films “a series of sermons on America’s sins and hypocrisy”. The final film of the trilogy, Wasington, has not yet been produced. In addition to being labeled as a misogynist, Trier was now accused of being anti-American.
The Depression Trilogy is his latest and consists of Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011) and Nymphomania (2014). The trilogy deals with female characters that are struggling with grief and depression to degrees. Antichrist, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, caused uproar when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.
Trier was again accused of misogyny (and actually received a tongue-in-cheek award for it) as Gainsbourg’s character was subjected to brutality (some of it self-inflicted) and her character is plagued by darkness in the later parts of the film. Nymphomanic, Trier’s latest entry into the Depression Trilogy lived up to its title with frequent extended sequences of graphic sexuality. With its graphic depiction of sexuality throughout the film, it polarized audiences, even if the film was generally received with acclaim.
Whether or not one cares for von Trier’s films, it cannot be denied that his films continue to push the envelope of what is acceptable for a filmmaker. In particular, his ability to extract fantastic performances (especially from his female cast), brilliant use of music, slow motion and his willingness to tackle difficult subject matter in his films make him a cinematic force to be reckoned with. In an era when the concept of political-correctness may have gone overboard, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker who is not afraid to pursue his vision, even if many do not agree with his message.
4. Gaspar Noe
Gaspar Noé, son of Argentine artist Luis Felipe Noé, has only made three feature-length films, but the films are strikingly memorable and have made Noé a filmmaker to watch. Noé has acknowledged the huge influence that Stanley Kubrick (primarily 2001: A Space Odyssey) had on him. Taking his cue from Kubrick, his films are visually revolutionary and are unlike almost anything else.
Noé’s first feature-length film, I Stand Alone (1998), tells the story of “The Butcher”, an unnamed French horse butcher with a very dark past involving sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. Most disturbingly, The Butcher develops incestuous feelings for his daughter. When he discovers blood on her shirt, he prematurely thinks she was rape (it was menstrual fluid) and murders the man whom he thinks is responsible for the rape that never happened. The rest of the film involves his escapades during his incarceration for the murder and his consistent failure at rehabilitation into French society.
The critical reception to the film was generally positive. Praise was given to the film’s unique camera work, which included quick camera movements accompanied by loud, sudden noises. This technique was an excellent contrast to the normally stationary camera work. That being said, the film can be hard to digest for some because of its troubling portrayal of incest.
Noé’s next film, Irreversible (2002) is an even more adventurous film. Using an unconventional narrative, the film follows two men who seek to avenge Vincent Cassel’s girlfriend (Monica Belluci) who falls victim to a brutal rape, which was easily among the most violent rape scenes in history. Closely associated with the New French Extremity movement, the film challenges viewers with its disconcerting cinematography.
The camera oftentimes seems to be detached from the action and floats in and out of the scene with liberty. Reaction to the film was split, with many taking offense to the violent rape scene which cause many walk-outs during its screening at Cannes in 2002. Regardless of how one feels about that particular scene, the innovative cinematography, script and soundtrack are impossible not to appreciate.
Noé’s next film, Enter the Void (2009), is his most adventurous film to date. After an American drug dealer is killed in Tokyo, the film follows his consciousness as it travels throughout Tokyo in an out-of-body experience of sorts as he lives through past experiences in his life and oversees the aftermath of his death. Even more so than the previous film,
Enter the Void employs startling cinematography and brilliant neon color schemes in what makes for one of the more unique visual experiences one can experience at the cinema. Like Irreversible, the reception to the film was mixed with critics praising Noé’s visual inventiveness but also criticizing the film’s excessive length, overly complex narrative, and below average performances. Either way, Noé’s films are among the most visually distinctive in cinema and he is clearly on the cusp of greatness.
5. Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth, a writer, director, actor and composer for only two feature-length films, is one of the most promising young filmmakers in the industry. His two films, Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013), are among the most intelligent and well-made science fiction films made in the past 20 years. Made on relatively small budgets, the films eschew the CGI that grace (or plague, depending upon your point of view) modern science fiction films for unique plots and an organic style. He has flown under the radar thus far in his career, but it’s only a matter of time before he gets more mainstream recognition.
Primer was completed with only about $7000 and Carruth was responsible nearly every aspect in its creation, to include composing an original score. Not only is this the mark of a remarkable talent, it also acts as a reassurance to young filmmakers that a large budget is not mandatory to create a successful film.
The basic premise of the film is the accidental creation of a time machine in a personal garage. Once two people enter in the machine, they remain separate from the same two people outside of the machine, so by the end of the film there are multiple duplicates populating the setting. The film requires more than one viewing because of the complexity of the narrative and the multitude of scenarios involved. The film’s reception was overwhelmingly positive and was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.
His next project, Upstream Color (2013) was another critical success that involves a microorganism that passes between humans, pigs and orchids and blots out the human’s memory and makes him or her receptive to hypnosis. The effect of sound on microorganisms is also examined. With a variety of complex themes, this is another film that requires multiple viewings. The film was even better received than its predecessor and was praised as one of the most inventive science fiction films since 2001. Carruth has effectively cemented himself as a highly creative and intelligence science fiction director.
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