8. The Coen Bros.
Through the years, Joel and Ethan Coen have been swinging back and forth from small independent films to lavish and extravagant romps but always managing to reinvent themselves and offer fresh and interesting visions to their audience.
After directing Blood Simple, a noir thriller, the quirky kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona, and the prohibition-era-set gangster film Miller’s Crossing, the two brothers seemed to be setting themselves in the crime genre before surprising the audience with the Palm D’Or winner Barton Fink, a psychological drama starred John Turturro and John Goodman.
In the following decades, the two brothers from Minnesota would mix and match some of their favorite elements (crime heists gone wrong, important men facing adversity, a very dark sense of humor) with very distinctive and starkly different movies.
These films ranging from the supposedly down-to-earth yet curiously stylized such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man, to name a few, to throwbacks of classic Hollywood genres like The Man Who Wasn’t There and True Grit, to high-concept all-star comedies like The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. It is really hard to define a film by the Coen Brothers, but paradoxically, they also tend to be unmistakable.
7. Roman Polanski
Despite being a polarizing figure, it cannot be argued that Polish-born Roman Polanski is an important figure in contemporary cinema, who has made an impact on the newer generations of filmmakers.
He came to prominence in the early 60’s when his film Knife in the Water, a drama about jealousy, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, it lost to Fellini’s 8½ but landed him to the English-speaking market, he then made movies like the horror film Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac with Donald Pleasance and the comedy The Fearless Vampire Killer.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Polanski directed some of his high-profile films like Rosemary’s Baby with Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, the neo-noir Chinatown with Jack Nicholson and psychological horror The Tenant.
After relocating to Europe in the late 70’s due to highly controversial allegations, he dedicated himself to small, diverse films with mixed results. Among his notable input from this time, there is Tess, an adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, the Johnny-Depp-starred supernatural thriller The Ninth Gate, the highly-successful World War Two drama The Pianist and, more recently, the film adaptation of David Ives’ Venus in Furs.
6. Fritz Lang
Along with Murnau and Wiene as one of Germany’s seminal interwar film directors, Fritz Lang started his film career after World War I in UFA, the most important German film studio at the time and the place where he would produce his more memorable films.
Working early as a director, screenwriter and producer with a wide array of genres, Lang managed to balance popular genres such as crime thrillers (Dr. Mabuse, M) and adventure films (The Mistress of the World, The Indian Tomb) to more ambitious and grandiose endeavors, touching mythology (Die Nibelungen) and science fiction (Metropolis, Woman in the Moon).
He would settle down with film noir after locating in the United States due to World War II, he also directed several westerns, war dramas and period pieces, but without the same freedom and energy he had in interwar Germany. Some of his most memorable input from his US period include Fury, The Big Heat and other classic film noirs.
5. Ridley Scott
Known for his highly atmospheric and meticulous cinematography, Ridley Scott’s cinema usually pairs astonishing yet troubled forces and circumstances against, generally, regular individuals who do their best against the situations they have to face. The scenarios they encounter, though, and the predicaments they are forced to overcome touch different times, places and magnitude.
His career have generally gravitated towards two genres, important science fiction films such as Alien and Blade Runner, and widely popular historical dramas like The Duellists and Gladiator.
Yet, he also has managed to make radically different films, this can be seen in road film Thelma & Louise with Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, the gulf war film Black Hawk Down, the crime drama American Gangster and the comedy Matchstick Men with Nicolas Cage. In all of these, though, themes of struggle of individuals against powerful forces can be appreciated.
4. Robert Altman
A lasting figure from the New Hollywood movement, Altman had a well-grounded long-lasting career despite never managing to properly break out to the mainstream cinema.
Although he had several opportunities, with broad popular and critical successes of the antiwar satire MASH and his dark comedic study of American society Nashville, perhaps it was for the best to maintain a smaller and uncompromising style when compared to many of the directors of the New Hollywood generation whose careers were deeply affected by notorious large-scale quixotic failures.
Though he is mostly remembered by his large ensemble movies like Gosfork Park and A Prairie Home Companion, he was not afraid to experiment outside his comfort zone with varying results.
Among the different genres he experimented on, one can find Western, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, science fiction like Quintet and even a live-action musical comic-strip adaptation like Popeye. Altman even managed to make films focusing on character study, such as the ruthless Hollywood producer in The Player and former US president Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, the latter is notable for being essentially a monologue, with no other characters appearing but Nixon himself.
3. Louis Malle
Louis Malle got early recognition co-directing Jacques Cousteau’s Silent World in 1956, and although he would revisit the documentary genre several times later, his focus would be generally character-driven stories from then on. In the 60’s and 70’s, he was known for touching controversial subjects in his films such as incest in Murmur of the Heart, French collaborationism during World War II in Lacombe, Lucien and child prostitution in Pretty Baby, starring a 12-year-old Brooke Shields. He also tried suspense thriller (Elevator to the Gallows) and fantasy films (Zazie at the Metro and Black Moon) during his French period,
After settling down in the United States, he managed to adapt his work to a new type of audience while maintaining his particular vision, he made the romantic crime drama Atlantic City with Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster, the highly-influential My Dinner with Andre that would help to bring audience’s attention to US independent cinema and Vanya on 42nd Street, about the performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya done by a real-life theater workshop.
2. Howard Hawks
One of the best and most versatile directors of The Golden Age of Hollywood, Hawks is perhaps not as remembered by the public as some of his contemporaries like Billy Wilder or John Houston. Yet, some of the over 40 movies he directed are no doubt some of the most iconic productions of American cinema history and deserve to be revered accordingly.
Among his body of work, one can find classics like the original version of Scarface produced by Howard Hughes, the film noir classic and Raymond Chandler adaptation The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall, the Marilyn Monroe musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and several screwball comedies with Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday) and westerns with John Wayne (Red River and El Dorado). Yet, he also managed to dabble into science fiction and war films, directing most memorably Sargent York, starring Gary Cooper.
1. Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick is without a doubt one of the most important and influential filmmakers of the 20th century. Although he made relatively few movies for such a long career, directing at most two or three per decade, he managed to stretch himself broadly through many different types of stories, and always following his meticulous visual style and captivating narrative.
During his over four-decade-long career, Kubrick made two war movies (Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket), two epic period pieces (Spartacus and Barry Lyndon), one comedy that also doubles as a political thriller (Dr. Strangelove), two science fiction films (2001 and A Clockwork Orange), one horror movie (The Shining) and two dramas about relationships (Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut), that is, without counting his earlier endeavors in film noir and documentaries. Nonetheless, limiting the body of work of Kubrick to a few genres is a simplification to a unique and meritorious career full of energy and dexterity.
Author Bio: J.E. González is a writer and journalist from Venezuela. With a degree in Social Communications, he has a passion for world culture and narrative arts. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxmordon.