The 15 Greatest Avant-Garde Filmmakers Of All Time

6. Man Ray

Despite being a devoted painter first and foremost, Man Ray’s contribution to avant-garde film – and cinema in general – cannot go unnoticed. Having made contributions to both the Dada and Surrealist movements, Ray soon emerged as one of leading avant-garde artists in 1920’s and 30’s France.

His experimentation with cameraless photography or ‘Rayographs’ as he called them, would become a facet of filmmaking that several future avant-garde artists would draw on, and the eventual release of a documentary of his life named “The Prophet of the Avant-Garde” (made by Mel Stuart and Neil Baldwin) is proof of the integral part he played in the establishment of experimental filmmaking.

L'étoile de mer

Ray dabbled in a several kinds of experimental features. The likes of “Le Retour à la Raison” (“Return to Reason”) documented a selection of the aforementioned Rayographs, whereas “L’Étoile de mer” (“The Sea Star”) placed characters within a mise-en-scene of wild distortion, with every shot manipulated in some way as to portray a sense of fragmentation and lack of focus.

“Emak-Bakia” is almost a combination of the two – creating surreal effects through both distorted camera techniques and cameraless photography. “Les Mystères du Château de Dé” (“Mysteries of the Cheateau of Dice”) was Ray’s longest film at a modest 29-minutes, depicting two masked individuals dictating their next move by a role of a dice.

Ray’s cinema managed to interconnect painting, photography, poetry, music, and architecture. His amalgamation of art forms provided his films with a thoughtful, bizarre quality, and he can be considered amongst the greats of the avant-garde.


7. David Lynch

One of cinema’s most necromantic figures, David Lynch’s style of filmmaking is indisputably his own. With surrealist dream-logic always decisively in play, his infusion of the avant-garde with classic American cinema has seen the director paint a darkly twisted grin across the typically handsome face of Hollywood.

Lynch’s consistent practice of a deliberately obscure and convoluted style has both enraptured and infuriated critics, academics and public audiences alike since his first feature “Eraserhead” in 1977.

The film achieved a cult following that has since ballooned into fiercely loyal Lynchian fan-base, and given the fire-starting reception of “Blue Velvet”, “Wild at Heart” and “Lost Highway” that arose after his first film, it’s easy to see why Lynch has his own devoted supporters section in cinema’s cult corner.


Perhaps Lynch’s greatest achievement is the absolutely mesmerising “Mulholland Drive”; a film that’s magnificently unique in its strange beauty. Featuring superb performances by Naomi Watts and the voluptuous Laura Elena Harring, “Mulholland Drive” depicts the story of a young actress trying to break onto the Hollywood film scene, falling in love, and wrestling with sickening heartbreak.

Punctuated with a gorgeously gulp-inducing score by Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch creates a wistful world that veers down a variety of endless avenues, loftily floating in a haunting, beautiful space of romance, riches and betrayal. Instead of estranging the audience with its complexity, it pulls us in like a moth to a flame. “Mulholland Drive” is, like most Lynchian cinema, limitlessly layered.

You don’t have to understand David Lynch. But you can’t help but respect him. Even those most averse to the avant-garde will hold a begrudging fascination with his unique style. Lynchian film really is something else.


8. Derek JarmanA treasure of British avant-garde cinema, Derek Jarman is often cited by young experimental UK filmmakers as a key source of inspiration for their work.

Working from 1976 until 1993, Jarman specialised in deeply personal pictures; often employing a Super 8mm format to create elliptically structured films scattered with homoerotic imaginings and desires. His use of dark, rich colour intensified his mode of poetic address, and despite being a self-declared atheist, many of Jarman’s productions often resonated with spiritual connotations.

Jarman was openly homosexual, and several of his films angrily addressed the issue of homophobia; most prominently “The Last of England” which is one enormous roar of disapproval at Thatcher’s Britain and its refusal to willingly accept homosexuality.

His 1985 art-house drama “The Angelic Conversation” thrives on themes of homoeroticism as Judi Dench reads Shakespeare’s Sonnets above imagery of two male lovers, and his 1990 feature “The Garden” audaciously overlaps homoerotic iconography with Christianity and references to the Garden of Eden.


Jarman’s greatest achievement remains his last picture; his 1993 production titled “Blue”. Arguably his most experimental film, it comprises of a tranquil but arresting blue block of colour for 79-minutes, whilst a variety of narrators read aloud from Jarman’s diary. “Blue” would be intriguing on its own, but remains powerful and poignant given Jarman’s health condition.

By this time, the director has lost a considerable amount of sight due to his battle with AIDS, and “Blue” goes into detail about the tedium of his hospital visits and health problems. The aural cues and soundtrack are crisp, clean and clear – with the viewer being placed inside Jarman’s head; inhabiting his body and seeing through his eyes of continuously blue vision.

It’s an incredible experience, and a fitting testament to daring nature of one of Britain’s bravest filmmakers. Jarman truly earned the serenity that radiates from “Blue”.


9. Kenneth Anger

A highly controversial figure even amongst the avant-garde, Kenneth Anger has been brought up on obscenity charges, associated with Satanism, and been pigeonholed as an obsessed provocateur ever since he began making films in the 1940’s. Whatever his label, Anger’s cinema is unavoidably indelible – often telling incoherently salacious stories that brim with jaw-dropping imagery of surrealist and occult homoeroticism.

Often regarded as the first openly homosexual filmmaker, Anger released “Fireworks” at the tender age of 20, a film recorded in his back garden with the homoerotic content that would eventually call him up for obscenity charges. After being acquitted when his film was considered art, Anger never looked back.

lucifer rising

The American went on to create “Rabbit’s Man”, “Eaux d’artifice”, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” and “Lucifer Rising”, which all forced significant rumblings amongst the underground filmmaking community. Reliably unpredictable, his 1969 production “Invocation of my Demon Brother” even featured an electronic score composed by Mick Jagger.

Aside from his baffling but brilliant filmmaking, Anger also dabbles in Hollywood mythology, having written a book on the subject named “Hollywood Babylon”. Stocked with conspiracy theories about a whole host of A-listers, anyone intrigued by weird and wonderful gossip need look no further than this publication; a bewildering book written by a bewildering individual.


10. Maya Deren

In a sense, Maya Deren symbolised the avant-garde in human form. She completely embodied experimental art; be it poetry, dance, photography, or cinema.

Part of a Jewish family who fled to America after fearing anti-Semitic outbreak in her hometown of Kiev, Deren fought her way onto the art-house scene in 1943 with “Meshes of the Afternoon”; a production made with her husband Alexander Hammid. Rolling with a cyclical narrative and recurring motifs, “Meshes of the Afternoon” was a typical representation of Deren’s filmmaking in its creative employment of rhythm.

meshes of the afternoon

Her later features “The Witch’s Cradle”, “At Land” and “The Private Life of a Cat” all went on to be considered as aesthetically significant in terms of experimental cinema, and Deren’s contribution to the avant-garde also involved her published writing on film theory. Within her work, she often discussed the poetry of filmmaking, and the ability of the avant-garde to portray the wildest cinematic ideas.

Deren was just 44 when she died from a brain haemorrhage in 1961, but her legacy lives on to this day.