The birth of cinema was a natural consequence of the era of hedonistic prosperity that arose in the Western countries at the end of the XIX century. In may have been called the Gilded Age in the United States, or Belle Époque in Western Europe, but it was present on both sides of the Atlantic, and both sides have their share in the history of film and film technology.
It was not only the booming economy of an enduring peacetime that helped inventors and innovators fund their research, but an overall joy of life that was visible everywhere. Cinema is the perfect embodiment of that playful spirit: an experiment in reality, perception, and perhaps most of all – storytelling.
This particularly long tradition of filmmaking in both the U.S. and Europe brought about certain defining qualities, and thus American movies became associated with entertainment, whereas European films became synonymous with art.
It is, however, required to point out that both art and entertainment know no boundaries, and such generalizations can only get us so far. But for the sake of argument, we can say that generations of European filmmakers have perceived themselves as artists, and more importantly “auteurs”, and dedicated their careers to oppose consumerism and commercialism.
While such an attitude may seem conceited, few would deny the lack of artistic ambitions in ordinary Hollywood movies, as well as the fact that they are rarely more than an escapist diversion from everyday problems. Such filmmakers, as mentioned above, simply want to create an alternative in the form of films which are either experimental in nature, show a strong desire of addressing an issue, or both.
In the meantime, the European core of art films welcomed much needed backup from filmmakers all over the world, who have been supporting the struggle against commercialism for a long time. However, this is a tribute to the successors of European art film, to the European “auteurs” of today, and their significance in the worlds of film and art in general. These are the most important living directors of Europe.
25. Paolo Sorrentino (Italy, 1970)
Born and raised on the streets of Naples, Sorrentino paid tribute to his home town in an unusual way by writing Antonio Capuano’s The Dust of Naples (which is a deliberate reference to the original Naples anthology, Vittorio De Sica’s The Gold of Naples). When directing, however, he turns to stylish philosophy.
His films are versatile in subject matter, and he touched upon themes such as politics, corruption, youth and aging, art, as well as perhaps the broadest question of all: meaning of life and lack thereof. Some critics have noticed certain similarities with Scorsese, whom he has confirmed as an influence with his spectacular style, fast cuts, and a sense of humor, which he finds important as a way of escaping unwanted gloom.
Sorrentino has also published a novel, titled Everybody’s right, the qualities of which will be left to others to explore.
24. Cristian Mungiu (Romania, 1968)
Romanian New Wave revitalized the country’s film industry, and one of its most important protagonists is Cristian Mungiu. His breakthrough was a poignant, visceral drama about a young woman seeking an abortion in a country where such acts are illegal.
As expected, many contemporary Romanian filmmakers dea with the painful subject of Ceausesku’s dictatorship and its consequences, and Mungiu is no excuse. However, he manages to merge the personal with the political in his stories about societal structures being obstacles to people’s happiness.
23. Andrea Arnold (Great Britain, 1961)
Winning an Oscar in 2003 with her short film Wasp, Arnold had set high expectations for her future work. She didn’t fail to deliver. Starting her career off in front of the camera as a children’s television presenter, Andrea Arnold had a gradual move towards directing. Tarkovsky and Malick are her heroes, but the influence of the two on her work is difficult to see.
A much greater resemblance is seen between her films and British kitchen-sink films from the 50s and 60s, that possess a gritty, social realistic aesthetic. That’s even the case of her adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, where she depicted marginal characters of a different era than ours.
22. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (France, 1953)
Whether telling a story about a cannibalistic landlord in a post-apocalyptic future, romantic exploits of a quirky young woman, or mouthwatering alien monsters, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films have the same distinctive expression, so idiosyncratic that they seem to belong to the same universe. This is the style he kept even when working for a studio when making the last sequel of the Alien franchise.
His recognizable yellowish overtones, mildly distorted close-ups of character’s faces, and an overall quirky atmosphere (mildly quirky like the goofy characters of Amélie or extremely quirky as the case of the aforementioned cannibals) are essential elements to near all of his films, which testifies to a strong devotion to form, whatever the subject matter.
21. Ulrich Seidl (Austria, 1952)
Called a provocateur on more than one occasion, Seidl entirely fits the category of notable Austrian artists who derive their inspiration from the disturbing features of the society they are part of, not unlike what Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhardt are doing with their novels.
Whether the Austrian society warrants criticism more than others, or the Austrians are simply showing exemplary civil courage, are questions secondary to this discussion. Seidl filmed everything in a docu-like manner: soulless proms, old white women paying for love and sex in Kenyan seaside resorts, or ominous basement pastimes (no, Joseph Fritzl was not mentioned) and many other disturbing things.
The documentary style is followed by certain regular elements: static or slow-moving shots, lack of non-diegetic music, explicit footage etc. An unflinching portrayal of disturbing matter led to him being called a misanthrope or a pessimist, both charges that he vigorously denies. Michael Haneke also compared his films to smelly socks, but he meant it as a compliment.
20. Roy Andersson (Sweden, 1943)
Ingmar Bergman has put Swedish cinema on the map in the mid-50s, and by extension a general idea of the Scandinavian spirit. Soon it was associated with – and expected from – Scandinavian films, to exhibit a bleak and unpleasant atmosphere, as frigid as the waters of the Baltic sea.
Despite retaining certain features commonly accepted as Scandinavian, Andersson also gives us warmth and humor, and accordingly – hope. His career spans decades, but counts only five feature films. Three of those five films constitute the so-called “human” trilogy, and the final film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence earned the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2015.
The title of the film – and the general idea – stem from his own thoughts about the birds from Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow. To Andersson the birds seem as if they are genuinely concerned about the actions of humans below, and cannot help but feel worried, despite being impartial observers.
The film is therefore a meditation on the human condition, as seen from the side. The wide shot common here, as well as in his other films, stems from his belief that it can tell much more about a person than a close-up, by showing us his or hers place in the world.
19. Aki Kaurismäki (Finland, 1957)
Just opposite of Scandinavia we can find Finland, a country with a different language, but definitely some similar qualities we associate with the Scandinavians, at least according to films by director Aki Kaurismäki. Whether he shows life in Finland more or less realistically is not as relevant as the fact that his films speak of problems many of us can face.
His success is mostly due to an idiosyncratic style that merges deadpan humor and deadpan seriousness. The perfect embodiment of this style is his breakthrough film Leningrad Cowboys Go America, which follows a fictional Russian polka-rock band trying to make it big in the States, since they’re not too popular at home.
The band members are all uniformed, wearing suits with excessively pointy shoes, and equally pointy quiffs. They all ride along in a used car bought in the U.S. which is obviously too small to fit the entire nine man band, as well as their manager. It is their expressionless faces that are the cherry on the top in this humoristic tale about a culture clash.
18. Peter Greenaway
In 1942 Greenaway was born during the Second World War in the town of Newport in South Wales but quickly moved to Essex to avoid the blitz. He became a painter with the love of films by such directors as Igmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Goddard and Alain Resnais.
In the 1960s he started making experimental films. This helped land him a job with the Central Office of Information, which he stay with for 15 years. There he worked as a film editor on propaganda films, which marketed ideals of the UK Government.
Greenaway made many shorts and documentary shorts before releasing his first feature “The Falls” in 1980. Now he is a professor of cinema studies at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. With his vanguard style he has gained acclaimed success from cinephiles and uses editing to convey expression with a unique twist on the exhibit of human events. Another big influence into Greenaway’s art, be it cinema or paintings, is the paintings of renaissance, baroque, and Flemish painters.