17. Claire Denis (France, 1946)
Decisively denying the existence of a coherent path in her career, Claire Denis is far from being inconsistent, not only as far as the quality of her movies is concerned. Whether the focus of the film is on romance, drama, or horror, there are recurring motifs, topics, and subject matter.
Much of her work is defined by her colonial upbringing (her father was a French government official in several francophone African countries) and feminism, even if its influence is unintended. This is the reason behind Chocolat and White Material, for instance, but on the other hand films like Bastards explore other dark topics, in this case sexual exploitation and incest.
In spite of the subject matter, kindness toward her characters, as opposed to condemnation, she once remarked, is her defining trait. Her subject is not only the human, but the human’s body in space and interaction with other bodies.
16. Ken Loach (Great Britain, 1936)
This tireless fighter for social justice is still strong after half a century of filmmaking. Ken Loach emerged at the tail end of Britain’s kitchen sink movement, and remained faithful to it while at the same time modifying the concept.
He is also one of the rare artists who can actually boast that their films managed to make a real impact on the society. In his case, two of his early films Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home (BBC’s TV anthology series Wednesday Play) presented the issues of abortion and homelessness, respectively, in such a compassionate way, that the first film contributed to the campaign which led to the Abortion Act in 1967, and the other influenced opening homeless shelters and forming charities.
Critics often disapprove of his tendency to simplify social issues by focusing on only one side of the story (usually the oppressed workers), but their opponents would argue that he is providing them with a voice which otherwise cannot be heard.
15. Agnès Varda (Belgium, 1928)
The godmother of French female auteurs, identified as such by many, and a personal role model of Claire Denis, Agnes Varda boasts an impressive career of remarkable longevity. Her unconventional style helped mold the French New Wave. Being only 30 when she made the films that launched this movement, she attributed her success to a certain degree of naïveté.
La Pointe Courte, her debut from 1955, precedes the rest of the New Wave films, but includes many of the elements later associated with it. Many of her films deal with femininity, a woman’s body, in a way that isn’t exploitative or sexist. For instance, both Vagabond and Cléo from 5 to 7 show female characters in a fragile state, facing death, despite many obvious differences between the two.
14. Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey, 1959)
This self-taught director started making films somewhat late in his life, after reading the biography of Roman Polanski. This may seem like unusually superficial motivation for someone who turned out to make nothing but masterpieces in his twenty-year long career, but he didn’t have money on his mind. As Ceylan himself explains it: “In that book, filmmaking seemed easy to me”. But his other, perhaps more important inspiration, is Russian playwright Anton Chekov.
That is because many of his films are dialogue-heavy, and focus on human interactions in everyday lives. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia pays homage to Chekov more explicitly, by even incorporating some of his lines. His visual style is characterized by long, static takes, long shots of landscape, all very illustrative of his love for photography (what he did before filmmaking).
13. Andrey Zvyagintsev (Russia, 1964)
Slow-paced and meditative Russian films inevitably draw comparison with Tarkovsky. The same fate didn’t bypass Andrey Zvyagintsev just after his debut feature The Return, but it cannot be overstated how misleading such a comparison would be. Dealing less with spiritual matters than his namesake, Zvyagintsev’s focus is more on social and class relations in contemporary Russia.
Leviathan, his latest film, is as epic as the title suggests. It was at the same time shunned by many dignitaries close to the government, but also championed as last year’s Russian candidate for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. But none of the controversies from this as well as his previous movies result from cheap provocation, but are actually sincere examinations of a troubled nation.
12. Pedro Almodovar (Spain, 1949)
Not only that Almodovar is Spain’s most-awarded filmmaker since Bunuel, but he is also the most prolific one, making a new film almost every year. His films deal with sexuality, identity, femininity and masculinity, in a stylish and provocative manner. Despite the taboo nature of many of his films, most of them were well received and garnered much praise. The especially frequent focus on female characters led to him being called a “women’s director”
Besides many characters who desperately demand our compassion, such as tortured women, victims of sexual abuse etc., he also includes many revolting ones, but shifts the focus from their “sins” towards their humanity.
11. Lars Von Trier (Denmark, 1956)
Sparking controversy wherever he shows up, Lars Von Trier is quite possibly the only person on this list whose eccentric persona is as famous as his films. And given the polarizing quality of his films and the lively debates they usually generate, that’s a feat which is difficult to surpass.
There are tongue-in-cheek statements in favor of Hitler and claims of a penchant for being punched, but they all speak in favor of a personality in need for subverting traditional morality, as well as conventional behavior in general. Thus it is understandable that he was significant for instituting a manifest called Dogme 95 alongisde Thomas Vinterberg which attempted to encourage filmmakers to return to naturalistic modes of creating films.
Often dealing with violent topics, a strong, recurring theme is the mistreatment of women by men (Dogville. Antichrist, Nymphomaniac). The violence he shows is explicit and disturbing. Perhaps the easiest way to describe him is in his own words: “A film should be like a rock in a shoe.”
10. Emir Kusturica (Yugoslavia/Serbia, 1954)
The select club of auteurs who have won the Palme d’or at Cannes two times counts only 8 names, more of them will be found on this list. That shouldn’t meen that the rest of his opus isn’t worth watching. Critics have a name for his style: they call it “magical realism”, which is a label he shares with the late Gabrel Garcia Marques in literature. In his case it includes flying brides, beds, and telekinetic gypsies.
However, his style is not as uniform as it may sound, as he has evolved through his career. He started off close to a Sarajevo cultural movement called the New Primitives, started gradually shifting to more explicitely political cinema of the 90s, and then mellowed down with more personal and intimate films of the 2000s.
His critics often argue that the quality of his films is inconsistent, with poor and excellent movies equally represented. After a short break, he is supposedly back in style filming a story about love and war titled On the Milky Road, and starring Monica Belluci.
9. Bernardo Bertolucci (Italy 1940)
Being a professed Marxist, it is no wonder that Bertolucci fuses the personal with the political. Class and sex are powerful forces in most of his films, many of which marked the twentieth century. His career slowed down in the meantime due to a back injury, but despite this obstacle he managed to make a new film in 2012, although it quite didn’t pack the punch of his earlier work.
He is, in the most explicit sense, building upon the heritage of the films of his youth, the Italian neo-realism as well as the French New Wave, in particular.
Even though he collaborated with major movie stars, and major studios, none of his films was entirely funded by Hollywood studios, which is a fact he is very proud of.