8. Roman Polanski (France, 1937)
Although he has made Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown – arguably his two most popular films – in the United States, most of Polanski’s career took place throughout Europe, where he is still working at the age of 81. Despite being filmed in various locations with an international cast, most of his films are in English (aside from the debut in Polish and his latest effort in French).
The majority of his films are essentially dark psychological studies, but he utilized his atmospheric style while making some full-blooded thrillers (the aforementioned Chinatown, as well as one of his latest creations, The Ghost Writer).
It is a commonly known fact that his return to Europe in the late 1970s was expedited by an infamous sex scandal with a minor, just one of the bizarre and tragic episodes from his life. Born in Poland just before the Second World War, he survived the Holocaust, the horrors of which scarred him for life.
Another tragedy struck when he was in his 30s, as his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered in their home by Charles Manson and his cult. All of these events have undoubtedly shaped his work, and the most obvious example is the Holocaust drama The Pianist.
7. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium, 1951 and 1954, respectively)
The entire opus of the Dardenne brothers can be perceived as one huge film. Not in the sense that they feature literally connected storylines and characters, but the subject matter, style, and approach are so consistent, that the films unquestionably belong to the same universe.
They all revolve, without exception, around the poorer members of the Belgian society. Despite being naturalistic, they do not lack a narrative and are without exception constructed as morality tales set in the modern urban world which we too often perceive as lacking in morals.
Perhaps the greatest recommendation could come from the fact that they are share the same honor with Kusturica, being two of only seven directors to win a double Palme d’Or at Cannes.
6. Werner Herzog (Germany, 1942)
Modern artists usually find inspiration in themselves or fellow humans, and their interactions with others. That is a worthy cause, but rarely do they deal with the relationship between human and nature. Herzog is one of the rare artists who attempt that, out of a fascination with nature, its strength, but also the human’s role in it. T
his is the main inspiration behind numerous films of his, both fictional and documentary, whether they are about the survival of man in the wilderness (Little Dieter Learns to Fly/Rescue Dawn, Wings of Hope), people who live in touch with nature (Grizzly Man, Happy People), or ambitious people confronted with nature (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: Wrath of God, Queen of the Desert).
5. Wim Wenders (Germany, 1945)
Wim Wenders started off as a painter who struggled to capture the element of time in static shots. Which is why, according to him, he reached for the camera. In time, he made a significant transition from making moving paintings to narrative cinema. And his love toward rock music really influenced the look and feel (and sound, of course) of his films.
As the case with some other directors on this list, Wenders also spent a significant part of his life – and career – in the United States, which was where he had made some of his most renowned movies.
Road movie (with an artistic flair) is a niche he is most comfortable with, but he has never shied from different genres and themes.
4. Jean-Luc Godard (France, 1930)
Godard is, perhaps, the center of the greatest cult among alternative filmmakers and art film aficionados. One of New Wave’s pioneers, Godard made some of its most important and most experimental films. In terms of pure craftsmanship, he remained faithful to this approach throughout most of his career.
However, when it comes to radical leftist politics, it seems that his earlier efforts were the ones that actually attempted to shake the status quo, especially hitting the favorite target of the French left intellectuals: the morals of the bourgeoisie.
A major technical feature of his films are the slick jump cuts, and his innovative style is most recognized the use of lighting, coloring, and music to enhance storytelling. Godard has influenced and inspired directors throughout the world, from Scorsese to Tarantino, Pasolini to Bertolucci.
3. Aleksandr Sokurov (USSR/Russia, 1951)
Had it been the case that Sokurov made solely the one film that turned him into a household name among film buffs, he would still have to be regarded one of the best directors of today.
The film in question is, of course, Russian Ark, a hundred minute skim reading of Russian history enacted at St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum in a dreamlike single shot. Much has been written about the execution of this amazing feat here and elsewhere, and this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the rest of Sokurov’s oeuvre.
Historical figures are a subject of his trilogy about the lives of twentieth-century dictators, through which he touched upon the problem of corrupting power. He also explores powerful family relationships, which are central to another series of films. Critics have focused on the spiritual themes in his films, long takes, as well as a distinct atmosphere enhanced by the use of natural sounds.
2. Mike Leigh (Great Britain, 1943)
Being privy to other people’s lives, without the dirty feeling of a voyeur, that must be a Mike Leigh film. Leigh is another auteur who keeps the kitchen sink tradition going, alike Arnold and Loach. His own concept differs significantly. He is neither openly political as Loach nor narrative-oriented as Arnold.
His entire opus can fall into the “slice of life” category, as many critics like to call the films, due to the lack of obvious narrative on the one hand, and a close-up look on human relationships on the other. Lack of narrative does not imply lack of events, however, and Leigh’s films are incredibly entertaining to watch.
He usually works with a small group of professionals, the most frequent being Ruth Sheen, Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville. He also works without a screenplay, which sometimes makes the process of making the film more difficult, but he said that he would never make a film any other way.
1. Michael Haneke (Austria, 1942)
Uncompromising is a word which seems to be thrown around quite a lot when discussing important artists, and this overuse eventually takes off its edge. In Haneke’s case, however, it is completely justified. Unlike many provocative directors, who choose their subject matter only in order to provoke, Haneke is earnest, genuine, and pensive.
And his subject matter usually is dark, or at least unpleasant. His latest film about octogenarians in a harmonious marriage explores the difficult sides of getting old, but is not titled Amour (love) ironically. In fact, irony is something that Haneke is not a fan of. Instead of distancing himself from the situations that he films about, he wants to delve deep in them, and force the viewer to stay as well.
He does so without holding his hand which ultimately leads to a genuinely unsettling experience, but ultimately rewarding for anyone with an open mind. Double Palme d’Or at Cannes? You bet.
Author Bio: Ivan Maksimović is a recent anthropology graduate from Serbia, currently doing an internship in a museum. He views film as an important outlet for ideas, especially those regarding social problems.