What is it that makes us love a certain filmmaker’s imagery, technique and themes more than another director’s works? Maybe it’s the tone and pace of the plot, or the perfectly quotable and emblematic dialogue, or that great unforgettable soundtrack and sound editing, or maybe it’s because of the pure visual wonder and fantasy put on film… Whatever your answer to this question is, one thing’s for certain: the most skilled storytellers and film directors, the ones whose stories we love to watch, study, quote and share all have a distinct and distinguishable styles.
Here is a list including ten of these directors. However, before we begin, please note that this list absolutely does not aim to comprehensiveness (which would be impossible to obtain in less than, say, eighty names).
10. Christopher Nolan
“You know when Hollywood does a great big blockbuster that really wraps you up in a world, and lets you believe in extraordinary things that move you in some way, in an almost operatic sensibility? That to me is the most fun I have at the movies.”
One of the most divisive contemporary filmmakers, Christopher Nolan began his adventure behind the camera with “Following”, a little independent film that he was able to write, produce, direct, photograph and edit with an undoubtedly low budget. His success continued with “Memento”, arguably one of his best films, also thanks to his collaboration with his brother Jonathan, a talented scriptwriter that will go on to co-write some of Christopher’s most important films (including “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight”).
Since his debut, the English director has shown his talent in portraying psychologically complex characters with common, distinctive traits: the anti-heroes in his films are all afraid of something and are often incapable of protecting their loved ones, hurting them and themselves in the process (Leonard Shelby from “Memento”, Dom Cobb from “Inception”, Cooper from “Interstellar” are the most obvious examples,but Bruce Wayne also fits in this character archetype).
Perfectly aware of his talent and directing skills, Christopher Nolan today represents to mainstream audiences the essence of contemporary Cinema, intelligently manipulating storytelling and narrative time in order to always remain original and interesting to the wider possible audience, while also experimenting the newest cinematic techniques and formats for the sake of his most recent and imperfect but always visually striking experiences.
9. Paul Thomas Anderson
“It’s a gamble you take, the risk of alienating an audience. But there’s a theory – sometimes it’s better to confuse them for five minutes than let them get ahead of you for ten seconds.”
The first thing one notices about Paul Thomas Anderson’s works is their structure: even when the narrative revolves around a single main character, their cast has to be vast and colorful, vital, capable of portraying the widest possible range of human positive and negative emotions in a multidimensional and realistic way.
Often compared to Altman and widely recognized as an actor’s director, P.T.A. usually works with the best possible actors and character actors (just think of Magnolia’s magnificent ensemble cast), and can easily bring not-so-good actors to their best performances yet, as Adam Sandler’s Barry demonstrates in “Punch-Drunk Love”.
With a particular love for tracking shots and generally fast-paced, immersive camera movements, Paul Thomas Anderson’s visual style is one of the most distinguishable in contemporary Cinema. Love, hate, family, human relationships and greed are all different keys to his films’ main underlying theme, which ultimately is redemption: it is very easy to find that almost every character in the different films is in some way damned and has to fight for his own peace of mind.
This does not only happen to mostly negative or highly conflicted characters, but to anyone involved, like for example John C. Reilly’s and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s characters in “Magnolia”, a film that Anderson brilliantly chose to end with an original song from Aimee Mann titled, guess what, “Save me”.
8. Kim Ki-Duk
“A director should not define everything. For me, the movie is a form of a question I pose to the others or to the audience. I want to ask their opinion on my point of view and discuss it with them.”
Kim Ki-Duk is among the most important and acknowledged South Korean filmmakers, perhaps mostly known to general audiences for films like “3-Iron” and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring”. A very harsh critic of Korean society and culture, Kim Ki-Duk’s screenplays tend to be full of complicated, flawed characters that lead uncommon lives and are mostly difficult to relate to. Be it a Buddhist monk or a mute pimp, a homeless man or a prostitute, a soldier or a violent debt collector, every character becomes an example and metaphor for some greater and generally starker human trait.
A controversial and divisive figure because of his depiction of women and everyday society, Kim Ki-Duk chose to make movies that are almost always difficult to watch, creating a world in which violent scenes and raw emotions are among the main objects used to fascinate viewers while depicting shocking, brutal and at the same time poetic events.
Rarely providing a happy ending and containing little to no dialogue (although there are memorable exceptions, such as “Time”), the auteur focuses on human relationships that can never be easily explained or catalogued, and are open to interpretation: is it all about love or hate, happiness or misery, life or death? Or both? Take your guess.
7. Terrence Malick
“I knew it would have a slow, rolling pace. Just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself, figure things out yourself.
Whenever philosophy and aesthetics meet, a Terrence Malick film is born. Adored by many film critics and almost despised by the general public, Malick began his career as a movie director with “Badlands” in 1973 and went on to become a renowned film auteur with his second film, “Days of Heaven”(1978), which to this day remains one of his best and most praised movies. While pretty much every Malick film is at least amazing and distinctive in its visual style, what really stands out throughout his works is their content and meaning.
“The Thin Red Line”, “To The Wonder” and “The Tree of Life” are all perfect examples of this aspect. War, love and life itself serve not only as the focuses and themes of a single movie, but as mere facts exploited in order to say something more.
With Emmanuel Lubezki as his most frequent collaborator, Malick wants to take audiences on a journey that always requires some patience and endurance, ending up rewarding some individuals way more than others. Unconventional and unique, Terrence Malick’s style possess more than enough reasons to help him make it into this list, even as pointless and odd his efforts in cinematic technique may seem.
6. Woody Allen
“This is my perspective and has always been my perspective on life: I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it. I always have, since I was a little boy. It hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.”
It is not easy to be a pessimistic comedian in a world that appears to be meaningless and full of people you can’t really understand. And when the only cure for your own neurotic and sad personality is love, things are bound to get worse. A lot worse.
In love with the works of Ingmar Bergman and jazz music, Woody Allen masters the art of scriptwriting filling up his movies with a fair share of both memorable deep quotations about our reality and brilliant, hilarious one-liners. Equally skilled in visual gags and verbal jokes, the director always manages to light up his movies with a dreamy, melancholic feel and mood that most of us cannot help but empathize with.
A capable playwright and actor, Allen has frequently cast himself in the lead role (something he once again did in 2016 for his first ever television series, the Amazon Prime original project “Crisis in six scenes”), and even when he does not star in his films, an alter-ego of his can pretty much always be identified among the characters. Not afraid to break the fourth wall and challenge conventional cinematic storytelling, some of his best works (like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” just to name a few) can truly be described as masterpieces of the Seventh Art.