Every so often a filmmaker will come along and will simply be divisive. You’ll be likely to find just as many fans of his or her work as you’ll be to find people without a single good thing to say about them. You’ll read articles praising a director as a genius, or as an amazing visionary, and then you’ll hear a podcast of critics stating said director is an overrated fraud.
These filmmakers have personal styles and recognizable flourishes. So many of their films will be distinguishable from a screenshot alone. In several instances, you’ll see that what the admirers love about them are precisely what the detractors hate.
Whether he’s a controversial provocateur with a worrying taste for seeing women suffer, a man who hops between children’s animations and dark comedies, or a woman who seems to really enjoy showing messed up sexual relations on screen, these are some of the most divisive directors working nowadays. Love them or hate them. There is no in-between.
10. Sofia Coppola
The daughter of iconic filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola had an early start in her cinematic career, starring alongside Al Pacino and Diane Keaton in “The Godfather Part III”. After giving up acting, the soon-to-be filmmaker tried her hand at writing and directing and has been going strong at it ever since.
Coppola is recognized for her quiet and introspective films. Her characters are constantly lost in life, longing for something they can’t quite grasp but desperately need. Many of the subjects she explores in her movies have a hint of an autobiographical flavor to them.
Both “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere” revolve around Hollywood stars and the effects of vapid fame. “The Bling Ring” shows the effects of celebrity obsession over a group of rich Los Angeles teenagers, and “The Virgin Suicides” is a portrait of juvenile depression and morose suburban reality.
Even with an Oscar under her belt, Coppola never stirred far away from divisive receptions to her films. Coppola’s fans are often very touched by the emotionally detached conditions of her main characters. Her admirers point out how perfectly she encapsulates the feeling and atmosphere of a floating existence, of never quite living but simply existing amid such an ever-changing world.
Ironically, that exact detachment is what puts so many people off her films in the first place, as it makes it harder to connect to the characters and plots. Coppola has also been severely criticized for the lack of plot development in her films, as she will often focus on individual scenes rather than on structuring a cohesive narrative thread.
9. Xavier Dolan
One of Canada’s newest wunderkinds, Xavier Dolan is a critical and festival-circuit darling. At 26, Dolan has already made an impressive six films, most of which have won prizes at Cannes and other important film festivals. Despite all his accolades, the Canadian filmmaker is far from being an all-around hit with the viewers, as shown by the mixed reactions to his filmography.
Dolan’s notorious visual flare is difficult to miss, as he seems intent in adding a lot of cinematic style to deeply emotional stories. Montage editing, slow-motion, aspect ratio variations – you name the technique, Dolan has probably already used it in some form. His talent for directing actors is also quite visible, as many of the performances he’s directed have been extremely lauded.
Add to that his taste for plots involving dysfunctional families and sexual orientation/gender identification themes and you’ve got yourself a director to watch.
All would seem fine and dandy were it not for the increasingly audible depreciation his last films have gotten from critics. To them, Dolan is a flat-out-loud style over substance director, who keeps finding ways to include self-indulgent unnecessary flourishes into his films. His 2016 familial drama “It’s Only the End of The World” was heavily criticized for its repetitive themes and uninteresting characters who spend most the movie screaming and yelling at each other.
Dolan’s critics have time and time again called out the lack of subtlety and excessively long running time of his films, and have suggested the director still has plenty to learn. Dolan’s fans, on the other hand, are fond of his kitsch appeal and the overblown nature of his films, as they feel it combines perfectly with the atmosphere he’s able to build and with the performances he gets from his actors.
8. Nicolas Winding Refn
A self-proclaimed “pornographer of violence”, Nicolas Winding Refn is man with an uncanny knack for inciting concomitant love and hatred from his viewers. His last two films have had incredibly polarizing receptions, with boos emanating from one side of the audience and raucous applause being heard from the other.
Having sprung to scene after winning the Best Director award at Cannes for “Drive”, Refn has become known for his visual flair and his eye for great composition. His ultra-cool characters are usually drenched in saturated colors and are seen roaming through impeccably stylized scenarios.
Electronic music, heavy on synth and atmosphere, play through sequences of extreme violence. Characters stomp heads until they’re pulp, fight and kill one another, cannibalize people they envy, and penetrate their mothers’ wombs with swords. More often than not, his actors’ faces will be as close to a blank expression as possible; their reactions are either minimal or explosive.
One is likely to find two general reactions to the provocative director’s body of work: people who believe his films are unique and stylish, and people who find them pretentious and stupid. “Only God Forgives”, his follow-up to “Drive”, was lambasted for being slow, repetitive, indulgent, and sickeningly gruesome.
His most recent effort, “The Neon Demon”, was met with similar criticism. His detractors seem to agree that, apart from the visuals, he hasn’t much to offer – which is something his admirers vehemently disagree with. To them, he is a man who’s able to blend style and substance brilliantly, and who makes films that are feasts to the eyes while still bearing interesting stories and characters at heart. As Refn himself puts it, he just likes to make “f****ing rock and roll pictures.”
7. Claire Denis
This could be considered a bit of a cheat entry into the list, considering Claire Denis is a widely-respected auteur whose films are always eagerly anticipated. She has, however, found herself amid violently mixed receptions on two remarkable occasions during the Cannes Film Festival.
Denis is known for exploring social and political themes in many of her films. She has dealt extensively with the matter of colonial and postcolonial Africa, aside from her constant attempts at capturing the face of a harsh contemporary France.
In that way, it was a bit of a shock when she premiered her sexy take on cannibalism horror in “Trouble Every Day”. A seedy and unsettling film, it follows an American doctor who meets a seductive and troubled woman with a penchant for biting men to death during sex.
If that sounded a bit too extreme for her fans, they really weren’t expecting “The Bastards” to get made. With a plot including incest, sexual abuse and, most shockingly, the use of a corn cob to rape a young woman, “The Bastards” tore the roof off the Croisette. Dealing with such disturbing subjects is a sure way to get mixed feelings from the viewers, and in Denis’ case, it wasn’t different.
The audience was split right down the middle, with one half praising the originality and courage of the films and the other half chastising what they perceived to be dull, cold, and unengaging movies. The non-linear and confusing narrative of “The Bastards” was a particularly polarizing point, as many admired its purported enigmatic nature, and many blasted it for being too off-putting and devoid of emotional stakes.
6. Zack Snyder
A huge tentpole director and one of the key figures behind the ever-growing DC Extended Universe, Zack Snyder is both loved and hated by both critics and the public.
Why does the man behind the upcoming Justice League get such a bittersweet reception? Snyder is a comic book fan. That much is a given. After all, this is a guy who has four comic book films under his belt (“300”, “Watchmen”, “Man of Steel”, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”), and isn’t likely to stop churning them out anytime soon.
He is known for being a bombastic balls-to-the-wall director, having delivered CGI-heavy explosive films time and time again. Recognized as a style-over-substance filmmaker, Snyder is a man with a keen eye for great imagery and action directing.
He is also known for either being extremely faithful to his sources (“Watchmen”) or taking way too many liberties with it (his killer Batman and morose Superman are prime examples). But most of all, he is a man who tries implanting depth and subtext into a genre that is widely regarded as childish and futile. His directing style and his attempts at adding profundity to his films are the points for which he is most admired and criticized.
To many a comic book fan, Snyder is a director who takes the genre seriously and who goes to great lengths to develop and enrich his characters, but not always in the most obvious of ways (as shown in the infamous “Martha” scene in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”).
To many specialized critics, these very attempts are major misfires and result in movies that think they’re smart but are just overblown messes with way too much slow-mo in them.