5. Wes Anderson
Your hipster friend’s favorite director, it’s easy to dismiss Wes Anderson as a generally loved and admired filmmaker. But look a little closer and you’ll see there is a clear line dividing those who are enamored with his quirkiness and those who are sick and tired of it.
A critical darling and six-time Oscar nominee, Anderson’s films are identifiable from a frame alone. The always symmetrical shots, the colorful set design, and the instantly iconic costumes all contribute to a hugely recognizable style. His characters are full of quirks and mannerisms, his choice of (usually underground) music is meticulous, and even his camera movements follow a specific pattern.
Add to that his recurrent themes of family bonds and forbidden love and you have yourself a recipe for disaster or brilliance, depending on who you ask.
Those who love his movies defend him with all their might, as his colorful palette and lighthearted approach to adult subjects (think of the incest and attempted suicide of “The Royal Tenenbaums”) are sure to win the hearts of many viewers. To them, he is a visionary director with extraordinarily unique aesthetics and a remarkable sensitivity in his writing.
However, to his detractors, he is simply an overly repetitive filmmaker. They criticize the lack of depth in his characters, the abundance of quirks in pretty much every aspect of his filmography, and the recycling of ideas and themes from previous movies. Those who love him believe every one of his movies to be unique; those who dislike him think all his films look and feel the same.
4. Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine first sprang to scene at the tender age of 18, when he wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s “Kids”. A deeply controversial and disturbing film, “Kids” gave Korine his first taste of trouble, and boy, has he been riding on that wave ever since.
Korine’s movies are difficult to describe, as he seems intent on exploring the atmosphere and collective madness of a place or situation rather than focusing on a formally structured plot.
Be it the depressing post-tornado Midwestern America of “Gummo”, the dysfunctional incestuous family of “Julien-Donkey Boy”, or the drug-addled summer vacations of “Spring Breakers”, Korine’s films have an uncanny knack of blending the bizarre with the humane. His filmography usually deals with incredibly unsettling motifs and is drowsed in pitch-black humor.
An enfant terrible by nature, Korine is often criticized by the stylized manner with which he captures appalling situations, namely rape, abortion, and even nuns falling from airplanes (go check out “Mister Lonely”).
He is also ostracized for the depressing nature of many of his films, as several viewers find it disconcerting to watch the non-linear narratives he presents, which they believe to be unwarranted and underdeveloped. Even “Spring Breakers”, somewhat of a departure for the director, was criticized for being sexist, objectifying women, and glorifying violence.
However, Korine is a beloved independent filmmaker who is known for being able to construct a perfect atmosphere in his movies. His admirers also find his films to be rich in subtext and humanity, despite handling disturbing themes. To Korine’s fans, his depressing and stylized allure is necessary for displaying situations and social conditions that few people know or care about.
3. Lars von Trier
At one point recipient of the (non) prestigious Persona Non-Grata distinction at the Cannes Film Festival, Lars von Trier is as controversial as it gets. From his on-set antics to his sarcastic Hitler supporting comments, von Trier is a man that carries divisiveness in his back pocket.
Von Trier’s films are bleak are gloomy. His main characters are always women who are being put through the grinder and who spend much of the movie’s runtime in pain, distress, or depression. At the end, they often find more pain, distress, and depression. To add salt to the wound, he also has a penchant for graphic nudity and sexual violence.
His 2011 film “Antichrist” features a wince-indulging scene of genital mutilation, and his two-part “Nymphomaniac” contain instances of fisting, attempted rape, and self-inflicted abortion. Behind the cameras, old Lars isn’t all that better, having famously fallen out with Bjork on the set of “Dancer in the Dark” (she admittedly spat on his face at one time) and being known for treating his actors quite ruthlessly.
The hell women go through in his films is what he gets the most flack for. Several people have accused him of being a misogynistic writer who finds true pleasure in seeing women suffer, and who will always find ways of making his films more depressing. Many are also not quite fond of his personality and of how he treats his actresses. However, his apparent misogyny is the exact point of contention between his detractors and his admirers.
To the latter, von Trier simply goes the extra length to get the desired performance from his actors. They also claim that his recurrent gloom is but his way of dealing with his own stifling depression, as is his personal sarcasm and irony. Whichever way you put it, there is no denying the man is a gifted director, as shown by his Palme d’Or for “Dancer in the Dark”.
2. Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé’s name is synonymous with controversy. Truly an enfant terrible, Noé is known for making transgressive films which often reviles and disgusts audiences. “Irreversible”, his magnum opus, proudly boasts on its DVD cover that it got 300 people to leave the theater during its world premiere at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.
Despite all the experimentations he manages to include in his movies, Noé’s recurrent themes of sex and violence are incredibly obvious, as is his want for shocking and disturbing the viewer.
“Irreversible” features a single take running over eight minutes of a woman being brutally raped and beaten to near death. His debut film, “Seul Contre Tous”, shows the main character punching the belly of a pregnant woman before indulging in incest with his daughter. The director’s most recent effort, “Love”, contained a 3D shot of a man ejaculating directly unto the camera, aside from several scenes of unsimulated sex.
It is his desire for transgression that warrants him so much collective love and hate. To his admirers, he is a no-barriers-held experimental visionary who moves beyond the border of good taste to offer shocking and thought-provoking imagery to a largely desensitized audience.
To his detractors, he is an infantile and misogynistic director who can’t write a proper story to save his life and whose only wish is to disgust and attempt to impress the viewer with futile violence and gratuitous sex. To sum it up, you’re either on the Noé train or you’re trying to blow its rails off.
1. Terrence Malick
Was there ever going to be another pick for the number one spot? At the age of 76, Terrence Malick has earned himself a reputation of being an extremely divisive director. People will often either find his work beautifully poetic or annoyingly pretentious.
Drenched in exquisite cinematography, Malick’s movies often deal with profound subjects like nature, love, the human soul, and crisis of faith. His characters – which range from soldiers caught in the line of fire (“The Thin Red Line”) to vapid Hollywood personalities (“To The Wonder”) – whisper their thoughts and feelings in now much parodied voice overs. Lovers’ hands languorously touch one another; people walk on beaches and ponder the meaning of life, reminisce about happiness, grief God’s apparent absence.
Nowhere else is his divisiveness more apparent than in the 2011 Palme D’Or winning “The Tree Of Life”. A seemingly simple film that follows the lives of a trio of boys growing up in the 1950s suddenly turns into a spiritual and existential experience, encompassing everything from supernovas to dinosaurs to the nature of a mother’s love.
His follow-up films, “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups” (and even his so-called documentary “Voyage of Time”) have kept up with this philosophical/existential approach, which is the key point of his divisive allure.
To many, it is a distinctively sensitive approach that allows the audience to dive deep into the soul of the characters and into the very essence of the film. To many others, it is an unintentionally hilarious attempt at sounding profound but that results in a stilted, repetitive, and pseudo-intellectual directing style.
Whichever way you’re leaning towards, there’s a whole lotta Malick ongoing, as the director has at least three new projects on his slate, all starring huge A-List stars. Can you think of other divisive directors working nowadays? Hit it up in the comments section below!
Author Bio: Fernando Pompeu is unashamed to admit he loves Batman and Robin. He just tries to hide that information behind a lot of Bergman and Tarkovsky films. He also has a small production company.