5. Richard LinklaterIt’s becoming apparent that there are a lot of writer/directors on this list. Richard Linklater has the most plain and relaxed visual style of anyone here, but it’s how that style complements his stories which sets him apart and defines his status as an American auteur.
Not unlike Woody Allen, Linklater’s subtle directorial approach which is consistent throughout his work provides an aura of familiarity that becomes a comfort with each film he makes. His observational slice-of-life stories are naturally conceived and relatable to all walks of life, and no one else utilizes time as a prominently recurring story element quite like Linklater does.
The Before trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset & Midnight) is arguably the best trilogy in the history of cinema. Its treatment of passing years presented in real time gives the characters and themes maximum longevity, and the progression of their simple story becomes more profound as the characters age.
Each one represents a different stage in their relationship, told through extended scenes of dialogue often delivered in long continuous takes. Each film greatly benefits one another as they all become snapshots of one poignant romance filled with memories.
This brilliant use of time was carried through to his most successful and ground-breaking film to date: Boyhood. Linklater once again focuses on the mundane aspects of a typical life, only to feel epic by its end after creating a lifetime of moments about which we can reminisce and relate to our own experiences. The concept is key to the final product but the execution itself is just as important, and no one would have given it the soft directorial touch Linklater brings.
Coming soon is Last Flag Flying, a “spiritual sequel” to The Last Detail written and directed by Linklater and starring Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell. It can be expected to serve as a solid entry onto the filmmaker’s resume before he hopefully comes back with another piece as sprawling in narrative scope as his other masterworks. Until then, he can always be trusted to quietly entertain with depictions of his philosophical ideas and appreciation for the little things in life.
4. Denis Villeneuve
If we were to rank these directors according to their ratio of quality to quantity in the 2010s, Denis Villeneuve would run away with the top spot. The Canadian-born visionary has been consistently churning out uniformly strong pieces of work, offering experiences that are aesthetically dazzling, cerebrally thought-provoking and intensely gripping. When it comes to crafting a mood that wholly immerses the viewer, there’s practically no one else around as dependently successful as this man.
In just the 2010s, Villeneuve has made five remarkable films. After the shocking and devastating Incendies, he made his first impression on U.S. audiences with what may still be his best-directed film, Prisoners. Taking on a pretty familiar concept, he gave the proceedings a broodingly atmospheric quality to match the desperations of the protagonist to escape the torment of his own uncertainty.
With help from his frequent collaborators Roger Deakins and Jóhann Jóhannsson – the cream of the crop in their respective fields – Villeneuve used his visual expertise along with his ability to draw tension through performances and editing to mold greatness out of a somewhat generic plot.
He dug deeper into the depths of the mind with his brilliant psychological thriller Enemy, then demonstrated his mastery of mood once again with his crime thriller Sicario. Most recently, he proved that he is capable of evoking more than just thrills with the sci-fi drama Arrival, in which there is still plenty of suspense to be found but its most crucial source of audience investment comes from its emotional weight combined with a real thinker of a story. Even when its screenplay muddles the line between smart and far-fetched, Villeneuve’s handle on the tone makes the film beautifully compelling to watch.
Up next from Villeneuve is another take on a world of science fiction, with the long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling (hey, it’s that name again).
Viewers tend to be rather skeptical going into sequels to classics, but we have more evidence than we need to know that Villeneuve will nail the universe and atmosphere of the beloved Ridley Scott film. In only a few years of showcasing his talents, he has already entered himself into the discussion of the great directors of our time.
3. Joel & Ethan Coen
Whether it be a screwball comedy or a dark drama, every single Joel & Ethan Coen film can be dissected for the sheer brilliance of its construction. With one of the most unabashedly original voices in screenwriting and direction, it is mind-boggling how their films come from two separate beings because it truly seems that they share one (amazing) brain.
They even edit all of their films as a two-man team under the alias Roderick Jaynes. It is clear that they have a thorough understanding of all aspects of the medium, and have shown on numerous occasions that they are a force to be reckoned with.
The Coen brothers’ films are very dense, in multiple senses of the word. Sometimes their work has a note of silliness at the surface which could be perceived by detractors as mere stupidity. Sometimes they leave viewers on a note of perplexity by the meaning of their stories.
In all cases, each of their films is without a doubt intricately conceived and thematically complex – often deceptively so, with their genius only coming to the forefront on subsequent viewings. When looking at a shot composed by the Coens, one can always be sure that they are looking at it for a specific reason.
Among their many great works are the cult classic The Big Lebowski, an outrageous spin on a neo-noir tale with endlessly quotable characters; the unforgettable dark comedy Fargo, a masterpiece of subtle humor mixed with violence and crime; and recently the music-driven Inside Llewyn Davis, another hilarious yet depressing character piece confronting the self-inflicted challenges of being an artist. This theme was addressed earlier on to great effect in Barton Fink, showing a common thread in their ideas. Even in their dramas, that signature Coens humor is never lost, and even in their comedies, they provoke further analysis into the subtext of their broader stories.
They took home several Academy Awards including one for Best Picture when they made the instant classic modern western crime drama No Country for Old Men, a monumental achievement that embodies everything in which they so excel. It combines their best strengths as writers and directors to be frankly one of the greatest films of all time. It also displays some of the most staggering visuals of their go-to cinematographer – the same as the previously mentioned Villeneuve’s – Roger Deakins.
In addition to some upcoming screenplay credits, the brothers just recently announced a Western miniseries project titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which they plan to write and direct for television and possibly a theatrical release as well. Hopefully they don’t take long to return to traditional big screen films, though surely whatever they do will be something special.
2. Paul Thomas Anderson
Here’s a director whose films all at once feel both epic and intimate; both viscerally raw and cinematic as hell. Using the influences of such legends as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and a touch of Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson has fueled his work with an excitement in style while narrowly focusing on characters above all else, ultimately creating an instantly recognizable flair of his own. His choices with the camera not only impress from a level of technicality in every scene, but they also without exception serve to bring the emotion of the story to life through movement, composition and performance capture.
A close-up of an actor’s face commonly tells a viewer in a sometimes cheap way that the moment bears a particular significance to the character. When P.T. Anderson does a close-up, he holds until that significance is born straight from the nuances of the performance, letting the face control the frame in movements that feel totally spontaneous and unplanned.
He also adds emphasis to scenes with perfectly timed dolly push-ins, ranging from unnoticeably slow to rapidly quick depending on the tempo of the sequence. His balance of super long takes and fast-paced edits gives each of his films a sensational feeling of life, inducing hungry anticipation of what every following frame will bring.
Bookended by two solid efforts are five masterworks by PTA. First was Boogie Nights, an ensemble drama full of high-octane energy following the rise-and-fall structure of films like Goodfellas. This multi-protagonist energetic style carried through to his three-hour epic Magnolia, a massively ambitious and personal film containing so many ideas and unconventional decisions that somehow come together to create one of the most memorable film experiences one can have.
Next was Punch-Drunk Love, a gloriously refreshing Adam Sandler rom-com to end all Adam Sandler rom-coms, introducing an entirely new perspective on the actor with more inventive directorial touches that could only come from the mighty hand of PTA. Oscars finally took more notice of his genius behind the camera with There Will Be Blood, a quieted-down piece with results just as explosively awesome, and boasting a performance for the ages by Daniel Day-Lewis as a flawed and complicated anti-hero giving viewers a plethora of things to study.
Prior to his most recent bizarre detective comedy Inherent Vice, he directed Joaquin Phoenix alongside his unequaled muse Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, an absolutely mesmerizing character study with a pair of the best performances in recent memory. It is hypnotic in its beauty and complexity, showcasing the highest quality of cinema by all involved.
Production soon begins on Anderson’s next outing, a 1950s London-set drama within the world of fashion, which will reunite the writer/director with Daniel Day-Lewis. Very few details are known, but that’s all the information required to make it one of the very most anticipated films of 2017.
1. Quentin Tarantino
This may be a controversial choice, as Quentin Tarantino has plenty of detractors claiming he’s a thief of other filmmakers’ styles. Whether his influences be labeled as homage or theft, the way he brings elements together from the works he so idolizes always emits the most satisfying of feelings when watching his films.
He always manages to maintain a consistently original tone along with his signature directorial trademarks which can be detected within the opening seconds of every film he makes. He is a director whose fans will fight to be the first in line to see each of his movies, because they are more than just time-fillers; they are events unto themselves, like the Old Hollywood pictures that had to be seen in a theater or not at all.
It is his unconditional love of cinema itself that oozes through every sound and frame he orchestrates, making him a prime source of new appreciation for the medium to young moviegoers and a revitalization of film adoration to long-time cinephiles.
Tarantino has received more accolades as a writer than as a director, for his iconic characters and immediately identifiable dialogue rhythm stand out as his most individually unique trait. This is perfectly understandable and totally warranted, but it should be said that his talents as a director are equally spectacular. He continually pulls off magic tricks of blending genres and tones that should never work together, but somehow do. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call his films comedies, yet they rack up serious tension and even tackle heavy subject matter without straying too far into darkness, and it always works like a charm. He can even do over-the-top B-movie genre flicks like Kill Bill and give them an unforced emotional backdrop with well-rounded characters that rise above the self-aware ludicrousness of their universe, and at no point do these wildly different tones clash in any negative way.
He is also amazingly consistent, with not one of his films being less than great. He started off with a bang (lots of them) with Reservoir Dogs before making one of the most influential films of the modern age, Pulp Fiction. Nothing more can be said here that hasn’t been said a thousand times about this wheel-reinventing classic, which helped pave the way for independent cinema to have a new life, spawning a whole lot of eager copycats.
He then made the underappreciated Jackie Brown followed by a seven-year break leading to the aforementioned Kill Bill films, wherein his directorial talents exploded off the screen.
Many would argue that Death Proof was a subpar effort compared to the rest, but even that embraced its grindhouse genre with panache, and contained one of the best car chases ever put on film. His masterpiece of the current century was Inglourious Basterds, a World War II epic doing the best job of utilizing his riveting dialogue to build up to insanely satisfying payoffs of action in short bursts.
Then his buddy-comedy-slash-slavery-drama Django Unchained began his official foray into westerns, bringing us to his most recent chamber piece The Hateful Eight, which showed QT heading back to a smaller scale to focus entirely on atmosphere through character interactions – something in which he has always excelled. Now that’s a damn impressive filmography if there ever was one.
Lately, the writer/director has been doing research on the 1970s, possibly in preparation for an upcoming project. It is always such an exciting process to follow when he is trying to decide what genre and time period to put the Tarantino spin on next, and it is even more fun to see which cast members he revives from older films and which stars he paints in a new light.
His work always revs up so much anticipation that it’s hard not to give him this #1 spot. Many of the directors on the list utilize the combination of sight and sound to provide what could accurately be described as a taste of cinema, and Quentin consistently serves up a full-course meal.
Author Bio: Ryan Jamison is a first-year film student from Vancouver, Canada who loves to watch, discuss and make films. Right now, he works at a movie theater, but in the long term he aspires to become a writer/director on a more public level.