5. Andrei Tarkovsky
Since the days of Eisenstein and the Montage Theorists of the 20s, Russian Cinema has always sat at the forefront of cinematic innovation. The films to come out of the great nation, both during and after the reign of the Soviet Union manage to maintain this sublime level of poetic quality for nearly a century.
Among the great and underrated names to emerge from Russia, from the radical works of Eisenstein and Vertov, to the more haunting oeuvre of Parajanov and Sokurov, there is one filmmaker who will certainly stand the test of time as an unadulterated genius, and for good reason. His name is Andrei Tarkovsky.
A Tarkovsky film is unlike anything you would ever see in cinema. Gone are the conventions and rules of how a film is made. Texture, feeling and poeticism stands tall over secondary elements like narrative and pace. His films are a masterclass in creating imagery. Though it is almost certain your first experience with a Tarkovsky film would be a confusing one, regardless of your experience with arthouse cinema, the emotions to be had is undeniable.
From the image of paint flowing down a stream, to a barn burning in the rain. To incite so much from an audience through what is essentially nothing is the work of a genius.
A genius that, if you were to soldier through his inaccessible craft, has days of material that deserves to be studied for a much longer time.
4. Stanley Kubrick
Unarguably greatest filmmaker of all time, Kubrick’s addition to this list, or any list honoring notable directors in history is almost mandatory. Kubrick has made his mark in almost every genre imaginable. 2001: A Space Odyssey redefined the landscape of sci-fi, Paths of Glory defied expectations of what a war film is, Barry Lyndon captured the unadulterated beauty to be found in a period piece, Dr. Strangelove handled comedy unlike any other film. And the list of his greatness goes on and on.
Following his first few flops, there has not been a single Kubrick film that isn’t a masterpiece. There’s so much to learn from his extensive filmography to the point where the amount of genius that flows from his work becomes overwhelming.
Kubrick doesn’t have any explicit and fixed approach when it comes to filmmaking. He adapts to the material he’s tackling and strives for perfection and no less. That is the greatest thing to take away from when it comes to understanding the work of Kubrick, the need to be perfect regardless of the circumstances.
The countless innovations in his work and the immersive worlds built quite frankly, come secondary to the very idea of Kubrick to begin with. The overarching presence that looms over the 4 decades of masterpieces. There’s a reason why Kubrick is considered the greatest, is his mentality towards filmmaking, not for his style, because there is none.
3. Orson Welles
A looming cinematic God among men whose presence rivals that of Kubrick himself, Orson Welles frankly isn’t discussed as much as Kubrick is beyond his magnum opus, Citizen Kane.
What Welles achieved with Kane is what any filmmaker can only fathom of doing in their careers, however long and innovative they might seem to be. And Welles did it with his directorial debut, changing the strict rules that bound Hollywood filmmaking during the era, stealing elements from any film he saw and created a perfect piece of art that exhibits everything right about cinema.
With that being said, Welles’s genius did not end with Kane. He continued to revolutionize the landscape of cinema, going beyond Kubrick to experiment with more challenging genres like documentary filmmaking, film noir and even honest adaptations of grandiose works of literature that outwardly seem unadaptable.
Welles was a juggernaut. His very presence oozes an inexplicable sense of charisma that the very notion of meeting him alone, let alone being directed by him, is overwhelming to think about. The mark he left not only on the world of cinema, but the world in general is massive and undeniable. Film form is a constantly evolving medium and Welles was perhaps the greatest driving force of this school of thought.
2. Jean-Luc Godard
We speak of filmmakers like Welles and Kubrick, virtuosos of cinema with an effortless foothold over film form, constantly reinventing and innovating what we know to be a film. With that being said, there is one filmmaker that sees cinema not as an art form to challenge, but as a playground to do whatever he pleases. He doesn’t reinvent film, he vandalizes.
Godard is a terrorist. He tears film form apart into fragments. Fragments that, when put together, no matter how incoherent they may outwardly seem, miraculously still constitute a work of art. He dares to experiment with techniques like the jump cut, embracing the supposed flaws that come along with these radical practices, managing to find gold where everyone else saw nothing but garbage.
Beyond his subversions, Godard’s sense for storytelling and narrative is incredible. He knows when to break and violate cinema and when to honor it, and his stories and performance certainly does. His characters are relatable and spellbinding, qualities that shine even through Godard’s explosive approach to film.
Though Godard is certainly not on the same level of notability as most of the other filmmakers on this list, his boldness certainly surpasses anyone out there. And he remained the biggest and greatest artist-terrorist in cinema even up until today after the era of Dogme filmmaking.
1. Akira Kurosawa
Despite their mark on cinematic history, mainstream filmmakers are often overlooked in terms of their cinematic genius, overshadowed by the towering figures of the arthouse. Nevertheless, entertainment cinema is an art form regardless and one of the pioneers of the medium should certainly be recognized.
Though Akira Kurosawa certainly didn’t invent anything revolutionary with regards to film form, his interpretation of the conventions of modern filmmaking is nothing short of masterful. Seven Samurai took the very Western concepts of a Hero’s Journey, making the formula his own with the very Eastern epic that inspired countless generations of filmmakers.
Kurosawa’s boundless influence certainly doesn’t end with action cinema. His films truly blur the line between entertainment and art, the term “boring” or “slow” is something that cannot be applied to describing a Kurosawa film. They provoke thought with their sublime imagery, they engage with their compelling plots and interesting characters, they enrich with their honest representation of Japanese history. They may not be as brilliant as a Kubrick or a Hitchcock picture, but the extensive amount of knowledge, ranging from takeaways with regards to film form, storytelling and even culture is unmatchable.
No one else in the history of film, other than Kurosawa can truly nurture an entire generation of budding filmmakers to become completely film literate and passionate individuals through nothing but their filmography alone. This is film school channeled through the medium of cinema alone, without any need to work on a film set or attend a lecture.