Being a film director, especially an influential one, is a feat only a chosen few can achieve. But what makes a director truly great? Without a doubt, every director has a different style and approach to filmmaking, often pioneering new techniques and points of view.
The following directors have almost no common standpoints, with each one introducing his own style, thus solidifying his place in cinema history.
However, they all have one thing in common. A keen eye, one could say a fetish as well, for detail, whether it is a set packed to the brim with tiny objects to make the movie more alive and pulsating, an obsession with cinematography and framing, or any other seemingly insignificant detail one may not even notice.
Every single one of these directors is a master in their own way, whether they make a big budget movie, an indie flick or a low budget one.
10. David Fincher
David Fincher is the only representative of big budget Hollywood movies on this list, and for good reason. His reputation precedes him as he is notoriously demanding and difficult to work with. The result, however, is always the same. No matter how weak or filled with plot holes a scenario can be, in terms of directing, his movies always thrive.
The main reason he earned a spot on this list is because he refuses to comply with the Hollywood mass producing generic film philosophy. Fincher always utilizes his sets, actors and screenplays to the fullest. In an industry where people like Michael Bay basically destroy the magic of cinema, only caring for the big bucks, it is a true consolation that artists like Fincher still exist.
The film genres he specializes in, crime thriller and mystery, all have a very distinct approach. They are violent, gritty and complex, while not being over the top and gratuitous. But most importantly, they are mesmerizing, dragging the viewer into a dark and ominous world where the protagonists are not always what they seem and the hunter often becomes the prey.
His means of achieving this is his obsession with detail.
A prime example of his directorial genius is his second feature film, “Seven” (1995). In this film, two detectives are on the trail of a psychotic killer who murders his victims according to the seven deadly sins. The world Fincher created in this film, although realistic, is truly nightmarish.
The murder scenes are perfectly designed, either by using practical effects or decoration. Every new murder scene, although grotesque, is as utterly hypnotic as the world surrounding them. Detail, however, is not just sets and props. Fincher puts a lot of emphasis on his characters’ development by inserting small and subtle details that are gradually revealed through dialogue.
Although “Seven” uses carefully constructed characters as well, the film that utilizes this approach to the max is arguably “Fight Club” (1999). The film may be well known today for its violent imagery and anarchic nature, but in reality, it is a study of the human psyche.
So many details are introduced about the two protagonists and their relationship that the ending truly comes as a surprise. Yet if someone rewatches the film, having the ending in mind, they will surely observe all these small details that imply the outcome.
Fincher is without a doubt one of the best directors Hollywood has to offer. The main reason his filmography is so small (10 feature films in 26 years) is his obsession with detail and perfection, and perfection needs time.
Recommended films where one can admire his virtuosity: “Seven” (1995), “Fight Club” (1999), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008)
9. Sergio Leone
One of the most influential pioneers of cinema, Sergio Leone could easily brag that he invented the Spaghetti Western genre. How many directors have introduced a new genre in the industry, hands down? However, Leone’s style and filmmaking is so much more than just Spaghetti Westerns. His attention to detail, unconventional framing, extreme close ups, atmosphere and glorification of outlaws in a unique way were the tip of the iceberg concerning his style.
Though he is mostly well known through his so-called “Dollars Trilogy,” his legacy goes far beyond it. Sure, “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and especially “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) are absolute classics, but “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) and most of all, “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) are invaluable treasures of cinema that every cinephile should cherish.
“Once Upon a Time in the West,” which was shot on a higher budget than his Dollars Trilogy, provided Leone with the necessary equipment, money and time to visualize his idea of the Wild West. Sadly, the film was butchered by Paramount in post-production and eventually flopped at the box office. But seriously, who cares? The movie is a masterpiece. It is a trip through the Wild West, with cowboys, sheriffs, thieves robbing trains, desolate dry plains, and so much more that are taken for granted today.
One should understand, however, that these stereotypes were solidified by Leone through his trilogy and especially this movie. Such is the amount of detail and creativity he invested in them. When talking about detail, one should simply look at a random scene from the movie. He will quickly notice that nothing on set is randomly put. A creaking door, a hanging pot shaking from the wind, the now classic hay passing through, a ton of extras, and entire railways are just some examples of his magic.
Not to mention his manipulation of sound, as well as silence, that builds atmosphere in a way no one could. Ennio Morricone’s scores were simply breathtaking and the performances were on the spot. His extreme close-up zoom to the face technique that followed even a simple drop of sweat is now classic. One simply doesn’t forget the introduction of Charles Bronson’s character in the movie.
But his actual magnum opus is without a doubt “Once Upon a Time in America.” A film he was so passionate about, he devoted 10 years into its production and even refused to direct “The Godfather” (1972) in order to finish it. The result is simply out of this world. The amount of detail in this movie, whether it is cited on the sets and props, characters, sound design, film score or anything else, is matched by none.
No other movie in the history of cinema has recreated an era so vividly. The cars, the buildings, the drain pipes, the clothes, the guns and so on, are not mere tools of reimagining. It is as if they interact with the characters, creating the atmosphere and setting the tone of the film.
This is not a gangster movie. It is a story about child love, friendship and purity, trying to survive in a world of violence, greed and immense poverty. It is a quintessential movie experience that reminds us all why we love cinema that much.
It is almost funny that a director with a relatively small career, with only seven movies under his belt, managed to achieve what others never will. His passion, attention to detail and imagination are the reasons his name will always shine bright in cinema history.
Recommended films where one can admire his virtuosity: “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) (first and foremost), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)
8. Bela Tarr
Bela Tarr never considered himself a filmmaker, as he never wanted to become one; he would rather be a philosopher. He always thought he was something else, something unexplainable. And in a sense, he is right. His work is so original and unconventional that one could never categorize (or confine) them in a genre.
For the mainstream audience or someone who doesn’t know his film style, his movies are downright unwatchable. Their runtime often exceeds three hours, with his magnum opus being a whopping seven and a half hours, and uses long uninterrupted, unedited camera work.
Yet he is one of the directors who fully understands the power of image. His films, stripped of structured scenarios, basically return to the roots of cinema in the late 18th and early 19th century, where image thrived. Image has an immense power which is often hidden or diminished by scenario, character building and plot progression. Tarr’s cinematic approach is the other side of the coin of Kurosawa’s approach, who insisted that everything begin with the scenario.
Different approach, same results, as they both created masterpieces of unparalleled beauty with deep philosophical meanings. Tarr wanted to induce a different feeling with every long uninterrupted take, so he decorated his every frame or tracking shot with little details, resulting in an awe-inspiring result. Every frame, every shot feels more like a painting than a separate scene from a movie.
A great example would be the whale scene from a masterwork of his filmography, “Werckmeister Harmonies.” This scene in particular is not overly complex nor does it cram in an abundance of different details, yet it is so heart-stirringly affecting that one cannot help but wonder how and why it was made. Everything seen on set were set with great care, in perfect harmony (puns) with the marvelous film score.
The scene is a cogitation on death and aging, as the aging man encounters the dead whale, yet it so subtle that one could miss the point. Tarr uses the image of an dead whale to contemplate on existence that induces awe, fear and sadness all together. All that through a single tracking shot.
His aforementioned magnum opus, “Satantango” (1994), is packed to the brim with examples of his cinematic genius. His attention to detail isn’t noticed through object crammed scenes; his obsession with details is revealed through other means, like his brilliant manipulation of lighting. He illuminates or deprives a scene of light with great ease, manipulating at the same time the mood and emotions of the viewer.
A long, unedited shot in order to be filmed in its entirety perfectly needs an insane amount of attention to every trivial aspect that could interrupt the shooting. This is especially hard to achieve in landscape and outdoor shots where everything is unpredictable. “Satantango” has such scenes aplenty. Using light, weather and natural landscape to your benefit, after finding the right spot, is a feat only a few may bring to fruition. Yet when such a scene is shot correctly, it is pure cinematic magic.
“Satantango” is a very difficult film to dissect in a small paragraph. It is an experience, a journey. It is not an easy watch by any means, but it surely is life changing.
Recommended films where one can admire his virtuosity: “Satantango” (1994), “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000), “Damnation” (1988), “Almanac of Fall” (1984)
7. Godfrey Reggio
This is another prime example of a director who chooses to speak and make a point through images alone. Godfrey Reggio chooses documentary as his primary genre, and frankly he exceeds in it in every imaginable way.
The main themes he explores in his movies are the relationship between environment and technology, nature and man, as well as the fragile balance between them. He always addressees his themes with immense beauty, poetic imagery, unbelievable film scores by his frequent collaborator Philip Glass, and a lot of detailed and sophisticated contradictions.
The themes he explores might sound cliché or preachy by today’s standards, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Take, for example, the first part of his ”Qatsi” trilogy, which is arguably his greatest achievement, “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983).
“Koyaanisqatsi,” his breakthrough movie, tackles the ever-relevant theme of urbanization and technological advancements against environment. Of course, there are an abundance of movies dealing with environmental destruction and the abuse of human authority, but Reggio goes further. He chooses a non-preachy, narration absent documentation of factual events.
At first it seems as though he observes the course of the earth with a clinical detachment, simply showing destruction unfold. Yet after a few minutes of adjustment in his distinct style, the viewer starts to realize that in fact he puts great emphasis in his images, navigating gracefully through over-dramatization.
The detail in Reggio’s case lies in the selection of places filmed, precision in documentation of events so that the film won’t feel too long, careful editing, and the use of Glass’ mystagogic film score. His images are equally beautiful and gut-wrenching as they depict an never-ending cycle of death and rebirth.
Through contradictions, like showing a sky blackened by the chimneys of a factory, and a pure, untouched landscape, he is not just referring to natural destruction but dehumanization as well. He shows, through images, that humans might as well lose themselves completely in technology.
Quoting Reggio himself: “Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so we are no longer conscious of its presence.” As the movie title suggests, it means “life out of balance,” as the film is a struggle. A struggle between balance and the deterioration of life. All of these philosophical and seminal thoughts are told through details that speak louder than words.
No one has achieved such emotional impact and reached cinematic legacy through documentation like Reggio did. The choice of Godfrey Reggio as an entry to this list was a no brainer. Often documentation is treated as something “non-cinematic” or devoid of emotion.
We are so lucky that Reggio’s obsession with detailed imagery and visual narration exists, pioneering a film style that glorifies the power of image and music.
Recommended films where one can admire his virtuosity: “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), “Powaqqatsi” (1988), “Visitors” (2013)
6. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Chinese cinema (along with Hong Kong and Taiwan) has a tradition when it comes to attention to detail and visually stimulating movies. Great directors who are pretty well known in the West, like Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee, as well as lesser-known but equally important directors like King Hu and Zhuangzhuang Tian, have created movies that are cornerstones of Chinese and Asian cinema in general. However, one director who doesn’t get much credit for his incredible contribution to cinema is Hou Hsiao-hsien.
He is proof that minimalism can go side by side with obscene attention to detail, although they sound contradictory at first. The first things that comes to mind if the topic is about detailed movies are overly fancy clothing, crammed rooms etc. This is not the case here. Hou, much like Bela Tarr, uses extremely long and steady takes, capturing the feeling of characters or the atmosphere of the setting. A common trope in Chinese and generally Asian cinema is the use of natural landscape as an emotion-inducing ‘tool.’ Of course, one cannot call nature a tool, but this is exactly what it feels like.
A grand example is Hou’s latest movie “The Assassin” (2015). A period piece of immense beauty with equally great character and plot building.
Hou’s style is the exact opposite of Zhang’s fast-paced choreographed movies.
The comparison is not entirely relevant as this movie is not an action movie packed to the brim with fighting scenes, nor does it use color the way Zhang does. He chose instead to make a rather spontaneous film with non-skilled fighters, providing a sense of genuineness.
His minimalistic choreographies and detail in which emotions are narrated are what makes the film special. Sadly it did not have the appeal or success it deserved.
Another very touching, heartwarming movie that is a great example of his style is “Flight of the Red Balloon” (2007). The setting is transferred to a city, but the effect of his takes induces the same emotions as if he had chosen a rural, natural setting. This is why this film was preferred over his most famous movies like “Flowers of Shanghai” (1998) and “Three Times” (2005).
The purpose was to show the contradiction between his settings, which are a major part of Hou’s artistic style. He manipulates his settings, using their details as if he created them himself. Every corner of the movie hides a secret ready to be discovered, and every detail matters. A few directors manipulate space like he does and even fewer do it with such grace and emotion.
Recommended films where one can admire his virtuosity: “A City of Sadness” (1989), “Flight of the Red Balloon” (2007), “Flowers of Shanghai” (1998)