True humanism in film is a difficult task to master. Most films offer only a surface level look at love and relationships, success and failure. Only the greats can really pierce into those feelings and create a masterpiece. It requires an eye for the small yet profound details that make up a life, and the ability to craft those details into a compelling narrative.
When making a movie — right from starting the screenplay to finishing the final cut — these directors are always thinking about how to put big-hearted emotions at the forefront of their stories. With the wellspring of human experience being basically limitless, their films reflect an endless variety of feelings from all across the world.
To celebrate humanism in film we have crafted a list of who we reckon are the top ten humanist directors around. For the most part, these directors are known for the gentleness of their stories, and the deep insight they have into the human condition.
A lot of the directors here have personal themes that they are obsessed with, with repeated motifs showing up over and over again. Their films aren’t necessarily comic or tragic, but simply observant of how life is truly like. If you believe that we have missed anyone in particular, just sound off in the comments below.
10. Jim Jarmusch
An American hipster who watched too many Ozu films, Jim Jarmusch has always done his own thing. He is the master of the hangout movie, bursting onto the scene with the fantastic Stranger Than Paradise, which is all filmed in static shots, and tells the relationship between a New York guy and his Hungarian cousin who comes to visit him. Its gentle observation of American life and the immigrant experience, as well as the sometimes disappointing nature of holidays, reinvigorated the independent scene in the 1980s.
From there he has told many more quiet and affecting tales of musicians, bartenders, and tourists. He is not so obsessed with plot as in setting up a particular vibe — making his movies feel lived-in and real. His most recent film, Paterson, felt like the culmination of his career and worldview. Starring the made-for-Jarmusch Adam Driver as a poetry writing bus driver in New Jersey, the film transposed the spirit of poet of William Carlos Williams to the big screen. It is a film where not many things happen, but is full of wise observations — showing yet again how Jarmusch can really do so much with so little.
9. Richard Linklater
The laid back Texan-born Richard Linklater makes films that are as chill as they are meaningful. This is the filmmaker’s charm. He asks you to hang out with his characters while slowly sneaking some very profound insights up on you. His greatest achievement is the Before trilogy featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
Starting with a boy asking a girl out on a train to Vienna, the first film simply observes them as they walk and talk and develop a deep attraction for one another. Its amazing the film works as well as it does; Linklater understands his characters so well that we root for them and want them to be happy. He would follow it up with Before Sunset and Before Midnight, thus creating the finest trilogy about love of all time.
Coming a close second to the Before Trilogy is Boyhood. Filmed over 12 years, it is a bildungsroman come alive; all that more affecting because we see the boy grow up in real time. In addition, between more personal projects, Linklater has made broader comedies which are almost as good — School of Rock, Bernie and, of course, Dazed and Confused being particularly great examples.
8. The Dardenne Brothers
The Belgian-based Dardenne Brothers burst onto the international scene with La Promesse in 1996, and have been wowing audiences worldwide ever since. Almost always shooting their films in Belgium, they create naturalist, neorealist-style films about working-class people. They came to this filmmaking approach due to a strong background in documentary filmmaking. They look at the most marginalised in society who are trying to do the right thing, and how circumstances and the world around them got in the way. There are no flashy moves or dishonest scenes here; everything is put there for a reason.
This was particularly exemplified by Two Days, One Night. Featuring a brilliant Oscar-nominated performance by Marion Cotillard, it tells the story of one women trying to convince 16 co-workers not to take a bonus at work so she can keep her job. Without a single sentimental touch, the film is a riveting look at the desperation people go to in order to stay above water. It was their biggest success, garnering Belgium its first ever Oscar nomination.
7. Eric Rohmer
Eric Rohmer films are an acquired taste, but once you start to understand how they work, they can be extremely satisfying to watch. They are quintessentially French; starring good looking people in beautiful locations who like to talk, drink wine and try to seduce each other.
In movies such as Boyfriends and Girlfriends and A Summer’s Tale, Rohmer seemingly writes and directs his characters plights with a spontaneity to match their whims. But make no mistake, the writing is planned to the last hesitation; he’s a brilliant plotter who makes his films appear like they aren’t trying. No one else has ever quite teased out so many nuances from the eternal dance of romance than this man.
As well as understanding romance better than any other filmmaker, Rohmer is a miracle maker who loves to depict delightful coincidences and poignant moments. Who can, once they have seen it, forget the ending of A Winter’s Tale — so simply arranged yet strangely affecting. Likewise, Rohmer’s most profound film, The Green Ray, takes the “summer holiday” genre and turns it into a treatise on what it means to find happiness. In other films, these moments could come across as absurd; in the hands of Eric Rohmer, they become extremely meaningful.
6. Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder was known for having a caustic wit that put his contemporaries to shame. Throughout his films, all anchored by fantastic screenwriting, he depicted the greediness of man across both comedy and drama. The fact that he could do it so well in both genres is only testament to his skill as a writer and director of films.
In his comedies, Wilder mocks the foibles of human nature with a lovable eye; knowing people aren’t perfect but still giving them a chance anyway. He depicts people as naturally greedy, but still deserving of love. The protagonists of The Apartment, for example, are relatable every day workers. We can recognise ourselves in them, and root for them to be successful.
Likewise in dramas, his concern for the plight of others can be seen all the way from the alcoholic tale The Lost Weekend to the courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution. The way that Wilder anchors little details in his plots to structure the film is unparalleled, creating great poignancy in later moments. He was also a great director of actors, coaxing career-best performances out of people like Marilyn Monroe, William Holden and Kirk Douglas.