5. Aki Kaurismäki
Finland’s greatest export, Kaurismäki makes films that are instantly recognisable as his. Usually set in a world of 50s cultural signifiers, his deadpan style masks a deep wellspring of feeling. He may be a strange pick for this list seeming as in one movie the main character kills her entire family, but its due to Kaurismäki’s style that his sense of empathy shines through.
Hidden behind the endless smoking, straight-forward vocal deliveries and unemotional characters is a playful sense of affection for his creations. Additionally, his last two films, the first two of the still to be finished Port Trilogy, have established Kaurismäki as an essential voice of kindness in a divided and hate-filled world.
For example, his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, is a great example of this. Telling the story of a refugee arriving in Finland, he isn’t afraid to show the darker side of trying to make a life in a new city, but ultimately shows the importance of being kind and welcome to migrants. But with only two films created in this decade alone, it might be a long while before we get the final film in the planned trilogy.
4. Vittorio De Sica
The Napoli-born Vittorio De Sica put Italian cinema on the map, combining with Rossellini to create a new genre of cinema in the process. Believing that studio-led films were inauthentic in depicting Italian life as it really was, De Sica pioneered the neorealist movement. They loved to film on location and tell simple and strong stories. De Sica’s most enduring film is Bicycle Thieves, which is regularly considered as one of the best films ever made. It tells the tale of a man who gets his bicycle stolen and tries to get it back with his son. The end result is a highly charged emotional experience, with a strong moral lesson.
After Bicycle Thieves, De Sica continued to make great films, including the brilliant Umberto D., about a poor man trying to stay in his flat. He wasn’t initially appreciated for these movies in his native country, as his vision of the impoverished nation was too realistic. However, he has been reappraised in the decades since for the love of humanity that shines through all of his films.
3. Francois Truffaut
Film critic turned film maestro, Francois Truffaut turned his theories about movies into a successful career directing them. His debut film — The 400 Blows — is considered one of the best first films ever. It tells, with extraordinary humanity, the story of a boy growing up and the struggles that he has at school.
It is at times a heartbreaking story, as Truffaut depicts the boy trying to do the right thing but constantly getting in trouble — finally ending on a freeze frame, which was very innovative at the time. He would go on to work with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud for a further five films, repeatedly checking into how his life is going, something that surely had an influence on Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy and Boyhood.
In addition, Truffaut reinvented the sweeping love story with Jules et Jim. Using voiceover and quick editing to condense the story and make it more affecting, it set the template for the modern romcom. He also made one of the best movies-about-movies, Day For Night, where the story behind the scenes of making a film shows that movie stars have the same hang-ups and insecurities as you and me.
2. Yasujiro Ozu
Ozu is the gentlest of all filmmakers with an instantly recognisable style that is inseparable from his worldview. What he pioneered was the “tatami shot,” whereby the camera would be placed at a low height to meet the eye of someone sitting on a tatami mat. Almost always using static shots, the way Ozu composes each scene is pure poetry in motion. It perfectly complements the themes of his movies, which are usually about family, love, and the difficulties of human relationships. Their messages sneak up on the viewer with complete open-hearted simplicity. Many are tearjerkers, but without any scintilla of sentimentality.
Tokyo Story is his best film, a deeply heartbreaking tale of an old couple who travel to Tokyo in order to visit their family, only to find out that they have no time for them. Likewise, An Autumn Afternoon gives a career-best performance out his star Chishû Ryû as an old man trying to arrange his daughter’s wedding. The worldview is perhaps a little pessimistic, but his honesty towards the human condition is unparalleled. He would make the same kind of film over and over again, even with similar sounding titles, but each one creates a miniature world of its own. He is one of cinema’s greatest treasures.
1. Jean Renoir
Renoir may have made movies in a variety of different genres, but his firm belief in the dignity of humanity in the face of strife remains consistent throughout. Over the span of his career, which included both the silent and the sound era, Jean Renoir made over 40 films, a good chunk of which are considered as masterpieces.
As other filmmakers were mostly just telling stories in the 30s in studios, Renoir, inspired by the naturalism of L’Atalante, preferred to shoot on location. His films are based on the French tradition of naturalism as seen in the novels of Zola. Like Zola, who he adapted for La Bête Humaine, he had a high attention to detail which worked to expose what he perceived as injustices in society.
Le Grande Illusion, his most important film, is a good example of this; telling the stories of French soldiers trying to maintain their dignity at a prisoner of war camp. It would be two years however until he made his greatest film — The Rules of The Game — which mixes high and low comedy with incredible ease, creating an experience that makes the viewer both laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. Not many other filmmakers can do that!
Author Bio: Redmond Bacon is a professional film writer and amateur musician from London. Currently based in Berlin (Brexit), most of his waking hours are spent around either watching, discussing, or thinking about movies. Sometimes he reads a book.