8. Michelangelo Antonioni
Achingly poetic and yet charged with erotic possibility, the films of legendary Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (1912–2007) contain a slow-burn and deliberate langor to them that stands as testament to his great breadth as an artist.
Perhaps best known for his impactful “trilogy on modernity and its discontents”––L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962)––other unforgettable films from Antonioni include his color-washed tale of alienation in the modern world, The Red Desert (1964), his Swinging London in the 60s takedown thriller Blow Up (1966), his kinky counterculture mindfuck Zabriskie Point (1970), and his terrific arthouse identity thriller that’s actually a commentary on post-colonial Africa in disguise, The Passenger (1975).
A confident filmmaker who never shied from controversy or from deliberately confusing his fans, many of Antonioni’s best works often starred Monica Vitti, and almost all his works, in one form or another, tackled modern malaise, surefire satiety and ennui. His image as an existential exemplar would have a huge impact on filmmakers like Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch, amongst others.
So painterly and precise was Antonioni’s canvas-like symmetry in his films, that he elevated pop art to high art, and he made it look easy.
The images of ingenious architecture and awesome nature, as in the menace of the looming Stromboli volcano in the unforgettable closing frame of L’Avventura, appears overblown, imposing itself allegorically unto the characters and unto us. Forever.
7. F. W. Murnau
The preeminent figure in Expressionist cinema, legendary German-born filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888–1931) altered the face of film for the better in a prolific but sadly short-lived career (Murnau died from trauma sustained in a car crash at the age of 42).
His best known film, though certainly not his only influential masterpiece, was the 1922 horror film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. A landmark vampire film and one of the silent era’s greatest achievements, this film, as Time Out’s Tom Huddleston accurately points out, “So this is it: ground zero, the birth of horror cinema.”
So much of the common vernacular of cinematic language was authored by Murnau. Where Nosferatu’s persistent atmosphere of dread made the template for so many fright films to follow, his 1926 adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, which would also be his last film in Germany (along with many of his countryman’s finest filmmakers, post-WWI/pre-WWII Germany was a dangerous place, America and specifically Hollywood offered not just asylum, but continued filmmaking in a cutting-edge arena), was another Expressionistic marvel for the ages. The sequence showing the giant, winged figure of Mephisto moving over a town and bringing plague with him, is one of German film’s most celebrated sequences.
Once established in Hollywood, Murnau came out swinging in 1926 with Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. This timeless, fairytale-like love story is regularly cited and widely considered by film critics and historians as one of the greatest films ever made.
And what makes Sunrise so stunning? It expands on the Expressionism Murnau established in his earlier film, presenting massive, stunningly surreal sets, and contains groundbreaking cinematography (by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) that still seems miraculous today, close to a hundred years later.
The lengthy and muscular tracking shots, for instance, astonish, as does the use of forced perspective in the eye-poppingly propelling cityscapes. So much of Sunrise you soak in with the eyes but feel in the gut. German Expressionism found a new home in Hollywood, and generations of filmmakers would articulate and invent in the warm waters of Murnau’s wake.
6. Nicolas Roeg
Erratic, unpredictable, and entirely original, London born filmmaker Nicolas Roeg (wh0 turns 90 this year) is a dangerous and daring visionary, and one of cinema’s most far-out intellectuals. Censors-be-damned, Roeg has never shirked from adult themes, explicit sex, elliptical hubris (where would Todd Haynes, Gaspar Noé, or Christopher Nolan be without him?), and coolly indifferent personal statements in his gorgeously lensed films.
“Fierce, uncompromising, iconoclastic, dazzlingly original, [Roeg] is British film’s Picasso,” raved Danny Boyle of his cinematic hero, the man who Pauline Kael accurately appraised as “a chillingly chic director.”
Early on in his career Roeg worked as David Lean’s second-unit cinematographer for his masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and this was followed by other illustrious gigs, including cinematography for François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966).
And while Fahrenheit 451 remains one of Truffaut’s most underrated works, it combined elements of horror and oppression which certainly would lend itself well to Roeg’s later works as director (as well as introducing him to Julie Christie, who would co-star in Don’t Look Now ).
Roeg’s signature stratagems for his best films –– and look no further than his quintessential horror masterwork Don’t Look Now –– involve a narrative laxity, at once complex, intense and subtle, with a slow pull of movement analogous to his first two films as director, the visually forward Performance (1970) and the mesmeric Walkabout (1971), each with a teasingly askew chronology.
Other great and notable works in his CV include the cult sci-fi masterpiece The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), his psychosexual thriller Bad Timing (1980), the Klondike Gold Rush-era whodunnit Eureka (1983), the far-reaching chamber piece Insignificance (1985), and the surreal Roald Dahl adaptation children’s fantasy The Witches (1990).
With Roeg at the reins the journey promises danger, provocation, and haunting imagery to last a lifetime.
5. Andrei Tarkovsky
“Tarkovsky is for me the greatest,” said Ingmar Bergman, “the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986) was a Soviet filmmaker, a master and a mystic who only let us with seven films––his career was cut short by cancer, which he succumbed to at age 54.
Tarkovsky’s seven films, each a masterpiece, include Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), Mirror (1975), Stalker (1979), and The Sacrifice (1986).
Tarkovsky’s cinema is one powerfully potent apocalyptic poetry, of moral, religious, and spiritual questing, and one populated with breathtaking feats of technical skill. Long takes and tracking shots seem to last forever, muted colors and artfully expressive monochrome treat the viewer to unforgettable imagery and dreamy landscapes lost to brume and ruin.
4. Wong Kar-wai
Hong Kong’s highly-stylized auteur Wong Kar-wai is an arthouse sensualist who has, over the years, assembled a wide-ranging collection of films that rank as some of the most gorgeous, melancholic, and swooning of films. Often obsessed with ideas of fading memory and aching regret, there’s a Proust-like mist that spurs his very specific and very beautiful body of work.
Amongst his most beloved and masterful films are Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), 2046 (2004) and The Grandmaster (2013) but for many, his most succinct and esteemed work is 2000’s In the Mood for Love.
The use of color, texture, and light is integral to all of Wong’s work, but In the Mood for Love also adds the perfect, or perhaps pluperfect agony and ecstasy of close-lipped affection, conjuring memory and misgiving in a Hong Kong of the 1960s. The film centers on two neighbors (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) living in a close quarters tenement house, who rightly suspect their respective spouses are having an affair.
A painful poetry and sad resignation haunt the pair of potential sweethearts, elegantly framed by Wong’s frequent collaborator, superstar cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
The period details are precise and never perfunctory—the cheong-san dresses adorned by Cheung are heart-stirring in detail and design—the color saturation and play of light is heavenly, as is the use of music which conveys and captures an unfeigned nostalgia.
The bright colors and unconventional compositions that Wong’s name became synonymous with in the 1990s and beyond, are here with In the Mood for Love faultlessly fulfilled. It’s a film that renders on an intimate scale the intersection of misery and euphoria, of romance in retrospect, and makes it into cinema’s saddest song of love lost to history from one of the medium’s most eloquent of troubadours.
3. Alfred Hitchcock
All through his prolific and long-lasting career (a career spanning six decades from the silent era to the “talkies” of today and numbering a staggering 54 feature films), Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) was being constantly innovative and giving audiences astonishing, ingenious, and original tableaus to marvel and puzzle over again and again.
Take for instance, one of his most celebrated films, Vertigo (1958). Misunderstood when it was first released, and marvelously ahead of its time, we finally caught up with it a few decades down the road and so much about this movie must be said.
Here we will be brief but take for instance the chimeric use of color––has green ever depicted desolation and jealousy more succinctly? And narrative leaps aside (Vertigo takes many of those, of course) ol’ Hitch eschews what 1950’s audiences would expect from a suspense thriller narrative, and the rich color spectrum visited upon the film adds surreal layers that caught audiences utterly off guard.
Perhaps Martin Scorsese put it best; “Whole books could be written about so many individual aspects of Vertigo––its extraordinary visual precision, which cuts like a razor to the soul of its characters; it’s many mysteries and moments of subtle poetry; its unsettling and exquisite use of color; and its extraordinary performances…”
Of course Vertigo is but one example, the dazzling visuals of say, Rear Window (1954) is another gob-smacking work of genius. The apartment building and adjoining courtyard set is a visual feast, but let’s go back further into Hitch’s CV; Rope (1948) is a single-take experiment that visually impresses for that very reason; Notorious (1946) is one of Hitch’s most romantic films (the two-and-a-half-minute makeout session between stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman blew audiences away back in the day), it’s also elegantly filmed with an elaborate tracking shot that’s been imitated by lesser filmmakers ever since and to this very day; Spellbound (1945) is lesser Hitchcock anyway you slice it, but the dream sequences he filmed in collaboration with surrealist superstar artist Salvador Dalí redeem all of the film’s shortcomings; Foreign Correspondent (1940) was an airplane crash that’s captured in a single take that remains breathtaking to this day; Rebecca (1940) is a ravishly photographed Gothic romance that radiates beauty in ever frame.
Truth be told, we could play this game all night and marvel over Hitch’s sumptuous early British films, and we still haven’t touched upon the other bewitchingly beautiful films he did with Grace Kelly (like his 3-D experiment Dial M for Murder  or the French Riviera-set stunner, To Catch a Thief ), or his universally adored and recognized masterworks like North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964) or his often overlooked late career tour de force, Frenzy (1972).
Wait, this write-up was going to be brief, wasn’t it? In summation, Hitchcock’s career was punctuated with haunting, radiant, and seductive imagery at every turn. Your summer assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to see all of his films. And go!
2. Kenji Mizoguchi
Arguably the greatest filmmaker to come from Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi’s (1898–1956) legacy lays partially in his influential mise-en-scène and love of the long take. But that’s not all. “[Mizoguchi’s] films have an extraordinary force and purity,” writes Mizoguchi biographer Mark Le Fanu, “[his films] shake and move the viewer by the power, refinement and compassion with which they confront human suffering.”
The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) is one of Mizoguchi’s most beautiful and eloquent films. Long tracking shots (often lasting up to six minutes) follow understated scenes of intense emotion, where tears fall with raw intensity that had The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm succinctly writing: “If Mizoguchi was the poet of women, he was also the poet of houses, rooms, landscape and urban vistas. His period detail and sumptuous camera style lent his stories a fantastic naturalism, heightened by an almost musical editing style.”
Other notable films from Mizoguchi include The Life of Oharu (1952), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), but he is perhaps best remembered for Ugetsu (1954).
His crowning achievement, Ugetsu is one of the most beautiful and evocative films of all time. Heralded by film critic Donald Richie as “one of the most perfect movies in the history of Japanese cinema” such high praise is a foregone conclusion for this film and for its maker. “Mizoguchi’s style was constructed around flowing, poetic camera movement,” wrote Roger Ebert. To view Ugetsu is to bare witness to one of cinema’s masters; elaborate, panoramic, long-take shots are frequent, and far-reaching, and add to the film’s dizzying fantastic elements.
Jean-Luc Godard may have summed it up best when he said that Mizoguchi was “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers. Or, quite simply, one of the greatest of filmmakers.”
1. Terrence Malick
“Enigmatic”, “polarizing”, and “reclusive” are all words that have been used to describe the Texas-born auteur, Terrence Malick. Emerging from the New Hollywood wave of American filmmakers of the mid-to-late 1960s to the early 1980s, other words regularly used to describe Malick would include “transcendental poet”, “uncompromising”, and “nonconformist”, too.
In a career that now spans five decades, Malick’s features include Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The Tree of Life (2011), and Song to Song (2017). All of Malick’s films share a prevalent natural beauty, sumptuous camerawork (his favorite cinematographer to work with is Emmanuel Lubezki), and a rapturous, even religious-like awe and reverence for the natural world.
His admirers are often not your casual moviegoer, more the arthouse enthusiast, and if Malick is to your liking, it’s truly mesmerizing to be swept up in the careful cosmologies he constructs. A film like Days of Heaven, for instance, is truly a work of artifice.
Utilizing two cinematographers (Néstor Almendros, Haskell Wexler) and inspired by the light, stillness and textures of Andrew Wyeth’s oil paintings and shot almost entirely during “magic hour”––at great effort for all involved––the results were ravishing. Through rolling fields of tall grass the indivisibility of man, nature, and even God amounts to something not unlike cinematic ecstacy.
Perhaps his greatest film to date, and certainly his most visually inspiring, is The Tree of Life. An achingly beautiful cinematic poem on love, life, and being, Malick’s ravishing, philosophical powerplay is an unforgettable experimental epic that deservedly received the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
“A mad and magnificent film,” raved The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, also praising Malick’s artful vision as an “unashamedly epic reflection on love and loss.”
There are those who label Malick’s work, particularly his post-hiatus work made after the 1970s, as pretentious, and lazy critics have even deemed some of his work to be “boring”, and to such cynics I can only shake my head. Sure, The Tree of Life is the very definition of an art film (so are all of Malick’s films, really), but it’s also one of the most gorgeous and moving treatise on modern man that you’re likely to find.
And in the tradition of American homegrown romantics like Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, artists who, like Malick, were not fully appreciated or understood in their time, he remains ahead of us all, innovative, understanding, and forever looking forward.
Malick makes films that are deeply spiritual and deeply personal, where poetic grandeur and overwhelming natural beauty combine with an exalted purpose. He’s an artist and a visionary who manufactures, almost as if by magic, films that aren’t just gorgeous, but are also monumental sensory encounters.
Maren Ade, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kenneth Anger, Andrea Arnold, Darren Aronofsky, Mario Bava, Busby Berkeley, Bernardo Bertolucci, Anna Biller, Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Alfonso Cuarón, Brian De Palma, Guillermo del Toro, Claire Denis, Andrew Dominik, Jess Franco, Georges Franju, Alexei Gherman, Jonathan Glazer, Luca Guadagnino, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, Masaki Kobayashi, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, Charles Laughton, Chris Marker, Tsai Ming-liang, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Max Ophüls, Yasujirō Ozu, Roman Polanski, Carol Reed, Kelly Reichardt, George Romero, Martin Scorsese, Tarsem Singh, Douglas Sirk, Josef von Sternberg, Lars von Trier, Julie Taymor, Agnès Varda, Denis Villeneuve, Orson Welles, Wim Wenders, James Whale, Billy Wilder.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.