6. Martin Scorsese (1942), Conscience of the Cinematic Arts
A cinephile who perfects and protects the cinematic art.
No living American filmmaker today has been as iconic and influential for the cinematic art form as Martin Scorsese. His background has always played a role in his films, be it through his Catholic and Italian-American roots or his understanding of working-class New York as the backdrop of many of his character-driven stories.
After graduation he debuted with Who´s That Knocking at My Door, an intimate romantic drama. Though unpolished, the film showed great potential and won critics over. He got hired by Roger Corman to direct the low-budget Boxcar Bertha, arguably his weakest effort, but – viewed within the boundaries of the exploitation film – a good mood piece with effective direction of his actors.
In 1973, Mean Streets confirmed his potential as the next great filmmaker, with ingredients that became his trademark: stories about guilt and redemption, incredibly powerful performances by the cast, swinging camerawork, great use of popular songs and effective editing.
And ever since, he delivers unforgettable stories that shape the way films are made. The great unreliable first person narrative of Taxi Driver, the intensity of high contrast editing in Raging Bull, the disturbing and yet completely exhilarating look at mob life in Goodfellas, the enthralling biographical portrayal in The Aviator, the magical adventures of Hugo and the satirical take on greed in The Wolf of Wall Street.
The longevity and intensity of a career that has produced so many masterpieces and wildly fascinating character studies has outshined those of his New-Hollywood buddies Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and De Palma. His close collaboration with Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio is the stuff of legends and proves his status as the quintessential filmmaker every actor, or any other crew member for that matter, dreams working with. His instinct for utilizing soundtracks has extended to excellent musical documentaries.
In addition to working on new films at 76, Scorsese – a cinephile of the highest order – has committed his life to the study and preservation of film. By doing so, he seals his legacy as protector of the cinematic arts and remains the most influential living film director.
7. Alfonso Cuarón (1961), Amigo of Adversity
A multi-talented artist who put Mexico on the cinematic map.
Alfonso Cuarón started making films while studying philosophy. Handling the camera, doing the sound, and being assistant-director he learned the process. This variety of jobs combined with a natural interest in stories about overcoming adversity, was the beginning of the formation of a great filmmaker.
His feature debut Sólo con Tu Pareja is an off-beat romantic comedy he produced and co-wrote with his brother Carlos. It was his first collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki who grew into one of the most decorated and respected cinematographers of his time, famous for shooting films for Cuarón, Iñárritu and Malick.
The writer-director put magic realism on screen beautifully in the enchanting fairy tale A Little Princess. Great Expectations taught him what happened when he did not exercise control over a mediocre screenplay, although he still managed to make an endearing romance out of it.
Returning to his home country, he wrote Y Tu Mamá También. The energetic look at two teens on a discovery with an older woman struck a nerve in Mexico and abroad, overwhelming audiences and becoming a cult phenomenon. He took a chance on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – the third instalment of the much beloved franchise – and successfully captured the essence of the book.
His knack for crafting independent dramas while also doing exciting blockbusters became his trademark. It allowed him to make Children of Men, an adaptation about bringing life in a chaotic world. The philosophical resonance of its dystopian story and the virtuoso long takes make for a gripping viewing experience. Gravity further revolutionized camerawork and set the bar for any space movie.
In typical fashion, he returned with his most personal story, a black-and-white telling of his Mexican birthplace in ’71-’72. As producer, writer-director, cinematographer and editor, he exercised unprecedented control and created a beautiful and unique drama. It once again features terrific long takes, symbolizing a unity of time and space through its characters. Confident with arthouse and commercial fare, Alfonso Cuarón continues to push the boundaries of film.
8. Denis Villeneuve (1967), Orchestrator of Tension
A master of evoking suspense through his characters.
The French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve became an established writer-director in Canada and France after winning multiple best director and best picture awards for his romantic drama August 32nd on Earth, Maelstrom – a drama with comedy and fantasy elements that was selected at many film festivals – and Polytechnique, a dramatization of the Montreal Massacre. An astonishing accomplishment for a filmmaker who was still shaping his form to receive such recognition.
He returned with Incendies, an adaptation of a play about twins traveling to the Middle East to uncover a mystery surrounding their mother. Watching the story unfold is an overwhelming emotional experience; its deeply disturbing storyline is delicately written, beautifully shot, and masterfully directed. The film was a festival favourite and showed his visual brilliancy to global audiences.
It gave him the opportunity to work with Hollywood actors, which he did in the crime thriller Prisoners. The story is again a display of Villeneuve’s ability to play with the audience’s anticipation, inducing incredible performances from its cast and weaving it all together through superb camerawork. It was his first collaboration with master cinematographer Roger Deakins and the duo managed to capture visual tension in later works as well.
Enemy is an underrated gem that deserves repeated viewings. Sicario is Villeneuve doing action, with carefully constructed cat-and-mouse sequences. He broke new grounds with the sci-fi story Arrival, a stunning introspective take on communication wrapped in an affecting tale.
Afterwards, he directed the sequel to one of the most influential sci-fi films ever made: Blade Runner 2049. This endeavour shows a tremendous respect, confidence and talent, because it could have gone wrong for so many reasons. An epic film in every sense of the word, it has been lauded as not only a worthy continuation of its original storyline thanks to returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher, but an impressive piece of filmmaking that explores the human and mechanical side of life and pushes the visual possibilities of the genre. Denis Villeneuve’s films never cease to impress.
9. Paul Thomas Anderson (1970), American Auteur
A creator of original and intensely acted visual stories.
Virtually born in the movie industry, Paul Thomas Anderson became infatuated with film. He prepared a storyline around the adult entertainment industry based in the San Fernando Valley where he spent most of his life. It developed in what became his second film: Boogie Nights.
An ambitious piece of filmmaking, heavily influenced by Scorsese and Altman, in which he created a specific world with a stylistic bravura that speaks volumes about this talent. He learned from the distribution debacle of his debut feature – the convincing neo-noir Sydney/Hard Eight – and became determined to keep a hand in all essential phases of production. Boogie Nights was a confident departure and became an instant classic with endlessly fascinating characters, harrowing and funny. It paved the way for several of his actors to future stardom.
His passion for interconnected storylines became more apparent in the puzzle that is Magnolia. An intricate web of stories that, although perhaps a little over-ambitious, induced incredible performances of its cast and was mesmerizing compared to the works of his contemporaries. It was refreshing to see Anderson shift his focus outside of his comfort zone to create a whimsical little romance called Punch-Drunk Love.
He again outdid himself in what is perhaps his most audacious film to date: There Will Be Blood. The story about the Californian oil boom features Daniel Day-Lewis in a tour-de-force performance.
Staying committed to filming on celluloid, Anderson beautifully shot The Master on 70 mm bringing outstanding performances from his actors Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman with whom he had collaborated many times before. He usually writes his own material, but he chose to adapt a novel for a second time with Inherent Vice. A feast with its funny characters and seventies setting, it proved to be a delicious, messy and peculiar story.
His most recent film Phantom Thread is a gorgeous tale of love through destruction and brilliantly captures Day-Lewis at the nexus of perfection and madness. By forging a career out of only a handful of carefully crafted works, Anderson oozes the dedication of a true auteur. He keeps challenging audiences with exciting and original character studies that bring powerhouse performances from his stellar cast.
10. Asghar Farhadi (1972), Iranian Puppet Master
A filmmaker who exposes society through its relationships.
The last filmmaker on this list, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has always been drawn to constructing microcosms of relationships between people. His talent lies in the way he sets up a tableau of fascinating characters in closed environments – within one location or a specific culture – leading to dramatic conflicts. He shines a light on perceived differences in the most subtle of ways, as a man who knows how to tell a story without preaching.
His first three features Dancing in the Dust – about life after a divorce – Beautiful City – about forgiveness – and Fireworks Wednesday – about a domestic dispute – all won prizes at international film festivals. His next film About Elly tackles honour, lies and grief, and carefully reveals the tension within a terrific ensemble of actors. It’s a clever example of withholding story information, and works as an effective drama but also as an exposé of Iranian culture.
He pushed this even further in A Seperation and created an intimate and moving character study that on one hand is tense and sharp, and on the other hand is morally complex. The film uncovered how classes, gender, and religion are interlinked, and it won Iran´s first-ever Academy Award. With his film The Past, Farhadi moves to France where he is equally convincing in plotting relationships and hidden truths.
The Salesman, which shares similar themes from his earlier films, is another beautiful instance of a dramatic disbalance in realistic situations. His latest work Everybody Knows is set in Spain with the familiarity of family troubles. Although the story lacks the anticipation and intricacy of his earlier work, he is capable to bring together great actors and create an engaging drama.
Farhadi is keen on expressing empathy, without picking sides and telling what is right or wrong. His stories present the complexities of daily life, and are a type of social realism that connects rather than divides people. A quality that not only makes for the best storytelling, but also solidifies his status as a profoundly human filmmaker.