8. Roman Polanski
Despite all the controversies that surround him, very few can deny the impact Roman Polanski have had on modern cinema. Starting with Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, to mid-career Rosemary’s Baby and Tess to the late The Pianist and The Ghost Writer, he has truly known how to reinvent his filmmaking in a career that has lasted more than half a century.
Even though he generally prefers to take smaller, secondary roles when acting in his first movies (such as his memorable participation in Chinatown), he has managed to give the audience quite surprising contrast among his roles in his two most famous leading parts: the clumsy but well-intentioned vampire hunter assistant in The Fearless Vampire Killers and the brooding Kafkaesque Trelkovsky in The Tenant.
7. Kenneth Branagh
Although Kenneth Branagh is probably better known by the general public as an actor, rather than a filmmaker, in films such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Valkyrie or directing more accessible films like Sleuth or Thor, his biggest endeavor on cinema has been his series of adaptations of the work of William Shakespeare. Though Shakespearean stories are not unknown for cinema, there is something special on how passionate Branagh is about The Bard.
Among the play he has adapted and directed, one can find Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love Labours Lost and As You Like It, acting in all of them but the last one.
Of all these films, his most ambitious one can easily be singled out as Hamlet. The film is over four hours long, Branagh, who also plays the title character, used an unabridged version of the text, updated the setting to vaguely resemble the 19th century and shot it in 70 mm, though the movie did not do well in the box office, it is regarded one of the best and most faithful adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.
6. Alejandro Jodorowsky
Beyond simply writing, directing and starring his own films, Jodorowsky manages to amalgamate it into his own life and personality, creating some sort of personal mythology within his metaphysical ideals. The most obvious example would be The Dance of Reality, his latest production, in which his son Brontis plays his own grandfather, but it is present in virtually all his productions.
In El Topo, perhaps his most famous movie, Jodorowsky played the main character, a gunslinger seeking for illumination in a highly-symbolic desert, with his son Brontis playing the son of El Topo. In the first scene, El Topo asks his son to bury one of his toys and a portrait of his mother, signifying his transition to adulthood. In real life, Jodorowsky took the act personally and several years after the movie was done, he asked his son Brontis to dig out something in his father’s backyard: the picture of Brontis’ mother and some toys, with the request for Brontis to enjoy his childhood again.
5. Woody Allen
Perhaps one of the most instantly recognized filmmakers of the United States, the cinematic style of Woody Allen manages to be simple yet unmistakable. Starting his career as a television writer and stand-up comedian in the 50’s and 60’s, he worked on several comedies until finally managing to do 1969’s Take the Money and Run in which Allen would star, direct, produce and write, this film set the foundation of what would be known as the quintessential Woody Allen feature film for many years.
Allen has admitted several times that his acting range is quite limited and that despite the range of some of his productions, especially in the later years, he tends to write his dialogue in his own way of speaking.
Nonetheless, from The Sleeper to Manhattan and from Annie Hall to Radio Days, he managed to develop an amusing, delirious yet down-to-earth persona and crack a joke about Nietzsche or find deep philosophical meanings hidden in The Marx Brothers.
4. Jacques Tati
The movies of Jacques Tati tend to have a curious duality, much like Tati himself. It presented a jolly old France with cobblestone streets crowded with greengrocers and fishmongers and were a candid charm and a childlike sentimentality existed threatened by the bleak, grayish world ruled by machinery, men in suits did their best to make modern society a heartless one.
With films like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, My Uncle and Playtime, Tati demonstrated that there was still place in the world of cinema for silent pantomime and, though at the end of his career he was a victim of his own perfectionism, Tati managed to imbue all of his films in a kind soul and a sharp wit. Some have compared him with Chaplin, and though one can see the resemblance in its social message and comedic style, Tati is, above all, a product of France.
3. Orson Welles
Orson Welles has become the iconic example of the struggle of countless filmmakers, young and old, against the establishment of the film industry, especially during the studio system era of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Regarded as a radio and theater prodigy, Welles was known for groundbreaking productions such as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in a Fascist state and 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, so it was a matter of time until Hollywood came for him.
For his first film, Citizen Kane, Welles was granted complete artistic freedom by RKO and recruited several members of his theater group. For the story, along with Herman Mankiewicz, he wrote a thinly-veiled scathing biography of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
A financial failure in its premiere, it took several years to be vindicated by the critics but the career of Welles was already hurt. His next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was heavily edited by the RKO and although he continued having a long and applauded career, he never had the same freedom and resources he had with Citizen Kane again.
2. Buster Keaton
Along with Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton was one of the great American comedians in the silent era of Hollywood. Although he never achieved the emotional connection the audience developed with Chaplin, he used his acrobatic background and ingenious cinematic techniques to achieve some of the most amazing stunts captured on film, many of them too risky to attempt nowadays.
Though for the making of some of his most memorable feature films, such as The Navigator, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. he always collaborated with scriptwriters and directors, which is no surprise considering how complex production-wise some these films were, but the degree their involvement is so far a matter of dispute.
What is known is this: these films were the zenith of the artistic freedom for Buster Keaton and although he did not received all the credit he deserved, he managed to offer the audience what comedy, evolved to be freed from the constraints of the typical Vaudevillian, could do with a medium such as cinema.
1. Charles Chaplin
While many celebrities from the silent era of Hollywood have faded from the public memory, there is something unique in Charles Chaplin that keeps fascinating people generation after generation. Many factors have contributed to this phenomenon: the universality of his comedy, something he worried would be lost with sound cinema, the simple iconicity of The Tramp character that makes it truly universal and the arduous labor of Chaplin to deliver his best to an audience.
Always a perfectionist who worked hard on polishing every small detail of his artistic input, Chaplin used his music hall experience and celebrity leverage to slowly gain control of his productions and finally co-founding United Artists, managing to be not only an actor but also screenwriter, director, producer, editor and composer of some of his best and most memorable films like The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator, which all became true cinematic pieces of art, Chaplin elevated film comedy to then-unheard standards.
Author Bio: J.E. González is a writer and journalist from Venezuela. With a degree in Social Communications, he has a passion for world culture and narrative arts. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxmordon.