5. Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire – 2008
There is something irrepressible about Danny Boyle’s work; a “Lust for Life,” to quote the surging soundtrack of “Trainspotting,” featuring Iggy Pop’s 1977 song. Flitting from genre to genre, each of his films is alive with possibility. From the opening sprint from the law in “Trainspotting” to the Bollywood dance number closing “Slumdog Millionaire,” these are movies that really move. Even “127 Hours,” the true-life tale of a man with his arm stuck under a rock, has an overcaffeinated energy all its own.
Brought up in a working class Irish Catholic household in Radcliffe, Lancashire, Boyle saw Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and found himself “sandblasted by the power of cinema,” as he told journalist Robert K. Elder. He directed theatre for the Royal Shakespeare Company, among others, and produced Alan Clarke’s short “Elephant” (1989) before embarking on his own in TV and film. “Shallow Grave” is a vicious little tale of flatmates fighting over a windfall, but it showcased Boyle’s largesse, especially when they start spending.
“Trainspotting” turned Irvine Welsh’s novel of Edinburgh heroin addicts into an amphetamine-infused Britpop masterpiece. Whether lovers on the run in “A Life Less Ordinary,” restless travellers in “The Beach” or sprinting “zombies” in “28 Days Later,” Boyle’s characters refuse to sit still — even the gentle “Millions” becomes a race against time for two schoolboys who stumble upon a fortune. No wonder Boyle disliked making the gorgeous “Sunshine,” a tribute to the lite-giving qualities of light; the locked-down sci-fi setting proved too restrictive for his roving camera.
With “Slumdog Millionaire,” the rags-to-riches tale of a Mumbai orphan on a high-stakes TV quiz show, Boyle hit the Oscar jackpot: the film was nominated for 10 Oscars and won eight, including Best Director. Criticised by some for what was seen as its heavily Westernised view of India, it nonetheless enjoyed massive worldwide success, grossing $2.2 million on its opening weekend in China alone.
Boyle kept up the momentum with “127 Hours,” nominated for six Academy Awards. and then headed back to Blighty to make “Trance” (2013), a psycho-thriller that travels at several times the speed of sense. Perhaps he works best when he is at the centre of the maelstrom, like the character in “Sunshine” who relaxes amid crashing, computer-generated seas, reasoning, “the waves make me feel peaceful.”
4. Ron Howard – A Beautiful Mind – 2001
An actor/director born into an acting family, Ron Howard found success at an early age; he was tutored at Desilu Studios in his younger years. At age six he was cast as young Opie Taylor in the sitcom The Andy Griffith Show,” and as someone born and raised outside of the United States this is all theory to me. The first time I became aware of him was as teenager Richie Cunningham in “Happy Days.”
He was still acting in “Happy Days” when he made his directorial debut with the 1977 low budget comedy/action film “Grand Theft Auto.” He got some experience directing TV movies and his big theatrical break came in 1982 with “Night Shift,” starring Michael Keaton, Shelley Long and Henry Winkler.
This has been followed by 25 films which nearly everybody will have seen at least some of – “Splash,” “Cocoon,” “Willow,” “Backdraft” and “The Da Vinci Code,” to name a few. He also has a knack of taking a subject which has a well known ending but still manages to have you leaning forward and wondering how things are going to turn out – “Apollo 13,” “Cinderella Man,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Rush,” and to a certain extent, “A Beautiful Mind.”
Personally speaking, I would have given him the win for at least three of his other films before I gave it for “A Beautiful Mind,” and I am looking forward to seeing how he tackles the upcoming, as yet untitled, Young Han project.
3. Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman – 2014 & The Revenant – 2015
No matter where in the world he makes movies, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work has a hectic, randomly hewn rhythm that evokes Mexico City, his hometown. Juggling interconnected tales of happenstance and fate, he not only keeps all the balls in the air, but he does so with style to spare.
After working his way across Europe and Africa as a teenager, Iñárritu became a radio DJ, where he must have learned to balance all kinds of contrasting voices, then station director. He created his own production company and made his first feature, “Amores Perros,” in partnership with scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who penned all of the so-called Death Trilogy.
Beginning with a car crash, this Scorsese-esque drama about illegal dogfights showed different lives clattering together and was a critical and commercial success. “21 Grams,” another look at the spiralling consequences of an accident, transplanted the action to the United States and featured big name actors such as Sean Penn and even bigger themes such as parenthood, addiction and guilt.
“Babel” travelled further afield, setting its stories in Morocco, Mexico, the United States and Japan, across three continents and in four languages. “Biutiful,” Iñárritu’s first solo effort, is calmer and more focused than the films he made with Arriaga. Praised for its melancholy poetry, the film nonetheless had some critics complaining that Iñárritu was stuck in an unrelentingly grim rut. This is to miss, however, the unexpectedly gracious ending.
Black comedy “Birdman,” the tale of a washed-up actor played by Michael Keaton, who’s haunted by his role as a blockbuster superhero many decades earlier, may be his most frenetic work yet. A behind-the-scenes expose of Broadway madness, it captures the backstage chaos with a roving camera that barely ever seems to cut, so the whole thing feels impossibly like it is being shot live. How’s that for hectic?
Which brings us to “The Revenant.” Iñárritu revisits the issues and concerns of intense parental and filial relations, which audiences of his previous films readily recognise as a recurrent theme in his previous work. Others have compared it to the works of James Fenimore Cooper. Regardless, it is quite the epic and deserved its success.
2. Joel and Ethan Coen – No Country For Old Men – 2007
Roderick Jaynes, the Coen brothers’ loyal editor, was nominated for Oscars for both “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” The kicker? He doesn’t exist. Ignore the credits: Joel and Ethan write, direct, produce and edit their own films. Jaynes is just another example of how these arch contrarians have sneaked into the Hollywood hierarchy without compromising their quirks – or their mystique.
Ever since childhood, when Joel raised money to buy a camera by mowing the lawns of suburban Minneapolis, the Coens have trod a seemingly random trail to the top. Their 1984 debut “Blood Simple” was a gritty noir. Next came wacky comedy “Raising Arizona.” A gangster film in “Miller’s Crossing.” “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski,” both comedies with a twist. Unlikely remakes such as “True Grit” and “The Ladykillers” rub shoulders with ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a Depression-era bluegrass musical based on Homer’s “The Odyssey.” There is no telling what they are going to do next.
The Coens’ characters must feel the same way. Whether luckless antiheroes or lovable losers, they find themselves on wild goose chases, ending back where they began, like Oscar Isaac’s folk singer in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Try as they might, they can’t escape destiny — as unforgettably embodied by Javier Bardem’s hideously coiffed, coin-tossing assassin in “No Country for Old Men.” Theirs are chaotic, amoral worlds.
To keep us guessing, the brothers are happy to leave plot threads dangling. “The Big Lebowski” makes mention of a huge bowling contest that never happens; major characters in “No Country for Old Men” meet their (presumably messy) fates off screen; and who knows what becomes of the ransom money so bitterly fought for in “Fargo”? One of the most infamous Coen tricks was to introduce the events of “Fargo” as “based on a true story” when they are not in the least. But it is just another way of saying “we’re not going to give you what you expect, but something better.” Jaynes, you imagine, would approve.
1. Roman Polanski – The Pianist – 2002
I’ll be honest, I’ve been a fan of Polanski’s movies for more than 40 years. He’s the first person made me aware of being a director and what a director does and how he can shape a film. It started with “Dance of the Vampires,” went on to “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown,” “The Ninth Gate,” “Frantic,” and I could keep going on.
He has lived a life very much in the spotlight, for good or ill. Born in Paris to Polish parents, the family moved to Kraków prior to World War II. Although self-professed agnostics, his parents were sent to concentration camps; his mother was sent to Auschwitz. The 10-year-old Polanski adopted the name Romek Wilk and went to live with Catholic families for awhile before roaming the countryside, fending for himself.
He attended the State Film School in Todz, making a number of short films beginning with the uncompleted “Rower” (“The Bicycle”). His feature length début “Nóż W Wodzie” (“Knife in the Water”) brought him international recognition and he went on to work in London, Paris and Los Angeles on such films as “Repulsion,” “Cul de Sac,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and “Tess.”
A traumatic life that includes his internment in a German concentration camp, the early death of his mother and the horrifying murder of his second wife, Sharon Tate, has been reflected in his artistic concern with alienation, individual isolation and the understanding of evil.