Let’s take a moment to praise ten film-makers whose work is really worth a watch. And the winner is… all of them.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Anderson has a knack of making apocalyptic events like the plague of frogs in his 1999 film Magnolia feel intimate and personal, and smaller moments (Daniel Plainview buying the Sunday Ranch in There Will Be Blood (2007) apocalyptic.
He also directed Punch Drunk Love (2002), one of Adam Sandler’s few critically-lauded films, which tells you all you need to know about his talent for getting the best out of his actors.
Dorothy Arzner was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America, directed more studio films than any other woman in history, and launched the careers of such stars as Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball.
The ways in which Arzner challenged the male gaze in films such as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Craig’s Wife (1936), long before the phrase had ever been coined, are significant not just from a filmmaking perspective but also a historical one.
Bigelow has shown she can master almost any genre, from vampire-western Near Dark (1987) and seminal action-thriller Point Break (1991), to more thought-provoking efforts such as Zero Dark Thirty (2012), detailing the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and Detroit (2017), about the 1967 Detroit riots.
It was 2009’s The Hurt Locker, though, that brought her the greatest critical acclaim. Juggling the suspense of a blockbuster war film with the stylings and objectivity of a documentary, it explored the idea of soldiers growing so accustomed to conflict they can no longer feel at home in peace.
Friedkin never fails to bring a sense of mystery and menace to his environments when required, from the ancient city of Hatra in The Exorcist (1973), to the badlands of New Mexico in Sorcerer (1977) – even the more familiar streets of New York in The French Connection (1971).
His films are equally known for causing controversy: The Exorcist for using possible subliminal imagery (as well as explicit language and copious vomiting); and Cruising (1980) being accused of inciting homophobic violence.
Herzog is as driven as many of his characters. His 1982 film Fitzcarraldo portrays a businessman trying to haul a 300-ton steamboat over a hill in the Amazon jungle. To achieve this without special effects, Herzog and his crew had to carry out this feat – as well as manage the filming of it.
His dedication to authenticity also saw him hand the lead role in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) to Bruno Schleinstein, a musician who had never acted and spent much of his childhood in mental institutions. This created a character who seemed truly out of place, and led to Bruno taking the lead role in Herzog’s Stroszek (1997).
His scripts may often be an acquired taste (see Sean Penn’s perfume ad-worthy ramblings in The Tree of Life (2011), which detract from an otherwise beautifully edited family drama), but there’s no doubting Malick’s determination to innovate filmmaking both technically and narratively.
In particular, his 1998 film The Thin Red Line provided an antidote for the political bombast of previous war films, with a philosophical tone that muses on nature and interconnectedness, while featuring keenly crafted moments of action.
From the alienation and other-worldliness of Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), to the soul-searching self-discipline of Nostalghia (1983), many of Tarkovsky’s films were immersive dreamscapes, requiring time and patience to enjoy.
Noted for his painstaking attention to detail, particularly through long-held shots of characters and objects, Tarkovsky’s techniques are still used by many Western directors today. Scenes from Stalker were even used as the backdrop for the cinema sequence in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017).
Starring the likes of Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy, the release of 2016’s Free-Fire suggests Wheatley, for years one of the UK’s most promising directors, has made it to the big time.
At its expressionistic best, like this scene from A Field in England (2013), his work creates the sense that something unspeakably dark is occurring beneath the surface. However, he can also marry this darkness to humour with great effect, most notably in 2012’s Sightseers.
Kubrick doesn’t require justification to appear on any list of top directors. His best known films are not only technical masterpieces – they have informed popular culture itself, his most iconic scenes, quotes and characters frequently being referenced and parodied.
The ten-minute journey through the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Jack Torrance’s manic typing in The Shining (1980); Alex’s conditioning in A Clockwork Orange (1971); the first thing that goes through your head when I mention Spartacus (1960). Kubrick’s work didn’t just change the art of filmmaking – it invaded our shared consciousness and resculpted it forever.
Anderson’s films have something of the fairy tale about them. There’s always peril – sometimes even death – but meticulously colour-coded sets, larger-than-life characters, eccentric cuts and wipes, and occasional switches between live action and animation, lend his films the semblance of moving picture books.
There are many to recommend, but my own picks would be Moonrise Kingdom (2012), its coming-of-age story a perfect fit for Anderson’s style, and Rushmore (1998), featuring Jason Schwartzman in an (undeservedly) rare leading role.
By Gareth Long, MA Creative Writing
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