Sunday, May 07, 2017

My Dozen Favorite Directors

Eons ago, I started two-thirds of a project about my dozen personal favorite actors and actresses.  I had intended at the time to do my dozen favorite directors, but life got in the way, as did my ability to rank directors.  The reality is that movie stars, and actors, quite frequently you see the best and leave the rest behind, but with directors it's different.  After all, with fine "auteur"-style directors, you get some of their most interesting pictures on the lists of films that aren't as prevalent.  Additionally, I find that comparing director to director in terms of overall careers is extremely challenging.  Do I pick a director like Federico Fellini with a distinctive style, or do I go with someone consistent with less of a visible imprint like William Wyler?  Elia Kazan made two of my all-time favorite movies, but the rest of his filmography I'm just ambivalent toward.  John Huston is one of the most consistent major directors of his era, but I never really loved one of his pictures even if I admire all of them.

So this is even more subjective to my whims today than the other two lists were, and on another day Fellini, Wyler, Kazan, Huston, along with Kurosawa, Cameron, Truffaut, Reed, Preminger, Frankenheimer, Miyazaki, Lee (Spike or Ang), Bertolucci, Polanski, Almodovar, Coppola (Francis or Sofia), Campion, Lumet, Haneke, Capra, Stevens, or Woody Allen may well have made the list (in fact, listed all together I feel like a crazy person discarding them all, particularly in Woody's case as he was 13th).  But anyway, here are my dozen favorites, in alphabetical order, as of this exact moment in time..  Fight away in the comments.

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Oscar History: 9 nominations/0 wins (Bergman received three citations as a director (the rest as a writer), and won the Thalberg, but somehow never won a competitive Oscar.
First Impressions: I will always remember the first time I saw an Ingmar Bergman movie.  I was 20, and out with a guy named Eric whom I had a crush on (he was a senior, I was a sophomore-it was very chic), and he wanted to go out for ice cream and an old movie house which was playing Wild Strawberries.  I spent the entire night wondering if it was a date (I kind of suspect in hindsight that it was, in which case it was my first with a guy), but was mesmerized by both what was happening off-screen as well as on, as I'd never seen a movie quite like this.
Why the Love: I'm not ranking these directors, but if I'm being honest-Bergman's my favorite, with potentially Kubrick sneaking around the corner.  His movies are wonderfully-specific poems, beautiful odes to cinema and the human experience, in particular our complicated relationship with death as a human species.  Gorgeously shot and felt, I treasure every new Bergman experience I encounter, as it's like experiencing the ocean for the first time.
My Favorite Film: I think I'd have to go with The Seventh Seal.  I genuinely love every Bergman movie I've seen so far, so going with the cliche may seem a bit of a cop-out, but it's so raw and fascinating-the visuals, particularly the knight playing chess with death-it's haunting and still effortlessly fresh.
Missing Piece: There's a few (Bergman made a lot of pictures), though perhaps most egregious is Persona, which I hear is spectacular but somehow has never crossed my path.

Alfonso Cuaron (1961-Present)

Oscar History: 6 nods/2 wins (his two trophies were both for Gravity, for editing and directing, which is to date the only time he's been cited as a director)
First Impressions: This is actually pretty unusual, but the first time I saw one of Cuaron's films, I actually didn't care for it very much.  I was thrilled by the prospect of finally seeing Y Tu Mama Tambien, as it had been celebrated by a film critic I enjoy, and it looked "naughty" and at that point in my life I hadn't really experienced a lot of saucy pictures.  But I wasn't blown away by it, even if I feel like I should revisit as I wonder if I'd like it better on revisit.  It was, indeed, "naughty" (that penultimate scene between Bernal and Luna being a sensational payoff to what the film was building toward), but I was meh until then.  Thankfully, I didn't give up on Cuaron at that point, though, as he eventually paid off in a major way.
Why the Love: Cuaron is a strange beast as he's one of the least prolific directors on this list, and as a result it feels weird to put him here when, say, Wyler or Allen have a much more quantitative filmography (unless you die tragically young, this isn't the case with actors, which is perhaps why it's easier to compare them side-by-side as they work so consistently).  Still, Cuaron can find so much magic in how a film is built (it helps that he's an editor), and the end product is so rich and rewarding, it's impossible not to list him as one of my favorites, even if I desperately wish he'd work more.
My Favorite Film: This is easy-Children of Men is a triumph, one of the finest films ever made, and a wonderful essay on the greatest headlines of the human experience: birth, life, love, and death.  That it wasn't heralded as the monument that it was is still baffling to me in an otherwise lackluster cinematic year.
Missing Piece: A Little Princess, which I can't actually remember if I saw (or if I saw the PBS miniseries, which part of me believes is accurate).  Either way, this is the only major Cuaron film I've never caught.

John Ford (1894-1973)

Oscar History: 6 nods/4 wins (Ford picked up a quartet of Best Director trophies for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man)
First Impressions: Ford has made so many movies I honestly have no idea which one I saw first.  I'm going to guess it was The Grapes of Wrath, a picture I've seen several times and which never loses its potency.  I distinctly remember being in awe of the way that Henry Fonda was filmed (so beautiful in the moonlight), and that marvelous set of final monologues from Fonda (who deserved the Oscar-let's be real here) and Jane Darwell at the end of the picture.  It isn't my type of film, exactly, but every time I see it I'm reminded that genre is only a framing device, and good movies can be made in any such circumstance.
Why the Love: When Ingmar Bergman AND Orson Welles are calling you the greatest director of all-time, you're doing something right.  Ford's films, easily dismissable as westerns or as hokum, have a lot more going on below the surface than meets the eye.  Whether it's the technical virtuosity of The Quiet Man or the lonely indictment on wealth in The Informer or the nasty pessimism of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford's take on the movies are passionate to his vision, artistic, and eminently watchable.  No director before or since has put so much richness and thought into an almost completely commercial set of movies.
My Favorite Film: Oh, The Searchers, surely.  While Ford has made many superb pictures, this stands apart as the greatest.  John Wayne has never been better, and Ford frames this tale of hatred, bigotry, and revenge in such a way that you feel Ethan Edwards for weeks afterwards, realizing truths that both actor and director packed into the film.  That neither was even nominated for an Oscar for such a film is insanity.
Missing Piece: I mean, I've actually seen pretty much every major picture in Ford's career, but he made so many movies there's obviously a number of missing pieces.  Perhaps The Long Voyage Home, the rare Ford Best Picture nominee that I've never caught.

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

Oscar History: 5 nominations/0 wins (though he won the Thalberg, Hitch never actually got a competitive trophy despite five nominations for Best Director)
First Impressions: I'm sure my first impression of Hitchcock was Psycho, initially seeing the famous shower scene repeatedly in clip shows, and then actually catching the movie, and realizing A) that shower scene is ridiculously effective in the movie, and B) it's got a lot of other nearly as perfect scenes.
Why the Love: It's impossible to like the cinema and not like Hitchcock, in my opinion.  The way he moves the camera, the way he indulges the senses (the chills, the women, the music-it's all sensationalistic in the best way).  When he's at his best you forget you're watching a movie and just sort of are transported into what is happening onscreen.  Few directors consistently made such superb pictures and adapted to the times so well as Hitch did-his films of the 1954-1963 era are arguably the most popular, but he made interesting work his entire career.
My Favorite Film: I'd have to say Vertigo, which feels like a cliche (because everyone says Vertigo in a way of avoiding the cliche of everyone saying Psycho), but it's incredible.  Stewart has never been better, truly, and the movie's descent of one man is spellbinding.
Missing Piece: My brother has assured me on multiple occasions that I'm a fool for not having seen Strangers on a Train yet, and I know it's coming up on my Netflix queue so perhaps quite soon I'll correct this?

Richard Linklater (1960-Present)

Oscar History: 5 nominations/0 wins (Linklater has yet to take a trophy, and actually has only one Best Director nomination, for Boyhood)
First Impressions: I didn't grow up quoting Dazed and Confused, and quite frankly my impression of Richard Linklater was hardly impressive until I actually caught one of his movies, Before Sunrise, and was in awe of how masterfully it was filmed and how beautiful the picture before me was.
Why the Love: Linklater's an odd director to adore, and the newest addition to this list in terms of my viewing him, but I always seem to find something new to admire about his work, and how naturalistic the writing is.  Though he lacks the stylistic visual cues that made Bergman famous, the way he focuses the camera on a group of actors and waits until something magical happens is remarkable.  I am still getting to know his filmography, but have genuinely loved every single picture of his that I've seen.
My Favorite Film: Before Sunset will probably remain here forever, though I mean it when I said I loved every single picture so far (including the wildly underrated Everybody Wants Some!!!).  But Before Sunset is that rare romantic drama film with a ticking clock where you can't tell if the chief protagonists will realize that they're soulmates in time.  It spoke to me in a big way when I first saw it, and I'm just in awe even still.
Missing Piece: I still haven't actually watched Dazed and Confused, which feels bizarre as it's such a big reason why people recognize his pictures.  It's on the Netflix list, however, so someday it'll happen.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)

Oscar History: 13 nominations/1 win (two shocking things here: one, I never knew that Kubrick won an Oscar for Visual Effects, assuming that he was Oscar-less, but instead that was just for Best Director where he went 0/4, and secondly-the 2001 VFX Oscar wasn't shared with Douglas Trumbull-how'd that happen?)
First Impressions: I was debating quite loudly with myself, and then realized that it was The Shining (if not, I'd have to share a very odd experience about being in the closet and watching Eyes Wide Shut with a very straight man in tenth grade).  I remember being scared and fascinated, and particularly wondering what the hell "here's Johnny" was from (Carson was before my time).
Why the Love: Kubrick films are at once decidedly and completely Kubrick films, and then somehow very different stylistically.  It's hard to imagine that the guy who made Dr. Strangelove also made 2001 and Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange.  His movies are always thought-provoking and interesting-it's impossible not to have a visceral reaction to his pictures, and for me, that usually was a positive thing as his reputation grows personally with me over time (case in point-I hated 2001 the first time I saw it...and now it's on my 100 Favorite Movies list).
My Favorite Film: 2001 may someday get there, but right now it's still A Clockwork Orange, a difficult sit but a shockingly effective, violent picture that feels so bundled with raw energy I spent the entire first time through it sitting on the literal edge of my seat.
Missing Piece: Weirdly I've never seen Full Metal Jacket.  I say weirdly because my first college roommate actually liked this movie, and it was perhaps the only one of his films that I legitimately wanted to see, and somehow I never did.

David Lean (1908-1991)

Oscar History: 11 nominations/2 wins (Lean weirdly enough won both of his trophies for directing, which hasn't been the case so far here for writer-directors, taking trophies for Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia)
First Impressions: Hmm, probably The Bridge on the River Kwai.  My grandfather after his stroke would watch this movie incessantly, so I got to see bits of it all the time.  I remember liking parts, but not really getting it properly until I was much older and could appreciate the "madness" angle of Alec Guiness' haunting work.
Why the Love: Lean's films are that rare combination of big, huge, gargantuan cinema combined with delicate treasures of performances.  It's hard to fathom, after all, the subtle shifts in Peter O'Toole's performance as he drifts into madness amidst the backdrop of the gargantuan Lawrence of Arabia or how beautiful Julie Chrisie's romance is amidst the ice castle wonder of Doctor Zhivago.  I frequently say my favorite films are well-done romantic epics.  When I say that, I'm thinking of Lean.
My Favorite Film: Part of me wants to say Brief Encounter, one of those underrated classics that just gets better with each passing year, but I spent a year of my life in college devoted to Lawrence of Arabia, and so I have to pick that, one of my all-time favorite pictures.
Missing Piece: Here's where we actually get pretty odd, as I've seen virtually everything David Lean has ever directed (even obscure titles like Hobson's Choice or This Happy Breed), so I'll go with In Which We Serve which I hear is wonderful but haven't caught yet.

Terrence Malick (1943-Present)

Oscar History: 3 nominations/0 wins (two nods for directing The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life)
First Impressions: I will never forget my first experience with a Terrence Malick movie.  It was The New World, and to be honest I'd never seen one of his films, or wasn't even familiar with them, and my parents wanted to go because it was about John Smith and Pocahontas, and that sounded fun.  About a third into the film, and we had seen this intense, lush green cinematography but nothing much more than that, my mom reached over and said, "I don't know what's going on," and I said "it's supposed to be artsy," to which she replied "okay" and went back to playing with her Indiglo watch for the remainder of the picture.  Suffice it to say, I haven't taken them to a Malick film since.
Why the Love: Because Malick tackles his films in a way no one else does.  I get sick of all films looking exactly the same or needing the same structure.  When he's at his best, Malick can create something haunting and riveting on the screen.  Yes, he can be indulgent (the sparseness of language in something like Knight of Cups occasionally borders on the frustrating), but when he's on there's literally no director I'd rather sit in a theater and let his movie wash over me in the same way.
My Favorite Film: His Tree of Life is one of my all-time favorite pictures, period, so most assuredly it would be that.  I never don't like a Malick film though, even when other people hate them.
Missing Piece: Somehow I've never caught Badlands through the years, which is so strange considering both my penchant for Malick and what a towering achievement this film is considered (one of those rare classics I've never caught).

Martin Scorsese (1942-Present)

Oscar History: 12 nominations/1 win (I remember standing and applauding when Marty finally took that Oscar for The Departed)
First Impressions: My first impression of Marty was probably GoodFellas.  As he didn't really make children's films prior to 2011 (Hugo being an obvious entry point for younger cinephiles now), it was an edited down version of the film, but I was enthralled initially, particularly by the famous walk through the club and how cute a young Ray Liotta was.
Why the Love: Scorsese's films are an ode to movie-making, and how much he loves to self-reflect and share his love of the cinema onscreen.  You see in his movies a deliberation, someone working through his world artistically and narratively, trying to make sense of his life and religion itself.  Scorsese is a deeply personal filmmakers, but makes universal pictures that anyone can relate toward-that's a pretty impressive achievement.  Plus, who doesn't like Marty?  He's one of my absolute favorite celebrities to hear interviewed.
My Favorite Film: The strange thing about Scorsese is that he's the only director on this list to not have a film on my 100 Favorite Movies list, so I actually had to think on this one.  I suspect it would be Taxi Driver, though.  The film has one of the best performances de Niro ever turned in, and it's shockingly vibrant forty years after it was made.
Missing Piece: This won't be a missing piece for long as literally the disc is on my counter right now, but Mean Streets has somehow eluded me all of these years.  Can't wait to catch what some consider to be his finest work (it might even be tonight).

Steven Spielberg (1946-Present)

Oscar History: 16 nominations/3 wins (two of those trophies for directing Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan...he also won the Thalberg quite early in his career)
First Impressions: Unlike most of these directors, Spielberg makes films that are appropriate for children (and he made them when I was, indeed, a kid).  That being said, I wonder if my first introduction to Spielberg might have been Hook, not one of his finer moments, even though I was enchanted at the time.  I tend to love the Neverland stories, though (PJ Hogan's Peter Pan being the best by a country mile), and particularly Spielberg's ability to world-build (which even in his least pictures, he can succeed in accomplishing).
Why the Love: To grow up when I did and to love cinema is to love Spielberg.  No, he's not always as artistic or challenging as some of the other men on this list, but he is surely the most cinematic, and when he's on is creating an adventure that transcends the movies.  Jaws, ET, Schindler, AI, Minority Report, Raiders of the Lost Ark-the man has more genuine classics than pretty much any other director.
My Favorite Film: While those are all classics, the one that makes me tremble with joy the most is still Jurassic Park.  It's not his most ambitious work (AI) or his tightest (Jaws) or his most moving (Schindler) or even the most inventive world-building (Minority Report), but it is the one where I genuinely have the most fun.  And sometimes the movies should be about the most fun (plus, let's be honest-it's peak popcorn fare).
Missing Piece: Like David Lean, I've seen pretty much everything (I've caught 77% of Spielberg's filmography, missing only 7 pictures).  Of the seven, I'd say that Amistad is the one that's the highest on my "to view"list.

Orson Welles (1915-1985)

Oscar History: 3 nominations/1 win (Welles' only competitive win was for writing Citizen Kane, the film that won him his only directing nomination, though he did win an Honorary Oscar quite late in his career)
First Impressions: It's a weird film to see first of a director (usually there's a more juvenile entry point), but Citizen Kane has to have been my first Welles film, and the first one I think I even saw him act in (give or take an appearance with the Muppets).  I left doubly-impressed (the ending hadn't been ruined for me at that point), and clamoring for more.
Why the Love: It's worth noting that Welles appeared not only on this list, but my actors list as well, the only person to do so despite so many men who have tried their hand successfully at both.  Perhaps this is because Welles the director was so driven and matter-of-fact in the way that he brought his universe to life.  His films are rife with wonderful acting, dialogue, and terrific lighting-Welles never stopped being that young man who took on William Randolph Hearst, at least as a director, continually challenging himself while occasionally selling out his name as a performer.  As a result, we got some of the most original movies of the era from Hollywood's bad boy.
My Favorite Film: Again, cliches be damned-Citizen Kane is, truly, one of the best movies ever made and in an era of Trump, perhaps more appropriate than ever (oh how the mighty fall in trying to recapture something that will never be).  Still, Touch of Evil comes close behind, and is in its own way a masterwork.
Missing Piece: The Other Side of Wind?  Hee hee, but seriously, I'd probably say that if it counts...otherwise maybe Chimes at Midnight?

Billy Wilder (1906-2002)

Oscar History: 21 nominations/6 wins (Wilder pulled off two directing trophies for The Lost Weekend and The several of these men he'd also go on to win the Thalberg Award)
First Impressions: I'm not sure, once again, but my gut says it was The Lost Weekend, which I saw at a relatively young age, and quite frankly, wasn't impressed by it.  Considering the lavish praise for the film at the time (it's a Best Picture winner, after all), I will surely revisit at some point in the future but it's not what you'd consider "in my wheelhouse."
Why the Love: First off, who doesn't love at least one Billy Wilder movie?  I don't think you can call yourself a fan of the cinema and not profess to being head-over-heels for one of his pictures.  They're so damn good.  Wilder isn't really an auteur in the vein of many of these men (I like those guys with a consistent vision), but he consistently wrote and directed some of the cinema's best movies.  That in-itself should warrant a spot on this list, even if he's a less traditional way to end this than, say, Woody Allen or Akira Kurosawa.
My Favorite Film: I love so many of his pictures, but it'd likely be Sunset Boulevard.  Buoyed by a greatest-of-all-time level performance from Gloria Swanson, the movie is a shattering look at how Hollywood worships and then destroys its stars, and the way that we as a larger society treat our elders.  It's a nasty bit of work with some truly biting wordplay.  Absolutely sensational.
Missing Piece: Perhaps The Seven Year Itch?  I've seen all of the A-Pictures in Wilder's filmography, but Monroe at her height would be something I'd like to see, particularly considering he got her best performance out of her in Some Like It Hot.

And there you have it-the long-awaited Directors list!  Weigh in below on whether you agree or disagree, who should be added/deleted, and your favorite films/missing pieces from these twelve men!

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