Wednesday, May 4, 2011

USA! USA! USA! : The Twelve Best American Directors Working Today

To jump on the flag-waving band wagon that seems to be going around right now (for future generations reading this post, it is the Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead! revelry after the recent killing of Public Enemy No. 1 Osama Bin Laden of which I speak) I give you my choices for the best American filmmakers working today.  And please, I whole-heartedly welcome you all to submit your own lists in the comments section.  I would really like to find out who you think is the best.  Here are mine.

1) Quentin Tarantino - This love-him-or-hate-him nouvelle Grindhouse auteur may well be the most derisive director working today.  I hear almost as many people say they despise Tarantino as they say they love him.  I must admit I do not understand all these haters at all.  I suppose if one has delicate sensibilities or if one were to like their cinema light and fluffy with boondoggles and butterfly wings, then perhaps they are taken aback by the in-your-face arrogance of that thing called Tarantino Cinema.  Personally I would (and am doing it right now) boldly state that QT has never made a bad film.  From Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction to Jackie Brown (fuck the naysayers!) to Kill Bill (Volumes 1 and 2) to Death Proof (both Grindhouse and extended versions) to Inglourious Basterds, the man is like a coke-fueled King Midas.  Even the films he wrote without directing (True Romance, From Dusk Til Dawn) or his segments in longer films (Four Rooms, his token scene from Sin City) he is the proverbial Man.  Madman is perhaps a better term, but that makes it even better.  I have been accused on several occasions of being obsessed with QT and in no instance have I ever denied such a thing.  Now Faster, Pussycat! Film! Film! your next movie!!

2) Paul Thomas Anderson - I must admit to having had mixed emotions about Boogie Nights at first (my mind has been greatly expanded since my first viewing and therefore I now quite enjoy a movie I had originally walked out of) but I loved all of PTA's other films at first glance.  The one that put the director over the proverbial top though, was his mind-altering Wellesian, Fordian, Kubrickian (and about a half a dozen other director-labeled descriptives) There Will Be Blood.  A batshitcrazy pseudo-western (based on Sinclair's Oil!) starring an equally batshitcrazy Daniel Day-Lewis (in this critic's not-so-humble opinion, the best living actor in the world), There Will Be Blood is one of those select few films made today that I would have no qualms about calling a masterpiece (a word too often bally-hooed about by folks without much care for what it truly means, but a word that fits perfectly with Anderson's film).  Anderson, like Tarantino, is a true cineaste and it is this love - this rabid desire if you will - for all things cinema is what makes this cineaste love him so much.  His next film will be called The Master, and though it is not an autobiographical biopic, I cannot think of a more appropriate title.

3) Martin Scorsese - Perhaps if this were a list about the seventies or eighties or even nineties (at least the early nineties) Mr. Scorsese would be my number one choice.  But alas, the great master is no longer at his directorial peak.  He is though, certainly still well above many of his generational compatriots.  Lucas and Spielberg have sold out.  Bob Rafelson does TV when he does anything anymore and Bogdanovich is mainly a film historian these days (and a damn good one btw!).  The two Movie Brats (as they were often called) that are still putting out respectable work, Coppola and Allen, may still make good films on occasion (Tetro and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are respective examples) but nothing comparable to their earlier outputs. Scorsese's latest, Shutter Island, though hated by many of my fellow critics (what!!?) is a return of sorts to his daring cinema of thirty+ years ago, and with it helps put the auteur back near the top - after a decade or so of still good but not Scorsese good filmmaking.  Marty (can I call you Marty?) is one of my all-time favourite filmmakers (a quote of his sets proudly atop my blog) and it is this that keeps him so high on this list - even though he is the highest listed director here without a true masterpiece within the last decade (though he has at least five of these earlier in his career).  Hopefully his foray into 3D (he does love experimenting with new technology) with Hugo Cabret will keep this going.

4) David Lynch - The other "old guy" on this list (see Scorsese above for the other, even older guy), Lynch is responsible for the film I name as the best film of the last decade - Mulholland Dr..  Between that and Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet and Lost Highway and Wild at Heart (again, damn the naysayers!) and even Dune - as well as the best fake iphone commercial ever - Lynch is surely a master filmmaker and with his most recent, INLAND EMPIRE (and who doesn't LOVE movies that come in all CAPITALS?) proves that not only is he as batshitcrazy as ever, but is also still in top form.  Never a director to bring the masses together, Lynch is surely an acquired taste (and probably only a taste me and my fellow freaks can thoroughly enjoy) and will probably never get that AFI tribute (though a Friar's Club Roast could be fun) but this just puts him in the same class as directors like Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Bergman.  Not bad company indeed.  Of course one would have to take Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Bergman and ratchet up the insanity about a trillion notches or so (and possibly put a backwards-talking dwarf somewhere in there).

5) Joel & Ethan Coen - Blending a film noir aesthetic with acerbic comic teeth, these Minnesota born brothers have amassed quite an interesting oeuvre since their debut more than twenty-five years ago.  With hectic tales of almost surreal happenings, using many of the same actors over and over and over again (the venn diagram for their casts must be a colourful mess - and here is as close as I could find on the matter), the Coens have created an almost perfect streak of thoroughly enjoyable films (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers had to come and break the streak).  From Blood Simple. to Raising Arizona to Miller's Crossing to Barton Fink to Fargo to Lebowski and O Brother to (skipping a few aforementioned) No Country for Old Men and their more recent less than noirish works (but no less complex) A Simple Man and True Grit - like I said, an almost perfect streak.  Their masterpiece (there's that word again) is No Country - a modern-day western done in pure Coen style, but seemingly ratcheted up to John Ford standards.

6) Wes Anderson - Cool and quirky (and annoyingly beloved by all those hipster doofuses out there - but don't hold that against the man) the other Anderson on this list may not have the deeply inbred creepiness of Lynch, nor the balls-out bravura of Scorsese and PTA, nor the flagrant arrogance of Tarantino, but what he does have is a precise (some might say anal) exactness for absolutely everything in his movies - down to the conch shell in the corner of one of the cabins of the Belefonte to the tweed pattern of Fox's jacket to the choice of wallpaper in Margot Tenenbaums bedroom.  Intricate to the nth degree, Wes has manufactured (and manicured) a series of painstakingly detailed cinematic dioramas all representing (in one way or another) the American semi-estranged family unit. My personal favourite is his obvious ode to J.D. Salinger, The Royal Tenenbaums.  My lovely wife isn't quite as taken with it as I am (saying it rips off Salinger more than it pays homage to him) but I still (and I suppose defiantly so to my wonderful - and usually better-tasted - spouse) herald the film as Anderson's near-masterpiece.

7) Michael Mann - I must preface this entry with the fact that I absolutely loathe Michael Mann's version of The Last of the Mohicans.  Granted, I have only ever seen it once, and as expressed above, I did a 180 on Boogie Nights, so perhaps loathe is a rather strong word, but it is how I feel and I thought you should know that before I begin to praise that very same filmmaker as my seventh favourite.  One of the founding fathers of the seminal 1980's TV show Miami Vice, Mann has made quite a career for himself with such visceral, hard-hitting films as Manhunter (having recognition as the first Hannibal Lecktor movie), Heat (De Niro and Pacino together for the first time - and before you bellyache, the two never had any scenes together in The Godfather Part II), The Insider (Russell Freakin' Crowe before he Gladiator'd out), Collateral (one of the few times I actually liked a Tom Cruise movie), the oft-maligned but quite intense Miami Vice (you can go home again!) and the DV-made Public EnemiesThe Last of the Mohicans a second chance. (Archetypal American mythology through 21st century cinematic technology).  Now I feel like giving

8) Sofia Coppola - No, this is not the affirmative action part of the list (nor is it the nepotism part - her dad isn't even on the list), the young Coppola deserves to be on the list - even if she has made just four films thus far.  Many have maligned Coppola's latest film, Somewhere, and I suppose it is the weakest of her four films, but then critics (myself most certainly not included) have been maligning the lovely and talented Ms. Coppola since pretty much day freakin' one.  Being called a pampered brat and/or spoiled debutante, Coppola has been criticized for basically being the child of celebrity.  This is of course ridiculous and merely critics without any sense maligning someone not for what they do but for who they are.  What she does is make films - good films - maybe even a great film or two.  She has a lyrical beauty to her films - if one can say such a thing without sounding too trite or cliche'd.  Many claim Lost in Translation to be her best work but I would say her follow-up to that Oscar winning picture (she won for Best Screenplay), Marie Antoinette.  A piece of candy-coloured pop art moviemaking (okay, perhaps she does have a debutantish outlook) her extraordinary po-mo biopic is a thing of sheer cinematic beauty.

9) Todd Haynes - The man who once made a (extremely unofficial) biopic of Karen Carpenter using Barbie dolls (sued by both Mattel and the Carpenter estate!) has grown into one of the finest and most mature filmmakers working today - while still managing to keep his youthful exuberance and radical sensibilities.  His Far From Heaven homage to Sirkian filmmaking was a brilliantly subversive piece of cinematic art (and it looked simply good enough to eat).  Safe was both seductive and appalling and Velvet Goldmine was just balls-out brashness.  His finest work so far though is that po-mo work of pure genius and (and I am going to use that wonderfully overplayed word again, but I sincerely mean it) masterpiece of technique, I'm Not There.  To make a biopic about Bob Dylan, with six different actors (one a woman!) playing the modern-day troubadour, and still never once even mentioning the name Bob Dylan - well, it is just fucking brilliant.  Tack onto this, his HBO mini-series of Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet, and you have a sturdy number nine on our list.

10) Darren Aronofsky - One could call his films difficult (and many have) but that is merely a lazy way of saying intriguing.  From his tiny waking moment of pi to his surrealist WTF!? mindgame Requiem for a Dream to his audacious epoch-spanning flop The Fountain (flop or not, it is the director's most daring film to date and should not be shoved aside so carelessly and callously) to his yin yang double fist bump of The Wrestler and Black Swan (Aronofsky claims, perhaps just kiddingly, that these were originally one movie before being split apart at the gender lines)this mustachioed auteur may not be able to claim a masterpiece for himself yet (though The Fountain and Black Swan come closest) I am guessing it is merely a matter of time.

11) David Fincher - The only reason to see the new Hollywood remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (inevitably watered down from the, not great but still sufficiently visceral original) is because David Fincher is directing and we may see a visual orgasm of violence - even if the powers-that-be try to suppress such actions.  Who knows.  What I do know is that between Se7en and Fight Club and Panic Room and Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher is a master craftsman that well deserves to be part of this list.  Fincher's way of using and manipulating a camera (even in evidence back in his days of making Alien movies) is as good as anyone out there - perhaps better than most (even some on this list).

12) Christopher Nolan - Okay, technically Nolan is a Brit, but he has been working in American Cinema for long enough (only the first of his seven - soon to be eight - films was made in his home country) to receive at least some sort of mention on this list - even if it is at the so-called bottom (the bottom of the top so to speak). Perhaps his Inception was a bit superficial at times (and probably a bit too highly regarded by many) but his grand superhero westerns and sleight-of-hand mysteries make for a rather formidable (and quite manly) show of cinematic power.  Perhaps it is only in comparison to such powerful work as Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight that makes Inception appear as a semi-disappointment.  But Brit or not, he stays on this American list.


Steven Soderbergh - The auteur's rather uneven hand (great work like The Limey and Che and the oft-misunderstood Girlfriend Experience is chopped up with lesser things like Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's films) is what stops him from breaking the runner-up barrier.  Still though, a brave, eclectic (and sometimes brilliant) oeuvre is what makes Soderbergh such a dangerous (and I mean that in the most complimentary manner) auteur.

Kelly Reichardt - I loved Old Joy.  I loved Wendy and Lucy.  I have yet to see Meek's Cutoff, but it promises to join the other two in receiving my love.  The reason I do not place Reichardt higher is the simple fact that I have only seen two of her films.  They are both brilliant (Wendy and Lucy is easily one of the best films of the last decade!) but I think I might need more before moving her onto the list proper - a thing I have already allotted a space reserved sign for.

Honourable Mentions (in no particular order):

Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola (they may not be at their peaks anymore but they are still capable of very good cinema); Jim Jarmusch (this Son of Lee Marvin is a visual stylist with a madman's sensibilities - a cool and collected madman, but a madman nonetheless); Richard Linklater (even my great love of Dazed and Confused cannot make me forget some of the director's more recent, and quite uneven fare - nonetheless he should still be counted); Kathryn Bigelow (sort of flying under the radar for many until her somewhat surprising, but completely deserved Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker - beating her ex to boot - has made a series of critically questionable but quite interesting films); Charlie Kauffman (at this point still a one-hit wonder, but what a wonder - and his screenplays aren't bad either); Tim Burton (this freak has made some pretty good-looking movies over the years but his art seems to be trailing off in favour of spectacle these days - still though, he has done enough to muster a mention); Spike Lee (an important director because of race - and lack of other African-American directors doing quality work - but the solid quality direction of Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X give him an importance above race).

Special Jury Award:

Ang Lee - Just as important in his native Taiwan cinema as he is in America, I add Mr. Lee because of his making of three very American (though perhaps with European sensibilities - just to throw in a third continent) movies - The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil and Brokeback Mountain (the first two great films, the third a true American masterpiece).  This Americanization of sorts allows me to at the very least give Mr. Lee a special mention - plus this is my game and I will play it any damn way I wish.


Samuel Wilson said...

A good list. I'd have Scorsese on top for historic achievement with the Coens behind him and ahead of Tarantino. I'd put Fincher higher than you did, but then again I still haven't seen Benjamin Button and I did hate The Game. I suppose I should ask where Terrence Malick is, but I wouldn't necessary have him on a top list, either.

Kevyn Knox said...

To be honest, I completely forget about Malick. He takes so much time to make each film it takes a bit to narrow him down to one time period. At least that is now my excuse for why I did not include him. I should probably do a little revisionist history and put him (retroactively) as another special jury prize.

And you missed nothing with Ben Button. It will only disappoint a true Fincher fan.

Kevyn Knox said...

And as for Scorsese, I kinda played fast and loose with the so-called rules. I place him third due to his no longer being in his prime (though still making strong films) but if I were to list my 10 favourite directors of all-time (regardless of time period and/or nation of origin), he would surely make that list - even though no one else on this list (including the two ahead of him) would be there. Told you - fast and loose baby.