Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Weekly Top Ten: The Best Directors Working Right Now

This week I will do three top ten lists, starting with this one, the top ten directors working right now. This is not a list of the best living directors, but rather what I feel the ten best directors are right now, based solely on their work this decade (if it was a list of the best living directors, my number 2 would be number 1). After this, I will do the ten best actors, and the ten best actresses. This a harde list to make. I cannot believe filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, Michael Mann, Ang Lee, Spike Lee, Fernando Meirelles, Alfonso Cuaron, Judd Apatow, Pedro Almodovar among others did not make the list. But let’s get to the filmmakers that did.

10. Todd Field
Field has only directed two films in his career, but they were both masterworks. His debut was 2001’s In the Bedroom, was the story of a murder whose impact unravels a long standing marriage, between Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. He followed that film up with 2006’s Little Children, about an affair between two bored parents (Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson), and its impact. Both of these films were uncommonly intelligent, perfectly observed movies about seemingly perfect lives, shattered by the actions of the main characters. In the Bedroom was a tighter film, focusing on just a few characters whose lives all change because of one instant. Little Children is a more expansive film, starting with its central couple, and than expanding outward into their world. Field is the best director to make his debut this decade, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

9. Quentin Tarantino
Kill Bill is undoubtedly one of the best films of the decade. Over two films, and four hours, Tarantino fuses his strange obsession with kung fu movies - and just about every other B movie genre in history - into a thrilling action movie, a terrific comedy and a wonderful drama. Sure, some of the film is just Tarantino showing off, but when it’s this much fun, does anyone really care? His only other film so far this decade (with the exception of Inglorious Basterds, which may move him up the list) was his segment of Grindhouse - Death Proof - a wonderful, profane, fun action film about two groups of women who come in contact with serial killer, and car stuntman, Kurt Russell. Sure, Tarantino likes to show off, and his movies are as much about amusing himself as the audience, but I cannot help it - I love the guy’s films.

8. David Lynch
David Lynch has been one of the strangest, most original filmmakers in the world since his debut film, Eraserhead in 1978. In the years that followed, he has never really softened his strangeness, and in fact this decade, he has taken it to new heights. His first film this decade was Mulholland Dr. (2001) is one of the very best films this decade. It is the story of two actresses who embark on solving a mystery, Nancy Drew style, and gradually get sucked deeper into Lynch’s surreal, dream world. The movie made a star out of Naomi Watts and is perhaps the best films of Lynch’s career. In 2006, he followed it up with an even more surreal film, the ever strange Inland Empire, which for three hours spun its strange tale of Hollywood as actress Laura Dern descends further and further into a nightmare. Lynch is an original artist through and through, and I am glad he continues to amaze me with each and every film.

7. Michael Haneke
The Austrian provocateur continues to push buttons of filmgoers around the world with his strange, dark, violent, sexual films where he rubs our noses in the ugliness all around us. In Code Unknown (2000), he weaves together seemingly random events to make a complex tale of moral ambiguity, and gives Juliette Binoche one of her best roles. In The Piano Teacher (2001), he tells the story of a sadomasochistic piano teacher, playing games with one of her students, and gives Isabelle Huppert the role of a lifetime. In Time of the Wolf (2004), the world seems to be coming to an end, and people wait to be saved. In Cache (2005), his best film, strange videos start showing up on the doorstep of an upper class family, calling up memories of a past they wanted to forget. Finally in Funny Games (2008), a remake of one of his own films, he rubs the audience’s nose in their own bloodlust. His most recent film, The White Balloon, won the Palme D’Or this year at Cannes, and is one of my most anticipated films of the year.

6. Steven Spielberg
Spielberg is a director who has been around for 40 years now, but unlike many of the filmmakers from his generation, Spielberg is not content to simply rest on his laurels. This decade has actually been one of the interesting - and prolific - periods of Spielberg’s career. Starting with the visually inventive, supremely intelligent Kubrick collaboration A.I. (2000), moving on to the futuristic Hitchcock film Minority Report (2002) and the supremely fun con man movie (Catch Me If You Can (2002), moving onto the Capra-esque comedy of The Terminal (2004), the great sci-fi remake War of the Worlds (2005) - which was only marred by a bad ending, and undoubtedly Spielberg’s best of the decade (and one of the very best of his career) with Munich (2005), undoubtedly the best film made about the conflict in Israel, and a complex moral puzzle with no answer. The only knock against Spielberg this decade would have to be last year’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is undoubtedly his worst of the decade, and just downright silly, although I must admit, it still is rather fun. That is seven films in 10 years, all of them at least good, and quite a few of them legitimately great. Spielberg is still a master after all these years.

5. David Cronenberg
Cronenberg’s three films this decade all rank among his best films. With Spider (2001), he made what is perhaps the best film ever made about the mind of a schizophrenic. In stark contrast to the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind, Spider offers no such hope of recovery or functionality, as the entire movie is told for the main characters (Ralph Fiennes) point of view as he tries to sort out his mind. It is a brilliant film. His next film, A History of Violence (2005) is perhaps the best film of Cronenberg’s film. A kind of Western, the film tells the story of a seemingly normal family man (Viggo Mortenson) who gets drawn back into the life of crime he has hidden from his small town and thought he left behind. The film is dark, violent, sexual and masterfully well done - it was the best film of that year for me. His most recent film Eastern Promises (2007) was another dark crime drama about the Russian Mafia with another great performance by Viggo Mortenson. Cronenberg, the best director to ever come out of Canada, continues to amaze me.

4. David Fincher
With Seven, The Game and Fight Club, Fincher made a name for himself as one of the best directors to debut in the 1990s. This decade, Fincher has continued to make great films. It started out with Panic Room (2001), which although it was not quite as good as his other films, was still a fine thriller. His best film this decade was undoubtedly Zodiac (2007), perhaps the best films ever made about a serial killer. Fincher’s meticulous attention to detail made Zodiac into a deep, dark film about obsession, that traps the audience with its protagonists with all the info on the killer, and no way out. Last year’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, may have been a romantic drama, but it is far from cheesy. The filmmaking was excellent, excellently merging the special effects with the actors, making Brad Pitt seem to age backwards from his 80s right down to his teenage years. It is also not just a sentimental romance, but a dark film about the inevitability of death. Fincher does everything different than anyone else, and he has already built himself up a great resume. I cannot wait to see what he does next.

3. Joel & Ethan Coen
The Coens have been two of the best filmmakers in the world since the 1980s, and this decade the have made six films - and while two of those films could be considered weaker than most of their efforts, they were still better than most American comedies, and the other four films were masterpieces. The decade started with O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), a wonderful comedy based on Homer’s The Odyssey, about three convicts on the run, that is warped in a way that only the Coens could do. In 2001, they followed it up with The Man Who Wasn’t There, a strange mix of film noir and comedy, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber, who gets drawn deeper and deeper into a plot that involves adultery and murder. Their next two films - starting with Intolerable Cruelty (2003) an amusing screwball comedy with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones and followed by The Ladykillers (2005) a hilarious remake of the classic British film, with Tom Hanks at his demented best - were weaker than many of the Coens films, yet I still laughed more at these two films than 95% of Hollywood comedies. Their next film, 2007’s No Country for Old Men, is undoubtedly their best film this decade, and perhaps their best ever. It is a deep, dark crime thriller with three men - played by Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem - who all circle a large bag full of money. Brolin just wants to keep the money, and make a better life for himself and his wife, Jones is the sheriff who just wants to protect the people in his community and Bardem is the psychopath on Brolin’s trail. It is one of the few films of the decade that I would call perfect. After winning Oscars for Picture, Director and Screenplay among others, the Coens decided to follow it up with Burn After Reading, their best comedy since 1998s The Big Lebowski, the brilliant, misanthropic little poison pill of a movie, featuring one of Brad Pitt’s best performances as a clueless gym employee. The Coens show no signs of slowing down, as they continue to make great films almost every time out.

2. Martin Scorsese
Scorsese is my favorite filmmaker of all time, and this decade after 40 years making movies, he has continued to make one great film after the other. In 2002, he was finally able to get Gangs of New York made after nearly three decades, and ended up making a superb crime thriller and costume drama, with Daniel Day Lewis playing the best villain of the decade in Bill the Butcher. The film had huge ambition, and even if it didn’t quite pull off everything it wanted to, it is still a great film. He followed that one up with 2004’s The Aviator, his excellent Howard Hughes biopic, with Leonardo DiCaprio delivering an amazing performance as the billionaire playboy, slowly brought down by his own obsessions. In 2005, he made the excellent, 4 hour documentary, No Direction Home, which comes as close as anything is ever going to capturing the enigma of Bob Dylan. His best film this decade is undoubtedly The Departed, a great crime thriller with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as two rats on opposite sides of the law, who are drawn in deeper and deeper, until they cannot get out. Easily one of the very best films of the decade, and it finally brought Scorsese the Oscar he has deserved for years. Finally in 2008, he made the wonderful concert documentary Shine a Light, with The Rolling Stones, still full of energy after all these years. The decade is not over yet however, as later this fall, Scorsese directs DiCaprio again in Shutter Island, a period piece and crime thriller with DiCaprio and a fine supporting cast. Scorsese continues to be one of the best filmmakers in the world.

1. Paul Thomas Anderson
If filmmakers like Scorsese, the Coens and Spielberg made the list because of their prolific career, than Anderson gets the top spot mainly because of one film - a film that towers over every other film this decade. But first, let’s get to his only other film this decade, the wonderful romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love (2002), with Adam Sandler’s best performance in a film that deconstructs the Sandler screen persona in a brilliant way. The film is a complete original in every way. Emily Watson is just as good as Sandler, as the girl who he falls for, and is finally able to draw him out of his shell. But the film that got Anderson the top spot was 2007’s There Will Be Blood. Opening with a brilliant, wordless sequence about Daniel Day Lewis as a solitary miner starting his business. From there, the movie moves into even deeper, darker terrain as Day Lewis reveals himself to be a misanthropic oil man, who cares for no one and nothing. The film is American to the core, as it reveals the twin pillars of American society - business and religion - are both corrupt to the core. Anderson may work slowly, but if it means we get a film the caliber of There Will Be Blood every few years, then I will not complain.

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