There are a handful of visionaries, true visionaries, in the Hollywood film community as well as the world entire who, more often than not, churn out consistently good films that hit off well with both the critics and cinemagoers year round. Some of these films are disposable pieces of entertainment that the audience takes at face value and forgets about as soon as they walk out of the auditorium and some of these films stay with the audience long after they've left the movie theater. Below is a list that contains some of the most talented directors that have worked at creating movies for years and, God willing, will continue to provide the masses with quality films for the rest of their careers. This is by no means an official list of any sort but just this humble writer's top ten. Ready? Here we go.
In Alphabetical order:
Paul Thomas Anderson, or PTA as his fans call him, first hit the film scene with his 1996 debut, Hard Eight AKA Sydney. The film starred Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall among others and demonstrated more than ever how talented Anderson could be with a camera but how well he directed his actors. The following year came Boogie Nights, easily Anderson's most entertaining and energized film. The film takes place in the late 70s/early 80s and is about the rise and fall of porn icon Dirk Diggler, an homage to real-life porn star John Holmes, played perfectly by a young Mark Wahlberg. Anderson demonstrated here that even at the young age of twenty-six he could direct and all-star veteran cast as if he was a seasoned vet. The film also stars Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Thomas Jane, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy and Philip Baker Hall among others. Among this list of very talented thespians only Reynolds and Moore managed to score Oscar Nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Not only that but Anderson scored his first Oscar Nomination for Best Original Screenplay for his script here. Boogie Nights is the film that really showed the world what a brilliant writer Anderson was as well as set a promise of more excellent and top notch work to come. Magnolia('99), Punch Drunk Love('02), There Will Be Blood('07) and his most recent effort, The Master('12) have all but fulfilled that promise. They have that unique Anderson stamp both in the writing and the composition of his shots, yet none of the films carry over trademarks or signature styles from a past film. His attention to detail and dedication to making his actors literally become their characters sets Anderson apart from all the rest and makes him an invaluable filmmaker for our generation. John Huston would be proud.
Darren Aronofsky is another director who will stop at nothing to not only get his film financed but bring out only the very best from his actors. His films are challenging, visceral, brutal, beautiful, terrifying, disturbing and absolute cinematic gems. If there was any filmmaker out there who could manage to make films that were so dark and terrifying but absolutely beautiful at the same time before and as well as or better than Aronofsky, you could have fooled me. The man is a genius, as are many of the directors on this list. Pi('98) was his first feature length film that, much like Anderson's Hard Eight, demonstrated what this guy could do with a 16mm camera and a small crew. in 2000 Aronofsky released what is, in this reviewer's opinion, one of the greatest and most powerfully effective films ever made: Requiem for a Dream('00).
The film has a great ensemble of character actors such as Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connolly, Mark Margolis, Christopher MacDonald and Keith David. The film, based on Hubert Selby Jr's novel of the same name, follows ordinary people in Brooklyn whom, one way or another, get hooked on heroine and prescription pills and lose control of their lives and themselves in the process. The film is very tough to watch but is also, paradoxically, one of the most compulsively watchable films ever made. It literally is like watching a train wreck: as horrible as what you're seeing actually is, you can't look away. Aronofsky once again used 16mm cameras and composed many great and innovative shots and camera movements that showed what he could do behind the scenes more so than Pi did. His direction of his actors is what raises Requiem above just a technically brilliant film. Ellen Burstyn's performance here as Sara Goldfarb has to be in the top three greatest performances ever given by an actress, PERIOD. Her downward slide is absolutely gut-wrenching and incredibly tragic and Aronofsky was right there to guide her and film her to the absolute zenith of what her scenes could bring. In the following years Aronofsky directed The Fountain('06), The Wrestler('08) and his most recent and commercially successful film, Black Swan('10). All three are special in their unique ways but it's The Wrestler and Black Swan that have Aronofsky doing what he really does best: Bring out the absolute best in his actors and make the story as stripped down and realistic as possible. Ellen Burstyn, Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Natalie Portman have received Oscar Nominations for their work in Aronosky's films and Portman actually won for her lead role in Black Swan. It was well deserved to say the least. Goes to show that if you're a talented actor who has not yet been getting the respect you deserve just try to be cast in an Aronofsky film. He'll push you to the limit, and he'll get the best out of you. Aronofsky doesn't need a massive budget to captivate his audience, all he needs is a dedicated actor and a 16mm camera and he has you at his mercy.
James Cameron is what one would call a "force of nature". The man used to be a high school janitor as well as a truck driver before storming his way into Hollywood and creating some of the most visually stunning and imaginative films of the last half century in the process: The Terminator('84), Aliens('86), The Abyss('89), Terminator 2: Judgment Day('91), True Lies('94), Titanic('97) and Avatar('09), the latter two films are actually the two highest grossing films ever made. But why are Cameron's films some of the world's most beloved and revered films? What sets Cameron apart from all of the other filmmakers out there both as a writer and a director? Well for one he has the rare ability to balance ground-breaking special effects with solid storytelling. Most directors, especially these days, overwhelm their movies with CGI and 3D instead of putting character and story first, and the quality and re-watch value of their films suffers as a result. Cameron goes in the opposite direction. He places his stories and characters first so when the CGI shows up it enhances the film rather than distracts from it. He stops at nothing to achieve the vision in his head, no matter how extravagant or impossible his team tells him it would be to realize on film. Cameron also has the ability to write female characters that are just as strong and determined, if not more so, than their male counterparts while at the same time preserving their feminine side and not turning them into just a tough girl with a gun. The character of Sarah Connor in The Terminator and Terminator 2 is a perfect example. What could have easily been just another damsel in distress is turned into one of the strongest and determined heroines ever created for a feature film. She fights not only for her life and the life of her son but for the entire human race. Not once does she complain of broken nails or nappy hair. At the same time she is an expectant mother/mother and she has a caring and vulnerable side to her that few characters get to see. Few writers can write strong women like Sarah Connor and, while we're at it, Ellen Ripley in Aliens and Rose in Titanic but Cameron does it effortlessly.
Not only that but the man respects your money and makes sure when you leave the theater you get what you pay for. Cameron knows the value of spectacle as the second half of Titanic and the whole of Avatar show, but he also knows every single explosion, shoot-out, fist fight, car chase and deep sea dive would be "empty calories" without a strong story and relatable characters to latch on to. Sure some of his screenplays are not as strong as others, but where there may be weaknesses in his script he makes up for in the visuals. 90 percent of Hollywood filmmakers could take a few notes from this guy and be all the better for it. Anyways, Cameron is a legend and his films are worthy of the love, critical acclaim and financial success they receive.
4. JOEL & ETHAN COEN
Joel and Ethan Coen have the unique honor of being recognized as one being even though they are, obviously, two separate people. Their movies are, for the most part, cinematic treasures that make their audience laugh their asses off and/or cover their mouths and faces in shock or horror. More often than not the audience is doing both at the same time. Their screenplays are unique to their voice and their work behind the camera and with actors is something truly special. Somehow in every Coen bros. movie each character in the film is completely unique either in appearance, voice or mannerisms. No one character in a Coen film is a rip off or a like in any way to other characters either in the same film or in past films. It really is quite special.
Look at Marge Gunderson, played by Joel Coen's wife Frances McDormand in Fargo('96) from her wobbly walk and her thick Minnesota accent and then look at Walter, played by a bearish John Goodman, from The Big Lebowski('98). One is a passive female, pregnant cop trying to solve one of the weirdest and most brutal crimes she's probably ever seen, completely oblivious to the obviousness of the crime for most of the movie and the other is a psychotic Vietnam veteran that explodes at the slightest offense given against him and equates everything to fighting in Vietnam, no matter how small the incident is. These are just two examples of how different and one-of-a-kind the Coens' characters are. One could literally choose any Coen bros. film, be it Raising Arizona('87), Miller's Crossing('90), No Country For Old Men('07, The two of them won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for this masterpiece), Burn After Reading('08) or True Grit('10) and see a wide array of unique characters brought to life by the most talented character actors in the business. Like Aronofsky and Anderson, the Coen Brothers are masters of their form with both their actors and the camera. If the wildly colorful characters and the witty, vulgar dialogue they spew out isn't enough to keep you entertained or invested then their subtle, elegant cinematography sure will. The only other filmmaker that even comes close to creating such identifiable and one-of-a-kind characters in his films while at the same time is able to get some fantastic looking shots to boot is Quentin Tarantino, but that's for later on.
When I was in college a fellow student asked one of my professors whom he thought was our generation's Stanley Kubrick. I already had my own answer in my head and I wondered if the professor would think the same thing...he did: David Fincher.
David Fincher is easily one of the most respected and sought after directors in the business. Why? Because he consistently puts out great films with his unique signature and style...much like Stanley Kubrick did. Another aspect that both Kubrick and Fincher have in common is their notorious pursuit of perfection. Both directors went/go for an insane amount of takes, often driving their actors nuts in the process. For the opening scene of Fincher's Oscar winning film The Social Network('10), Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg had to perform the scene 99 times before Fincher was satisfied. Perfectionist, much? Other directors scoff at the notion of doing so many takes but not Fincher. Fincher's philosophy is that if you've spent all this money on getting a cast together and putting together all of these sets why would you just do five or ten takes and then call it a day? Who knows what the actors will do after you push them for more takes or alter their deliveries of certain lines. It's an unusual and unconventional way to approach film making, but as the final results prove, it's all worth the time and effort in the end.
Fincher also builds mood and atmosphere unlike anyone currently making films. Take a look at his 1995 serial killer film Se7en, starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow. When watching that film you can literally feel the unanimous city the characters inhabit as opposed to merely being a spectator. The police sirens and fire engines going by get inside your head and stay there as well as the interminable, pounding rain that falls almost throughout the entire film. One can almost smell the city and the dirt and grime the streets retain in their gutters and on their sidewalks. Fincher's films are tangible works of art, and what I mean by that is that the audience doesn't just watch his films they are literally transported into them. It's hard not to feel old and clammy in the early 1900s in the first third of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button('08) or paranoid and on edge throughout the entirety of The Game('97) and Zodiac('07) or even like a space monkey in Fight Club('99). The worlds are so fully rendered and realized that the audience doesn't question a thing. So much of a director's job is making sure that the world he creates is believable, otherwise the audience won't believe or go along with a single thing they see. Fincher excels at this and also at making sure his films are always grade A quality. A lot of director's only care about the box office revenue their films will make. Hell, most of Hollywood is like that. But Fincher doesn't care. Films...great films...live past their opening weekend and how much money they made in their theatrical run. Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo('11) will surely be watched, enjoyed and studied for many, many years to come.