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10 (working) directors I love

Parters in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Partners in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Steven Spielberg is not on this list.

You want a controversial statement? Well, there it is. After “Crystal Skull,” don’t even think of saying his name to me. And since I’m apparently flirting with controversy and confrontation today (I’m tarty like that), here’s another: You won’t see Ridley Scott’s name here. Peter Jackson’s been given a pass. Ditto George Lucas.

However, here are a few directors who make the cut. Some are obvious (see No. 1), others are a tad obscure and some are maybe even a little questionable (hey, I never said I was mainstream):

1. Joel + Ethan Coen — The shock! The pure and utter dismay! Right … anyone who knows me knows that I’m a late-in-life Coen convert, so my decision to award them top honors is hardly surprising. But, really, could any two directors be any more deserving? This is the duo that gave us terse, meticulously paced masterpieces like “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and inspired, idiotic comedies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.” That warped humor, that eye for minute details and foreshadowing — love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny Joel and Ethan have imagination and talent to burn.

2. Clint Eastwood — Eastwood’s a prime reminder that we should never go for the knee-jerk sneer of disdain when an actor steps behind the camera. For as fine an actor as Eastwood is, he’s an even better director with a knack for casting (who but Hillary Swank could have made “Million-Dollar Baby” so hopeful and bittersweet?) and a desire to plumb the dark depths of the human psyche (see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Changeling”). What’s more remarkable is the fact that, at 79, he’s only nicked the surface of his directing abilities … and that’s a miracle in itself.

3. Martin Scorcese — Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Nobody makes gangster sagas like Martin Scorcese. It simply can’t be done (not even by the Coen brothers). He is the modern master of the genre. But what people forget is that he’s a genius when it comes to creating movies that explore man’s darker side, the blind rage and the ambition and the fear that take us to evil places. From “The Aviator” to “Cape Fear” to “The Departed,” arguably Scorcese’s magnum opus, this is a director whose take-no-prisoners approach translates into stunning films.

4. Christopher Nolan — It would be easy to think Nolan’s such a hot commodity because he reinvigorated the long-dead and much-maligned Batman franchise. Though he did that, and radiantly, he also makes movies that are rather fearless in the way they jumble our concepts of linear time and play with human memory (“Memento”) and challenge us to play architect in order to find out what’s really happening (“The Prestige”). His films demand intelligence and vigilence, but the payoffs are extraordinary. My only question: After “The Dark Knight,” how can he do better?

Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz, King of the Sadsacks

5. Todd Solondz — Solondz is a director who’s hard to like, much less love. He makes experimental little films about ordinary people with few redeeming qualities, odes to the pathetic masses leading lives of quiet desperation. Even worse, he makes the kind of movies that contain no traces of optimism, or hope, or anything resembling closure (re: “Storytelling” and “Happiness”). But in a world where fluff like “The Proposal” lobotomizes us regularly, isn’t that kind of terribly refreshing?

6. Sam Raimi — How unfortunate that these days Raimi is known as “the guy who directed those ‘Spiderman’ movies,” for there was a time — long, long ago, in the ’80s — where he made the kind of unapologetic horror camp (the “Evil Dead” series) that delighted and repulsed us. He jumps from serious movies (“A Simple Plan” is the quintessential thriller) to “Spiderman” to the recent “Drag Me to Hell.” And he never takes himself too seriously. What’s not to love?

7. David Fincher — Fincher has made a very fine career out of making very fine thrillers that possess a kind of bruising intensity, sly, punishing humor and startling intelligence. (He is, after all, the man who gave us “Fight Club.” Yes, “Fight Club.”) It’s his niche, and if he rarely strays from it, well, it hardly matters — he’s so good at being dark and twisty (recall “Se7en”) we don’t want him to. Then he brains us with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and now he’s making a movie about the creators of Facebook. I sense that Fincher’s zigging when we expected him to zag … and I dig that about him.

8. Steve Buscemi — There’s not much difference between Steve Buscemi the actor and Steve Buscemi the director. In his performances, he gives us fully realized but completely understated characters like Seymour in “Ghost World,” who use bitter humor to keep the world at a distance. In his movies, like the exquisite “Trees Lounge” and the haunting “Lonesome Jim,” he creates worlds where people are subdued and real and loose ends are left dangling. And, in his way, that makes him one of the most amazingly observant directors working today.

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

9. Alexander Payne — Payne is one of those directors who lives to frustrate his fans because he makes sharp, attentive, penetrating satires/character studies (“Election” and “Sideways,” you may have noticed, appear proudly in my Top 100) but he makes far too few of them. This speaks, no doubt, to his meticulous nature, since his films are flawless. So I have but one request, Mr. Payne: More please, and the sooner the better.

10. Sofia Coppola — It’s the eternal question: Will Sofia ever live up to her last name? Or live down that dreadful performance in “Godfather III”? Given the fact that she’s created films as innovative as “Marie Antoinette” (criminally underrated) and stunning sleepers like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she’s well on her way. There’s a few more masterpieces in her yet.

Honorable mentions: Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”); Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”); Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss”); Pedro Almodovar (“Todo Sobre Mi Made,” “Volver”); Quentin Tarantino; John Hughes; Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”); and Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”).

19 Responses

  1. very up to date list but even then theres a few omissions
    no kubrick? no hitchcock? no pt anderson? no peter weir? no way
    i tend to like directors who turn their hand to anything – everything they do is different, which is why, despite the odd misstep, i like people like kubrick, spielberg, ridley scott and also danny boyle. theyre pretty obvious names but their work is varied, whatever you think of it. which is something you cant say about the likes of tim burton, wes anderson, even scorsese, no matter how great some of their films are.

  2. Wow, QT just an honorable mention? I’d like to hear your thoughts on “Inglourious Basterds”. And for that matter, what’d you think of Apatow’s “Funny People”?

    Intriguing list, by the way.

    • I’m headed to “IG” tonight, so I’ll get a review up this weekend at some point. I’m excited about the movie even though I don’t love everything Tarantino’s done. He tends to be brilliant or terrible, but he always goes for it. Can’t fault him for that.

      “Funny People” was two movies — one I paid to see and one I didn’t. Loved the darker first half because it had great acting from Sandler and Rogen, who normally just play themselves. Beautifully done. The second half was more of a zany comedy, which was fine too — it’s just not the movie I signed on to see. To me, it felt like Judd lost his nerve halfway through or decided he’d alienate too many viewers by keeping things so dark.

      • I think I agree with you. It feels like a mash. There are parts I like, and parts I don’t like. Agree with you about the acting. Personally, I was a bit unnerved by how cruel George was to Ira. I know it’s a character study, but wow, it’s pretty harsh.

        It seems like some people don’t like the 3rd act Leslie Mann-presence.

        The ending felt sort of tacked on, like a studio note. If it was always intended I still think it feels a bit forced.

        Enjoy IB.

  3. As Ross says, it is very up to date. Are these your all time favourites or is the list restricted to directors who are still making films? Assuming it is a list of working directors, six of your ten would probably make it to my list.

    • I’ll have to make a list of non-working (re: dead) directors because there are a few I like. These just happened to be the first ones that popped into my head when I asked myself “which directors do you like?”

  4. What a varied and eclectic list. I loved it! Definitely some names that don’t immediately come to mind but that you smack your head afterwards because you forgot about them. Have you seen any Rhamin Bharini films? He’s phenomenal. He’s only made three films (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo) and they’re all beautiful, wonderfully made films.

    • I confess I don’t know much about Rhamin Bharini — I’ll have to check out his work. I’m always on the lookout for left-of-mainstream directors!

      • Bahrani is one of the finest directors working today. He’s from North Carolina which, being also David Gordon Green’s home turf, makes NC an unlikely center for contemporary American cinema. Barhrani’s Goodbye Solo came out recently on DVD and it’s his best yet. Easily in my top five of the year so far.

  5. Very insightful list as always, M. The directors I like are more mainstream: Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Danny Boyle and the two on your list, Nolan and Fincher. Nolan’s by far my fave and NOT only because of his Batman films. Even though they’re from my neck of the woods, I don’t care much for the Coen Brothers, sorry. They’re talented sure, but I can’t say I’ve actually enjoyed any of their movies except maybe Fargo.

    • Yeah, the Coens are an acquired taste. To be honest, I kind of hated them in the beginning, but then they grew on me.

      I also quite like Michael Mann — “The Insider” and “Collateral” are great movies.

      • Well, who knows I might change my mind about them in the future.

        Btw, have you seen Paris Je T’aime? It’s a compilation of a bunch of directors’ work set in the city of love, my least favorite segment happens to be the Coens’ http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2843935513 – overall it’s pretty interesting though.

        “The Insider” remains one of my all time favorite biopic, that’s why I had such a high expectation when I saw “Public Enemies.”

  6. Fincher, Fincher, Fincher……………….LOVE HIM

    Sofia Coppola has definitely proven herself noteworthy as well.

    I’m also partial to James Cameron and Tarantino

    • “Benjamin Button,” though I didn’t love it, showed me that Fincher was willing to branch out. I like that in a director. Can’t wait to see what he does with the movie about Facebook’s founders…

  7. Paris Je T’aime great film. My favourite part was “Faubourg Saint-Denis” directed by Tom Tykwer staring Natalie Portman.

  8. I’d have to put Jason Reitman on there. If it was me.

    • The mastermind behind the book-to-screen translation of “Thank You for Smoking” — good choice.

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