May 12, 2013

My Top 10 Directors: Part 1

Last night I was having a conversation on Twitter with my friends Michael Ewins and Laurent De Alberti about the idea of making a list of our Top 10 directors, and so we decided that we would each try to make our own lists as a sort of mini blogathon (you’ll find Mike and Laurent’s lists linked under their names).

My list doesn’t, I suspect, look like the lists that most critics would draw up. It’s more contemporary; with 6 of the 10 still making new films today, and doesn’t draw heavily on Hollywood’s classic or Movie Brat periods. There are several reasons for this, but they all essentially come down to personal taste; these are the directors whose work I love most, and whose work I love the most of. This isn’t to say that, for instance, Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola haven’t done surpassingly brilliant work, but for me it’s been a while since they’ve been at their best.

There are also filmmakers who might have made the list, but whose work I just haven’t seen enough of to consider seriously. Some of those will be listed in a special number 11 spot after the list, but many classic era directors, working in English and foreign languages, fall into this category. Shohei Imamura is one that comes to mind, as do filmmakers as varied as Stanley Kubrick and Preston Sturges.

All this said, I make no excuses for this list (which is unranked and alphabetical by surname). These are 10 filmmakers whose work I love, whose work I look forward to (well, in six cases) and while some of these choices may be scoffed at by cinephiles I feel that they represent much (though not quite all) that I love in cinema. As a guide, for each of my Top 10 picks, I’ve suggested a film you should start with, and what I think is their best film.

The Top 10
Frank Capra
I suspect that this will be the choice that really takes people by surprise. Capra is often seen as a corny, sentimental, filmmaker, but I don’t really feel that his films entirely bear this perception out. It’s true that his films always end on an upbeat note, but that never precluded him from looking at darker things.

Perhaps the two films that are generally seen as Capra’s most sugary; Mr Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life are the ones that best show how I think he’s somewhat mis-represented. Mr Smith is broad, and has a very heroic and uplifting ending but the journey to that ending is incredibly cynical about American politics, with James Stewart’s senator reacting against his disillusionment when his idealism doesn’t fit with the way Washington is run. It’s A Wonderful Life is an even darker film; yes, it has THAT ending, but again, think about how we get there; it’s a film about a man in the grip of suicidal depression. There are also films that are darker as a whole, notably the Barbara Stanwyck starring The Miracle Woman (about a fake faith healer)

This said, I love Capra’s lightness. It Happened One Night is featherweight, but it’s also entirely engaging, charming and funny romantic comedy, and the same goes for his wonderful screwball You Can’t Take It With You. Always a master with actors, Capra got brilliant work from some of the best actors of the studio era; Stanwyck, Stewart, Jean Arthur, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert all did some of their best and most iconic work for Capra.

To dismiss a long career as ‘Capracorn’ strikes me as shortsighted, and undersells a great and interesting filmmaker. I have much more to see from Capra, having only seen seven of his films to date, but what I have seen is more than enough to earn him a place on this list.
Start With: It Happened One Night
Best Film: Mr Smith Goes To Washington

Claude Chabrol
Though he is generally seen as initiating the French New Wave with his first film, Le Beau Serge, my interest in Claude Chabrol begins a little later in his career, when he began making the thrillers that would define his filmography and occupy him for the bulk of the next sixty years, in which he would make at least a film a year (he was prepping another with frequent collaborator Isabelle Huppert when he died, aged 80).

Again, Chabrol is a filmmaker from whom I still have much to see, but whose body of work on average impresses me more than enough to place on this list. Chabrol’s great run of form begins, for me, in the late 60′s with La Femme Infidele, the first of the Helene cycle, in which Chabrol’s muse and then wife Stephane Audran played a series of women, always named Helene, caught up in relationships (often with men named Charles) that tended to lead to violence and murder. Que La Bete Muere, Le Boucher, Juste Avant La Nuit and more continued this very successful cycle, always twisting the plot enough that Chabrol never seemed to be repeating his stories, just establishing ongoing themes.

The thrillers, great as they are, can tend to lead to Chabrol being dismissed as a one trick pony, but he departed from them frequently, and in interesting ways. He was a brilliant observer of character, especially when paired with Isabelle Huppert, who starred in one of his best dramas, the affecting true story A Story of Women, about a woman making ends meet by providing back street abortions during World War Two. There is great diversity in Chabrol’s long career; the terrorist thriller Nada; Caustic divorce drama Un Partie de Plaisir; character study Betty and L’Enfer, a version of a film that Clouzot began making but never finished all help to show a much more rounded filmmaker than Chabrol is sometimes seen as.

He continued making brilliant films into his old age, only hitting the very peak of his form, for me, in 1995 with the shocking, brilliantly acted La Ceremonie. There’s much to see with Claude Chabrol, I suggest you dig in.
Start With: Le Boucher
Best Film: La Ceremonie

David Cronenberg
I’ve largely parted company with the academic idea of film studies, having done it at A Level I found a lot of it to be reaching desperately for meaning that wasn’t there, but there are still a few filmmakers whose work fascinates me enough to really want to analyse it at a level much deeper than the largely qualitative coverage I write here. David Cronenberg is one of that handful of filmmakers.

I’ve long found Cronenberg’s body horror themes to be fascinating, they give what could just be, at least in the first part of his now distinctly two act career, nasty horror films an added dimension. Neither does Cronenberg just use his favoured themes: disease, metamporphosis, sex, split personalities and manifestation among others, to try to appear clever, rather they inform and alter the characters in his films. The Fly is a perfect distillation of character and commentary, as Jeff Goldblum is consumed by a disease like metamorphosis into a fly, which at once makes him more powerful and destroys him. It’s a thoughtful progression of character, far from the mad science cliches, and Cronenberg and Goldblum make it intensely moving.

Beyond this, Cronenberg is a fantastic visual filmmaker. His films are always impeccably designed, even, perhaps especially, when it comes to their most disturbing images. Think of the medical instruments in Dead Ringers, the vampiric barb in Marilyn Chambers’ armpit in Rabid, the gristle gun in eXistenZ; all images that could only come from Cronenberg.

Take a step back and there’s an evolution in Cronenberg’s work. He’s always been cerebral: The Brood – with its literally manifesting rage – is brilliant on psychology, but recently he has moved more and more to the interior of his characters, messing with the mind rather than the body, while still indulging all his obsessions. This is one of the reasons eXistenZ is my favourite of his works; it’s the bridge between the two kinds of Cronenberg film, and it explores both his body horror and cerebral horror ideas with great assurance (and a brilliant performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh, which helps). Latterly he’s explored the psychological more and more, most successfully with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.

I could talk about the ideas in David Cronenberg’s films all day, and that’s largely why he’s here. Despite the odd mis-step (the shockingly dull A Dangerous Method), Cronenberg is the one filmmaker I always feel that I can rely on to provoke me as much as he entertains me. It’s a rare and special mix.
Start With: The Fly
Best Film: eXistenZ

Joe Dante
This may be one of my more left field choices, but if there is one director whose sensibilities just line up with mine, it’s Joe Dante.

Most great filmmakers are, to begin with, great film lovers, and Dante is a fine example of this. What’s most interesting about the way the love of cinema shows in Dante’s work is the kind of films he refers back to; B-Movies, 50′s sci-fi both good and bad, and he approaches his own work with the same sense of fun and excitement that those films – even the most intelligent of them – usually reflected. This is best seen in the delightful Matinee, which pays affectionate tribute to nuclear paranoia monster movies by setting a coming of age movie around the premiere of a film called Mant in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis. It’s a wonderful film, shot through with a regard for the magic of both cinema and a first crush, but also with Dante’s typically lunatic sense of humour.

While he has made straight horror in The Howling the real reason I’m such a fan is that few directors combine the horror and sci-fi genres with comedy as deftly as Dante, be it in cheapo Jaws spoof Piranha, blackly comic neighbour from hell tale The Burbs or Fantastic Voyage remake/riff Innerspace. However, most would agree that he does it best with the two Gremlins films. The first film is something of a spoof of It’s a Wonderful Life, as the picture perfect town of Bedford Falls is torn apart by the things that mutate from Billy Peltzer’s new pet Mogwai, but it’s the sequel that, for me, sees Dante at his best. The film, it seems to me, is a merciless mickey take of the very idea of making a Gremlins 2. Dante just lets himself totally off the leash here, and offers the same consideration to his cast, especially a riotous Tony Randall as the voice of Brain gremlin and Christopher Lee as the hilariously sinister Dr. Catheter. He rips on corporate America, especially Donald Trump and large media conglomorates not entirely unlike the one that released Gremlins 2.

Sadly, since 1999′s much underrated Small Soldiers, Dante hasn’t made as many films as he used to, and they haven’t quite connected with me in the same way when he has, but even his lesser works have great moments; the creepy clown doll in The Hole, for instance, or the hilarious Louvre sequence in Looney Tunes: Back In Action.

Sometimes critics get so bound up in what a film is saying that I think they forget that first and foremost film is about being entertained. For me, Joe Dante is a great entertainer.
Start With: Gremlins
Best Film: Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Guillermo Del Toro
When I think of cinema as a series of pieces of art, Guillermo Del Toro is one of the first people who springs to mind. He can make that art populist or personal, sometimes both, but his great strength as a filmmaker has always been the consistency of the world he creates not just within a single film but throughout his work in terms of both themes and design.

Del Toro has been fascinated by monsters since he was a child, and much of his work seems devoted to humanising them, whether it’s the dark world of the Faun drawing Ofelia to it in Pan’s Labyrinth or the Hellboy films and their depiction of monsters both as superheroes and blue collar government workers. This gives his work a very individual viewpoint, as he takes the side of the things that, in most films, we should be running from.

I’ve always loved the design of Del Toro’s work. Right from his 1993 debut Cronos it was obvious that his was a striking visual sensibility. There are the obvious things, like the design of the Cronos device itself; intricate, beautiful and threatening, but everyday things are also visually striking, such as the way an all white bathroom provides a vivid backdrop for a character licking up a drop of blood. I love Del Toro’s dedication to making his fantastic worlds feel real, both by combining them with a realistic human world, as he does so brilliantly in Pan’s Labyrinth; as much a film about the Spanish civil war and a dysfunctional family as it is fairies and monsters and by realising as many of his monsters as possible practically, as in the Troll Market scene in Hellboy II.

For a while it seemed Del Toro had two careers going; the Hollywood career where he did his best to put a personal stamp on films like Mimic and Blade II and the Spanish language career, where he indulged his passions in his themes and his visuals. For me, he really brought them together in Hellboy II; one of the most underrated blockbusters of recent years, which has all the emotion of Del Toro’s Spanish language work, but wraps it in a populist superhero movie. I’m nervous of his latest, Pacific Rim, which looks like little more than a CG heavy Transformers riff with some monsters in place of the Decepticons, but I’m trying to have faith, after all, Del Toro hasn’t let me down yet.
Start With: Pan’s Labyrinth
Best Film: Pan’s Labyrinth

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