I recently appeared on episode #164 of the Lambcast, along with Nick from the Cinematic Katzenjammer, Pat from 100 Years of Movies and Kristen from Journeys in Classic Film. Our chosen topic of discussion was our top five active directors, and provoked some interesting thoughts including why none of us like Terrence Malick. I recommend listening to the episode, if only to hear us ruthlessly mock Nick for his first-time presenting skills, but the show also inspired me to expand upon my list for this week’s Top 10.
So today, here is my list of Top 10 Active Directors. My choices are generally based on two things: the director’s recent body of work, and their upcoming work or last film(s). This prevented me from putting, say, Steven Spielberg as no. 1 purely on the basis of Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, because technically he is still working today, but in my opinion he peaked a good few years ago
This is a list for which there could potentially be dozens of honourable mentions, but I’ve managed to narrow it down to just a few. First up is David Fincher, who has yet to make a film I haven’t at least liked, if not really loved. The reason he hasn’t placed higher is that although I’m always eager to see his films, I’ve never actually made it into the cinemas to see them, and I’ve had the DVD of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo sat on my bookshelf for almost 6 months and still haven’t watched it. There’s no real reason for this other than finding the time to watch it with my girlfriend not around – there could be more rape scenes than she’d enjoy – but I feel my lack of excitement excludes him from the list. Next is Joss Whedon, whose Avengers Assemble was every bit as awesomely exhilarating as I’d hoped, and the trailer for Much Ado About Nothing looks decent too. Plus, the dude made Serenity, and has Avengers 2 on his slate. Other names I’d considered include Zack Snyder (who alas has had two unappealing flops for his most recent films, but Man of Steel looks promising), Martin Scorsese (I don’t deny he makes incredible films, but I don’t actually out-and-out love any of them as much as others seem to) and Sam Mendes (I loved Skyfall, Away We Go, American Beauty and Road to Perdition, but I don’t think he has any films in the works). The likes of Andrew Stanton, Danny Boyle, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Adam McKay, James Gunn and Gore Verbinski can be considered as honourable mentions for the honourable mentions list.
10. Peter Jackson
Four of Peter Jackson’s films are amongst my favourites of all time – the Lord of the Rings trilogy and his remake of King Kong – and depending on how the rest of the Hobbit trilogy pans out, he may well have another three to add to that list as well. He has an incredible ability to work within an entirely mythical realm inhabited by otherworldly beings on a seemingly ridiculous quest, whilst keeping it grounded and accessible, despite tomes-worth of back story and appendices to wade through. Plus, and this is the key, he takes something that could be very serious and even a little boring, and makes it inherently fun to experience. Jackson is a director whose past I need to delve into more, especially some of his early horror, as outside of those films already mentioned I’ve only seen Braindead and Heavenly Creatures, and I really enjoyed those too.
9. Alexander Payne
Sideways and Election are both films I love, and I’ve got a soft spot for About Schmidt and The Descendants too, so Payne, even with a relatively small C.V., has earned himself a spot on the list. He has an ability for pitch perfect casting – only George Clooney could make an unimaginably wealthy Hawaiian land-owner into a sympathetic character – and a captivating ability to mix comedy and drama to great effect. Election is probably both my favourite school-set film and Matthew Broderick performance – I like Ferris Bueller, but his face doesn’t swell up from a bee sting – and it also made Reese Witherspoon tolerable. Sideways introduced me to the possibility of Paul Giamatti as a leading man, even if all the wine talk was way over my head (I’m a spirits guy, never found a wine I like), and Payne’s next film, this year’s Nebraska, sounds like he’s keeping the low-key comedy drama train rolling with a father/son road trip starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte. I’m not sold on the leads yet, but I look forward to being won over. My only issue is Payne didn’t write this film, but then he is also credited for working on the screenplays to Jurassic Park 3 and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, so maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
8. Guillermo del Toro
Del Toro was guaranteed a place here if only because he’s directing my most anticipated film of this year, Pacific Rim. Regular readers will know I’m something of a fan of any film involving robots (even if I still haven’t actually seen Robots in its entirety), and this film features ridiculously huge ones fighting ginormous creatures from another dimension. I’m sold at that premise, even if Michael Bay was directing, but the fact that this mega-budget blockbuster is in the more-than-capable hands of the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films reassures me no end. I’m also a sucker for practical effects, which del Toro isn’t afraid to shy away from, only relying upon CGI when the scale becomes impractical, for example the stone giant in Hellboy 2. A great deal of the phenomenal troll market sequence in that film was made practically, and many of the creatures were from del Toro’s own imagination, so if you haven’t seen it then consider it a recommendation. I was hugely disappointed when he dropped out of the Hobbit’s production, as I’d have loved to see his take on the likes of the trolls and Smaug the dragon, but once the trailer for Pacific Rim was unleased you just couldn’t stop me grinning.
7. Shane Black
A week ago Black would have been sitting pretty in the honourable mentions section of this list, as including someone with only one film to his name as one of my top 10 active directors would have been a bit of a slap in the face to pretty much everyone else directing today, even if that one film was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I bloody well love. Now, however, he’s made a grand total of two films, as Iron Man 3 came out last week, so I have absolutely no qualms about placing him here, because he is amazing. Seeing as I’ve just written a review singing his praises I won’t go into more detail here, because you can read all about it both here and here. His only upcoming film is apparently Death Note, about a boy with a book that kills anyone whose name he writes into it, but I’m assuming it’s actually going to be an action-comedy set at Christmas time, that both stars and is narrated by Robert Downey Jr. Which is fine by me.
6. Steven Spielberg
Well he had to be here somewhere, didn’t he? As I mentioned earlier, Spielberg’s latest films haven’t been his best, but when you consider in the past he’s made the likes of Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, then the man can be given a little slack for now. Plus, a bad Spielberg project is generally still a good-to-great movie, with a few minor exceptions. His next project is the no-surprise-it-appeals-to-me Robopocalypse, however it keeps getting stalled or postponed, which does not make me a happy man. Hopefully me putting him so high on this list will encourage him to knuckle down and make that instead of Indiana Jones 5, because we don’t need that, so stop it.
5. Christopher Nolan
From this point on, we’re down to directors who, in my opinion, do not know how to make a bad film. Nolan’s body of work, from Memento to The Dark Knight trilogy (I need to re-watch Following, it messed with my brain more than Primer) has a weak point only in Insomnia, and that is still an interesting watch with some great work from Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Nolan’s greatest strengths lie in spectacle films with monumental budgets that just about seem to match his ambition, and of the lot I pick Inception as my favourite, if only for the pure imagination required to come up with that story. The Prestige is a close second – a magical film about all kinds of magic – but really the list could change with every passing day. Sometimes Memento tops it, other times it’s Batman Begins. However I feel, there is rarely a moment when I don’t want to watch a Nolan film, and I’m looking forward to 2014’s Interstellar if only because I want to know where the hell he’s taking us next.
4. Rian Johnson
Yes, he’s only made three films, but they’re all utter genius. Brick gives Election a run for its money in the school films stakes (look out for that list in the future; the top 2 will be ordered depending on how I’m feeling that day), mainly due to its ingenuity and the fresh spin it puts on both the school film and the classic detective noir. The Brothers Bloom is cruelly under-rated and just as ingenious, deserving far more praise than it receives, although in my opinion that’s because no-one’s actually seen it. Watch it alone for Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz and Adrien Brody, all of whom were born just to be in this film. Looper was one of my favourite films of last year – it’s still the film I’ve seen the most times in theatres – and I particularly loved the way it subverted the idea of who was the hero and who was the villain – surely the guy you’re following from the onset and for the first half of the film must be the good guy, unless of course his antagonist is the same damn character as himself. Trippy, yes, but not on a level that fries your brain. I’m greatly looking forward to catching up on Breaking Bad (I’m currently halfway through season 2), as Johnson has so far directed three episode of it, and even if he goes on to make a rom-com starring Kate Hudson and Ashton Kutcher, I’ll be there opening week to check it out.
3. Coen Brothers
There’s little left to say about the brothers Coen that has not been repeated a thousand times before. Personally I love them for their dialogue, for their impossibly quirky yet somehow still real characters, for how unnecessary the plots are to their films, for their use of a regular cast of actors that includes some of my favourites onscreen – Buscemi, Turtorro, Goodman, Pelito, Bridges, Clooney, MacDermond, I’m looking at you – for their ability to work in any genre, yet still make it clearly a Coen film – I would so very much love to see a Coen brothers sci-fi or war film, they’ve done westerns, crime, rom-com, why not something in space? My list of reasons could go on forever – I love these guys, and will even gladly watch the likes of The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty, and I’ll enjoy the experience too. That being said, I’d much rather watch Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy or No Country For Old Men, but if for some reason I can’t, then those other two will do instead.
2. Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino is the kind of director where you can justifiably argue that almost any film he’s made is his best film, as long as you don’t say Death Proof. Before you yell at me, I enjoy Death Proof, but it just doesn’t compare to his other works, and it wasn’t even as good as Planet Terror, the other half of the Grindhouse double-bill. Anyway from his other films my pick is Reservoir Dogs, the first Tarantino film I ever saw, and its place on top of the list could well be down to its length, making it a much easier film to just pick up and watch without having to set aside an entire evening to do so. I also find it far more memorable than the others – probably because I’ve seen it far more times – and it’s a film I can play out in my head endlessly. The key to Tarantino is his scripts, which are absolutely letter-perfect – although I’ve never liked the “square” moment in Pulp Fiction – and although his films sometimes run a little longer than they need to, what we end up getting is more Tarantino gold, rather than just filler. Plus, his casting choices are beyond words – DiCaprioand Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained are two of my favourite villains from all of cinema.
1. Edgar Wright
An Englishman! Huzzah! Edgar Wright has a similarly small C.V. to Rian Johnson – currently just three released films – but each one is a slice of fried gold, as is Spaced, the TV show he made prior, upon which he formed most of the comedy connections he how uses. Shaun of the Dead is one of my favourite comedies, and one of my favourite zombie films, which if you think about it is a pretty astounding accomplishment given how non-comedic the staple zombie films are. It certainly helps that there’s an awful lot of British humour on display in there, what with cameos from almost every British comedic actor working today, as well as cameos from the likes of Keith Chegwin and Vernon Kay, UK TV stalwarts. Hot Fuzz follows the same path, but switches genres to a pastiche of Hollywood cop blockbusters, but relocated to the countryside village of Sandford, complete with local supermarket, church fete and of course model village. Scott Pilgrim Vs the World seemed a sharp turn for Wright, but in fact it proved he could handle something that wasn’t an entirely comedic affair, but a verified action film too, but with elements of musicals, video games and essentially everything else ever thrown in for good measure. This year’s The World’s End looks set to complete the Three Flavours: Cornetto trilogy and I am looking forward to it almost as much as Pacific Rim. If I was guaranteed giant monsters and/or robots, this would be number one without a doubt. I’m sure if Wright continues his current directorial style – lots of pre-referenced gags mixed with super-fast editing and innovative recycling of previous punchlines – it may become more predictable or tired eventually, but for now it works wonders, and should that time ever arrive, I’m confident he’ll have the skills required to take a new direction and make that work just as well, if not better.
So, did I miss anyone out? Any egregious errors on my part, or am I entirely correct? This isn’t a definitive list, and I’m sure you’ve all got different opinions, so let me know who’d make yours.
Very good list. Definitely agree with Payne, Nolan and Fincher the most. It’s odd, but when I think “active directors,” although I know that Spielberg and Scorsese are still making movies, I guess I tend to think more along generational lines and consider them as, well, past their prime. Is that fair to them? Probably not. It’s just what my brain does. The only other director I’d consider in this list is Wes Anderson. I adore his style; he definitely has that auteur theory on his side – his films are most definitely HIS.
See, that’s the problem with this list, there’s so many great people I forgot about, and Wes Anderson is most certainly one of them (as is Paul Thomas Anderson, I’ve just realised too). It’s a fair point to consider the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese as past their prime – I agree with your assessment – but I’m still excited for what Spielberg does in the future, so he earns a spot here.
I love this list! Edgar Wright as #1 is a really deserved choice. I bet it also wouldn’t land quite as high on other people’s lists too so I appreciate you giving his due here. My one director you mention in your HM’s that I would certainly have on my list though is Fincher. Even though there are a few I didn’t like that much overall (The Game & Benjamin Button), I always love the direction. And amongst those you didn’t mention at all, I might throw in Ben Affleck, Woody Allen (even though he’s so hit or miss, Midnight in Paris is one of my favorite movies of the past few years), and Darren Aronofsky who I know always has something interesting to offer.
Thanks Jess! I completely forgot both Affleck and Woody Allen, they should definitely be on at least my HMs – I love Midnight in Paris too – but Aronofsky is not someone I follow too closely. As you say, his work is always interesting, but not necessarily something I love. I really appreciate Requiem for a Dream though.
Fincher is a director I need to watch more – most of his films I’ve either seen once or not at all, with only Seven, Panic Room and Zodiac having earned multiple viewings. There’s no reason for this, other than just lack of time and abundance of other films to see!
Edgar Wright got the pole position purely based on how much I love his filmography, and how excited I am for his next work. Using those two factors he beats out all others. Thanks for stopping by!
Nice job with this list. I wonder about Black since he’s only done two films, but I’ve yet to see Iron Man 3 so it’s hard to say. I’ll now contradict myself and say that Rian Johnson is a great pick even though he only has three films. It’s cool to see you putting Spielberg and the Coen Brothers in the mix too; I thought some of the LAMBcast lists were too focused on less-established guys. My list would include some of these plus Wes Anderson, John Sayles, Woody Allen, and Michael Mann. I’m not sure on the rankings, but those are no-brainers for me. Good work on this list and the podcast!
Thanks Dan. I;m ashamed to say John Sayles is a complete blind spot for me – I’ve not seen a single one of his films. Which ones would you recommend? Michael Mann is an interesting choice too, although of his work I only absolutely love Heat, although I really liked Public Enemies and Manhunter too. I wasn’t sure about putting Black in, but he’s 2-for-2 in terms of 9 or 10/10 films for me, which is good enough in my book, plus he’s scripted some awesome stuff too. Thanks for checking out the new site!
For Sayles, I’d start with Lone Star. It’s one of his most accessible films and also one of the best. If you’re into baseball at all, Eight Men Out is a must-see. Then I’d go with Limbo, Matewan, and Passion Fish. If you like most of those, then go crazy and see them all!
Mann has a ton of films that I love. Heat is one of my favorites, and Ali and The Insider are right there too. Collateral is a great genre film, and Manhunter, Thief, and even Miami Vice are right with it. Even a goofy period piece like the Last of the Mohicans has a certain charm. I know that I’m a bit more forgiving of some of his excesses because I’m a fan, though.
Thanks for the recommendations Dan. I’m pretty sure Lone Star is on the 1001 list, but I’m not sure about the rest, and Last of the Mohicans is on the Empire 5-star 500. I can’t say why, but Collateral always rubs me up the wrong way. I feel I should like it more, but for some reason or other I just don’t enjoy it. Maybe I’ll give it another shot.
I can’t argue with anyone in your top six but personally I’d add a couple to the list. I think that Park Chan-wook deserves to be there and Wes Anderson would be on my list too. I’d probably also go with Scorsese but agree with your reasons for not putting Spielberg at the top.
Park is a great choice, although I’ve yet to see Stoker, or in fact anything other than his vengeance trilogy. Wes Anderson should have been in my honourable mentions, I’m very annoyed to have forgotten him. I really like most of his stuff, but there isn’t a lot that I absolutely love.
If you included everyone who deserved a mention, you’re list would be never ending.
Solid list. Fincher and Boyle would probably be at the top of my list though.
I really want to get into more of Alexander Payne’s work. I was a big fan of The Descendants but I haven’t seen a lot of his other films.
I’m tempted to disagree with you on Nohlan but I don’t really have a valid argument lol I just think his placement is a little high (I’m not as big of a fan of the Batman trilogy as everyone else in the world seems to be.
I knew Boyle would be on your list, you talk about him often enough!
I’m not the world’s biggest Dark Knight trilogy lover either, but I do enjoy watching them. I think even if Nolan hadn’t made those three films he may well still be on the list (although possibly a little further down for prolific sakes) based purely on Inception, Memento and The Prestige.
In terms of Payne, I’d highly recommend Sideways and Election. It’s been a while since I’ve seen About Schmidt so I can’t vouch for it, but those other two are great.
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Where’s Godard, Cronenberg, Assayas, Elia Suleiman, Weerasethakul, Wenders, Kelly Reichardt, Claire Denis, Kiarostami, Soderbergh, Miyazaki, Norshteyn, De Palma, Loach, Romero?
It seems I’m not as knowledgeable as your good self:
Godard: I didn’t know he was still working. I’ve only seen Breathless and was very disappointed, both times I saw it.
Cronenberg: Haven’t seen some of his bigger films. I liked Scanners, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, wasn’t fussed with Videodrome or Crash but loved The Fly. Overall that’s not enough to make the list.
Wenders: I haven’t seen anything of his yet, though I’ve had Paris, Texas on DVD for a while now.
Kiarostami: I haven’t seen anything of his yet.
Soderbergh: Technically when I made this list he’s already announced his retirement, so he wasn’t eligible as a ‘working’ director. Also, he’s quite hit-and-miss across his career. I love some of his films though.
Miyazaki: I’m not a huge Studio Ghibli fan, although I loved My Neighbour Totoro.
De Palma: No. Scarface is OK, The Untouchables is great.
Loach: I haven’t seen anything of his yet.
Romero: He hasn’t made a half-decent film for almost 10 years.
I’ve never heard of Olivier Assayas (I’ve only seen his work from Paris Je T’aime), Elia Suleiman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kelly Reichardt, Claire Denis (I didn’t like Beau Travail) or Norshteyn, and to be honest looking through their CVs on IMDb I doubt they’d have made the cut.