Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ranking the Titans: Top 10 Directors

I left these guys out of my personal Top 10, because then it's just another standard list of the acknowledged greats. Like this one...

Links are to Wikipedia, the Internet Movie Database, and some 3rd place - the most interesting I could find. Then a list of the movies I like, or at least remember enjoying in the (sometimes distant) past. The one in bold is extra special, and it's linked somewhere too. Then some other nonsense.

The Dawn of Man
1. Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987)

A number of my top-tier movies, most especially 2001 and Dr. Strangelove, but above all is how Kubrick seemed almost unable to go wrong. A notorious control freak, he used it to his advantage – meticulously crafting great film after great film. 2001’s cool and distant lifelessness, drained of any human emotion, is perfect for a cosmic think-piece on man’s relationship to his tools: which shapes which, which controls the other, which has the upper hand? Dr. Strangelove makes nuclear annihilation the ultimate punch line, in the early ‘60s! A Clockwork Orange somehow created an indelible stamp on pop culture, despite being both adolescently and authoritarianly sadistic, culturally both punk rock and classicist.

2001: A Space Odyssey will be showing at the Museum of Fine Arts in late November!!

2. Martin Scorsese (b. 1942) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), The Last Waltz (1978), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)

A little surprised by Scorsese's rank here. Obviously he's made a lot of really great movies, but... I just didn't think about how long his run of quality was. Mean Streets introduced themes he'd return to in the '90s: the guys who worked way down from Don Corleone. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are all-time greats, his natural pairing with Robert DeNiro. Given those heights (and later ones), it's easy to forget. The Last Temptation of Christ is probably the best biblical film (I crossed picket lines to see it), and The Last Waltz is a contender for greatest rock 'n' roll movie of all time! And from GoodFellas on, it's gravy - but even I was surprised by the terrific straight documentary on Dylan.

3. Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Ran (1985)

Kurosawa could have definitely gone on the next list, but I've seen more than one of his movies. And they've all been monumentally fantastic! But I definitely need to see more. Rashomon is a riveting philosophical samurai legal drama, credited with opening America up to foreign film, and actually the source of a term in psychology dealing with faulty perception. Seven Samurai comes up regular in greatest-film-ever discussions, and Ran is an awesome late-period samurai/Noh adaptation of King Lear. Then, there's the redemptive drama of an office clerk who learns he's dying, Ikiru ("To Live"), so excellent and the complete opposite of anything samurai.

Rashomon will be at the Museum of Fine Arts in mid-December!!

Apocalypse Now
4. Francis Ford Coppola (b. 1939) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Coppola would be on my list if only because of his wine. No, wait. Apocalypse Now, I mean! He worked on Woodstock (actually appears in it too), and he wrote Patton - so he's got the late '60s nailed down. He made a couple of minor gangster movies in the early '70s. The Conversation, with Gene Hackman as a pathetic eavesdrop, is a criminally overlooked classic. Apocalypse Now's descent into the madness of war obviously scarred Coppola, because he downscaled significantly afterwards - adapting YA books and time-travelling to the era of Buddy Holly. But those 3 movies tower over the '70s, and it should be four.

5. Orson Welles (1915-1985) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Stranger (1946), Macbeth (1948), Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles will always have a reserved place due to Citizen Kane's (warranted) reputation for greatness. But he was an erratic genius. In my experience, only the restored Touch of Evil is truly crucial. The others (even The Stranger) are well worth seeing, but those two are Top 10 American Film contenders.

6. Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959)

The list of Hitchcock's worthwhile films that I've personally enjoyed could be twice as long. As opposed to Welles' capricious muse, Hitch definitely had a singular vision. And he was able to execute that vision over and over, with significant variations. Maybe I'm a contrarian, but I think his most iconic movies, Psycho and especially The Birds, are overrated. And the Leopold & Loeb riff (with Jimmy Stewart as a Randian elite) Rope, a totally fascinating experiment.

7. Woody Allen (b. 1935) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
Love and Death (1975), Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Ahhh, Woody Allen... Almost as much a point of contention as a film-maker. But the genius is clearly there - the humor is funny, the drama is affecting, the insights are deep, the misanthopy is well-founded. And always the misplaced or unfulfilled love. Not only is Manhattan one of the best-looking B&W films ever, it's also got the hilarious party conversation. Really good stuff... seriously.

8. Robert Altman (1925-2006) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
M*A*S*H (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), Popeye (1980), "Tanner '88" (1988), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993)

Robert Altman had the common touch. His films were overstuffed with humanity, that came spilling out as messily as real life. There was always a central topic that his famous ensembles were revolving around - the cruelties of war, the amoral underbelly of the '70s, the community and chaos of American life (through music and politics), Hollywood, Popeye... Well, Popeye might not be the best example of Altman, but I remember being fascinated by it as a fairly young kid. Way before I saw the best of Altman.

9. David Lean (1908-1991) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), A Passage to India (1984)

Thirty years, four films, some of the greatest long-form story-telling ever. David Lean is the Homer of cinema. Epic! Doctor Zhivago is his "Iliad," Lawrence of Arabia his "Odyssey." Just set aside a whole afternoon, watch it - it has to be seen to be believed. Then take some time, and see another one.

10. Sergio Leone (1929-1989) [Wiki ~ IMDB ~ Misc]
A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), Once Upon A Time in America (1984)

As much as the Man With No Name 'trilogy' is something to see, I'm going to side with the duo of (unrelated) Once Upon A Time in... films. Lean-esque in their scope, ...the West has Henry Fonda as a child-killing psychopath and Charlie Bronson on harmonica. And ...America is an amazing decades-spanning tale of some tenement kids' rise from poverty to organized crime. Again, both must be seen. It's now mandatory. And don't forget the Ennio Morricone music all the way around!

Il buono

Last week, Slate's A Serious Man review discussed the Coen Brothers' nihilism and distance. Since they and Kubrick have been my #1's, I thought it was informative. Much like this "Inquest of Left-Brained Literature" might shed some light on my taste in books. Maybe...

Next up, the final Top 10: Those I've Seen Too Little From!

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