Digital Polyphony

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Top 50: My Favorite Directors (Part Two)

 For Part One, Click Here

25: John Ford


One of the most influential filmmakers to ever live, influencing everyone from Spielberg to Kurosawa to Bergman to Hitchcock to Welles who has a classic quote saying "I like the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford." He would do simple little things that exploded into the art - saying things like " about we put a roof on this building so we can shoot low angles inside and see a ceiling?" Ok, he didn't say that, but it was something that simple that changed film. He made a star of John Wayne and delivered great film after great film spanning around three decades. His westerns were what he became known for, though I find myself loving The Grapes of Wrath, The Quiet Man and especially They Were Expendable just as much (if not more in some cases).

Favorites:  The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallace, The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, They Were Expendable, Rio Grande

24: John Carpenter

From strict horror to campy fantasy, John Carpenter is a filmmaker that bends one way, then another, then breaks into something else. His ideas often exceed his own grasp on occasion (or at least the budget) yet he manages to make them somehow endearing. They Live is a prime example of a crazy science fiction idea that is a B-movie in A-movie clothing. The same with the likes of Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China - showing that just because it's a B-movie doesn't mean it can't be well made (and thus incredibly entertaining). His remake of The Thing, though, is his masterpiece and the various other horror movies great works as well, ranging from the grotesque and gory to the slasher variety to great psychological thrillers. 


Favorites: The Thing, Halloween, In the Mouth of Madness, They Live, Escape from New York

23: Wes Anderson

I won't deny that Wes Anderson is an acquired taste. Usually the younger, hipster generation loves him, I just enjoy him because there's nobody else quite making movies like he does. Since his Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, there have been a number trying to emulate his style and tonality of "funny by observational quietness" but it seems he only knows how to make it all work. He casts the right people in the right roles and his complex set design and scene directing is as vivid as his use of color and music. For me, I love Anderson's dry tone that somehow brings out a easy energy of comedy.

Favorites: The Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox,

22: Robert Zemeckis

Though he has shy'd away from live-action for years now, Robert Zemeckis was a trend-setting, ambitious (well, he's still that) director that exploded on the scene after Romancing the Stone and then took it another notch with Back to the Future. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, collaborating with his good friend Steven Spielberg, alone puts him on this list because a film with that undertaking demands respect. He has two other Back to the Future films, a classic Best Picture winner in Forrest Gump (another trend setting special effects movie with a massive nostalgic heart) and an  intelligent science fiction film, one I think seems a tad overlooked, in Contact.  He still shows his ambitious nature, but nothing has quite lived up to his 1980s and early 90s heyday. Still, he really has given some remarkable and diverse films over his career.

Favorites: Back to the Future Trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away

21: Billy Wilder


Wilder's oeuvre is a hard one to simply spend a few sentences on, but I'll start by saying four of his films are in my Top 100 (coming soon) movies of all time. Much like Sturges, his films include dialogue that flows and feels natural and his actors easily put out characters thanks to that sharpness and wit. In fact, a lot of the actors that were in a film for him were nominated for Oscars. That's not a coincidence, that's a writer/director that knows what he's doing. I look at filmmakers like Wilder and Sturges and see them as the embodiment of the phrase "damn, they don't make 'em like they used to." Wilder is the guy you picture when someone says "director." Ironic considering as far as style goes, Wilder only had one: let the actors act and the scene play out. Still, he knew how to use the camera to bring out the story, such as the classic shot of a body in a pool, shot from the bottom, in Sunset Blvd or the camera chasing characters around left and right in Some Like It Hot. Some critics like to say he's a "safe" director. Rarely tries to be "artistic" or political or have a visual style. Personally, I just enjoy good films and don't ever think much on those types of things. Sometimes if you spend too much time looking, you don't see the beauty of something right in front of you.

Favorites: Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Blvd, Double Indemnity, Irma la Douce

20: Mel Brooks


A hell of a one-two punch having Brooks and Wilder right here, though Brooks is certainly more comedic, less dipping into the drama and noir. His name brings up so many (usually politically incorrect) moments in film that it makes me say a couple of things. 1) Some of his movies would never get greenlit today and 2) He was a head of his time which is why his film hold up so well. From tackling Hitler, Racism, Homosexuals and maybe a dash of necrophilia, Brooks managed to take taboo topics and make us all laugh at the absurdity of it all. That absurdness is life itself, and we all have to laugh. To me, Brooks is unabashed and unapologetic comedy at its best.

Favorites: Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, Spaceballs

19: John Huston

Probably one of the top three or four most successful directors of all time, John Huston just made hit after hit, amazing movie after amazing movie (usually with Humphrey Bogart) and still seems to be a rather overlooked director even in film schools. Hell, in the various classes I took (showing college only does so much folks) I don't think his name was brought up once. Instead they discuss Bunuel or Bergman. Fair enough, I love those guys too, but Huston made a ton of great films (in a way, a bit of precursor to Sidney Lumet who was in Part One of this list). Unheralded except for those old film fans who love classic movies. He did his job, did it well and created some of the best movies of any era.


Favorites: The African Queen, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, The Red Badge of Courage

18: Sergio Leone


Leone's movies are just the epitome of "stylishly cool." Though that is the main reason most love his westerns, what's lost is exactly why that is. It's because he knows how to really shoot intensity and showcase various perspectives to define that coolness. Close ups, a bead of sweat, a twitchy finger inches from a gun holster, then clash that against a vista of the west (actually Italy but whatever) and then back to that intimacy of heartbeats and clammy palms. Then you have those "looks." You know what I'm talking about, those times when the cool gunslinger doesn't say a thing...and that's when you know there's trouble happening in about three seconds. When people think of westerns now, they tend to think of one Sergio Leone.


Favorites: Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, Duck you Sucker, For a Few Dollars More

17: Vittorio De Sica


Despite being a fan of Italian Neorealism, that documentary-style of realistic filmmaking with real locations and non-actors, there's really only one filmmaker in the movement I can comfortably put on this list. He just happens to be the most important figure of the that style and is also one of the most important Italian filmakers to ever live. A writer, director, producer and actor, De Sica manages to take simple stories and show an emotional resonance that transcends language, time and setting. The father and son relationship in The Bicycle Thief or the tale of understanding mortality in Umberto D (and the love a dog) are stories that truly stay with you and give you goosebumps as you think back to certain scenes. 

Favorites: Umberto D, The Bicycle Thief, Indiscretion of an American Wife, Il Generale Della Rovere, Shoeshine

16:  Charlie Chaplin


One of the oldest on my list but still, after decades and decades of movies and generations since, people still know his name, his films and his infamous character, The Tramp. His story is similar to a lot of early silent film actors and directors, coming from stage and vaudeville before finding a certain niche to fill. Chaplin took that niche and transformed film entirely. His comedy is timeless and he was a man who took a few chances in his career that many filmmakers would never do (notably The Great Dictator). This is another one of those where, I feel, the name speaks for itself and me going on and on about him is a bit pointless. He made wonderful movies, and that's all I ask for.

Favorites: City Lights, Modern Times, Limelight, The Great Dictator, The Gold Rush

15: Jean Pierre Melville


I love crime thrillers. Ok, I love thrillers to begin with, but crime thrillers are a part that I'm just a sucker for. So when one comes along that has that, but also shows richness in character and depth with a sharp script and fantastic scene direction, you have something that's not just a genre picture, but just a damn good picture. Melville was a director that blended foreign character driven stories, Hollywood style crime thrillers and an abundance of cool in the process. His films are often looked at as some of the standards of the genre - a damn high bar to be set. 

Favorites: Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samourai, Les Enfants Terribles, Bob le Flambeur, Army of Shadows

14: Martin Scorsese


Speaking of crime films, one name that is automatically planted in a person's mind is Scorsese. Only fair, he has crafted some of the best crime-focused movies in history and is easily one of the top five greatest American directors to ever live. Yet, it's not just his crime movies that I love from him. Raging Bull is one of the best character studies I've seen on film, beautifully shot and acted by De Niro and Pesci, and smaller films like Bringing Out the Dead still with a sensational Scorsese "feel" of grittiness that makes even a lesser known film like that utterly engaging. His films offer up some amazing and often-quoted scenes, his characters remembered well beyond their screen appearance (and quoted to death) and always tells some of the best and often understated complex films in American cinema.

Favorites: Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ

13: David Cronenberg


There's no denying that Cronenberg is not for everyone. Ten minutes watching Naked Lunch or Videodrome will tell you that. His films are bizarre, sometimes grotesque, but damn if they aren't some great stories in the process. His films are often a combination of "body horror"(usually a metamorphosis of some kind) with psychological thriller causing for an unsettling blend that is both enticing yet repulsive. His movies are often difficult to label or put in one particular genre because they tend to be all over the place (though his recent crime thrillers are probably his most accepted pieces by critics).  In the end, he's a horror director because if there's anything you will get from a Crononberg movie is a sense of horror and maybe a few nightmares in the process.

Favorites: Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch, A History of Violence, The Dead Zone

12: Roman Polanski


I was watching Chinatown the other day and tried to find one single scene that wasn't fantastic. It was a challenge, and I absolutely failed because every scene has a purpose, every line a point and every second of that film and in every aspect of the shot something you must pay attention to. That's just one example of Polanski's style across all his films, though. Polanski is a director that layers each scene where you get a strange sense of uncertainty: maybe something around a corner at the end of a hall or a certain look from a character that he tends to focus on. Backgrounds seem to have as much purpose to a scene as an actor in the middle of it as it's not merely the actor and the dialogue that's the focus (his characters often only speaking when necessary), but the entire world and area around him or her. This approach can make even a rather banal script (such as The Ninth Gate) an unnerving movie thanks to a genius at storytelling through a visual medium.

Favorites: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, Knife in the Water, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer

11: Jacques Tati


I still stand by my statement (one I've never put on this site, I don't think): Jacques Tati is the single most underrated comedy filmmaker in cinema history. You shouldn't take my word for it, though. I'm just a guy who loves movies and likes writing silly blogs. You can go watch M. Hulot's Holiday and you'll be convinced. That's just one movie, one that I still hold very close to my heart as a masterpiece of comedy. His Hulot character (which he acted as, so he's not just a typical writer/director) is a blend of a Buster Keaton with a dash of Warner Brothers cartoons (I like to say Wile E Coyote only not as menacing). It's simply impossible to not fall in love the character and his films in the process as he manages to find a way to have a silent person (usually) and silent-era comedy in a modern time. That fits, though, because Hulot was always a character that was quintessentially out of place even if he didn't know it. That's why we love him, though.

Favorites: M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime, Jour de fete, Trafic

10: Federico Fellini


I was in a film class about ten years ago and, as so often in a film class, the teacher pulls out some clips of movies. I can't recall what the discussion was, again as so often with a film class, but I certainly remember the clip. It was the moment in 8 1/2 where our character soon finds himself floating. Of course I had no context of this scene to the film itself so I went to hunt it down. From finally seeing it, I was a Fellini fan. Thing is, though, 8 1/2 ended up not even my favorite film. I soon became a fan of his earlier work, such as La Strada or the White Sheik, but in no way found his later, dream-focused ideas unappealing. That's because he still found humanism and the people behind it all, even if things did turn strange now and again. 

Favorites: La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita, Armacord

9: The Coen Brothers


The Coen Brothers have consistently been making brilliant films for nearly 30 years. Their debut film, Blood Simple, is every bit as strong as their most recent movie, True Grit. Everything in between may run the gamut of favorites for people, but all tend to be good to masterpieces. I would go as so far they've never made a "bad" movie in their history (yes, that includes the rather odd remake, The Ladykillers). Their great films, though, are truly great (only a few of which I list in my five favorites below, I could have listed at least six more). Their style is distinct and their films are always ones I look forward to seeing for the fine scripts, the dark comedy, the memorable characters and the uniqueness of being a "Coen Brothers" movie.

Favorites: The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou, Miller’s Crossing

8: David Lynch


David Lynch exploded onto the film scene with his independent...fantasy/science fiction (really I don't know what to call it) film Eraserhead. He began getting offers all over the place and his filmmaking career took off. Then after Dune crashed and burned, he went right back to what he knew best: making weird fucking movies. We're all better for it, I think. Lynch is on here for a number of reasons. One being he's directed some great films, a second being he is always a unique storyteller and another being he's just such a  wonderful character himself that I can't help but admire him.  I mean, he does daily weather updates on his website and recently showed up a screening unannounced for his film Wild at Heart here in LA. You know, just for the hell of it. His films are a dreamy "trip." That's the best way to describe nearly all his movies. They have no boundaries yet always have a direction and you're just a long for the ride. You toss out your preconception of "plot points" or "arcs" or "acts" and just go on a journey through fantasy, reality, secrets and oddities of sound and visuals. He, along with Mark Frost, also offered up one of the most memorable and beloved television series (where he directed many episodes and also acted in - a role that seemed to parody himself I might add) in Twin Peaks.

Favorites: Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks

7: Fritz Lang


And now we come to one that has always been in my Top Ten for many a year. Ever since I saw Metropolis in 2000 in a film class, then followed that up with M, I have admired Fritz Lang like few directors. A lot of it boils down to the sheer ambition of Metropolis, one of the earliest science fiction films and every bit as deep, allegorical and poignant as films that would come later, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris. Lang is German Expressionism at its finest across his early work. Those long shadows and dark silhouettes, that overall creepy and ominous feeling M or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse project which all led to a solid career directing some noir pictures once he came to Hollywood. Some consider Lang the originator of the noir genre entirely, showcasing dark, gritty world full of fear, paranoia and criminals. 

Favorites: Metropolis, M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The Big Heat, Fury

6: Steven Spielberg

If you want to discuss a varied and expansive body of work, look no further than the one man that, when all is said and done, will probably be regarded as the greatest director to ever live. His films have a timeless quality to them and all with that distinct Spielberg style. He’s tackled numerous genres as well, and approached each similarly (with that style) but different as the genre might dictate. He understands tone about as good as anyone, and it ranges from frightening to comedic to dramatic to wonder. He’s shaped the entire film industry, was dubbed the “golden boy” during the formation of the “movie blockbuster” that he spearheaded and is, on top of that, a humble, respectful and admirable filmmaker that, deep down, every director today owes much to and probably wish they could be.

Favorites: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, ET, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

5: David Lean


When I think of classic Hollywood, I think of David Lean. His name is synonymous with two words: "sweeping" and "epic." "Sweeping" conjures up fantastical shots of locations, from deserts to forests to fields of ice. "Epic" makes one think of long movies that probably have an intermission. Well...that's David Lean, and he always delivered. Lawrence of Arabia is still my favorite directed film, The Bridge on the River Kwai my favorite "prison" (for lack of a better word) movie and Brief Encounter easily in my top three or four favorite romantic films (because it is so much not a romantic film). Lean's visual eye and setting of scenes is arguably unmatched. I remember sitting in awe of some of the shots in Lawrence, thinking that the camera had to, at least, be a good half mile away to get a picture of two characters on the horizon. He uses every inch of that Super Panavision screen, putting one character on the far left and another on the far right and having Omar Sharif hazzily appear in the middle from the distance, or taking an actual train and running it off the tracks (in both Arabia and Kwai). Lean wasn't always about sweeping epics, though. He still offered up some fantastic Charles Dickens adaptations and, as mentioned, Brief Encounter is a remarkable tale of two star-crossed lovers that unfortunately are married to different people. He is the embodiment of movie making in my eye and there are few that are in his league. 

Favorites: Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Doctor Zhivago

4: Stanley Kubrick


Every film school nerd (and probably snob) loves Stanley Kubrick. Though many unrightfully feel "superior" to others by being able to discuss the auteur's films and techniques, I just like him because he made some great pictures, two of which are a personal favorite in the satirical masterpiece Dr. Strangelove the dark (I might even call it comedy in that Shakespearean sense) A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick was never one to do things simply. Maybe that's why he was a recluse and selective with his material. Well, that and notoriously difficult to work with. He needed things one certain way. No discussion. That desire to be unwavering on a vision is the stuff film fans love to hear. It shows passion (or obsession) and is what being an "auteur" is all about. Though I never subscribe fully to the theory, if there's an auteur out there, his name is probably Stanley.

Favorites: Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Paths of Glory

3: Buster Keaton


As much as I love Chaplin (and Harold Lloyd, who didn't make this list), I love Buster Keaton that much more. I can't quite explain why other than his films having a distinctive style to them. Chaplin had a style as did Lloyd and they all tended to play off of each other and implement various approaches of each others' works in the process. Maybe it's because he is so unassuming, both in front of and behind the camera. Things seem to just naturally happen and he finds humor in the most simple and quiet things that never draw attention to themselves, much like his stoneface character, I suppose. His comedy develops in a similar fashion: quietly and unassumingly until it hits you and you realize all it had been working up towards was one big punchline.

His movies were complete dry comedy. So many crazy and humorous things happening, yet Keaton's character always kept an odd stoic face and stiff body. He should be flailing (and would when stunts called in, of which he did some incredible ones) but would quietly look at it and go "Hmph...that's interesting." Well, that's where the humor came from, a dry, parched character and a dry, parched tone that only offers you a drink when the final reveal and fade to black rolls in.

Favorites: Sherlock Jr, The General, The Cameraman, The Playhouse, Our Hospitality

2: Akira Kurosawa


Akira Kurosawa loves to engage me on so many levels. His films have made me sad and utterly depressed, had me fall in love, on the edge of my seat (with a sword in hand, possibly) and will even have me rewatch the film right after I had just seen it to get the meaning and purpose to his imagery and story. His films are an eclectic bunch of human dramas (Record of a Living Being, Ikiru), action and adventure (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), comedy (Sanjuro, The Hidden Fortress), Crime Thrillers (Stray Dog, High and Low), Surrealism (Dreams), Romance (One Wonderful Sunday) Theatrical (Throne of Blood, Ran), Epic Spectacle (Kagemusha) and character studies (Red Beard and I'll throw in Ikiru again because it's a masterpiece). 

I've written a lot about Kurosawa in my blogs, and much of what I would want to say would simply be me repeating myself. The man was a perfectionist, often shooting over-schedule but making up for it as a quick and fast editor and has the made the greatest films to come out of Japan. His movies are so well made they not only influenced countless directors you probably know and love today, but are timeless in their quality as they seem so undated and timeless generations later. How is that Yojimbo (or any number of his films) looks and feels like a movie that could have been shot and acted yesterday (film stock aside)? Beats me, but that says more about this master of movie making than anything, doesn't it.

Favorites: Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, Stray Dog

1: Alfred Hitchcock


Well I didn't do a month long and review 40 of his films because I don't like the man. His carrer spans decades, his variety found in every genre, his number of films doubling and tripling that of many directors on his list and his impact found and seen in countless films today, from horror in the slasher genre to the thrillers of a Tarantino movie where dialogue rises your tension and that bomb under the table could go off at any moment. He loved to toy with audience and even if you've seen a movie from him a dozen times, you still find yourself subconsciously falling for his trickery time and time again. I know the reveal in Psycho, I know what happens in Rear Window's windows and I know who Cary Grant is in North by Northwest, but damnit I forget all that because I succumb to Hitchock's mastery of storytelling and fall for it all over again. He's an easy director to rewatch because he seems to so easily draw us in, whether it be with a dash of comedy (such as the Lady Vanishes) or serious drama in Notorious or Rebbecca, or even gory in The Birds or exploitative violence in Frenzy. He crossed lines happily, if not joyously.

Much of my love for Hitchcock stems back to my mother, who was always a James Stewart fan and always an Alfred Hitchcock fan. Put those two together and I ended up watching Rear Window and Vertigo a number of times on top of the likes of The Birds and Psycho. As the years went on, I've come to respect and admire the man's craft as I've come to understand and appreciate film more. His approach is one of simplicity yet perfect effectiveness: a balance few movie makers can find. It rarely drew attention to itself because Hitchcock loved to get you lost in his movies, which is why we can so easily rewatch them and forget we've seen them a dozen times before.  The entire murder/mystery, suspense, thriller and horror genre owes everything to man.

Favorites: North by Northwest, Notorious, Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window

Honorable Mentions: Darren Aronofsky, Carl Theordore Dryer, Pedro Almodovar, Terry Gilliam, John Woo, Rob Reiner, Terrence Malick, Christopher Nolan, Ingmar Bergman, Tim Burton, Luis Bunuel, Spike Jonze, Frank Capra, Mike Nichols, Ingmar Bergman, Werner Herzog, WS Van Dyke, Carol Reed, Jean-Pierre Jenuet, Alfonso Cuaron, John Cassavetes, Cameron Crowe, Stanley Kramer, Samuel Fuller, Neil Jordan, Edgar Wright, Woody Allen

Many of these above were on and off the list here and there, some numerous times (such as Malick, Burton, Ford, Reed and Fuller). All have offered up some great films and some of my personal favorites, but just missed the cut. I think early Burton is as strong as anyone, with Batman, Ed Wood, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, Gilliam just a visionary of fantasy with the likes of Brazil and the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Cassavetes the poster child of independent cinema and Capra...well it's Capra, what else is there to say? He's made some of my favorite films. I could write entries for each of them as well, but you have to stop at some point.

The most difficult to have left off, however, was Ingmar Bergman. If there was a #51, he certainly would be it. But I plan a special showcase of Bergman in the coming weeks as I haven't done a tribute in a while, so hopefully that will make up for it.


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