Helmers of the English language, the best and why: part one

Posted by · 1:00 pm · November 1st, 2008

David CronenbergMy recent article on Clint Eastwood drew an excellent response from Nathaniel Rogers (a regular commenter) that led me to this article. In that piece, I make clear my admiration for Eastwood, his artistry and the fact I believe him to be among the three finest directors working in movies. I stand by that, because I do not feel every film a director makes needs to be a masterpiece, as long as they are growing and continually trying to reach for something new.  Even the greatest of artists fail, and in fact they learn more from failure than they ever do success.

Before the knives are drawn and tossed my way I will remind all that this is my list, just an opinion. I have selected what I believe to be the finest 10 directors working in the English language (five today, five tomorrow). I am positive that there will be disagreement, but that’s what keeps the world turning. Bear in mind that one film does not a genius make, and that a body of work (at least four films) was essential for the list.

With that, the filmmakers…

I think “There Will Be Blood” is the finest American film since “Schindler’s List,” a bold masterpiece that is firmly grounded by a raging performance from the great Daniel Day-Lewis.  The actor gives one of the cinema’s finest performances. Despite having directed relatively few films at this stage in his career — “Hard Eight,” the remarkable “Boogie Nights,”  the breathtaking “Magnolia” and the off-beat “Punch-Drunk Love” — Anderson has made a place for himself in American cinema. Drawing on the works of Altman and merging it with Scorsese’s hard edge, a bit of Huston, Hawks, Ford and Welles tossed in for good measure, and you have Anderson.

I remember seeing “Boogie Nights” for the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival and knowing I was in the hands of a great director, weaving in and out of his narrative, always in control of the story and his actors. His films are brash and confident, his work fearless, and he is not bothered in the least by making his characters dislikable. Each film of his I see thrills me and reminds of the hope of the future for American film. Anderson represents such a huge part of that.

I consider “Requiem for a Dream” one of the best films of 2000. I felt dirty after watching it, felt like I was on the same downward spiral as the characters within.  I recognized that addiction to antyhing was something truly terrible and potentially life-altering, more so than the most effective “Just say no” campaign could have managed. Ellen Burstyn has never been better and Jennifer Connelly took enormous risks as an actress that she had never taken before.

I was not a huge fan of “Pi” but have admired everything Darren Aronofsky has done since.  “The Fountain” was a challenging film for both audiences and the filmmaker, and though I am still not entirely sure if it is a great film, it is certainly a great experience.  This year’s “The Wrestler” is superb, but it is likely to be remembered for Mickey Rourke’s lead performance rather than Aronofsky’s work as director.

Though I do not believe “No Country for Old Men” was the best film of 2007, or even the Coen brothers’ best film to date, this duo’s body of work is quite extraordinary and fascinating. From “Blood Simple” through “Raising Arizona” to “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski,” each Coen effort is different from the one before, maintaining a quirky style, but still set in different worlds with characters that are light years apart.

Think of Margie from ‘Fargo” encountering The Dude in “The Lebowski” and the two of them having coffee with Albert Finney and John Turturro in “Miller’s Crossing.” For me the Coens’ best work that early, brilliant gangster film, at once an homage and an undeniable original.  I loved “Fargo” and Jeff Bridges’s work in “The Big Lebowski” is one of the iconic performances Oscar missed. I’m glad they finally secured proper AMPAS approval last year.  They deserve that and they remain consistently interesting.

While much of his early career here in Canada was devoted to making gross-out, shclocky horror films, the manner in which David Cronenberg has grown over the last 30 years is thrilling.  From “The Dead Zone” to “Dead Ringers” we see a director becoming more confident with actors, able to hone strong performances.

“Naked Lunch” is without question his boldest work, asking the audience to take a journey with him from the pages of William S. Burroghs and the author’s twisted mind.  Like Kubrick, he asked that you experience the film rather than just watch it. In recent years his films have left the supernatural behind to focus on the horrors of the real world.  The superb “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” have earned rave reviews around the globe for their excellence. Long beloved in Canada, it is exciting to see the man embraced by the film world. And kudos to him for not selling out to Hollywood and staying true to the type of films he wants to make.

And you know why. From “Play Misty for Me” to “Changeling,” Clint Eastwood has always challenged himself as an artist, sometimes hitting it right on, sometimes not. More often, however, his films are lean and powerful, with the story behind the story becoming the most interesting.

Have there been failures? Indeed. “The Rookie” was terrible, made for all the wrong reasons.  And I must confess to not being a fan of “Absolute Power.” But look at “Bird,” a bold study of jazz great Charlie Parker, superbly portrayed by a young Forest Whitaker, 18 years before he would win his Oscar for “The Last King of Scotland.” In “White Hunter Black Heart” Eastwood challanged himself as an actor, portraying no less than John Huston in the film and pulling it off.  That effort was followed by “Unforgiven” which I am sure presents no argument for being a masterpiece.  And he’s still going strong.

Check back tomorrow for the final five directors.  In the meantime, have your say: tell us your picks for the greatest filmmakers workign in the English language!

→ 38 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Featured

38 responses so far

  • 1 11-01-2008 at 1:02 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Glad to see Aronofsky on here, of course. He’d probably be hovering at the bottom of my list.

    I’ll hold off until tomorrow to give my picks, but I expect they’ll be considerably different than yours. As far as today’s quintet goes, though, I’m in agreement on Anderson and Aronofsky.

  • 2 11-01-2008 at 1:27 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I assume you’re working in alphabetical order here?

    You don’t mention “Spider,” which I think might be Cronenberg’s best film.

  • 3 11-01-2008 at 1:46 pm

    michael mckay said...

    For me it’s all about…Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Roman Polanski, and Tim Burton.

    I also admire Julian Schnabel, Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson, Jean Pierre Jeunet, and just about all the Pixar films.

  • 4 11-01-2008 at 1:46 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Curious that you don’t mention Barton Fink for the Coen’s. To me, easily their strongest film.

  • 5 11-01-2008 at 2:04 pm

    Chad said...

    I’ll argue that “Unforgiven” is not a masterpiece.

  • 6 11-01-2008 at 2:18 pm

    Kevin said...

    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Quentin Tarantino
    David Gordon Green
    Christopher Nolan
    Cameron Crowe

    This list could change soon enough, as seeing Australia, Che, The Wrestler, etc. could put guys like Baz Luhrman, Soderbergh and Aronofsky into play if these movies are as great as I hope they will be.

  • 7 11-01-2008 at 2:22 pm

    Patrick said...

    Woody Allen
    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Darren Aronofsky
    David Cronenberg
    David Fincher
    Stephen Frears
    Todd Haynes
    Martin Scorsese
    Gus Van Sant

  • 8 11-01-2008 at 2:29 pm

    michael mckay said...

    I feel that Clint Eastwood’s the “Unforgiven” is the best western ever laid down, though I loved The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

  • 9 11-01-2008 at 2:34 pm

    Zan said...

    I probably wouldn’t put Aronofsky on a top directors list, but his works are at least unique.

    Thank you for not using the atrocity known as Million Dollar Baby as a crux of your Eastwood argument.

    PT’s undeniably the best working director, and he could be one of, if not the, best ever when his career finishes.

    Others? Scorsese, Soderbergh, and Michael Mann. Alexander Payne and Sam Mendes will make the list in the next few years I hope.

  • 10 11-01-2008 at 2:47 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Mann is already secured IMO.

  • 11 11-01-2008 at 3:34 pm

    josh said...

    what about Steven Spielberg? The man’s given us Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Color Purple, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan to name a few.

  • 12 11-01-2008 at 3:57 pm

    John Foote said...

    Read the note that says part one — more to come and indeed Spielberg is on the second list — I submitted in order of preference — Kris is posting in reverse I believe.

  • 13 11-01-2008 at 3:58 pm

    Chris said...

    My top ten would be: Woody Allen, PT Anderson, Danny Boyle, The Coens, David Fincher, Ang Lee, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Gus van Sant. I think.

    Polanski doesn’t work enough any more, and although I like his work a lot Darren Aronofsky doesn’t make my list yet. If the list included non-English language directors I’d definitely include Almodóvar, Akin and Wong Kar Wai.

  • 14 11-01-2008 at 3:59 pm

    John Foote said...

    And Chad, argue away about “Unforgiven” — would love to hear what you have to say about that film, which is only among the greatest ever made —

  • 15 11-01-2008 at 4:24 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Actually it’s alphabetical.

  • 16 11-01-2008 at 4:38 pm

    Patrick F. said...

    When i saw this title, I immediatly thought of directors that used english language the best, rather than the best directors of the english language:
    Joel And Ethan Coen
    Woody Allen
    Peter Weir
    Mike Nichols
    Oliver Stone
    Sydney Lumet
    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Sam Mendes
    Alexander Payne
    Peter Boyle

    I think Clint Eastwood is the best helmer of Bad English language, meaning that he’s really good at directing really horrible screenplays and making everyone think they are brillinat simply because he’s associated with them. The best script he’s ever been involved with was clearly “Any Which Way But Loose.”

  • 17 11-01-2008 at 5:24 pm

    John Foote said...

    It wasn’t written alphabetical — obviously it is posted that way.

  • 18 11-01-2008 at 5:40 pm

    The InSneider said...

    I guess if you made me choose 10…

    P.T. Anderson
    Darren Aronofsky
    James Cameron
    David Fincher
    Michael Mann
    Martin Scorsese
    Ridley Scott
    Steven Spielberg
    Oliver Stone
    Quentin Tarantino

    But I could name another 50 who could make me show up for anything they did…

    and surprised no one’s said MILOS! After all, he did Cuckoo’s Nest…

  • 19 11-01-2008 at 6:00 pm

    Chad said...

    Directors across the board are extremely inconsistent for me to the point where I can count maybe three that ensure I’ll see their latest product on name alone. They are Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Terrence Malick.

  • 20 11-01-2008 at 6:10 pm

    John K said...

    Not a single Linklater mention? For shame.

    Anyway, like Chad, there are not too many directors for whom I will see their films on name alone – maybe the top eight on my list:

    1. Michael Mann
    2. Ang Lee
    3. Tim Burton
    4. Paul Thomas Anderson
    5. Steven Spielberg
    6. Richard Linklater
    7. Martin Scorsese
    8. Peter Jackson
    9. Quentin Tarantino
    10. David Lynch

    I’m not including Ang Lee, but he would be in the top five otherwise.

    Paul Greengrass could easily make the list in a few years. Curtis Hanson if he can be more consistent. Sofia Coppola if she can produce even one more masterpiece like “Lost in Translation.” Milos Forman if he made more films.

    Eastwood is somewhere in the next five.

    And to respond to a commenter above, “Unforgiven” is surely a masterpiece, but it’s not the best Western ever. That’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.” It’s not even the best American Western ever – that would be “High Noon.”

  • 21 11-01-2008 at 6:11 pm

    John K said...

    (Obviously, I did decide to include Ang Lee after all.)

  • 22 11-01-2008 at 8:58 pm

    Casey said...

    i feel like we’re not really separating “working directors” the right way. how do we qualify “working directors”. i mean i feel like that statement kind of infers like a “directors of the last 10-15 years” and are still directing relevant work. but we’re kind of outlining directors who are currently working but whose best films were made a little while ago. despite the fact that i think spielberg is one of the top 5-10 directors ever, i dont think he’s made anything qualifying him for this list since 98. so as a compromise i’ll put it at 90s/00’s, in which spielberg is included

    Coen Bros.
    David Fincher
    Martin Scorsese
    Christopher Nolan
    Quentin Tarantino
    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Wes Anderson
    Steven Spielberg
    Peter Jackson
    Richard Linklater

  • 23 11-01-2008 at 9:34 pm

    Billyboy said...

    So if it’s on alphabetical order, no Woody Allen?

    My list:

    1. Woody Allen
    2. Martin Scorsese
    3. Paul Thomas Anderson
    4. David Lynch
    5. Joel and Ethan Coen
    6. Steven Spielberg
    7. Francis Ford Coppola

    Yes, not even ten.

    Most of them have influenced on the way we conceive an aspect of film (a genre, visual effects, acting, etc). They have taken risks, have solid bodies of work, films that are considered canonical, are true to their themes and obsessions and -most exciting of all- are still at work.

    Almost on the best list: Malick, Soderbergh, Fincher, Cronenberg, Eastwood, Tarantino, Stone.

  • 24 11-02-2008 at 2:19 am

    tdr said...

    Does Bernardo Bertolucci qualify? He’s italian but he’s been making movies in english, especially his latest ones- The Dreamers, Stealing Beauty, The sheltering sky, The last emperor. I could see his movies just because they’re his.
    I think that the Last emperor is one of the greatest movies ever made. And Last tango in Paris is just incredible, Brando at his best (sorry to all the Godfather fans).
    So, if he qualifies, i say Bernardo Bertolucci.
    Hope he makes a new movie soon.

  • 25 11-02-2008 at 2:28 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Woody Allen currently isn’t in any big league. Vicky Cristina Barca came close to great but he’s not consistent enough.
    As for the rest, I love the list, though I find it a bit strange that Aranofsky qualifies with so little films to his name.
    I also adore “TWBB” and “A History of Violence” as masterpieces and stunning films. Great list.

  • 26 11-02-2008 at 2:56 am

    Daniel Crooke said...

    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Wes Anderson
    Joel and Ethan Coen
    Clint Eastwood
    Christopher Guest
    Mike Nichols
    Christopher Nolan
    Martin Scorsese
    Steven Spielberg
    Quentin Tarantino

  • 27 11-02-2008 at 6:00 am

    John Foote said...

    Thank you Jonathan, Woody Allen indeed does not belong on a list of great working directors OF THE MOMENT — he was once (in the seventies and eighties) but is very likely the most inconsistent of the one time greats, more so even than Francis Ford Coppola, who does not work near enough to be considered — Allen is without doubt the finest American screenwriter, but certainly not the greatest of directors — Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona were good films, not great films — his last genuine masterpiece was Crimes and Misdamenors — I have a Woody essay coming soon.

    And TDR interesting point about Bertolucci, who is among the top foreign language directors on that list — agree with Brando in Tango, his finest work — “The Last Emperor” does not do it for me, too dull, too empty, but I love “The Sheltering Sky” and “1900” — keep checking for the foreign language director feature.

  • 28 11-02-2008 at 10:51 am

    Chad said...

    I totally agree with Casey. A lot of the directors mentioned are running on fumes. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and Sidney Lumet all haven’t made a great film in over a decade.

  • 29 11-02-2008 at 11:13 am

    Kid said...

    I agree with most of those names chad but I believe Scorsese is one of the best directors currently making films.

  • 30 11-02-2008 at 11:47 am

    Chris said...

    What I find difficult about making a list like this is that I want to include great directors that are still living, not living directors who keep growing and improving their craft. Someone mentioned Steven Spielberg and though I have not seen Munich, I feel that Spielberg hasn’t made a truly great film in over 10 years. Scorsese has made some great films over the past decade, but nothing matches his earlier triumphs like Mean Streets or Raging Bull. Still, I consider him one of the best working directors.

    That said I agree with both Paul Thomas Anderson and David Cronenberg on your list. All five of Anderson’s films have been great ( Punch Drunk Love) if not masterpieces (Boogie Nights) and Cronenberg has made three of his best films in the past 5 years; Spider, History of Violence and Eastern Promises.

    Eastwood’s work I find to be underwhelming. With the exception of some of his earlier work, I don’t think he’s made a film worthy of being called a masterpiece…ever. Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby…all very good, but nothing remarkable.

    My top 10;
    1. Paul Thomas Anderson
    2. David Fincher
    3. Paul Greengrass
    4. David Cronenberg
    5. Michael Mann
    6. Alexander Payne
    7. Martin Scorsese
    8. John Hillcoat (simply for The Proposition which is the best western of the past 20 years – I’m looking forward to The Road)
    9. Christopher Nolan
    10. Werner Herzog

  • 31 11-02-2008 at 12:11 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Even without “Munich” there’s “Minority Report,” “Catch Me if You Can,” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” The guy’s still firing on all cylinders, and I’m sure “Lincoln” will prove it once again.

  • 32 11-02-2008 at 12:56 pm

    John Foote said...

    With Spielberg; take away “Munich” and you still have “A.I.” which was extraordinary, “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can”, his frothiest film. The man is a genius, and the best working…period.

  • 33 11-02-2008 at 12:58 pm

    Casey said...

    i think scorsese’s firing on all cylinders still as hes made, debatebly, 2 or 3 excellent films this decade. tho i love gangs of new york, i agree that directorially it isnt near his best work. i truly believe that the aviator and the departed are within his top 6 or 7 directorially. spielberg is not anymore. i love munich and on the whole i think it was very well directed but then you have that laughable sex scene etc. i like catch me if you can very much but dont think it was super strong on direction. and i dont mind a.i. but thot it was rather poorly directed, for spielberg anyway. i really wish we would clarify this by doing more of a directors of a generation type of deal

  • 34 11-02-2008 at 1:44 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I agree that Spielberg is still continuing to develop himself and make challenging films. He’s one of those director’s who I’ve never seen a film of that I didn’t like. Same with Ridley Scott.
    Scorsese is still making great films, but also films with passion.

  • 35 11-02-2008 at 4:00 pm

    Billyboy said...

    John, some thoughts:

    1. Maybe it wasn’t clear for me you were listing the ten best directors OF THE MOMENT. In that case I find it kind of pointless. For me a list of the best filmmakers of the English language can’t ignore history. Can’t ignore the influence some directors had on the way we consider movies. Can’t ignore the films they made in the 70’s, 80’s etc. When we consider something AT THE MOMENT we fail to have some critical distance. 2001: A Space Odyssey was considered a terrible film at the time by most people. Yet now many include it on their best-of-all-time list.

    2. I feel that, whereas they might be now inconsistant, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola have made a contribution to film people like Aronofsky (don’t get me wrong, I like the guy) have yet to make. Although they make films like Scoop or Jack (you said it yourself, even the great artists fail, we can’t expect them to make masterpiece after masterpiece) we can’t ignore their past. Manhattan, The Godfather, Annie Hall, Apocalypse Now. Too big to ignore.

    3. Allen has been “growing and continually trying to reach for something new” through the years. Here’s a guy that started in stand-up comedy. You can see his growth when you consider films like Take the money and run and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Match Point or September. Late in his career he has done something others wouldn’t do: Making films out of his comfort zone (From NY to London, Barcelona). Directing actors in other languages. Coppola is doing it too (Tetro in Argentina and YWY in Romania).

    Bottom line is I think people tend to consider “Who are the greatest filmmakers of all time?” and not “Who were the best working in 2005, 2008?” because that doesn’t say much.

    Anyway, just my thoughts. Great discussion though. Looking forward to that Woody Allen essay.

  • 36 11-20-2008 at 11:52 am

    brent Johnson said...

    where is spike lee on this list?

  • 37 1-20-2009 at 1:20 pm

    Chad said...

    I was hoping to find an old Tapley review of A History of Violence but no dice. I just saw it yesterday and thought it was awful. Beyond awful. I need someone to tell me what’s good about it.