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

Posted by · 12:43 pm · November 2nd, 2008

Peter JacksonThis is the second part of a feature running down the 10 best filmmakers working in the English language.  For part one, click here, and stay tuned in the coming weeks for a similar feature on European helmers.

I know this one will bother some people but what Jackson accomplsihed with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was fucking historical. Who would have thought the man who made the small, personal thriller “Heavenly Creatures” could guide a film as big as “The Ten Commandments?” Furthermore, he gave the Tolkein story heart and soul, never sacrificing character for scope.

“The Lord of Rings: The Return of the King” was such a staggering work of brilliance I never wanted it to end (some felt like it never did, with multiple denouements).  But after investing nearly 12 hours with these characters, I wanted to know every last detail of what would become of them. And “King Kong” (I love it!) was among the best films of its year, a massive work with superb visual effects, spectacular art direction and design and a terrific Naomi Watts performance.

I look forward to “The Lovely Bones,” one of the very few books I have read in the span of two days, unable to put it down. If any director can take us to the heaven described in that book, it is Jackson.

Malick’s two films in the 1070s — “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” — have been written about plenty since their release, the former more so than the latter.  And in fairness, “Badlands” is a better film.  Malick took the theory of a guy, a girl and a gun and made a sparse masterpiece.  The film was anchored by a brilliant Martin Sheen performance, simply electrifying and well supported by Sissy Spacek.

With “Days of Heaven,” despite being weighted down by the presence of Richard Gere, the director conjured for us the world of the tough-times farmer.  Though I find the film slow, it’s beauty is undeniable. But then we waited and waited and waited for 20 years for Malick to make another film. When he did, it was “The Thin Red Line,” which though quite masterful had the misfortune to be released the same year as Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

Malick chose to make a meditative study of how war impacts both mankind and nature. Rumor has it there is a five-hour cut out there somewhere.  God would I kill to see that.  And finally, I think I am in a minority of those who admire “The New World,” which almost silently transported audiences back to the time of Pocohontas and John Smith with a haunting lyrical beauty unmatched by many directors of today.

I can feel those weapons being aimed at me as I write this, but I do not care, I call them as I see them. Spielberg is living proof that success can by thy enemy.  No other director has evolved in the manner Spielberg has since 1993, when finally winning that long overdue Academy Award for “Schindler’s List” seemed to liberate him and set him free. It was never a secret he coveted the award, seeing it as some sort of acceptance into a club to which he was never sure that he belonged.

Of course he did. He should have won Oscars for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial” and “Empire of the Sun” before 1993, if you ask me. That is not to say there have not been missteps, the dredaful “Hook” (so easy to fix) and “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” among them. Yet in his best work, one can see an artist at work, ever changing, reaching heights perhaps he never thought he would achieve. “Saving Private Ryan” is a sublime work of art, and what he did with “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” was simply ahead of its time, ironically like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.” In years to come “A.I.” will surely be appreciated as one of his greatest works, demanding and challenging.

In 2002 he hit twice, first with the superb sci-fi thriller “Minority Report” — a darkly brilliant study of a future that looks very bleak (hailed by Ebert as best film of 2002) — and later with the frothy and fun “Catch Me If You Can.”  I still cannot believe the Academy virtually ignored both of these films.

“The Terminal” was alright, well anchored by a terrific Tom Hanks performance, but alas, a film not to everyone’s tastes. Hanks was brilliant, but the foreign accent was somewhat off-putting.  “War of the Worlds,” meanwhile, aside from a goofy reunion at the end, was downright terrifying, reeking of 9/11 metaphors. And “Munich”, his coldest film yet one of his finest, was startling in its matter of fact study of a murder squad sent to avenge a country in mourning.

Watching “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” this summer was like hooking up with with an old friend after many years: pure fun.  And I anxiously await his “Lincoln” film, which I expect will be superb. There was, maybe still is, some sort of fashionable thing that made it okay to bash Spielberg because apparently succesful films cannot be good films.  But he was great long ago.  After all, at 26 years old he made one for the ages and he’s been fairly consistent ever since.

The darkest of directors, Scorsese takes his audiences to places that haunt the landscape of the mind, the place where nightmares live. I remember becoming aware of him with “Taxi Driver,” which was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  I began to follow his career religiously. Oddly enough, even when he fails, his films are curiously entertaining — but he doesn’t fail often.

“Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Goodfellas,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Casino,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed” represent his finest efforts, all of them among the top American films of their time. His background in documentary has helped his films display a frank realism other directors struggle to capture. And by my count, Scorsese should have won Oscars for at least five or six of his films (hell they gave Ford four), beginning with “Raging Bull” in 1980, a stunning study of a man forever shadow boxing with himself.

The hiccups include “New York, New York,” a wildly ambitious film that is often brilliant but ultimate fails, hurt by a terrible performance from Robert De Niro. “The King of Comedy” was a misfire upon release but has become regarded as one of Scorsese’s finest films, with Jerry Lewis never better. “After Hours” was an odd little film that was well reviewed but never really found an audience, while “The Color of Money” won Paul Newman that elusive Oscar for Best Actor.

What Scorsese did with “Cape Fear” was interesting but never really elevated the film beyond the B-movie mentality it always had. “Kundun” was breathtaking to look at, beauitfully shot, but agonizingly slow, never pulling the viewer into the story and allowing us to get to know and perhaps understand the Dali Lama. The less said about “Bringing Out the Dead” the better. What a mess. Though flawed “Gangs of New York” is something quite extraordinary with a miraculous Daniel Day-Lewis performance.  And though many don’t share my opinion, I admired “The Aviator” for its study early in the film of the Howard Hughes of 1930s Hollywood.

Finally, let’s not forget his rock and roll documentaries, which have explored The Band, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones…the man is a genius.

No modern day list would be complete without Tantino, even though his second feature remains his greatest work, something he may never surpass.  But that’s okay, because just about everything he makes is wildly entertaining. “Pulp Fiction” changed the course of cinema, we know that, and it is a masterful work. But “Resevoir Dogs” was the film in which we first witnessed his confidence as a director, breaking the narrative into pieces (a Tarantino trademark now), inviting the audience to take the ride.

Though “Jackie Brown” disappointed me at the time of release, I have grown very fond of the film in the years since and realize that Tarantino wanted to make something radically different than “Pulp Fiction.”  The “Kill Bill” films are kick-ass fantasies, homages to Hong Kong cinema and John Ford, thrilling to watch filled with strong dialogue, excellent performances and strong visuals, paticularly Part Two.  In any case, though he has a relatively small filmography, the artistic growth is there, without question.

That wraps it up.  If you didn’t tell us in part one, have at it below: who are the best directors working in the English language today?

→ 40 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Featured

40 responses so far

  • 1 11-02-2008 at 12:49 pm

    Jeff said...

    I have always believed that Spielberg’s greatest accomplishment is Jaws.

  • 2 11-02-2008 at 12:55 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Let’s see, where to begin? Even if I agreed with you, I don’t think you make the case for Terrence Malick at all.

    Additionally, sorry, it is inarguable that the LAST thing Tarantino has done is grown as an artist. He’s still the subversive, indulgent kid he was 15 years ago and he’s working in a vein that was fresh for a time but just reeks as stale today. That coming from someone who thinks “Pulp Fiction” is one of the greatest films of all time, mind you, but he hasn’t developed at all. If anything, he’s moved backwards.

    As for my list (now that you’ve wrapped yours up) it would certainly include Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson, each of them on your collective. I might include Spielberg, but I don’t see as much growth as you do. He’s a skilled craftsman that seems to just be a well-oiled machine at this point (and Indy 4 was anything but a good time).

    To that I would add Michael Mann (no one is really in his league and even when he falls on his face its gracefull — see “Miami Vice”); David Fincher (talk about growing — he’s moved from genre to psychological study and looks to be digging into a heartstring effort that works in “Button”); Danny Boyle (the most intriguing choices); Stephen Frears (something different and fresh every single time); Oliver Stone (I think everything he does has a depth elusive to most filmmakers).

    Christopher Nolan deserves a place on this list like almost no other, given his extremely refined sensibilities and skill at moving from blockbuster to intimate drama (and even mingling the two). And yeah, the more I think about it, maybe Spielberg should be included.

    So let’s see, thats:

    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Darren Aronofsky
    Danny Boyle
    David Fincher
    Stephen Frears
    Michael Mann
    Christopher Nolan
    Martin Scorsese
    Steven Spielberg
    Oliver Stone

  • 3 11-02-2008 at 1:02 pm

    Bryan said...

    Where is David Lynch? Has any director pushed themselves or the art of cinema more than he has in recent years?

  • 4 11-02-2008 at 1:12 pm

    J said...

    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Alexander Payne
    Danny Boyle
    Richard Linklater
    Christopher Nolan
    David Fincher
    Martin Scorsese
    Cohen Brothers
    Michael Mann

  • 5 11-02-2008 at 1:14 pm

    John K said...

    I already posted my top ten in the previous post, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself. But I don’t know why people are so insistent on trashing “Hook.” “Hook” was flawed, but it certainly wasn’t “dreadful.”

    Still disappointed that neither you nor Kris mentioned Linklater.

  • 6 11-02-2008 at 1:28 pm

    Casey said...

    why are we even discussing films that were made more than 20 years ago? i mean if its to show development for these guys as artists i respect that but i feel like we’re including that in their recent work. i really dont think we can make an argument for malick

  • 7 11-02-2008 at 1:30 pm

    Chad said...

    “Heavenly Creatures” is great but the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy got more tiresome and less impressive as it went along. And that’s because he always (not never) put spectacle over character. “King Kong” was even worse: over-indulgent and poorly made with only the CGI hair on the monkey appearing to have had much thought put into it.

    Spielberg was at the top of his game in 2002 no doubt, but everything since has been more and more muddled. The sex scence intercut with a massacre in “Munich”? Inexcusable. The last few minutes of “War of the Worlds”? Embarrassing. All of “Indiana Jones”? Horrifically misguided.

    Scorsese is a pale imitation of his former self, seemingly no longer with the ability to tell if his techniques are breaking ground or just don’t work.

    And Tarantino? Please. Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece, no doubt. The best and most lasting film of the 90’s. But like Wes Anderson, his recent output is less about making a film and more a collection of personal influences and tastes jumbled on the screen so we too can see how cool they are.

    Now Malick is making some interesting shit. I’m very interested to see your European list.

  • 8 11-02-2008 at 1:32 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    John K: I thought “Hook” was dreadful. Sorry. Like, flinchingly so.

    Linklater is an interesting choice, maybe a top 15-er. but I don’t like two of his most celebrated films, “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” so that could have a lot to do with it.

  • 9 11-02-2008 at 2:00 pm

    Lev Lewis said...

    Woody Allen
    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Darren Aronofsky
    The Coen Brothers
    Alfonso Cuaron
    David Fincher
    Todd Haynes
    Ang Lee
    David Lynch
    Terence Malick

  • 10 11-02-2008 at 2:11 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “… hurt by a terrible performance from Robert De Niro.”

    I could not disagree more. But that’s off-topic.

    Three that haven’t been mentioned yet, who would be in my list:

    Ray Lawrence (only three films, but all extraordinary)
    Mike Leigh
    Lars Von Trier

    By the way, why just a “European” list next? Is there going to be one for the rest of world cinema?

  • 11 11-02-2008 at 2:25 pm

    Casey said...

    for the record, king of comedy is one of scorsese’s 5 best, and forget jerry lewis, de niro was only better in taxi driver. i strongly believe he was better in king of comedy than raging bull

  • 12 11-02-2008 at 2:30 pm

    colby said...

    Chris Nolan
    Marc Forster
    Tim Burton
    P.T. Anderson
    Alfonso Cuaron
    Oliver Stone
    Peter Weir

  • 13 11-02-2008 at 2:32 pm

    colby said...

    wait, wait, wait…maybe replace Stone or Weir with Ed Zwick…

  • 14 11-02-2008 at 2:42 pm

    Chad said...

    Casey’s right. De Niro’s best performance in any movie ever is “The King of Comedy”.

  • 15 11-02-2008 at 3:06 pm

    Casey said...

    ed zwick? i actually like his work but as a whole almost all zwick films are shockingly similar. its all foreign stories of overcoming oppression told through the eyes of a white man.

  • 16 11-02-2008 at 3:44 pm

    John Foote said...

    Why are we discussing films made more than twenty years ago?? — Have you seen everything made twenty years ago? If not they are new films and therefore new experiences too you are they not — if you truly love film open your mind —

    Some observations — Tarantino showed enormous growth moving from Pulp Fiction to Jackie Browne — sure he is still an arrogant dick, but a very fine filmmaker — Spielberg is simply the best – as for Lynch forgive me but no one is more guilty of artistic masturbation than he…fire away folks I can take it

    The Malick thing I knew would get some wrath and it is fair to say all of it – but I stand by it though I nearly bumped him for Allen or Oliver Stone — love Michael Mann my good friend Kris, but not as much as you — “Heat” was a mess, but everything sicne was great —

  • 17 11-02-2008 at 3:54 pm

    Casey said...

    John what i meant was, this article was led in as “the best working directors in the english language” in part 1. are we giving credit to directors for work they did more than 20 years ago? i fully agree with you that previous work is relevant as a viewer; but as directors shouldnt the work they’ve done previously only be used as comparison and evidence of development, not as production?

  • 18 11-02-2008 at 4:12 pm

    The InSneider said...

    Not bad Kris. We wound up agreeing on 7/10. You took Nolan, Boyle and Frears and I took James Cameron, Ridley Scott and QT. Kinda surprised by the lack of Cameron love on the list/boards. And of those 3 on your list, I think Boyle is the best. Not sure Frears belongs over JC and Ridley. But Nolan is making his way up there…

  • 19 11-02-2008 at 4:20 pm

    John Foote said...

    Love for Cameron? You are kidding….right????

  • 20 11-02-2008 at 4:54 pm

    Gustavo said...

    Spielberg seems to be finally getting a fair treatment from many critics and movie experts now. His whole filmography has been revisited since he entered in darker realms with SCHINDLER’S LIST (yep, even before A.I. – the Kubrick inheritance), but for the better.

  • 21 11-02-2008 at 5:04 pm

    Casey said...

    cameron should lose a lot of points for titanic. terribly directed film

  • 22 11-02-2008 at 5:14 pm

    John Foote said...

    Gustavo, that is one of tha major aspects of my upcoming book on Spielberg — he has ALWAYS been a great director, but for whatever reason there was a feeling among film academics and critics that his success did not translate to art — that elitist thinking has gone by the way side and his films are now being revisited in the same manner of Hitchcock’s and Ford’s — someone please, try and tell me “Jaws” was not, is not a great fil?? You cannot — and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”? And ‘E.T.”? The man that made those is the same man who directed “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”.

  • 23 11-02-2008 at 5:17 pm

    Speaking English said...

    LOL! “Titanic” is a masterpiece of direction, a true spectacle. Cameron is a very good director.

  • 24 11-02-2008 at 5:25 pm

    Casey said...

    john i agree totally on spielberg. seriously, titanic is a really poorly made film. bad ensmble acting, insanely slow moving first half, insanely disorganized second half that gets way too much credit. i dont even wanna get into writing cause we’re only talking direction

  • 25 11-02-2008 at 6:03 pm

    Patrick said...

    How about the 5 Best Directors who defined the greatest decade for American film: 1970’s.

    Woody Allen
    Martin Scorsese
    Steven Spielberg
    William Friedkin
    Robert Altman

  • 26 11-02-2008 at 6:25 pm

    Casey said...

    you cant seriously talk about the best directors of the 70s and not mention coppola. 4 classics in 10 years. debatebly the best decade for any director ever.

    ’72 The Godfather
    ’74 The Godfather Part 2
    ’74 The Conversation
    ’79 Apocalypse Now

  • 27 11-02-2008 at 6:42 pm

    The InSneider said...

    I’m confused. Whose list is this? John posted the first half and Kris posted the second. And John, I don’t get the ‘are you kidding’ comment re: Cameron. Are you saying, of course there’s a lot of love for Cameron… because I don’t see that reflected on the list or in the comments. Or are you saying how could anyone love Cameron? Because the man did make The Terminator, Aliens, T2 and Titanic, plus Avatar is going to forever change filmmaking, plus he co-wrote and produced Strange Days. I’d say he’s more deserving than Cronenberg, who is more of a niche director. And Casey, if you don’t think Titanic is well directed, you are smoking crack my friend.

  • 28 11-02-2008 at 6:46 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Screw up on my end, Sneider. Fixed it.

  • 29 11-02-2008 at 6:48 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    It’s John’s list.

  • 30 11-02-2008 at 7:04 pm

    Joel said...

    Burton…yes…Tim Burton…I said it

    But Spielberg’s the best. I still think “Minority Report” is his greatest achievement.

  • 31 11-02-2008 at 7:16 pm

    Mimi Rogers said...

    Ang Lee should be on the list. An ASIAN director whose work includes some of the best pictures in recent memory – Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman – deserves to be in the top 5. Please tell me why he is not on the list!

  • 32 11-02-2008 at 8:39 pm

    Casey said...

    The InSneider, im actually a big fan of cameron’s. the films you mentioned beside titanic i agree 100 % on. in fact i think you shouldve included the abyss. tho i think it might be too early to speak about avatar. i honestly believe he should’ve won best director for t2 and i would whole heartedly put him on this list if it were 10 years ago. but with titanic being his only fairly recent out-put worth consideration… no thanx. it ran way to long and bored me to death. for a while i considered it “cameron selling out” but once he announced he’s comin back to do mor sci-fi on avatar im giving him another shot, and i fully expect it to be great

  • 33 11-02-2008 at 8:50 pm

    Matthew said...

    This is probably my top list, in alphabetical order:

    Wes Anderson
    Woody Allen
    Paul Thomas Anderson
    Brad Bird
    Joel + Ethan Coen
    Alfonso Cuaron
    David Gordon Green
    Spike Jonze
    Michael Mann
    Christopher Nolan

    I know, I know. A lot of people don’t find Wes Anderson to be particularly great. But I have thoroughly enjoyed all of his movies, so I put him on the list. Perhaps that’s less of a “best” and more of a “personal favorite”. Then it was mostly coming down to either Boyle, Jonze, or Malick. Boyle is brilliant, definitely a favorite, and Malick has made some beautiful films. However, though Jonze has only made two films, both have been masterpieces in my opinion, and I am beyond excited to see his take on the classic “Where the Wild Things Are”.

  • 34 11-02-2008 at 8:50 pm

    Matthew said...

    And I just realized I didn’t put the two anderson’s together. Obviously, for the alphabet’s sake, imagine them near one another.

  • 35 11-03-2008 at 3:26 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I agree with Kris that Tarantino shows little progression. There’s not much new in his films, and people know what they’re in for. Even though the Kill Bill films were amazing they were still a brilliant pastiche-montage.
    Spielberg is the most important director ever and for that he should be on the list. There I said it.

  • 36 11-03-2008 at 7:32 am

    John Foote said...

    Cameron — Ok, here we go, for the record I think of him as this generation’s Cecil B. Demille, has the ability to put on a helluva show, but with little or no substance — I loved Aliens, and consider that his best film (by far) because there were some real characters within — The Terminator and Terminator w were great rides but again lacked substance, do I ever need to get started on Titanic? Over three hours of “Jack”, “Rose”, “Oh Jack”, “No Rose” — undeniable spectacle, a beautful score and some haunting images, but hardly a masterpiece, hardly best film of the year, and that hardly qualifies Cameron for my list — perhaps yours, as these things are very personal —

    FOR THE RECORD — the entire list is mine though Kris chose to post it out of order as I submitted choosing to go alphabetical —

  • 37 11-03-2008 at 7:33 am

    John Foote said...

    I agree about Spielberg with Jonathan and that was why he was first on the list —

  • 38 11-03-2008 at 9:56 am

    AJ said...

    sigh…Tim Burton ftw (there never was a remake of planet of the apes…)

  • 39 11-03-2008 at 10:28 am

    Mike said...

    del Toro (if we consider him working of 2 Hobbit films in English so why not).

  • 40 11-03-2008 at 8:29 pm

    Marvin said...

    Coen bros.