which should tell you something about what it takes to be the best.
Well, whatever--here we go, from oldest to youngest, cuz why not:
1. Charles Chaplin (April 16, 1889 - England)
Although I'm not a huge fan of his shorts, which are often tedious and self-indulgent (Kid Auto Races in Venice is one of the few that works to great effect, but he didn't direct it), Chaplin finally found his footing when he started writing, directing, producing, and starring in his own features (he also scored many of them and did craft service for a few...ha). The internationally-famous stumbling vaudeville Tramp was finally able to become a flesh-and-blood character with hopes and dreams, finally able to effectively comment on the ills and joys of Western society--with some pratfalls thrown in to boot. I thought about including Buster Keaton instead, since I find his physical comedy superior to that of Chaplin, but I think Chaplin's films have more meat. The Kid, The Idle Class, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator are my favorites.
2. Luis Bunuel (February 22, 1900 - Spain)
Aside from looking like a depraved serial killer, Luis Bunuel was also one hell of an artist, unafraid to weave biting sociopolitical commentary into his work. At once provocative, sexual, critical, philosophical, and visually stunning, Bunuel admirably seemed to make no concessions to censorship, to critical or commercial success, and simply made the movies he wanted to make. His frank portrayal of sexuality, desire, psychosis, and class conflict are as unique as a signature and still hold true to this day; there is absolutely nothing dated about his art. Bunuel lived the last 37 years of his life in Mexico, where he flourished as an artist, after wisely fleeing the Franco regime and dithering unhappily in Hollywood and New York for a spell. That Obscure Object of Desire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Belle de Jour are my favorites and were, incidentally, all made between 1967 and 1977, while he lived in Mexico as an old man.
3. Billy Wilder (June 22, 1906 - Poland)
Billy Wilder got his break thanks to Hollywood's onetime obsession with foreign filmmakers--many of whom fled the churning Nazi regime in Europe, including Ernst Lubitch, Erich von Stroheim, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang--and he never looked back. He studied under Lubitsch for years before making the leap on his own. When he did, the world gained a charming, humorous, and impressively-efficient storyteller. I'm not a fan of Some Like It Hot, The Lost Weekend, or The Seven Year Itch, and some of his movies are pretty dated (Stalag 17, for example), but when this motherfucker was on, goddamn was he on. The Apartment gets my vote for best romantic comedy of all-time; Double Indemnity is probably the best noir of the era, buoyed by the brilliant (and unpopular with the brass) directorial move to cast Fred McMurray against type; and Sunset Boulevard is not only a breathtakingly-fantastic trip through the miasma of Hollywood, but also one of the three best movies ever made about L.A. (the others being Chinatown and The Long Goodbye, which are discussed below, of course). Not bad for a guy who could hardly speak a word of English when he started...
4. Michelangelo Antonioni (September 29, 1912 - Italy)
Ah, Antonioni. He is loathed by many an average moviegoer, but a breath of fresh air for a guy like me. Why? Chiefly, because he is unafraid to linger on the subtle details of life, unafraid to spend a near-eternity slyly informing you of the exact emotional condition of his characters. He is only a dinosaur in the sense that he was the master of a certain breed of movies that (almost) nobody makes anymore--the slow, rich, character piece. Which isn't to say that his movies are only about character--they are also almost documentary-like in their presentation of Italy in the 1960s-70s, which is no doubt a direct result of the fact that he began his career making well-received documentaries for Italian television. For example, L'Eclisse is hardly a movie about the stock market and, yet, in two long scenes it tells you more about the ins-and-outs of the business than the entire disappointing turd known as Wall Street. The best thing about Antonioni, though, is that he had a tendency to fall in love with a woman and then made a movie about a character she would play. This may, at first glance, seem self-indulgent or unwise, but if you think about the fact that some of the best paintings and sculptures in history, some of the best photographs and poetry, were crafted by an adoring lover, then I think it makes more sense. An adoring camera is forgiving, yes, but it is also probing. Also check out The Passenger, which was not only Jack Nicholson's favorite movie that he worked on (he even bought the rights to it and had it cleaned-up and re-released, thank god), but also the only movie I've ever seen that unabashedly glorifies Barcelona's magnificent architect-savant, Gaudi, the Marcello Mastroianni gem La Notte about the decay of a relationship, and Red Desert, when it finally comes out on Criterion DVD on June 22. Blow Up was his biggest hit, but I'm not the biggest fan; despite Monica Vitti's unsurpassing beauty and my admiration for the revolutionary form of the movie, I found L'Avventura boring on my first go-round; and while I think Zabriskie Point ultimately misses its own point, it undoubtedly has the best ending of any movie I've ever seen.
5. Pietro Germi (September 14, 1914 - Italy)
In my book, anybody who can make a fast-paced, rich character-piece about the dark side of human nature--and make it devilishly funny--deserves a place in history, and nobody has done it better than Pietro Germi. Seriously--nobody has even come close. Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned are two of my favorite movies of all time, both dark comedies centered on a peculiar Italian law that allows lenience for murder if the perpetrator catches his/her lover in the act with a third party. Yes, that is yet another wonderful result of strict Catholicism. I have yet to see the third in the trilogy (The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians), as it is currently unavailable on DVD, but I can't wait.
6. Ingmar Bergman (July 14, 1918 - Sweden)
Bergman is a lion of the cinema, worshiped outright by luminaries like Woody Allen and Goodtime Charlie. He was Scandinavian and that is somehow relevant, as his work seems chiseled out of the very rock of the unforgiving North, appropriately bleak, black and white in more ways than one, and grandiose in theme. Life v. Death, Sex v. Chastity, Youth v. Old Age, etc. I find some of his work a bit dated, or perhaps a bit too stark, but, much like Billy Wilder, when he was clicking on all cylinders it is difficult to find an equal. Fanny & Alexander is a lush tapestry depicting the fascinating highs and lows of a textbook aristocratic family. Scenes From a Marriage is perhaps depressing, but, more importantly, it is riveting in its subtlety, its detail, its honesty. Of his earlier work, The Virgin Spring is easily my favorite, and Wild Strawberries is also worth watching for its exploration of unfulfilled sexual desire, if ultimately not up to par. It may be film-geek heresy, but I'm not a fan of either The Seventh Seal or Persona. They may have been important moments in cinematic history and/or philosophical milestones--and I respect them for that, sure--but I found them dreadfully boring and would never recommend them to anybody.
7. Eric Rohmer (March 20, 1920 - France)
I've already written quite a bit about Rohmer, so I'll be brief, but he is without question the dark-horse on this list. He is not very popular, even among film aficionados. I have a love for him that I find difficult to put into words, because I have trouble figuring out why exactly I enjoy his movies so much when I can also recognize how boring they are. I guess the only way to say it succinctly is that he paints a pretty picture--from the perfect location to the perfect casting to the perfect wardrobe to the perfect props to the perfectly timeless themes of unfulfilled sexual desire and the potential for intellect to impede the search for pleasure. For better or worse, there is nothing quite like an Eric Rohmer movie, especially if you enjoy armchair psychology. My favorites are: La Collectionneuse, Claire's Knee, and Pauline at the Beach. They are well-worth checking out and should be required viewing for anybody who considers themselves a movie buff.
8. Robert Altman (February 20, 1925 - United States)
Robert Altman is a polarizing figure even within my own brain. He is a bit of a showboat, he is unforgivingly self-indulgent, he is sometimes way off the mark. More importantly, however, he sometimes hit the bulls-eye with a fucking explosion of brilliance. He was clearly an admirer of the tenets of the 1960s/70s counterculture and whether or not it was mere fascination or avid participation is irrelevant--the fact of the matter is that few American artists plumbed the depths of the vaunted American dream as fearlessly as Altman did. Nashville was an almost, in my mind--a bit too indulgent of the '60s culture without much of a focus. Gosford Park was a misguided attempt at pretending to be Jean Renoir and Thomas Vinterberg did that better. McCabe and Mrs Miller, however, was his masterstroke--a snowy Western about the failure of the American dream in the face of the almighty corporation that seems oddly prognostic in this day and age. The Long Goodbye is easily my favorite noir of all-time and devilishly funny to boot, one of maybe a handful of movies that I wished I directed, and, as mentioned above, one of the top three movies ever made about L.A. The Player was a fascinating take on the Hollywood culture that Altman clearly despised, by an artist who knows exactly why he is wise to despise it and exactly how best to portray that disgust. M*A*S*H was also great, carried much more weight than the TV series of the same name and was even funnier, but enough about Altman--just watch the movies and enjoy them.
9. Mike Nichols (November 6, 1931 - Germany)
Mike Nichols came from the theater. He was a comedian, writer, performer, the male half of Nichols & May. He was a hugely successful playwright and stage director. These facts are important when you consider his work as a filmmaker because most of his movies perfectly exemplify what I like to refer to as 'filmed theater.' This is usually a bad thing, evidence of somebody out of their element, but with Nichols it works, since he knew what he was doing. One example of this is my second-favorite movie of his--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The script was initially a play, but he called his friend who wrote it and told him he would rather do it as a movie. Why? In a (hyphenated) word--close-ups. He was no neophyte, and he knew that certain stories work well on the stage and certain stories benefit from close-ups, editing, precise lighting, etc. Aside from the close-ups, however, the movie unfolds exactly as if you were watching a fantastic play from the best seats in the house, using only a handful of set-pieces at most. My favorite of his movies is Carnal Knowledge, a little-known gem starring Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel as college roommates who both fall in love with a young Candice Bergen. The movie follows them, in fits and spurts, all the way into old age, when the differing proclivities on display as young men really come home to roost. The Graduate, the surprisingly-good Catch-22, and The Birdcage are also required viewing. Interesting fact from imdb: "[Nichols] was interested to direct First Blood (1982) with Dustin Hoffman as John Rambo." Puff on your pipe for a minute and think about what that movie would have been like--especially in the hands of this bird...
10. Louis Malle (October 30, 1932 - France)
I have yet to see most of his movies, but the three I have seen thus far already rank him among the best. I have yet to see it, sadly, but he cut his teeth on the greatest aquatic documentary of all-time for chrissake (The Silent World, with Jacques Cousteau, clearly the inspiration for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, duh) and went from there to deftly explore the highs and lows of the tortured terrestrial existence. Murmur of the Heart is like a 1960s French version of American Pie, but tells the age-old story of a kid trying to get laid with so much more patience, so much more ambivalence, so much more understanding, so much more beauty. My Dinner with Andre started out as an actual dinner conversation and Malle somehow turned that into a riveting cinematic exploration of the human condition, with the perfect dose of wry humor and contemplative narration. The Fire Within is a dark meditation on depression, suicide, and interpersonal relationships that manages to avoid choosing sides by patiently demonstrating the foolishness, vanity, cruelty, and triviality in the lives of every character who tries to help the shattered hero choose life. For the first time in a while, I eagerly look forward to my next four Netflix movies--Atlantic City, Pretty Baby, Elevator to the Gallows, and Au Revoir Les Enfants.
11. Roman Polanski (August 18, 1933 - France)
Polanski was brilliant from the starting line and his much-overlooked early work is supremely satisfying. His stark 1962 thriller Knife in the Water immediately put him on the international map, and deservedly so, even if something about the opening fifteen minutes or so did remind me quite a bit of Juan Bardem's equally-brilliant Death of a Cyclist. Repulsion wasn't the best movie by a long shot, but it is one of the few movies I have ever seen that unflinchingly mines, for all it's worth, the fertile depths of the inevitable mind-fuck beautiful women face every day. Rosemary's Baby is one of the only horror movies that actually scares the shit out of me--still. Chinatown is his masterpiece, of course, the definitive depiction of Los Angeles as the twisted end-result of a century of unbridled American expansion, although he definitely must share credit for that gem with legendary screenwriter Robert Towne, as it was his baby from the get-go. [I feel the need here to pressure you to read Mike Davis' City of Quartz, as it is a far more exhaustive exploration of the same theme and the kind of book that fills in so many gaps of the whys and wherefores of modern-day America that it should be required reading in college, if it can be a bit dry at times -Ed.]. How good is Roman Polanski? He can make a cardboard American whodunit--starring Harrison Ford no less--and make it really good, as he did with the thoroughly-entertaining Frantic. My favorite movie of his, however, happens to not only be his most obscure, but also one in which he is the lead actor in an intense character study, playing exactly the sort of role that wins an Oscar. The movie is called The Tenant and I saw it completely by accident one night maybe five years ago; needless to say, I was totally unprepared to have my mind blown, but it was anyway. If you rent any movie I mentioned here today, rent this one, pop some popcorn, and prepare to delve into the mind of a fascinating fucking lunatic.
12. Woody Allen (December 1, 1935 - United States)
I could write a really boring, rambling novel about how much I love Woody Allen but it would be pointless because I don't think anybody would disagree. He is an American institution--so much so, in fact, that he has had to move production to foreign soil of late--and so prolific that a friend of mine had to write an atlas to navigate the seemingly-endless product of his lengthy career. Nobody explores the neuroses of an overly-educated, weak-in-the-knees, brain-over-brawn modern man quite like Woody. The reason that nobody can play Woody Allen but Woody Allen (although that didn't stop Jason Biggs from trying, of all people) is because although his character is always relatable in some way, he is ultimately so unpredictable and unique that nobody else can capture his complete essence. Comedy, drama, dramedy, comama, you name it--Woody has navigated the waters like a pro and made you laugh at him and yourself along the way. He may have married his step-daughter and made Curse of the Jade Scorpion, but if there is one man I would forgive those sins, it is Woody Allen (let's not forget that Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin, after all, if we're comparing celebrity depravity). Besides, they are still happily married after all these years and that's gotta mean something...alright, yeah, it's still sick, but whatever, we need to move past that...
13. Martin Scorsese (November 17, 1942 - United States)
It is no great surprise to anybody who has ever watched a Scorsese movie with a discerning eye that he is one of the world's foremost film scholars. He can take an ugly story, an ugly character, and make it sing through his deft technique, his compassion, his curiosity. He knows exactly where to put the camera, exactly when to let his actors run wild...would anybody on a film set ever question this man? I don't think so. Taxi Driver blew a fucking whole through the movie screen and made a decades-long superstar out of Robert DeNiro, despite the fact that he seems to be, in real life, a one-dimensional, self-centered, immature idiot. How's that for talent? Raging Bull, ditto. When I was a kid, I remember when Siskel & Ebert both voted it the best movie of the 1980s--they almost never agreed!--and I couldn't believe it was even from the '80s, since it was (wisely) shot in black & white. Once I finally saw it, many years later, I completely agreed with them. Goodfellas? Shit...the scene where Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter the Copacabana through the kitchen could practically win Best Picture on its own; the rest is just gravy. That being said, and with all due respect, I think this guy needs to stop making movies before he tarnishes his own legacy. Aside from The Departed, which was interesting, this guy hasn't made a good movie since Casino in 1995. The 'Italian-American humanized gangster' genre, if I can call it that, has had its day--and what a day it was--and he just seems desperate when he tries his hand at a different genre, although I know there are fans who would vehemently disagree. Essentially, it seems as though he is trying too hard to be loved and it depresses me (his 'performance' in Shine A Light was particularly embarrassing). We'll see how this Sinatra card plays out, but I'm mostly cringing at the thought of this old guy who doesn't realize he should rest on his laurels trying to revisit his glory days on the national stage.
14. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (May 31, 1945 - Germany)
I can't believe Fassbinder comes up so late in the game here, that he was born after all these other artists that were plugging away til quite recently, which is probably because he was a workaholic drug addict who died at 37. His wikipedia entry is a required read, by the way (we'll still be here when you get back). This tortured soul directed 40 movies in a mere 16 years, all the while also writing/directing/producing plays for his theater company, Anti-Theater, and crafting the 15.5-hr miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz. You can see why the guy did a lot of drugs--he evidently had a lot to get off his chest, out of his mind. I have not seen all of his movies, but I have certainly seen a lot. Much like Eric Rohmer, I find myself a bit at a loss for words when trying to describe why I love him so much, but I guess it all boils down to his fearlessness. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but there was no subject, no character, no emotion, that escaped Fassbinder's probing mind. For example, he is--still--one of the only artists in the entire world, much less from Germany, who has explored the tortured psyche of the German citizen both during the Weimar years and post-WWII. He was the first to admit the great debt he owed to the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, but as much as I enjoy Sirk, Fassbinder blew him right out of the water. Where Sirk was full of innuendo and sidesteps and brilliant color, Fassbinder was the black & white sonuvabitch who slapped you right across the face with a dildo. His entire BRD Trilogy is worth a watch, but my favorite is The Marriage of Maria Braun because it is a fascinating, emotional rollercoaster that unflinchingly illustrates what life was like for the innocent German majority during and after WWII. Martha was surprisingly good and one of the most moving of all his movies, a raw yet comical portrayal of what life might be like for a privileged only child of warring parents devoid of love. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the movie that the disappointing Harold and Maude should have been, with the added bonus of the race card thrown into post-Nazi Germany of all places, and is also one of the most vivid, realistic love stories that I have ever seen on screen, although it (of course?) ends in disappointment. Although it is not of the same caliber as his best work, I have a soft spot for An American Soldier, since I think it is a hilariously foreign portrayal of what a bad-ass American was like back then. The scene where the soldier picks up a prostitute and then throws her from a moving car is fucking incredible. As for Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fassbinder's masterwork, it will test your patience. I am a huge fan of his and I found large portions of it nearly unbearable; that being said, there is an (at least) equal amount that is profoundly introspective, heart-breaking, and brilliant. If you would like to see it someday, I suggest building up to it with the other movies I mentioned.
15. The Coen Bros (Joel: Nov.29, 1954 - Ethan: Sep.21, 1957 - United States)
The Coens are impressive in part because they seem to be equally deft at drama and comedy, character and story, which are no small feats. It may have annoyingly become a tartan of sorts for a certain kind of person who just likes to get drunk and go bowling, and it is certainly over-quoted by douchebags across this great nation on a daily basis, but make no mistake--The Big Lebowski is not only one of the best comedies made during my lifetime, but also one of the best character studies of all-time. The Coens may cringe to hear this, but it may go down in history as their masterwork. Which isn't to say that Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, and Miller Crossing weren't also good, but, you know, The Dude is hard to top. Of those I just mentioned, Fargo is my favorite; No Country is #2 and the others are...eh, pretty good but not really my speed. The bottom line, however, is that even their worst movies are still good (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, and Blood Simple, for example), which I cannot say about many of the directors on this list.
16. Paul Thomas Anderson (June 26, 1970 - United States)
I recently read that Mark Wahlberg was considering taking a role in The Boondock Saints, but--THANK GOD--chose Boogie Nights instead, after receiving promises from P.T. that he was not getting the role because of his abs. Can you imagine how dead Wahlberg's movie career would be had he chosen otherwise? How little anybody would care about that former Calvin Klein underwear model who can't really act that well? Boogie Nights made Marky Mark human, Boogie Nights made us care. Boogie Nights also indirectly, and unfortunately, resulted in the eternally-annoying Entourage, but I digress. The point is that if P.T. Anderson had died in a plane crash immediately after completing Boogie Nights, he would still have made this list; the movie is that good. It takes a master to create an edge-of-your seat sympathetic biography of a brainless-but-sweet/horse-cocked porn star in '70s Los Angeles, to successfully portray a porn director as a father figure, to perfectly explore the highs and lows of a life lived on the edge, all the while getting everything just the right shade of Seventies and letting fantastic supporting characters chew up the screen every chance they get. Add to that the fact that he also turned Adam Sandler into a real actor with the generally-ignored but great Punch-Drunk Love and you must be even more impressed with his abilities. But wait! He not only wove a tapestry of depressing L.A. stories into the good-but-maybe-a-little-bit-too-depressing-and-long Magnolia (which also featured the eminently-despicable Tom Cruise in his best role/performance ever, which is no surprise in these hands) by tying them all together with a deluge of frogs, but he also wrote and directed the role that even the legendary Daniel Day Lewis--whose performance in My Left Foot alone would get him acting jobs for the rest of his life no matter what--will never be able to escape from, in yet another epic about profit-hungry corporations ravaging California, There Will Be Blood. How is it even possible to ruin a delicious chameleon like Daniel Day Lewis? How? I don't know, but for the rest of his life, despite every other role he performs brilliantly, DDL will always be Daniel Plainview and he will always get the "I drink your milkshake" bullshit, until he hangs himself in his barn.
Well, here we are. We're done, finished, kaput. It's sad that most of these dudes are either dead or will be dead before they direct another good movie. I guess the future of cinema--in the near future, anyway--is up to P.T and the Coens? [Good name for a band, btw -Ed.]
Not that they are incapable hands, but I wish there were more of them, I wish there were more talented writer/directors able to delicately balance the artistic and commercial, I wish there was more demand for the work they created (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood have got to be two of the lowest grossing Best Picture nominees, and don't even get me started on the fate of The Assassination of Jesse James...).
Maybe I need to finally get out there and pull a Rohmer/Truffaut, come out from behind my critical desk and get behind the camera. Anybody in the market for a slow-paced, 1970s-style character piece with no love interest, that is light on story and heavy on detail?
Have your people call my people and we'll split a bagel or something, maybe even splurge for a small coffee, get things in motion, you know the deal...
[Note: It's interesting enough to point out that among those listed above are: a homosexual drug addict (Fassbinder), a horny intellectual voyeur (Rohmer), an admitted drug user and child-fucker (Polanski), a guy who married his adopted-daughter (Allen), and a guy with a penchant for getting his teenaged co-stars pregnant and marrying them in Mexico (Chaplin). What does that say about what it takes to make it in this business, or what this business does to you after you do? A story for another time, I suppose... -Ed.]