5 Great Living, Still-Working Directors
Probably the most surprising absence from the Top 50, certainly in terms of directors who are still active, the cult around Terrence Malick only grew in his near-twenty-year absence from filmmaking, between "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line." And even into his recent (relatively) prolific patch, he's been an absolute critical darling. While it was divisive, "The Tree of Life" inspired some passionate critical raves and indeed, many had tipped it to crack the list. But not only did that film fail to make the cut (which we'd expected), but his four earlier films, from 1973's "Badlands" to 2006's "The New World," were also nowhere to be found. Few would argue that the films are not extraordinary (even the less-well regarded "The New World") but we wonder if the lack of a single film to get behind was what kept him out. "Days Of Heaven" is the most obvious critical favorite, but we can see the votes being split fairly evenly among the others. Other directors on the list had more than one film, but those have one obvious frontrunner that collects the most votes (Hitchcock's "Vertigo," Godard's "Breathless"). With Malick, it may be that no one film stood out from the pack, and as such, the director might have to wait a little longer for cinephile recognition. With three films due in the next few years, there'll be plenty more opportunities to cement his standing on the list.
It was only a few months ago that Michael Haneke became one of only seven directors to win the Palme d'Or twice times at Cannes, the world's most prestigious film festival. He took the prize with two consecutive films (2009's "The White Ribbon," and this year's "Amour") and he also earned Best Director in 2005 for "Cache." And really, the Austrian helmer has been on an extraordinary run for a couple of decades: ever since his international breakout "Funny Games" in 1997, virtually every one of his films (bar the redundant English-language "Funny Games" remake in 2008) has numbered among the best of that year. And yet not one of Haneke's films made the Top 50. In some respects, it's not surprising: only three of the fifty were released since Haneke became internationally renowned, and this year's Palme d'Or win might have suggested to critics still compiling their lists that the director's best work might still be ahead of him. It may also be that, as with Malick, no one film has had the time to emerge as the consensus critical favorite: "Funny Games," "Code Unknown," "The Piano Teacher," "Time of the Wolf," "Cache" and "The White Ribbon" all have their advocates, and it may be that the next decade will see one of 70-year-old Haneke's films come to critical prominence. But given that he might be the most influential filmmaker in world cinema right now (just look at something like "Martha Marcy May Marlene" to see his stamp), it's still a little surprising not to see him make the cut.
These days, Spanish helmer Pedro Almodóvar is one of the most respected filmmakers in the world, an Oscar winner whose films have become Cannes mainstays and who's capable of attracting almost any talent that he'd like, despite having never made a film in the English language. But his global reputation is all the more remarkable considering just how challenging his fare can be. His violent, sexual taboo-pushing early work is the most obvious example, but throughout his career his interest in gay issues, Sirk-ian melodrama, explicit sex and obsessive behavior has hardly been the kind of thing that usually makes the chattering classes line up around the block. But it's the quality of his work, the way that his films are weirder, sexier, wittier, more puzzling, more moving and richer than 95% of the stuff that sees the inside of theaters, that's made him one of the most beloved filmmakers working. And there's barely a bad film in his canon, particularly in the extraordinary run of films since 1997's "Live Flesh." And yet none have cracked Sight & Sound's list. While our own favorite of his, 2007's "Volver," is probably too new to judge whether it'll stand the test of time, some of his most acclaimed films like 1999's "All About My Mother" and especially 2002's "Talk To Her" (which Time named among the Top 100 Movies Of All Time in 2005), didn't make the crop either. Are his films, like Fassbinder, too vulgar, too sexual, and not serious enough for the critical establishment? Or is it simply a matter of letting time pass a little?
With a career marked by controversy and tragedy, triumphs and disasters, that Roman Polanski has shaken off personal obstacles and professional setbacks is a feat in itself. But that he has become a legendary and influential filmmaker in the process speaks to his remarkable strength and skill behind the camera no matter how you feel about the man personally. Though best known as a craftsman of stylish thrillers -- most notably the informal Apartment Trilogy of "Repulsion," "Rosemary's Baby," and "The Tenant" -- films that trade on nightmarish images, claustrophobic spaces, and creeping paranoia, Polanski has actually tackled a wide variety of genres, from literary adaptations ("Tess," "Oliver Twist") and comedy ("The Fearless Vampire Killers, "Carnage") to harrowing WWII drama ("The Pianist") and sizzling noir ("Chinatown"). And yet there's no Polanski to be found on the list, despite a wealth of options. Has his troubled personal life tainted him in the eyes of too many critics? Or has the unneven nature of much of his work in the 1980s and 1990s (which included disappointments like "The Ninth Gate" and outright disasters like "Pirates") seen the quality of his earlier work diminished for some? We know that "Chinatown" would certainly sit on this writer's personal Top 10, and we imagine that it's true of many others, so we'd be interested to see how that film, and some of his other works, did in the rundown.
Few filmmakers have had as varied or colorful a career as Werner Herzog. A man that François Truffaut once called "the most important film director alive," Herzog has been knocking out classics, in both the feature and documentary worlds, for over 40 years now. Perhaps still best known for his tempestuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, with whom Herzog produced many of his very best films, the director's oeuvre goes far beyond those five, from minor classics to eye-opening documentaries, from classics of German cinema to a star-driven remake of an Abel Ferrera film. In recent years, Herzog has become something of a famous cultural figure, inspiring memes and YouTube impersonations, and is now carving out something of a side career as an actor (he's currently voicing a character on Adult Swim series "Metapocalypse," and will play the villain in Tom Cruise blockbuster "Jack Reacher" later in the year). Is it this sideshow that saw Herzog's work fail to crack the Top 50? Few would argue that the likes of "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" or "Fitzcarraldo" are undeserving, even if his later work is patchier. Could it be that we'll only truly appreciate Herzog's work after he's gone? We certainly hope not.
Other Notable Absences: Of course this is a quick smattering of five directors we feel passionate about, but this list could be endless. What about Robert Altman, Sergio Leone, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Hayao Miyazaki, Howard Hawks, The Coen Brothers, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Cocteau, Nagisa Oshima, Andrzej Wadja or Seijun Suzuki? Any others you felt were missing from the list? Let us know in the comments section below.
- Oliver Lyttelton, RP