10. David Fincher
If we’re just talking about the ability to take the written word and translate it to the screen, David Fincher might be the best director to debut since Spielberg. His peerless ability to make anything watchable has resulted in one of the most consistently excellent filmographies of any major American director ever (aside from his famously troubled debut film, he hasn’t made a film worse than above average). He’s shown a Kubrick-like ability to shift between genres while keeping his signature aesthetic consistent. His first great film was the 1995 noir Seven which, with its dark themes and serial killer storyline, is both his highest grossing film after adjusting for inflation and arguably his most popular. His 1999 film Fight Club, might be among the most widely quoted(and misunderstood) film of the internet age. While I believe it’s a rather juvenile film in a lot of ways, Fincher directs the hell out of Fight Club and it’s easy to see why it remains so popular. The late 2000’s saw Fincher reinvent his style and got him his first taste of Oscar success. The trio of Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the Social Network saw Fincher slow down (at least for the first two) and reinvent both the Procedural and the Biopic in fascinating new ways. His last two films, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl have seen him lend his expert touch to two of the best selling novels of the last decade. While I feel Fincher often picks material that is beneath him, all of his films are must see’s as he’s arguably the most instinctual filmmaker this side of Spielberg.
“Directing ain’t about drawing a neat little picture and showing it to the cameraman. I didn’t want to go to film school. I didn’t know what the point was. The fact is, you don’t know what directing is until the sun is setting and you’ve got to get five shots and you’re only going to get two.”- David Fincher
|The Curious Case of Benjamin Button||2008|
|The Social Network||2010|
|The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo||2011|
The most widely celebrated of the great directors to debut in the mid to late 90’s (Nolan, Fincher, and a few others), Paul Thomas Anderson is the ideal American Auteur; one of the few great American directors to also write their own films. While I think he’s a touch below Fincher and Nolan as instinctual filmmakers, PTA I think takes a more sophisticated view of storytelling and filmmaking that makes his films “events” in the same way as theirs. He is also arguably the best Actor’s Director of modern times, directing Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix to some of the best performances of the 21st century, and directing everyone from Tom Cruise, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman to their best work.
He burst onto the scene as a 27 year old prodigy with his second film, the Oscar nominated Boogie Nights. Hailed as the next great American director with Tarantino, Anderson has spent the time since subverting all expectations, and often exasperating critics and fans. His immediate follow-up to Boogie Nights, Magnolia, has been both praised as a masterpiece and derided as a pretentious folly. His next film, Punch Drunk-Love was a conscious attempt to make a great Adam Sandler movie. 2007’s There Will Be Blood is his only recent film to receive nearly unanimous critical support, garnering eight Oscar nominations. 2012’s The Master saw him make his most opaque and divisive film yet. Focusing on the human need to follow “something”, The Master was named the best film of the year by many publications but ridiculed by just as many. His most recent effort, an adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, continued this divisive trend. In an age where originality is at a premium, Paul Thomas Anderson is among the most one of a kind filmmakers working.
“I really subscribe to that old adage that you should never let the audience get ahead of you for a second. So if the film’s abrasive and wrongfoots people then, y’know, that’s great” – Paul Thomas Anderson
|There Will be Blood||2007|
9. Woody Allen
Easily the most decorated screenwriter in American film history, Allen is also one of the most prolific and celebrated directors. Among his fantastically large list of films is a massive amount of Classics, although in my opinion he’s incredible inconsistent. A glance at his filmography overwhelms you with sheer volume. I can’t claim to have seen all, or even most, of his films, but I’ve seen enough of his great movies (and his bad) to confidently rank him this high (or low depending on your viewpoint). In my opinion, Allen is one of the few great comedic filmmakers of the last half of the twentieth century. In films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen provides a literary wit and sense of dark humor that few filmmakers possess. He’s both one of the all-time great screenwriters and a competent enough director to make a film as experimental as Zelig, or to make a film as visually beautiful as Manhattan. He’s also an underrated Actor’s director, most recently highlighted in Cate Blanchett’s incredible Oscar winning performance in 2013’s Blue Jasmine, but he’s been getting great performances out of his actors for decades. While I wish he’d slow down and take more time on his movies, Allen is undoubtedly one of the most important living directors.
|What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?||1966|
|Take the Money and Run||1969|
|Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask||1972|
|Love and Death||1975|
|A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy||1982|
|Broadway Danny Rose||1984|
|The Purple Rose of Cairo||1985|
|Hannah and Her Sisters||1985|
|Crimes and Misdemeanors||1989|
|Shadows and Fog||1992|
|Husbands and Wives||1992|
|Manhattan Murder Mystery||1993|
|Bullets Over Broadway||1994|
|Everyone Says I Love You||1996|
|Sweet and Lowdown||1999|
|Small Time Crooks||2000|
|The Curse of the Jade Scorpion||2001|
|Melinda and Melinda||2005|
|Vicky Christina Barcelona||2005|
|You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger||2010|
|Midnight in Paris||2011|
|To Rome With Love||2012|
|Magic in the Moonlight||2014|
8. David Lynch
The Madman of American Cinema, David Lynch has made a living off of making surreal, experimental cult films for decades now. He also made, in my opinion, one of the great uplifting films of all-time in The Elephant Man, but Lynch’s legacy rests on his bizarre, often brilliant series of dramas that defy most critical explanation.
His debut film (Eraserhead) is one of the most disturbingly brilliant debuts of all-time. Following that up with the the Oscar nominated The Elephant Man, Lynch announced himself as one of the best upcoming directors of the 80’s. His work on the famously troubled Dune adaptation sent him back to making a series of bizarre film throughout the late 80’s and 90’s, including the cult classic Blue Velvet and the groundbreaking Mulholland Drive, one of the most acclaimed films of the 21st century. He’s been quite for almost a decade now, but his upcoming new season of Twin Peaks promises a return to action.
“My approach to film stems from my art background, as I go beyond the story to the sub-conscious mood created by sound and images.” – David Lynch
|The Elephant Man||1980|
|Wild At Heart||1990|
|The Straight Story||1999|
7. Michael Mann
He began with one the great debut films of all-time, 1981’s Thief, which also doubles as one of the more influential of all modern crime films. His 1986 Manhunter, a Hannibal Lecter film years before The Silence of the Lambs made it popular, lacks the flashy Anthony Hopkins lead performances of later adaptations, but sets the stage for the visual motifs and psychological depth that would prove influential. The Last of the Mohicans in 1992 isn’t as tightly controlled as his other films but it’s one of the best westerns/action films of the 90’s, and its climax is one of the great wordless stretches in modern movies. 1995’s Heat is one of the great crime films of all-time and despite being somehow snubbed at the Oscars, its reputation and influence has only grown since then. The Insider in 1999 brought Mann his first, and only, real Oscar attention and is now a template for how to make a great investigative research film. Since The Insider, Mann has made a series of increasingly experimental action films, culminating in this year’s unfairly maligned Blackhat. I wrote a piece on Mann awhile back that delved deeper into his thematic fascinations if anyone is interested.
“I don’t make much of a distinction between genius design and engineering and athletic performance and great works of art – it’s all the human nervous system seen from the inside out. What allowed Muhammad Ali to do the so-called Ali Shuffle is no different from what inspired Antonio Vivaldi.” – Michael Mann
|The Last of the Mohicans||1992|
Probably the most culturally recognizable name in American film aside from Spielberg, Tarantino is a true savant. He’s never made an outright bad film, and his colorful screenwriting and flair for inventive narratives ensure that even his lesser efforts are immensely watchable. His ability to weave homages throughout his films into a coherent narrative with his innate ear for dialogue make him one of the most quoted of all modern screenwriters. His ability to direct a scene has been overshadowed by how influential a screenwriter he is, yet his ability to direct has allowed his scripts to be fully realized.
He burst onto the scene in the early 90’s with two of the defining films of the burgeoning Independent film scene: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, both of which would spawn hundreds of copycat films throughout the decade. Jackie Brown in 1997 was an underrated homage to blaxpoitation cinema. Kill Bill in 2003 and 2004 wove together numerous genres of films into an inimitable action saga. After a slight blip with Death Proof in 2007, Tarantino has made two of his most culturally influential films, 2009’s revenge masterpiece Inglorious Basterds, and 2012’s Django Unchained, his most commercially successful work.
Tarantino has long expressed his desire to retire after 10 feature films. With his eighth about to be release, Tarantino likely has only two more films to add to his resume. Luckily for him though, he’s already done enough in seven films to be able to retire right now and leave one of the most impressive and influential filmographies of any modern director.
“Movies are my religion and God is my patron. I’m lucky enough to be in the position where I don’t make movies to pay for my pool. When I make a movie, I want it to be everything to me; like I would die for it.” – Quentin Tarantino
|Kill Bill Vol. 1||2003|
|Kill Bill Vol. 2||2004|