This morning, a friend messaged me his list of ten favorite directors as part of a Twitter challenge, appending a note of concern that his picks were too bro-y. In retrospect, I’m not sure if that meant genre-wise or that they were all men. There are lists out there of female directors and I’ve certainly enjoyed many female-directed movies, but my own list is the same kind of bro-y. In no particular order (and because I’m not on Twitter):
The master. I loved this Korean director long before I loved Korea. My modern fixation on everything Red Velvet and Girls’ Generation was long presaged by an awestruck and intensive study of Park’s filmmaking craft. His angles are precise, his compositions beautiful, and the subject matter within is usually something horrific. On top of being a thoughtful, literary mind, his depiction of violence is so unflinching and even sadistic that his filmography has the quality of a test. Having overcome that test, I feel closer to the artist’s mind, and there’s significant reward in those hidden depths. Two of his films occupy a contentious top three: Joint Security Area and Lady Vengeance, both starring Lee Young-ae. However, I’d probably recommend first his early breakout Oldboy, which embodies his style better than the former and is easier to follow than the latter. It also has the most disturbing twist in movie history.
Recommended: Oldboy, The Handmaiden
Among the first anime directors encountered outside the Studio Ghibli bubble, Mamoru Oshii is essential to the medium’s history. His film Ghost in the Shell was the first anime released worldwide, and it remains a scifi classic. For me, it’s the sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence that cements his place, however. Where Oshii could always balance commercial entertainment with his quirks (Christianity, basset hounds, military hardware), sometimes the formula breaks and we get arthouse curios like The Red Spectacles or his later Garm Wars: The Last Druid. Innocence is at first impenetrable, but reveals surprisingly tragic layers with each review. It’s a powerful movie, and it also happens to be about cyborgs, making Oshii the best of both worlds: an extremely talented filmmaker and an introverted nerd who likes the things I like.
Recommended: Ghost in the Shell, Avalon
I love The Fly and Videodrome, but honestly? My favorite Cronenberg is The Dead Zone. So it’s kind of an embattled pick in one sense, because I’m not prioritizing what makes him unique in terms of subject matter. But underrated in the Cronenberg toolset is his talent as a dramatist. The comedy and tragedy both are so key to what makes the body horror compelling. It isn’t just that cavities open where they shouldn’t, but that we’ve come to feel the psychological and emotional realities surrounding the victim – or perpetrator. Of all these filmmakers, I’ve spent the most time reading and listening to Cronenberg, whether in interviews or movie commentaries. He’s so eloquent and interesting, and I also love him as an actor. Check out his brief appearance in Jason X or his genuine turn in Last Night.
Recommended: Eastern Promises, The Fly
A throwback, but one I couldn’t forget. He may be on the more popcorn side of the spectrum here, but his filmography is undeniable. Aliens and Terminator 2 would be enough. But I really appreciate how, through almost all of his movies, there’s a shared set of concerns and preoccupations. We see different approaches to issues of environmentalism and technology, always rendered with breathtaking (and expensive) imagery. Cameron is a fascinating filmmaker for his hands-on approach and scary ambition. He was my first favorite director, at a time when I was considering the same career path.
Recommended: Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day
He may not bring the choreography of Lau Kar-leung or the sheer filmography of Chang Cheh, but that’s in part because nobody makes movies like King Hu. His kung fu dramas are so epic and so beautiful, and they take on an almost enlightened, celestial perspective. The events which play out are not ordinary human episodes but something grander and packed with meaning. His camera is deliberate and sweeping, but the action is frenetic and dreamlike. And of course, he has a soft spot for action heroines, and found his muse in the tremendous Hsu Feng.
Recommended: Come Drink With Me, A Touch of Zen
This entry took some internal debate. I think the Wachowskis tend to be too experimental, making it hard to identify a consistent theme, or maybe their movies are just stuffed to the gills with their nerdy obsessions that it’s overload. Either way, it’s three items that clinch it (with some overlap): the Matrix trilogy and Cloud Atlas, and The Matrix. These four movies are staggering works of art, and the original Matrix is the greatest scifi movie ever made. These two may be the sole exception to “bro-y,” though they’re hardly the exact opposite. What, after all, is Jupiter Ascending if not all over the spectrum? And despite that and other financial failures, they keep going (albeit separately now), which makes me very happy.
Recommended: Bound, Cloud Atlas
By contrast, we have someone who is, whether he likes it or not, narrowly defined. John Woo is the man behind gun fu, who contributed one of the most indelible images to the action genre: Chow Yun-fat dual-wielding pistols, firing in slow-motion while sliding or gliding or falling. As far as action movies go, there have been real challengers to the throne, like Gareth Evans, but John Woo built the throne. Maybe we call it elevation, but with his strangely poignant themes of brotherhood and the world-class spectacle, he maximizes the medium of film itself. His movies are the reason movies are made.
Recommended: A Better Tomorrow, Hard Boiled
Yes, 100%. If I’m being honest about my favorite directors, the most famous, most quintessential filmmaker has to be included. I’ve downright hated some of his stuff, like Close Encounters and AI: Artificial Intelligence, but through an extensive career he’s been consistent at the highest level, from Jaws and Raiders through War of the Worlds to Bridge of Spies. When you sit down with a Spielberg movie, there’s a kind of Nintendo seal of quality, with the best actors and the best music and confident color and compositions. I love how he moves the camera, even if it sometimes draws attention to itself. And ultimately, Jurassic Park is and has always been my number one favorite movie. It’s as much a nostalgic centerpiece as a technical masterpiece.
Recommended: Jaws, Munich
Like King Hu, Leone has a relatively small filmography defined by a single genre. And also like King Hu, his preoccupations are so much about how landscapes ought to be filmed and the mythology they represent. This Italian master of the American Western has at least two masterpieces to his name, but all of his movies are products of the same sure hand. There’s an intensity to his sequences of violence that doesn’t come from fast-cutting but rather drawn-out suspense. His haunted Old West is populated by idiosyncratic characters all assuming their places in a gauntlet of existential bloodshed. Behind the scenes, Leone was a little crazy, too, so he’s likely the obvious candidate for “mad genius” here (if Cameron is the angry genius).
Recommended: For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West
To round us off, I needed some tokusatsu representation, and to be honest, it wasn’t gonna be Ishiro Honda, and I haven’t seen enough from Hideaki Anno yet. Amemiya makes the top ten for a simple reason: if I were to make movies, I’d make movies like his. Actually, I always thought I’d make something like Rolling Thunder but starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but if that movie was successful and I wanted to torpedo my burgeoning career, the next would be Zeiram. I have a strong emotional connection to those two movies in particular, and I appreciate how Amemiya brings a strong design sense into these films with budgets that can hardly contain it. What you get is something totally off the wall but also sort of endearing, and shot with enough know-how to avoid the pitfalls of decidedly B-movie filmmaking. Not to mention, his costumes and props are the coolest shit you’ve ever seen.
Recommended: Zeiram, Cyber Ninja
It was hard not to include John Carpenter and John Singleton, but I’ve always had quibbles with the former, in films I haven’t revisited in years (I remember They Live being slow as balls). Both those two were stars of my high school days, but it’s been a long time and I’d have to do a critical reevaluation. Anyway, who’s in your top ten?