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Guardian Top 40 Film Directors


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David Lynch
After all the discussion, no one could fault the conclusion that ***** ****** is the most important film-maker of the current era. Providing a portal into the collective subconscious, the daydream nation conjured up in tales such as Blue Velvet, Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive is by turns frightening, exasperating, revelatory and wild. Nobody makes films like ********. He is our spooky tour guide through a world of dancing dwarves, femme fatales and little blue boxes that may (or may not) contain all the answers. We wouldn't want to live in the places he takes us. Somehow, we suspect, we do.
2. Martin Scorsese
******* influence is impossible to overstate. His red-blooded canon has spawned a generation of copycats while his muscular style has become a template. That said, opinion is divided over the man's recent output. Some regard his monumental Gangs of New York as a classic to rank alongside Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Others worry that the heavyweight champion of American movies is no longer quite punching his weight.
3. Joel & Ethan Coen
Their latest film, Intolerable Cruelty, may have marked a new, "commercial" phase in their career, but no one could ever accuse ************* of selling out. ********s' special mix of arch, sculpted dialogue, film-history homage and scrupulously-framed cinematography has never failed them yet, and through their associations with Sam Raimi and Barry Sonnenfeld, have exerted a powerful, if unacknowledged, influence on mainstream event cinema. Until Fargo, they seemed content to mess about in their own particular corner of the film industry; that film's stunning popular success suddenly catapulted them into the Hollywood big league.
4. Steven Soderbergh
********** is a one-off: an independent-minded film-maker who has forged a happy working relationship with Hollywood. This is thanks to a brilliant balancing act. ********* soothes the studios with expert, intelligent crowd-pleasers like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven then shifts gear for more esoteric, personal projects (Solaris, Full Frontal). His ongoing alliance with George Clooney, moreover, is the most reliable director-star double act since Scorsese found De Niro.
5. Terrence Malick
The lofty ranking of ********** just goes to show that it's quality, not quantity, that counts. Renowned as a ghostly, Garbo-style recluse, this fabled figure has made just three films over three decades. Even so, the wild beauty of his 1973 debut Badlands casts a formidable shadow, while his sprawling 1999 war epic The Thin Red Line at least proved that the master had lost none of his magic. Next up, apparently, is a biopic of Che Guevara. But don't hold your breath.
6. Abbas Kiarostami
The highest ranking non-American, and one of the most respected film-makers working today - by his peers if not the general public. Operating mostly in rural Iran, *********** has often concealed potentially life-threatening political commentary within films of simplicity and compassion. But he has complicated his medium, too, by mixing drama and documentary, and actors and non-actors, to dizzying effect. His recent in-car drama Ten provided a daring Tehran exposé as well as a radical new film-making technique - one that almost does away with the director entirely.
7. Errol Morris
****** is the joker in this top 10, in that his position is solely down to his documentaries. Put simply, ****** is the world's best investigative film-maker. He possesses a forensic mind, a painter's eye and a nose for the dark absurdities of American life. High points include The Thin Blue Line (which unearths the nightmarish truth behind a Dallas cop killing), Mr Death (a treatise on execution-device inventor and Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter Jr), and the forthcoming Fog of War, his compelling autopsy on the war in Vietnam.
8. Hayao Miyazaki
It's about time the rest of the world came to appreciate the genius of Japanese **********, whose films have been breaking box-office records in Japan for years. He's now in his 60s, but as this year's Spirited Away proved, the work just keeps getting better. His films create the world anew, literally. Each is set in an intricate, self-contained fantasy world that's been built from scratch and drawn with devotion.*******'s stories are frequently considered children's fare but they are deeper than they look - like the best fairy tales, they conceal dark, very adult themes beneath their surfaces.
9. David Cronenberg
Few directors have ploughed such distinctive furrows as ********. And now in his fourth decade of film-making, he is still at the cutting edge. Crash set the entire film world agog with its bizarre sexual constructs; eXistenZ examined the implications of the virtual world more thoughtfully than most; and Spider superbly summoned up a bleak, decaying Britishness (largely forgotten by our own film-makers). His next film, with Nicolas Cage playing a plastic-surgery fetishist, is already inducing shudders.
10. Terence Davies
Our highest-placed British film-maker is here because of his uncompromising and unique cinematic vision; but, with painful irony, it's also made him the highest-profile victim of Britain's commercial film industry revival. Emerging from the state-sponsored art-film sector in the mid-80s, ******* completed a trilogy of short films and two features - Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. But, in a more cut-throat environment, the sensitive ******* has suffered, making only two films in a decade - one of them the international hit The House of Mirth. So it seems a shame - and somehow scandalous - that his current project, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, should be facing major funding obstacles.
11. Lukas Moodysson
You would assume that the surest way to hobble a young Swedish film-maker is to label him "the new Bergman". Fortunately, *********** seems immune to such pressure. His 2001 hit Together - about hippies living communally in 1970s Stockholm - was warm, witty and altogether disarming. By contrast, his follow-up, Lilya 4-Ever (about a Russian teen dragooned into prostitution), was a social-realist vision of hell. Heartfelt and uncompromising, ********* treads his own path.
12. Lynne Ramsay
*********, the second highest-placed Brit - and the highest woman of any nationality - has trodden a distinctive path through the lottery-fuelled sludge of modern British cinema. Her first film, Ratcatcher, set during the binmen strikes of 70s Glasgow, was the anti-Billy Elliot; her second, adapted from Alan Warner's novel Morvern Callar, confirmed her promise. Morvern is an authentic modern classic, with an actress, Samantha Morton, whose blank-faced performance is a perfect complement to ********'s studied camerawork.
13. Bela Tarr
In just a few years, the Hungarian director has emerged from obscurity to be revered as the Tarkovsky of his generation, with his dark and mysterious monochrome parables, shot with uncompromisingly long, slow single camera takes. His recent Werckmeister Harmonies was a dreamlike film: compelling and sublime. From 1994, Satantango has cult status on the festival circuit, not least for its awe-inspiring length: seven hours. He is now developing a movie at least partly set in London.
14. Wong Kar-Wai
Hong Kong has become synonymous with action cinema, but *********** is one of few exceptions. His trademark portraits of quirky urban longing have influenced Asian film as a whole, but the delectably sensuous In the Mood for Love proved that ********* is still improving (and that he has one of the best cinematographers in the business in Christopher Doyle). Next up he's making a sci-fi movie - should be interesting.
15. Pedro Almodovar
Post-Franco Spain needed *********** like a desert needs rain. His early films were gaudy, bawdy and loud; drunken celebrations of the country's new-found social and sexual freedoms. But ********* is much more than some posturing agent provocateur. He spins soulful, spellbinding stories and creates characters that ring with life. All About My Mother and Talk to Her were exotic masterpieces that confirmed their creator as the most important Spanish director since Luis Buñuel.
16. Todd Haynes
In retrospect, it seems such a simple idea - take your favourite director (in *******' case, Douglas Sirk) and faithfully imitate their style and meaning, subtly changing things enough to throw a whole new meaning on an entire historical epoch and film genre. In 1996 ******* had made an earlier masterpiece, Safe; few directors could have topped that, but Far From Heaven managed it.
17. Quentin Tarantino
The jury may still be undecided on the virtues of Kill Bill, but no one can deny the massive impact the former video-store clerk has had on cinema across the world. The chewy, minutiae-obsessed dialogue and abundant bloodletting of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction catapulted him to era-defining stature and influence beyond the wildest dreams of any director; had this poll been taken in 1995, he would have been top three, no question. But Tarantino has since been the victim of his own success: he took three years to make his third film, Jackie Brown, and another six to make his fourth. Perhaps inevitably, neither of them made the splash of his first two, but whatever else, ******* can still make the simple act of watching a film seem oh-so-exciting.
18. Tsai Ming-Liang
One of the least well-known names on the list, but a director who has steadily refined his own gentle, bittersweet style. Using his native Taipei as a backdrop, ***** distills the complexity and alienation of city life into films that are austere, unhurried and emotional, but also comical. His pre-apocalyptic The Hole included 1950s musical numbers, for example, while What Time Is It There? paid homage to Harold Lloyd in a movie about death and loneliness. In his latest, Goodbye Dragon Inn, he has almost done away with dialogue altogether.
19. Aki Kaurismaki
Cinema needs the occasional breath of fresh air, and you can always rely on *********** to provide it. Coming from Finland, he had a head start, but where other quirky directors last a film or two, ********** seems to have a bottomless pool of eccentric ideas to draw from. His films are an acquired taste, but they never pander to good taste. For a supposed director of art films, he's more interested in the world out on the street, or in the gutter. And his most recent, The Man Without a Past, saw him re-emerge into the global spotlight after some years at its fringe.
20. Michael Winterbottom
************'s career presents a study in motion. His films spirit us from Hardy's Wessex (Jude) to war-torn Bosnia (Welcome to Sarajevo), and from post-punk Manchester (24 Hour Party People) to the asylum-seekers' "silk road" out of Pakistan (In This World). As well as being technically brilliant and a seeming workaholic, Winterbottom is arguably the most politically astute director in the business, with an unerring eye for the stories that matter. British cinema would be lost without him.
21. Paul Thomas Anderson
There is something wonderfully fearless about 33-year-old ************. His two best pictures (Boogie Nights and Magnolia) are works of gob-smacking ambition in one so young - lush, multi-layered ensemble pieces that spotlight the damaged souls of his native San Fernando Valley. But let's not forget the recent Punch-Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. Smaller in scale but no less turbulent, this undervalued effort is like a nail bomb in the guise of a romantic comedy.
22. Michael Haneke
No one, perhaps not even Gaspar Noé, delivers more hardcore horror than the German-born Austrian ****** - even when his shocks are happening off camera, which they mostly do. After a long career in TV, ***** graduated to the big screen in the early 90s and audiences quickly came to know they were in for a profoundly uncomfortable experience.The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert, was a disquieting study of a musician driven to agonies of despair and self-loathing. More recently, Time of the Wolf was an almost unwatchably horrible vision of post-apocalyptic Europe.
23. Walter Salles
The godfather and trailblazer of the buena onda - the "good wave" of contemporary Latin American cinema, *********'s directorial reputation rests largely on two recent films, Central Station and Behind the Sun, which virtually on their own put Brazilian cinema on the map. ********* has just finished another road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, based on Che Guevara's book, for Britain's FilmFour, and is finally going Hollywood with a remake of Hideo "Ring" Nakata's Dark Water. But ******** is equally notable as a facilitator for other Brazilian projects - most importantly the sensational City of God, which he co-produced.
24. Alexander Payne
********* came to prominence in 1999 with his stunning high school satire Election, the Animal Farm of American sexual politics in the Clinton era. From here, ********* went on to direct About Schmidt, which gave Jack Nicholson the best role of his late career. With these two movies, ********* has established an auteur distinctiveness: amplifying the disappointment and regret lurking within the peppy, can-do civic culture of middle America, while acknowledging the sweetness and innocence that is still there.
25. Spike Jonze
Born into millionaire stock (and heir to the Spiegel mail-order catalogue fortune), *********** has installed himself as the genius jester in the court of King Hollywood. His 1999 debut, Being John Malkovich, was a delirious satire on celebrity culture, while Adaptation led the viewer on a slaloming joyride along the border between truth and fiction. Inevitably, though, one cannot celebrate ********* without also crediting his scriptwriter - the ingenious Charlie Kaufman.
26. Alexander Sokurov
The veteran Russian director is inexhaustibly prolific, making both features and documentaries, with 31 credits to his name over a 23-year career. His movies are powerful, poetic, often severe, and at their most accessible when they meditate on the nature of Russia. ******** had his biggest recent success with Russian Ark: a staggeringly ambitious single-take 90-minute journey through the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. His latest movie, Father And Son, is an enigmatic and often baffling study of a father-son relationship between two soldiers. His work gets a lively, mixed reaction in the west, but *********'s admirers revere the haunting, occasionally austere power of his films.
27. Ang Lee
He may have taken a bit of a stumble with The Hulk, his elevation to blockbusterdom, but the Taiwanese-born ******** clocked up plenty of brownie points over the preceding decade for his dazzling versatility, if nothing else. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (a record-breaker for a subtitled film), The Ice Storm, The Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility are all testament to a career of wonderfully fertile cinematic cross-pollination. ********'s proficiency at swapping genres, but retaining a purposeful humaneness, is his hallmark.
28. Michael Moore
You could say it's *********'s blend of humour, righteousness and persistence that has made his documentaries so successful, but his political commitment would be nothing without the film-making skills to back it up. Bowling for Columbine has been one of the most influential films of recent years, affecting the public in a way that most directors on this list will never know, but it would never have become such a cause had it not been so rigorously researched, painstakingly constructed and broadly entertaining.
29. Wes Anderson
No less an authority than Martin Scorsese recently tipped ******** as the brightest hope for American cinema. Scripted in tandem with his actor buddy Owen Wilson, ***********'s work is literate, quirky and unexpectedly moving. His breakthrough picture, Rushmore, amounted to a poignant salute to high-school losers everywhere. More recently, the vibrant, Salinger-esque The Royal Tenenbaums charted the decline and fall of a precocious New York family.
30. Takeshi Kitano
Few directors have ever made themselves look as cool as ******** has. His shark-eyed gangster persona became a fixture of Japanese action thrillers in the 1990s, but behind the camera his controlled blend of visual slapstick and sudden violence has become a distinctive style. Recent efforts have seen him trying to diversify. Dolls was a subdued art film, but next year's Zatoichi is a sword-swishing crowd pleaser.
Richard Linklater
******* is the grunge philosopher of independent cinema. Hailing from Austin, Texas, he casually defined an era with 1991's loose-knit, haphazard Slacker. The uproarious Dazed and Confused and the seductive Before Sunrise extolled the joys of footloose youth, while his animated Waking Life spun a woozy, bong-smoking rumination on dreams and reality. Incredibly, *********** recently graduated to the big time when his School of Rock hit number one at the US box office.
32. Gaspar Noé
Not bad for someone who's only made two features, but ********* has made as much impact as you can with them. There's nothing pretty about either his carnal debut Seul Contre Tous, or last year's backwards-told rape-revenge drama Irréversible - both have challenged boundaries of decency and induced reactions as extreme as nausea and vomiting. In a supposedly unshockable age, that's some kind of cinematic achievement.
33. Pawel Pawlikowski
With only one substantial feature under his belt, Polish-born, British-based director ********* has arguably the slenderest claim of all to be on this list. But Last Resort, with its mix of heartfelt social insight (the then-radical subject of asylum seekers) and improvisatory, documentary-style film-making, has exerted an influence of gigantic proportions on a whole generation of British cinema. Where would In This World and Dirty Pretty Things, to name but two, be without it?
34. David O Russell
*********** natural habitat is the dysfunctional American family. He dished up a deadpan Oedipal comedy with 1994's Spanking the Monkey and then dispatched Ben Stiller cross-country in the freewheeling adoption caper Flirting With Disaster. Yet this tart, original talent adapts well to other terrain. On the one hand his big-budget Three Kings was an expert, high-concept war thriller. On the other, it can be read as a savage assault on bungled US policy during the first Gulf War.
35. Larry and Andy Wachowski
Now that their Matrix trilogy is finally wrapped up, it's a good time to draw breath and appreciate the scale of the *********' achievement. Merging the techno-porn of the contemporary action movie with the artful ballet of the Hong Kong martial arts film, the sci-fi paranoia of Philip K Dick with the visual exuberance of Japanese anime, the Matrix phenomenon utterly redefined the nature of the blockbuster movie serial, as well as relegating such mid-90s action luminaries as John Woo and Roland Emmerich to the margins. Like, awesome.
36. Samira Makhmalbaf
You could say ********** had it easy, being the daughter or one of Iran's greatest film-makers, but she's hardly taken any easy options. Her films get bolder and more confrontational every time - Blackboards took her into the Kurdish lands on the Iranian border; her latest, At Five in the Afternoon, was shot in the chaos of post-Taliban Afghanistan - but for all their political currency, there's still evidence of an artistic sensibility. And she's only 23 years old.
37. Lars von Trier
To his fans he's the impish genius who redefined cinema with his Dogme doctrine. To his critics he's Jeremy Beadle with a degree in anthropology. Either way, there's no denying the impact of this phobic, Prozac-popping Dane. His most successful pictures (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, the upcoming Dogville) are hazardous human dramas in which cruelty and compassion come equally blended. Happily there seems little danger of von Trier selling out and heading to Hollywood. He hates America and nurses a crippling fear of flying.
38. Takashi Miike
If ********* had channelled his energies into making one film every year, rather than his customary six or seven, he could be a lot further up the list. Not that you'd want him to change. ******** casual technical brilliance and total disregard for taste are what makes his best films such a joy. Sure, there are plenty of misfires and generic gangster pictures to his credit, too, but there's plenty of everything when it comes to *********, surely that can't be bad?
39. David Fincher
Heading the list of the pop-promo-and-TV-commercial wonderkids of the early 90s, ******** successfully brought that world's visual inventiveness into the feature film world. In Alien 3, Seven, and Fight Club, he forged a string of visceral, unforgettable images; but his subsequent career has been dogged by aborted projects. **********'s most recent film, the unremarkable Panic Room, saw him in a holding pattern - it's certainly cost him a few points.
40. Gus Van Sant
A casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that there are two ******** at work within American cinema. The first makes gloopy studio fodder like Good Will Hunting and the odious Finding Forrester. The second is the visionary auteur of Drugstore Cowboy, Gerry, My Own Private Idaho and the Palme d'Or-winning Elephant (an elegant, ultimately devastating take on the Columbine tragedy). For the record, it is the second ********* who gets the votes here.

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