Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Filmmakers of the Decade

When considering their whole body of work, who were the filmmakers who made the biggest impact on cinema in this decade? I decided to put together a list of the ten key figures, and the only qualification was that each director (or directors) had to have made three worthy films in the past ten years. Here's what I ended up with.

10 - Steven Spielberg (AI: Artificial Intelligence; Minority Report; Catch Me If You Can; The Terminal; War of the Worlds; Munich; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)
In the first few years of this decade, Spielberg did some of the most daring, intelligent and ambitious work of his career. AI and Minority Report were striking and thoughtful sci-fi pictures, Catch me If You Can was a gloriously entertaining piece of work, and both War of the Worlds and Munich are filled with brilliant moments, even if they ultimately feel like less than the sum of their parts. With the exception of 2004's The Terminal (one of the worst films he has ever made), every one of these pictures is a technically flawless piece of filmmaking that displays Spielberg's complete mastery of cinematic language, and that first five years alone is enough to earn him a place on this list. The subsequent years have been perplexing and disappointing, though. His return to the Indiana Jones series was a grievous error, and after that – nothing. Spielberg is one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood – one of the few directors whose name is enough to sell a film – and it's disheartening to see him flirting with projects like Harvey that are really beneath him, and spending years on Tintin, while his long-rumoured Abraham Lincoln project appears to be going nowhere. Hopefully we haven't seen the last of this great director.

9 - Bong Joon-ho (Barking Dogs Never Bite; Memories of Murder; The Host; Mother)
An extraordinary talent, Bong Joon-ho has emerged as the most exciting of a very exciting crop of young Korean filmmakers in the past few years. He creates films that are thrilling, funny, dramatic and moving, and he has an unerring ability to pull the rug from under the audience, and to completely confound their expectations of where a particular scene is about to go. Technically, he is immensely gifted, blessed with an innate understanding of shot composition and pacing, and he habitually pulls off extraordinary sequences – check out the monster's first attack in The Host, or the farcical crime scene sequence in Memories of Murder for evidence of this. I have a sneaking feeling that Mother, his latest film, is actually his masterpiece, but I'll need a second viewing to be sure. Either way, I'm certain that Bong Joon-ho is a great filmmaker in the making.

8 - Guy Maddin (The Heart of the World; Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary; Cowards Bend the Knee; The Saddest Music in the World; My Dad is 100 Years Old; Brand Upon the Brain!; My Winnipeg)
The amazingly prolific and inventive Guy Maddin has had a remarkable decade. The brilliant six-minute drama The Heart of the World was his breakthrough, and since then he has gone from strength to strength. His pictures are deliriously entertaining, from the beautifully staged Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (one of my favourite screen versions of that tale) to the wildly imaginative The Saddest Music in the World and his semi-documentary My Winnipeg. Lately, Maddin has begun experimenting further, adding a live element to his already distinctive features with Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg. He is a filmmaker happily pursuing his own path, producing work that is completely singular and unique to him, and unconcerned by commercial prospects. This idiosyncratic artist is a valuable presence in today's cinema.

Read my interview with Guy Maddin here.

7 - Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday; The Bourne Supremacy; United 93; The Bourne Ultimatum)
Paul Greengrass brings a vivid, documentary-style realism to everything he does, and his work in the past decade has completely revitalised action cinema. He was still something of an unknown quantity when he was hired to direct the second film in the Bourne series, but that decision turned out to be a masterstroke. Following Doug Liman's enjoyable but generic The Bourne Identity, Greengrass gave The Bourne Supremacy a jolt in the arm, his energetic, handheld style lending the film a remarkable immediacy and authenticity. He has the ability to shoot fight scenes and chases in a tight, heavily edited fashion, while retaining a sense of context and spatial continuity. The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum have set the standard for action films in the new millennium, and their influence can already be felt in the new, tougher Bond films. Greengrass also directed the admirable United 93 in this decade, but I think his best film remains Bloody Sunday, which has a raw emotional power his later work has not matched. One can only wonder what he would have done with Watchmen.

6 - Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brokovich; Traffic; Ocean's 11; Full Frontal; Solaris; Ocean's 12; Bubble; The Good German; Ocean's 13; Che; The Informant!;The Girlfriend Experience)
Is Steven Soderbergh the closest thing our generation has to a Robert Altman? He is massively prolific and incredibly hard to pin down; he can jump between studio features and independent projects while always putting his own personal stamp on them; he always seems to be seeking out new ways of telling stories; he never seems to take a day off. One other trait that this director shares with Altman is that his work can be incredibly inconsistent, he can either hit the bullseye or miss the target by miles, but even his failures are interesting. Soderbergh's output in the 00's can be divided into two parts: The Ocean's series (the ones that make the money) and the interesting films (the ones that don't). He began the decade with two Oscar hits, the solidly entertaining star vehicle Erin Brokovich and his superb, multi-narrative drugs drama Traffic, and he followed that with an impressive remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris. Soderbergh hasn't quite hit those peaks subsequently, but Che, The Informant! and The Girlfriend Experience all have memorable moments, and each picture is another attempt by the director to do something a little different with familiar material.

5 - Pixar (Monsters Inc.; Finding Nemo; The Incredibles; Cars; Ratatouille; WALL•E; Up)
Uniquely on this list, Pixar is not a filmmaker, or a pair of directing siblings, but instead it is a group of filmmakers, who are collectively responsible for the best mainstream films of the decade. The studio has established itself as an auteur in its own right, producing films that combine strong, ambitious screenplays with extraordinary developments in CGI animation, and delivering a series of features that engage adults and children alike. Unlike other animation houses, they don't rely on gimmicks or culturally relevant gags (a friend recently remarked, "It's laughable that the Shrek people think they're in the same business"), and their work consistently shows up the rest of the blockbuster field as the underwritten and overproduced trash that it is. Among the individual artists who have made their mark with Pixar, Peter Docter takes the star prize for this decade, having directed Monsters Inc. and Up, two of the most imaginative and moving films in the studio's canon.

4 - Michael Haneke (Code Unknown; The Piano Teacher; The Time of the Wolf; Hidden; Funny Games US; The White Ribbon)
When watching his films, Michael Haneke asks his audience to meet him halfway. His films will provoke you, they'll throw up numerous ideas, and it's up to you to fill in the grey areas the director deliberately includes. In the past decade, Haneke has made some of the most intelligent and challenging films to be found anywhere, but he is also a filmmaker who knows how to hook an audience's interest, and his pictures never become mere lectures or intellectual exercises. They also grip the viewer at a gut level, and I still remember the gasp that went up during a London Film Festival screening of Hidden, when Haneke – having drawn us all to the edge of our seats – knocked the wind out of us with one startling move. Taken together, his Code Unknown, The Time of the Wolf and Hidden form a brilliant trilogy about societal disconnection in contemporary Europe and our fear of others. He has also made The Piano Teacher, a study of sexual repression, and his haunting pre-war fable The White Ribbon, in which he took his already formidable craftsmanship to new heights. Only his perplexing remake of his own Funny Games could be classed as a disappointment, but even that worked for me on more levels than I was expecting it to, and watching Haneke do it himself is certainly preferable to the long-mooted Ron Howard remake Hidden.

3 - Joel and Ethan Coen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn't There; Intolerable Cruelty; The Ladykillers; No Country for Old Men; Burn After Reading; A Serious Man)
It has been a strange decade for the Coen brothers. Their output in the 1990's was faultless – bookended by the masterful Miller's Crossing and the hilarious The Big Lebowski – but while they have become more prolific in this decade, they have also been slightly less consistent. After opening the decade superbly with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn't There, they hit an alarming wobble with their next two films. To be fair, Intolerable Cruelty looks a lot better on repeated viewings than it originally did (although it's still a bit manic and unconvincing), but their decision to remake the Ealing classic The Ladykillers remains the most inexplicable move of their career to date, and their only outright failure. Yet it was typical of the Coens to react to their worst film by making a film like No Country for Old Men, the superb 2007 thriller, which collected the Best Picture Oscar. What's indisputable about the Coen brothers is that the level of their filmmaking craft has developed to the point where very few of their contemporaries can match them. Their use of sound design, editing, cinematography and mise-en-scène has been flawless in films like The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man, and even more throwaway efforts like the disappointing Burn After Reading are supremely well made. Despite the occasional misstep, they remain the benchmark for American filmmakers.

2 - Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Son; L'Enfant; The Silence of Lorna)
The best way to watch a Dardenne brothers film is to go into it absolutely cold. Don't read anything about the plot details, don't browse any reviews, just sit back and experience these masters at work. The first Dardennes film I ever saw was The Son, a picture I went into with no prior knowledge, aside from the fact that it had been acclaimed on the festival circuit. What I saw absolutely floored me. I was riveted by it, completely involved in the emotionally complex and thematically rich tale the filmmakers told; their probing camerawork putting us right there alongside the lead character. The Dardenne brothers have made five films, and there are consistent traits running throughout them. Their camera allows us to share an intimate space with the central characters; they gradually drop pieces of information into the film, building the narrative slowly, before developing a sense of knife-edge tension later on; and their films hinge on characters having to make difficult, potentially life-altering decisions. But it is the seriousness and incisiveness with which the brothers deal with these decisions, and the subtle way they examine the weighty themes their stories involve, that truly sets their work apart. As the makers of La promesse, Rosetta, The Son, L'Enfant and The Silence of Lorna, they truly deserve to be considered among the world's greatest filmmakers.

Read my interview with the Dardenne brothers here.

1 - Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark; Dogville; The Five Obstructions; Manderlay; The Boss of it All; Antichrist)
Lars von Trier has always been a polarising figure, and he always will be, but that's partly the reason for putting him at the top of this list. I love the fact that his films have provoked adoration and disgust in equal measure, and I love the fact that he continues to reinvent himself, and to find brand new ways of pissing people off. Some people might think he's nothing more than a prankster and provocateur, but I don't think you can overlook the fact that he is an astonishingly talented filmmaker, and the films he has directed in this decade are a remarkable bunch. He has also been described as a misogynist, but look at the roles he has given to actresses in this decade; Björk in his emotionally devastating musical Dancer in the Dark; Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard as the deceptively good-hearted Grace in Dogville and Manderlay; Charlotte Gainsbourg giving the performance of a lifetime in the magnificent Antichrist. With the exception of Manderlay, von Trier has taken a new approach to each of the films he has made, and has come up with something that feels fresh and fascinating on each occasion. The Five Obstructions is a playful examination of the filmmaking process, while The Boss of It All is a terrific comedy. Love him or hate him, Lars von Trier is source of endless fascination, debate and amusement, and the world of cinema would be a far less interesting place without him.