Empire's list of top directors - some thoughts

Jun 4, 2005

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The Bottom Line a flawed list, like any of its kind

When it comes to movies (and a lot of things, really), I was a pretentious ass in high school. But that doesn't change the fact that I loved movies then (I still love them, but not with quite the heedless passion I had then). I pined after the works of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol and their ilk - which at the time were mostly impossible to buy except in expensive VHS copies (a situation that's happily changing). I dismissed certain directors out of hand, and tried to embrace others I didn't really like.

The situation has changed somewhat. Though now I don't have quite the free time I did then to watch movies and think about them, I've managed to retain my faculties of judgment. And, thank God, I no longer call them "films".

A British publication called Empire has come up with a list of the "top 40 directors of all time", based on a poll of its readers. Despite its inherently problematic nature (I think most average viewers would struggle to come up with a list of 40 directors in general, let alone 40 who deserve recognition on this scale), movie lists like this have always fascinated me - so here are the top 10, with my comments, and a general appraisal:

1. Steven Spielberg. Well, I guess he deserves a spot on the list. But I have this sinking feeling that he was nominated for his forgettable, bloated '90s epics such as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. He actually deserves it for his great entertainments like Jaws and the Indiana Jones trilogy.

2. Alfred Hitchcock. I think he's somewhat overrated, but obviously deserves a spot. In fact I'd push him up to #1, perhaps. Still, I have to confess to some aggravation over the basis of Hitchcock's canonization. A lot of the movies for which he's famed - The Birds, North By Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, etc. - are legitimately great. But Psycho is somewhat lame and anti-climactic, on watching it again. Such a pity that he's best-known for that.

3. Martin Scorsese. He doesn't really come to mind when I try to think of directors I really like, but I suppose he's all right for a list like this (assuming that solely American directors are under discussion, which they're not, and which is a grievous fault of this list - given the absurdity of some of the selections they apparently felt they had to include, they might have done better to stick solely to America - more on that later). Although I don't know anyone who really, deeply loves Scorsese's recent movies, or would rank them with "the great movies". (That said, I have to admit that Bringing Out the Dead was the movie that led me to fall in love with caffeine's mind-altering effects.)

4. Stanley Kubrick - he made like one good movie, leave him off entirely. He's invariably the director-of-choice for pretentious high-school kids who've just discovered auteur theory: many of his movies are one-dimensional and repetitive, evincing no real understanding of humanity. But OMG LOOK AT IT, IT'S DULL AND IT HAS THEMES, WHICH MEANS IT'S ART! LOOK LOOK LOOK AT THE THEMES! HERE IS THE THEME OF THE DEHUMANIZATION OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, IT'S ART, DAMMIT, IT'S ART! Kubrick's best movie overall was Lolita, which is easily in my top-10 movies of all time. But that doesn't excuse the rest of his work. A Clockwork Orange is soulless, ugly tripe. Though I used to like Dr. Strangelove a lot, it's essentially a comic-book movie. The Shining leans toward greatness, but widely misses the mark in some ways (I need to watch this movie again). 2001: a Space Odyssey has some striking visuals, I guess, but no real meaning. And I suspect that I'm the only viewer ever to watch all three hours of Barry Lyndon. None of this is to dismiss the opinions of any informed, intelligent adults who for whatever unfathomable reasons still like his work.

5. Ridley Scott. You know, I like him a lot. He's one of the directors whose name, when I see it in a preview, always makes me smile, knowing that he'll never do anything really bad. He made Alien, which is one of the great movies. And he made Blade Runner which is respectable. And he made Thelma and Louise and White Squall and G.I. Jane and Black Hawk Down, which are all good movies. But honestly, does his overall body of work - consistent but not particularly exciting or canonical - really merit inclusion? Why Ridley Scott and not another middling, generally consistent, sometimes-great director such as...I don't know, Stephen Frears?

6. Akira Kurosawa. "Look at us, we know foreign films!" Although Kurosawa really does deserve the acclaim he gets, his inclusion here opens up a huge can of worms: namely, the list's near-exclusion of non-Western directors. Here might be a good place to mention that the full, unabridged list does in fact include 40 directors, including Truffaut and Bergman (26 and 36 respectively).

7. Peter Jackson. Whatever. He made some neat horror movies, Heavenly Creatures, and the Lord of the Rings movies. None of which really earns him a position on this list.

8. Quentin Tarantino. It gets harder and harder for me to separate out hardcore Tarantino fans from the director himself. Which is an unfair statement to make, because he has a hell of a lot of fans. Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill are all good movies - however, for me their fanboy followings taint them to the point that it's difficult to judge them fairly. Still I'll never forget the thrills of seeing those four movies in the theater: each carries its own rich associations and memories. A lot of us grew up as film lovers with Tarantino, and as flawed as his movies are, they're still lovable.

9 and 10. Orson Welles and Woody Allen. Yeah, no argument here.

As I move into the remainder of the list, I find a number of selections whose exclusion enraged me as I read the top-10. Clint Eastwood, David Lean, the Coen Brothers (annoying as their followers can sometimes be, they've done some good stuff), James Cameron, Sergio Leone, John Ford, Billy Wilder, Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, David Lynch (my favorite out of all the directors on the list), Brian DePalma, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Weir, and Robert Altman (again, thank God) - all these directors deserve this accolade, to some extent or another. Oh, where's Fellini, though? Godard? Rodriguez? Almodovar? Some of the many exclusions are understandable for reasons of lack of popularity, others honestly puzzle me considering that this is a survey of magazine readers. Surely the latter two at least deserved some love?

More bizarre are some other inclusions. Robert Zemeckis made some decent movies (Back To the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Contact, What Lies Beneath) - but nothing to really justify his naming as one of the greats (I'm leaving out one obvious movie of his for fear that anger may overwhelm me and render me unable to finish writing this). I find Tim Burton a mediocre director coasting on a reputation established by some good movies early in his career. I'm not entirely sure what George Lucas is doing on this list. Same goes for Ron Howard and (I don't like to say this because he's done some good things) Sam Raimi. And...Tony Scott? I mean, those are some fun movies. But honestly.

What renders this list absurd and mostly forgettable, to me, is its exclusion of three directors who are among my personal favorites, who are well-known and well-loved everywhere: Luis Bunuel, David Cronenberg, and Roman Polanski. That the list doesn't acknowledge these three is outlandish, particularly considering the ultimate reasons that I suspect to be behind Polanski's exclusion.

Whenever I mention Polanski to my parents, a snarl of distaste crosses their faces for a moment. "But you like The Pianist!" I exclaim, to no avail. Knife In the Water, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, Rosemary's Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, The Tenant, The Pianist - all forgotten. That's a hideous injustice; whenever Polanski's name is spoken in disparagement - and it really is, more than you'd think - I literally see red. That one of the greatest directors in history has been reduced to the punchline of a joke, all because of something that happened years ago (and which, reprehensible or not, has nothing to do with his art), just kills me. Move on already, as we did with D.W. Griffith.

But enough about that. No Bunuel? No Cronenberg? The former is one of the irrefutable greats; the latter even made some popular movies (The Fly! Everyone I know loves that movie, and in general any remotely-educated movie fan knows and loves at least some of Cronenberg's work - how could anyone not admire a movie like Videodrome?). And if the voters get their Ridley Scott and their Peter Jackson, I want my Dario Argento, dammit!

That's irrational, though, and points to the essential uselessness of any sort of criticism of this list. Drawn as it was from many different sources, each making their own picks for their own reasons, it's nothing if not wholly representative of the wide range of tastes and aesthetics that inform the masses these days. I don't mean anything condescending by this: that there's a separation between the movies of popular culture and more highbrow material seems inevitable and perhaps even desirable. I suppose if anything, the lesson I've learned is that each sphere has its great works and its bad ones.

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