I once said that if you can find three things in your life which you are insanely passionate about and could talk about endlessly then you’re doing ok.
My three big things are music, retro video games and of course film.
The world of film is probably my oldest vice as I was watching movies well before even seeing my first ZX Spectrum (Empire Strikes Back was probably the first film I saw in the cinema at the tender age of 3!). It’s a world that can swallow you up in almost every emotion available and can leave you feeling elated, morose, broken or seething…..and that’s just the joy of watching a film.
I’ve always had a passion for the production side of film too, stating many a time that I often prefer to watch “Making of” documentaries rather than the actual films themselves and much of the film comes down to one person’s vision and that is the director!
Here I’m going to give some thoughts on my (probably) top 6 film directors and why, so indulge me!
The first name on the list may provoke a reaction of satisfaction or an almighty sigh of “How typical” but that is neither here nor there. Before the internet there was basically only three ways to keep yourself occupied (four if you include a hairy palm) and they were games, TV and film. Being a child of the 80’s and teen of the 90’s film had always been in my life but purely as a source of entertainment.
It was Tarantino who got me interested in the actual art of film making with Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and his style really ignited my interest in crafting a movie. The thing I love about Tarantino, at least at the time was the unconventionality of it all. The razor sharp dialogue was about bullshit and inane topics like burgers, TV shows old radio stations, song meanings and basically had fuck all to do with the story but EVERYTHING to do with the characters! This was pure personality we were hearing and Tarantino is the absolute master at the craft of dialogue which was utterly captivating. His use of the camera was highly irregular with intense conversations done in two shots instead of close ups or at a great distance, even sometimes with the actor completely off screen. His now famous use of non linear structures is now pretty synonymous with his name as is the black humour and violence. Now that I’m older I can see that a lot of this innovation was born out of necessity as back in the 90’s Tarantino had to improvise quite a bit due to lack of time and cash and so shot his films in the most efficient way (The opening slow mo walk of Reservoir Dogs was not a style choice but rather was done in that fashion becasue he couldn’t afford a camera that could be overcranked to get smooth slow motion and so just slowed down regular 24fps footage).
Another thing I like about this director is his unapologetic love of movie cheese. The film world can be very snobby but here is a man who gets completely excited about absolute crap like old schlock horror, ultra low budget 70’s martial arts films and blaxploitation movies. He is a huge fan of the Cannon studios Ninja films and cites Ninja III: The Domination as a personal favourite. Even at a round table interview with other highly regarded directors where when asked what sequence of a film they could watch forever all the others were rhyming off lovely 1950’s dramas and Italian art pieces. Tarantino was straight in there with Jackie Chan’s Police Story 3: Supercop which gave the others a chuckle but it’s that undying love and pride for liking whatever the fuck he wants that is truly admirable.
There’s not one single Tarantino film I don’t enjoy and while I think some are certainly better than others he always offers something fresh and interesting. As the man who made me take an interest as to what was happening behind the camera for that I am eternally grateful to Quentin Tarantino.
Some people need no introduction and Ridley Scott is one of them. His films have a visual sumptuousness that is very hard to ignore and often are layered to meticulous degrees that one single film can last for decades in enjoyment and re-watch terms.
It’s certainly the visual aspect of Scott’s films which I find the most appealing which isn’t surprising given that he was a graphic designer before becoming a film maker and almost every detail is so precise in stimulating the brain that it’s intoxicating. His unapologetic use of smoke and light in Legend crated one of the best looking fantasy films of the 1980s and the grimy corridors of Alien basically forged an entire genre that took George Lucas’s “used future” concept to the next level. Blade Runner is of course the film many consider to be his swansong and it’s undeniable as a slow burning masterpiece that fuses so many styles and wraps it up in a world that simply didn’t exist beforehand.
One of Scott’s most appealing traits is his own personality. He is a grizzled and bearded, cigar chomping, booze drinking, absolute badass of a man and I have no doubt that it’s his unrelenting attitude which borderlines on the egotistical at times which is responsible for his near genius.
The very fact he is nearly 80 and has younger directors asking him how he copes with the stress of making film after film and not get worn out to which he just wryly smiles and says “Easy!” is very hard not to admire.
Kevin Smith entered the film scene almost at the same time as Tarantino and the two were hugely similar due to their use of dialogue heavy films which were so snappy and engaging that you just couldn’t stop watching.
However, where Tarantino used guns and gore, Smith use situations and geek culture as his bullets and blood, referencing everything from Batman to Star Wars in the most off the cuff and subtle ways while sticking to the point of the razor sharp scrips.
His swansong, at least for me, was Chasing Amy, which was not only a wonderful slice of 90s culture set in a grungy world, and not only a stunning array of textured and fascinating characters, but it re-defined the romantic comedy for a generation of 90s teenagers, and of course featured all the usual geeky references one has come to expect from Smith (including one very special scene which is a subtle but brilliant tribute to another great movie).
The original Clerks and Dogma follow closely behind as favourites, and in the 90s Smith was the man, the hero of independent film making, not giving a second thought to putting something like making his lead a comic book artist becasue why the fuck not put something in that you are in to yourself.
These days Smith is a podcaster and YouTube presenter of his show Fatman on Batman whereby his daily work is taking about comic book characters for 3 hours (what a job!). He also does incredibly popular talks where he will recount stories of his experiences as a film maker. He still does films, but these days Kevin Smith the personality has become larger and possibly more popular than anything he does creatively.
I was introduced to Hitch very early in life. My parents and my grandparents had obviously all been there and done that at the time with regards to his films and so when one came on the TV it got watched. I vividly remember watching Strangers On A Train and Rear Window with all my family around and it was an exhilarating experience as was The Birds at terrifying me.
Hitchcock reminds me somewhat of Tarantino in that his approach was highly unconventional for the time. The choices made, the camera angles used and even the subject matters and strangely dark humour were all really odd which heated the curiosity to almost boiling point. His films are also appealing to me due to their era. I’m a big fan of films make in the 50’s and 60’s simply because they were made in the 50’s and 60’s and are usually a great slice of that time with the fashions and the attitudes. Hitchcock’s films have that same appeal but with the added flavour of his highly unique style.
Hitch was as brutally thorough with his films as any of the greats ever were and expected enough of his actors to do their part and do it well without bothering him much. He famously once said to some leading ladies “The only thing I have to do with you is tell you when you’re doing it wrong!” after complaining that he wasn’t giving them any direction. He was of the mind that the film was already down on paper in as detailed a form as one could get and so the actors had all they needed to do their job.
This doesn’t mean that he overlooked the characters as he once also famously said “On a script it will say ‘A man walks through a door’. My interest is WHY he walks through that door!”
It is then a little sad but also said with respect that Hitchcock very much lived vicariously through his work. He undoubtedly played out his fantasies with the beautiful blonde women who were common in his movies and the handsome leading men who he projected himself onto. Of course it’s not uncommon to be a little autobiographical with your work in film. Most art has the heart and soul of it’s creator within it so why should movies be any different?
A master? Almost certainly!
It would be folly of me, a child of the 1980’s to not include this man in my list. Spielberg is another who needs no introduction. He is the magic maker, the dream forger and the master of suspense.
It’s a strange thing to say but I almost feel like I’ve been raised by Steven Spielberg a little. An early memory is watching Raiders of The Lost Ark on video and Close Encounters of The Third Kind almost defined what the 80’s were like until the wonder of E.T came along. It feels like at almost every stage of my development Spielberg was their to offers some other sense of pure wonder that would carry me through. His 80’s output is well known but even at the dawn of my Teenage years he was right there with an old friend in The Last Crusade , Hook in 1991 and in 1993 at age 15 he gave me the next gen of wonderment in Jurassic Park which beautifully played to my still fresh childlike side while ramping up the awe of technology. Spielberg (I felt) was quick to recognise that I was growing up and gave me one of my first tastes of maturity with Schindler’s List. Yes I had been watching stuff like Robocop and Total Recall years before and Spielberg had previously been doing mature serious stuff like The Color Purple but this was like a father figure taking my hand at just the right time and saying ” I think it’s time you saw this!”
Later on I really started to discover and enjoy his early work. Jaws was little more than a fuzzy memory in the 80’s and I recall the crappy sequels being on TV more and so discovering it at an age where I could really appreciate it was quite something. As much as a masterpiece as Jaws is I think my heart truly goes to Spielberg’s other suspenseful film of the 70’s. Yes the tremendous Jaws on wheels 1971 debut Duel. Duel came on TV on more than one occasion and it blew me away as to just how much of a simple concept could be turned into one of the most nail biting pieces of cinema I’d see (at that time!). Hugely open to interpretation and utterly suspenseful, Spielberg makes the open desert feel isolated and claustrophobic as we follow Dennis Weaver being chased down and terrorised by an evil truck who’s only reason for tormenting Weaver’s character is that he overtook.
As age thunders on Spielberg has been keen on the world of historical biopics, war films and things of a more serious and emotional nature. Titles like Saving Private Ryan and more recently the epic drama Lincon have cemented him in the most highest of esteems by the film community at large yet he still returns to family favourites when the mood takes him. He’s not a perfect director and has had his fare share of stinkers but he’s hit gold more often than not and is a name that is almost welded to the concept of “game changing” when it comes to the art of cinema and it is for that reason as well as the magic of my youth that he is included in my list.
If there was ever an underdog of the film word then John Carpenter is it.
A cult icon to millions, Carpenter it seems has always been locked in battle with the film industry struggling to get that big break which some say never really came. My first exposure to him was in the very early 80’s and an old beat up Betamax tape of Dark Star taped off the TV. Dark star fascinated me as a young child and scared me a bit as well as the comedy went over my head and only the shady corridors of the ship and eerie atmosphere remained. The concept of a man travelling around the universe forever with the phoenix asteroids was mesmerising and it probably fired off my love of sci-fi.
I admire John Carpenter for his almost DIY approach to film making and his craft of atmosphere. I think he is at his finest when there isn’t much money around and he himself says he prefers to work with low budgets as it frees up creative control, which he values more.
Tarantino may have sparked my love of all things technical about film but John Carpenter without a doubt poured petrol on that spark and the hours I’ve spent just watching his films from a technical standpoint is just about as much fun as watching the films themselves. Carpenter is no stranger to special effects but simplicity seems to be the key in his work. The lighting, the camera angles, the mood and of course the music all add up to make some of the best elements of his films. The Thing (possibly the best remake ever) is a shining example of this. Even with the effects being terribly dated the film is still tremendously strong as the feelings of paranoia and isolation are drilled deep into the minds of the viewer due to Carpenter’s great ability to create empathy through uneasy atmosphere.
Of course it was Big Trouble In Little China which really landed. Easily his most accessible film and that is due to the pace of the movie being unique. Carpenter’s films thrive on slow burn, sometimes a bit too much but BTILC has a mainstream pace which keeps the flow steady and strong with almost no lulls whatsoever and combined with what is maybe Kurt Russell’s most iconic performance crossed with Carpenter’s great sense of humour and it’s just a winner of a film all round.
Although cited as a horror director, Carpenter’s content is fluid and eclectic ranging from action comedy in BTILC, horror in Halloween to supernatural suspense in Prince Of Darkness and even politically tinged sci-fi in They Live!- a true masterpiece of cinema if ever there was one. Starman Carpenter’s biggest budget film was even nominated for an academy award for Jeff Bridges performance and it showed that he could handle just about any genre at almost any level.
You can’t have a list without….
Admittedly my top 6 list is rather a mainstream one and I’m fine with that. What’s the point in choosing obscure directors just to be different when you don’t admire their work nearly as much? No doubt there’ll be someone who don’t understand the meaning of subjectivity and who will undoubtedly think “HOW CAN YOU BE SERIOUS AND NOT HAVE *So and so* ON YOUR LIST?” Or even worse the kind of snob who turns their nose up at someone who doesn’t lick the proverbial bellend of Fellini or Bergman as if it’s some sort of elite club.
Of course it’s all completely opinion and there is no “best” of anything. Go on ANY film director’s IMDB page, even the most highly praised ones and guaranteed there will be at least one person claiming they are a hack, grossly overrated or just plain rubbish! No-one needs to understand why anyone does or likes anything, you just need to accept it.
My list is rather an unfair one as there are TONS of directors who I admire just as much as these 5….and let me tell you, it was a tough choice. In fact any of the following names could very well be interchanged with the name in my main list but in saying that there’s nothing wrong with some honourable mentions –
David Fincher (Very tough to leave out!)
Stanley Kubrick (Even Tougher!)
Sergio Leone (Actually don’t know why he isn’t on the list!)
Tim Burton (Early stuff)
Alex Proyas (Fuck happened there?)
Paul Thomas Anderson
…and many many more.
More recent directors that I admire who’ve made the limelight in the last few years include Christopher Nolan, Gareth Edwards, Damien Chazelle and Alex garland. All of who’s work I have thoroughly enjoyed!
Some eagle eyed types might notice the lack of female directors in all the names but honestly, I’ve not really been captivated by films made by any female directors bar maybe Jodie Foster or Sofia Copolla. Even then it’s pushing it. That’s not to say there aren’t loads out there but I refuse to gender balance a list just for the sake of it when their work simply isn’t something that grabs me. That would be called a lie!
Finally, a special mention must go to a director who’s really captured my attention and that is the brilliant Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Iñárritu has been a film maker in his native Mexico for a number of years making a total of six feature films so far but has only recently broken into the worldwide public eye. In 2014 he directed Michael Keaton in the brilliant dark comedy drama Birdman which won a string of Academy awards including best director, best screenplay and best picture. He followed it up in 2015 with the stunning drama/western The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. The film again stormed the Oscars, winning awards for best director, best actor and a very well deserved award for best cinematography.
Even with all this gushing and accolade I still don’t feel that Iñárritu has peaked or even hit his stride just yet and that is a very promising and exciting thing indeed.
In a world awash with remakes, increasingly blander comic book films and rushed adaptations these new directors are making the world of cinema exciting again.
But there’s always room for the old guard! 🙂