Directing is a tough gig. I thought I would honor their commitment to film by coming up with a list of my favorite movie directors as of today. I have only one caveat before we get started. There are directors who have two many movies that I did not like or too many movies that I have not seen yet and are therefore not a proven commodity. Steven Spielberg is actually a good example of that for me but it does not mean that his work is invalid at all. I love the Indiana Jones series and Bridge of Spies a lot but I hate ET and Terminal. Same goes for guys like Tim Burton whose latter movies I do not really care for even though I am a huge fan of his earlier work. I chose to disqualify them because I felt conflicted about their body of work. Everybody on this list is a director whose body of work I admire. While I do not like every movie, I like most of their movies that I have seen.
11 Peter Jackson
Jackson left me spellbound the first time I saw his name on the credits on a movie. I read the Lord of the Rings book series near the end of my tour of duty in high school. I had heard the movies were coming out and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The Fellowship of the Ring was amazing and pretty much exactly what I had pictured when I read the book. Not only that but it was a beautifully shot movie with great acting and great pacing. I was eagerly waiting when The Two Towers came out and it was even better than Fellowship. The battles were epic and the music, acting and visuals were even more striking. Then Return of the King came and it was even better. Many criticize its multiple endings but it was in keeping with the book and I thought it was well done. As college continued, I saw The Frighteners which is a funny and scary horror movie that I encourage everybody to check out. Finally, he made the Hobbit movies which I like very much but all three were overly long and that’s coming from somebody who has watched the extended LOTR movies more than once. Jackson is really good at getting awesome performances out of his actors and putting together beautiful movies.
10 Luc Besson
My experience with Luc Besson started when I first saw The Fifth Element in High School. That movie has his fingerprints all over it. Besson put together an amazingly quirky and fun action/comedy movie that just has so much to love in it. It has always been one of my favorite movies and probably always will be. Of course, I have talked about Monsieur Besson on this blog before when I reviewed Leon: The Professional this past April. Leon was a great movie that I have learned to appreciate more and more after seeing it. There is a third movie of his that I recently saw that I will be talking about on Thursday. He crafts visually pleasing movies and not only that but each movie I have seen looks significantly different from the last. He does really good drama, makes potentially annoying characters fun and just puts together a lot of great movies. He makes me want to see more of his work and especially whatever he does next.
9 Robert Rodriguez
I was thirteen when Desperado came out and I loved the fresh Mexican flavored action with just enough comedy to keep things light. It was an exciting movie. Based on my enjoyment of Desperado I insisted that we rent From Dusk Till Dawn which horrified my mother but thrilled me. This was another movie that helped form my love of horror movies. The acting is great but the action and gore are even better. After that, I read his book about the making of El Mariachi and I was inspired to watch and love that movie. It was also at this point that the Spy Kids movie series became a guilty pleasure for me. Now they are not even that guilty a pleasure for me because I know there are stupider kids films out there. He made Once Upon a Time in Mexico which I love mostly for Johnny Depp’s character but it’s a great end to that trilogy. Finally, he made Planet Terror which had me laughing really hard and while it’s not a “good” movie, I enjoyed it a lot. I guess I can forgive him for Machete and the Sin City movies. Rodriguez casts good actors and makes well-shot and fun movies. He also writes the music for his movies and is often the screenwriter as well.
8 Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi was one of the formative directors of my youth. I think that he and his friends are the driving force behind me being a superfan of Halloween. I was in middle school when I first saw Army of Darkness. It was at an afterschool club during middle school and I absolutely loved it. His blend of comedy, action and campy horror was something I had never really seen before. I eagerly obtained The Evil Dead and I liked it but I like it even better now that I have learned to appreciate it. Evil Dead II is actually my favorite of the series. It is here that Raimi first got the right balance between comedy and horror by combining his love for The Three Stooges with his love of blood and guts. He could have done just that but he also created the first Spider-Man films that meant anything. While his trilogy has its problems, at the time it helped launch the current crop of good comic book movies. Spiderman 2 is especially good with a great mix of darkness, drama, comedy and adventure. He also made Darkman which was an early shot at combining horror and comic book-style action. Raimi is great at mixing genres and especially using the genres of action, comedy and horror.
7 Brad Bird
Iron Giant came out right in the middle of high school and I had no idea what to expect. This was probably the start of my adult experience with animation. Now that I had friends who could draw really well and some who wanted to go to film school, I started to realize the real art behind animation. Not only was Iron Giant great but it was beautifully crafted. It wasn’t until after college that I saw another of his movies when he made the blockbuster The Incredibles. It coincided with the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and was somehow a better superhero movie than a lot of what had come before. It was the first Pixar film I owned on DVD. Pixar tapped him again to direct Ratatouille which was a touching and sweet film that often gets overlooked but I like it a lot. He then moved on to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol which took the fresh new stuff JJ Abrams had done with the franchise and ran with it. Finally, he returned to Disney with Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland is a movie that disappointed a lot of people but I really loved it and my mind keeps drifting back to it every so often. It is a movie I hope gets more recognition down the line. Bird makes really touching movies that are also really inspiring and visually striking. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
6 Quentin Tarantino
I probably was a little young for my first Tarantino movie. I knew he had written From Dusk Till Dawn so I set out to watch his movies. My first was Reservoir Dogs which had a great cast and had some of the best dialogue I have ever seen. After that, I had to see what all the fuss was about with Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction was fun and exciting and one of the first films I saw that had a non-linear structure to it. Kill Bill was one of the coolest action movies that I had ever seen. With minimal plot, good actors and awesome action it rivaled some of the best Hong Kong action and martial arts films in history. I felt like Volume 2 did not live up to 1 but it was still really good. Death Proof was the first thriller that I had watched in a while and it scared the crap out of me but it was also exciting and cool. Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained were both interesting takes on historical periods and homages to a bygone era in film. Finally, The Hateful Eight is practically a perfect film with not a wasted moment in it. None of Tarantino’s work is for the squeamish but he is a master of great dialogue and does violence with flair.
5 Christopher Nolan
I know that this pick might be a little controversial considering most people either love or hate Nolan’s films. I happen to be in the camp that loves his work. I had just graduated from college and I had not yet landed my first big job out of college. So I was driving my little brother around a lot when his new PhD. was just a twinkle in his eye. We went and saw Batman Begins and I was excited. I had half-heartedly defended Batman and Robin but I knew in my heart that it was bad. I wanted a return to being inspired by Batman instead of feeling sorry for him. The movie was great and it renewed my love for the character in all the best ways. A year later and I wanted to see The Prestige mostly because I had really liked Christian Bale who was new to me. I loved the dark, crazy tale that Nolan laid out. Then the Dark Knight came out and it blew my mind. The music, the acting, the imagery were all just so perfect to me. Of course I was going to watch Inception and I loved the dream imagery and the trippy plotline and the maddening open ending. It was so great. Finally, the Dark Knight Rises came and I thought it was the perfect end to Nolan’s trilogy, finally showing hope in a dark world. He also had the good sense to not direct for DC anymore, dodging the Man of Steel bullet somewhat. He is a great director who knows how to use his actors and knows how to paint great pictures.
4 Joel and Ethan Coen
This is a little bit of a cheat because not everything in this section will be directed by both brothers but they are a team so they get counted together. My experience started off with Oh Brother Where Art Thou? which came at just the right time. I had studied and adored the Oddysey and I drank in the parallels while falling in love with Bluegrass music. It is still one of my favorite movies. Then I saw The Big Lebowski which I had to finish in two sitting because my mom shut it off during family movie night. Then I watched Fargo which is beautiful in its simplicity, full of great characters and beautiful shots. I still see it as a grim movie with light touches that pull it back out of the darkness a little bit. No Country for Old Men was tense and dark and was refreshingly different from a lot of other stuff I was watching at the time. Burn After Reading was a return to dark comedy but it my least favorite of their films which still makes it a very good movie. I saw True Grit on my birthday six years ago and I loved it. I was impressed that they took a John Wayne movie and made it good. Finally, there was Hail, Caesar! which I talked about loving recently on the blog. The Coen Brothers are an excellent team who have memorable characters, offbeat comedy and incredible shots.
3 Kevin Smith
Finally, we come to one of my heroes. Of all people, my parents suggested that I watch Dogma because it had such an important message that I still live by today. The great dialogue that mixed comedy with drama really struck a chord with me. I went on to pick up Clerks and the dialogue was just so close to the way my friends and I talked. The same goes for Mallrats, where even among all the wacky hijinks there is a lot of dialogue that I heard in the halls of High School and then college. Chasing Amy is a movie that I came to appreciate a lot more later as I started to support LGBTQ rights and respect adult relationships. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a stupid movie in the best ways and one I have watched over and over. Jersey Girl was not well received but it really reached me emotionally when it came out. He evolved a bit with Clerks II which is not for the squeamish but it felt so real and it is probably the movie of his that I have re-watched the most. I have already talked about how I liked Zack and Miri Make a Porno because of its honesty about sex and adult relationships. The last movie I have seen of his is Red State which was so different from anything he had done before and it was scary, exciting and a little depressing. I loved it so much. I need to see more of his stuff because he is one of the best at dialogue and creating interesting characters that you want to spend time with.
2 Joss Whedon
This is kind of a different choice because Joss Whedon has not actually directed a lot of movies. Instead, he started off as a showrunner, writer and director for television. I first discovered Whedon through Buffy the Vampire Slayer which really mirrored my high school and college experience but with far more vampires than I had. After that I watched Firefly and I was convinced that Joss Whedon was the best thing to ever happen to television. I quickly got my hands on Angel and Dollhouse which definitely scratched the same itch that his previous work had scratched. Then he directed Serenity which I eagerly bought on DVD and have forced other people to watch because it is so endearing and fun to watch. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog came out on the internet for free but I bought the DVD because I wanted to support Joss and his friends so much. It was sad, funny and the character of Dr. Horrible felt so much like the way I’ve felt several times in my life. Finally, mainstream Hollywood finally realized Joss’ value and hired him to direct The Avengers, a flagship Disney/Marvel movie. The Avengers remains one of my favorite movies. Its release made it possible to also release Much Ado About Nothing which is a really well shot and directed Shakespeare movie which was the first of his comedies on film that I actually laughed at. Finally, he directed Avengers II which is often lost in the mix but I really liked the feel of it and the way it sets the stage for later Disney/Marvel movie. Joss Whedon is the king of dialogue and getting great performances from every actor who works for him. He also has slowly evolved to make his work really visually appealing and he can do both drama and comedy so well.
1 Guillermo Del Toro
I first encountered Guillermo Del Toro through Blade II. The visuals of Blade II were so out of this world after the simple but pleasant first installment of Blade. Blade II’s version of vampires and additions to the vampire mythology were amazing and the actor’s performances were so interesting. Hellboy was where I truly fell in love with Del Toro because I found the movie strangely similar to the way I had felt throughout high school and college. The visuals were again amazing and the characters were so charming. Pan’s Labyrinth scared the crap out of me and I still shudder a little when I see the mindbending horror visuals of the movie. Hellboy II was even more charming and amazing than the first movie. It was like he took every little weak spot from the first movie and made it stronger while combining it with the awesome visuals from Pan’s Labyrinth. Pacific Rim was so awesome. It was exactly the movie I needed to see and it felt like there was not a single wasted moment in the movie. I literally cheered while watching this film in theaters. The last of his movies that I have seen is Crimson Peak which creeped me out but also inspired me. I talked last year about how I admired the movie while other people may not have dug it in the same way I did. Stay tuned for another Del Toro movie review this October on this blog. Del Toro is a master of getting amazing performances out of lesser known actors, creating mindblowing visuals and setting just the right tone for his movies.