#5 Paul Thomas Anderson
Who? The Californian auteur whose wunderkind status in the late ’90s was confirmed when Robert Altman labelled him the “great hope” of American cinema. Now the arthouse luvvie of his generation, Anderson continues to make films fearlessly on his own terms. The Master, shot on 70mm and toured around repertory cinemas without the consent (or even knowledge) of its distributor, was funded by a billionaire fan who just wanted to see the film made. Best of all, this audacious writer / director just seems to get better with age.
Why? Because without him I wouldn’t be writing this. The 99p VHS of Magnolia (1999) I snuck into my Mom’s shopping trolley aged 14 was basically my induction into DIY film school. From here I trailed back and watched all of Anderson’s films up to Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and via him discovered Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Tati. By re-watching Magnolia (I must have seen it fifteen times in that year) I learned the fundamentals of storytelling and film craft. I began to notice lighting and music, and the way editing could build a crescendo like in opera. Eight years later and it remains my favourite film. I love Anderson’s experimentation and the fact that, despite having five masterpieces under his belt in a run from Boogie Nights (1997) to The Master (2012), he only now seems to be settling into himself, and laying down the specifics of an increasingly unique film grammar. The taste revealed by his films, whether in composition, music or theme, is a reflection of my own, and his harnessing and assembly of these elements is what draws me back time and time again, what intrigues and enthralls me.
#4 Satyajit Ray
Who? The most acclaimed Indian director of all time and the face of a national cinema. A student of the arts before becoming a director, Ray’s literate and sensitive films likely reflect the influence of his father (a poet and writer of children’s books), and their modernity helped secure a global audience – among Ray’s fans we can count Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa. In his work we feel a love of humanity and music (he was composer of all of his films), but he was also obsessed with sci-fi, and wrote a rejected Hollywood screenplay called The Alien (which some claim became E.T.).
Why? Like Rohmer, Ray is a director I’ve grown to love for his gentle, conversational style, emphasizing character over action and building drama over condensed periods of time. In the late 1940s through to the early ’60s, several European directors including Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Powell & Pressburger took cinematic excursions to India, portraying the country with either a sensationalized or traditionalist vision, and in all three cases a highly Westernized one. Ray portrayed the real India, the India which reflected his home and his people. One of the most thoroughly modern of directors, his films transcended borders, exploring complex domestic and social issues which balanced cultural specificity with an insight that could touch audiences in Britain or Japan. Even today he feels contemporary. It may be one of his most traditionally rooted films (in fact it’s a film about India’s clash of tradition and modernity) but The Music Room (1958) is for me one of the most passionate ever made about the joy of music, and its only equal is Almost Famous (2000). From the opticians scene in Mahanagar (1963) to the picnic in Days And Nights In The Forest (1970), Ray’s films display a keen and empathetic grasp on the human condition. His is a body of work which connects me to a country I long to know better in reality.
#3 Lars von Trier
Who? The curious, provocative Dane whose films range from three-hour Brechtian stage plays to non-comedic comedies (taking in genital mutilation and questions of faith along the way). In the late ’90s, the Dogme 95 movement he co-signed with Thomas Vinterberg helped pioneer digital photography; it was a landmark in video. Now reaching 60, this technical and moral radical has lost none of his energy – his latest, The Nymphomaniac, is sure to raise claims of misogyny once again.
Why? Because there is no director more thrilling, exasperating or divisive working today. A Lars von Trier film, despite there being twelve of those now, is still something impossible to define or categorize by temperament or genre; his musical is harrowing, his horror more concerned with portraying the intimate dissolve of a marriage than playing on its location – a forlorn cabin in the woods. I love him when he’s playful (Udo Kier playing a spindly mutant baby in The Kingdom, an epic, relentlessly difficult two-part TV series), but equally when he forces an audience into a place where they are forced to question their own sense of morality and prejudice. Though often called out on charges of misogyny and nihilism, I find many of his portrayals of women to be empowering, and his human characters drawn in careful, loving detail. His personality, his pranks, his lies and contradictions are as fascinating as his films, and in fact challenge our perceptions of them again and again. His experiments don’t make sense in the same body of work, which some find frustrating, but for me they are part of his appeal – von Trier is always interesting, always pushing, always finding new ways to tailor the art for his message. Quite simply, he is one of a few figures in film history who command and sustain my attention on every level.
#2 Ingmar Bergman
Who? One of the most respected and prolific directors of all time, Bergman has influenced everyone from Wes Craven to Woody Allen and Paul Schrader – he even received a shout on The Simpsons in 2008. This seems unusual for a director whose topics include the absence of God and the failure of relationships, but his visual experimentation and human detail have made him one of the most popular figures in world cinema, and an early port of call for film students. His is a vast body of work which spans genres including musical, horror, drama and comedy.
Why? Because no other director has better reflected and challenged my own struggle with faith, and Winter Light (1963) is largely responsible for my becoming an atheist. Rather than expelling faith from my life, however, Winter Light simply changed my perception of it, and made me feel less alone and afraid. This has been a recurring element in Bergman’s cinema. I truly find him a source of comfort in the way that devoutly religious people must find their priest. He is to whom I confess. After discovering Bergman’s films it seemed clear to me why so many cinephiles treated the cinema like church; it is a place of silence and reflection, where all the world gathers to share their mutual experience. I can appreciate the drama in Bergman’s films, the beauty of their photography and consistently amazing quality of their acting. He is a director who understood all levels of filmmaking, but for me I struggle to think of him in these terms, and to provide any kind of analysis of his work. His films are so personal to me that I often don’t like to talk about them, despite the layers they hold, ripe for discourse and examination. Above all, Bergman is the filmmaker who I will turn to in a moment of crisis, moral or spiritual. Can there be greater praise than that?
#1 Werner Herzog
Who? The Bavarian writer / director famous for his relentless quest to capture on film an “ecstatic truth“, but equally famous for eating his shoe in a bet with Errol Morris, and hauling a 300-ton steamship over a mountain for the shooting of Fitzcarraldo (1982). His love of the metaphysical is matched only by his love of animals, and both have defined his work in the fiction and documentary fields. To a broader audience he is known for his acting (he most recently starred as the villain in Jack Reacher) and deep, silky, ruminative voice; one of the best in film history.
Why? Because, in the words of the late Roger Ebert, whom Herzog dedicated Encounters At The End Of The World (2007) to, “he always seems to know where to look.” Herzog is not only a filmmaker but the intrepid explorer of his time, seafarer and documentarian, discovering new lands on film and in literature (he keeps a journal of his activities, two of which have been published; Of Walking In Ice and Conquest Of The Useless). He knows no limits in the quest for this “ecstatic truth” and will take his camera to the ends of the Earth in search of it, telling stories of conquistadors and vampires in lands mythic and startlingly real. His etheral filmmaking style (often set to the sound of German electronic band Popol Vuh) are the most intoxicating ever realised – to spend time in the world of Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972) or The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974) is to spend time in our own world, but filtered through a lens of complete originality. When Herzog reaches into the realm of sci-fi, as in Fata Morgana (1971) and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), the world he unearths is not much different from the one we see in his other films – this is because he knows the nooks and crannies of our world which look and feel alien, which, to another planet, would seem hostile and uninhabitable. His assertion that the “common denominator of the universe is not harmony; but chaos, hostility and murder” is at odds with the awing beauty of his films, their emotional reach and dedication to truth. They are at odds with his humour and humanity, and his decision to end Stroszek (1977) with the shot of a dancing chicken. His passion and dedication are bottomless. I will always go on the journey with him. Wherever Herzog, the most fascinating, brave and individual filmmaker who ever lived, goes, I will follow, searching for that truth alongside him. There can be no question of his brilliance.