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In an effort to keep this blog fresh, I challenged myself to compile and defend a list of what I considered to be the best working filmmakers right now. Some of the people on this list are experimental visionaries while others have demonstrated a compelling aptitude for more traditional forms but in every case I believe they are people who are working on the cutting edge of their craft and are currently making important contributions to the art right now. So:

25. Judd Apatow

This is sure to be the name that I will have the hardest time defending to those who don’t already see the merit of his work, but the fact is that Judd Apatow has completely reshaped and revitalized the comedy genre. As a producer and writer, Apatow’s influence reaches as far back as TV greats such as The Ben Stiller Show, The Critic, The Larry Sanders Show and Freaks and Geeks. He has launched the careers of  current comedy heavyweights such as Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill and Ken Jeong, not to mention what he did for the careers of Paul Rudd and Jane Lynch. As a director Apatow has shown a control and mastery of comedy comparable to the absolute best comedy directors of all time. His approach to improvisation shows not only incredible respect for his actors, but also a shrewd filter for what does and does not work. Apatow’s entirely underrated Funny People features a brave turn from Adam Sandler and so accurately portrays the dark self-loathing that is such a central driving force in the world of comedy.

24. Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold first came to my attention with her brutal short film Wasp which she followed up with the equally brutal and despairing films Red Road and Fish Tank. Her films focus on people living below the poverty line in the UK whose emotional struggles are compounded by squalid socio-economic conditions. With a visual style  which makes her a deserving successor to Mike Leigh, Arnold employs a hand-held DIY aesthetic that fills her films with severity while urgent and unexpected shocks of colour and style hint towards an oh-so-delicate emotional framework hiding inside the awful lives of her sad characters.

23. Jean-Luc Godard

The first of a few dusty old names to appear on this list, there’s no question that Godard made his biggest mark cinema more than 50 years ago. With his Breathless and the prolific string of films that followed, Godard’s frantic and experimental style helped establish the beloved French New Wave movement and he flipped cinematic storytelling on its ear. The reason I include him here, however, is that at the age of 81 Godard is still making films that challenge viewers. His most recent, Film Socialisme is an extremely defiant and challenging essay film that has now been haunting me for several months. Precious few filmmakers are as capable of so many major achievements as Godard, and even fewer are able to continue to do it so late into their lives.

22. Edgar Wright

Starting with his fantastic TV series Spaced, and his film début Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright appeared with an entire aesthetic that felt fully formed. Composed of dozens and dozens of pop culture references that range from the gleefully heavy-handed to the nearly imperceptible, Wright’s films all feel like a love poem to unsung glories of subculture. His movies are infinitely rewatchable,with every viewing sure to plumb up new surprises. But lots of geeks out there could string together two hours of silly George A. Romero and Street Fighter references and come up with a marginal hit, but what makes Wright’s filmmaking so strong is that he is not just the voice of a culture but also one of its keenest observers. In Shaun of the Dead, Wright’s two protagonists, portrayed wonderfully by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, are such manboys, so concerned with finding maximum time to get high and play Timesplitters, that they don’t even clue in on a z-word apocalypse right away (yet are the best prepared to handle it). Likewise, Scott Pilgrim is unwilling to grow up and manage his own emotional state but when he finds love he also finds within himself an incredible ability to fight, seemingly born from the hours spent playing old SNES games. Wright’s playful, energetic direction style lends humour and tenderness without irony to the lives of his sweet, oafish characters.

21. David Gordon Green

With films like George WashingtonUndertow and Snow Angels under his belt, Green is one of the most clear talents at work with regards to straightforward, thoughtful cinematic storytelling. Like a dream combination of Flannery O’Connor and Terrence Malick, Green began by making gorgeously shot and composed tales set in his native South, telling of simple people dealing with great tragedy and cruelty. Heartbreaking and savage, his films have evoked an incredible wisdom about that which is rooted deep within human nature. It was, then, kind of surprising when Green turned out the stoner-bro comedy Pineapple Express starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. It was even more surprising just how good Pineapple Express was, not just a dumb comedy but one full of beautiful, tender moments. Green would surely sit much higher on my list, except that since Pineapple Express his career has consisted of the shitty pothead Sword & Sorcery comedy Your Highness and the HBO series Eastbound and Down. With luck, Green’s promises of a remake of Argento’s Suspiria and his adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces will find him making worthwhile films again sooner than later.

20. Hayao Miyazaki

Perhaps the only filmmaker here whose body of work is entirely, unabashedly optimistic to the point of celebration, Miyazaki’s films are still not absent of real weight. Miyazaki draws elements from lore, fairy tale, myth, science fiction and fables to build beautiful tales that almost exclusively follow children on bizarre journeys through darkness and trickery as allegories for growth, adolescence and love. Miyazaki’s animation style, so full of texture and motion, is so distinct that his work is recognizable at a glance.  As is often the case with anime, Miyazaki’s textures and proportions are relatively realistic, but for him this serves merely as a starting point from which he hurls his worlds into amazing surrealism and magic. One of my most shameful secrets is that I will, without fail, fall asleep while watching a Miyazaki film. While that is always a sign of poor filmmaking, I think the opposite is true for Miyazaki. The worlds here evoke such a child-like wonder that I think they access and pacify a very young part of me.

19. Jane Campion

Fittingly difficult to really peg down, Jane Campion’s work focuses on exactly those boxes we put each other in which aren’t adequate in explaining the breadth of the human experience. Campion’s films frequently the follow lonely young women who feel isolated from their families and by society and struggle to define themselves and learn how to move through the world with varying degrees of success. Campion often reserves an amount of focus for nature, and her protagonists’ place within the world. She accomplishes this by using frequent lonely shots of a single figure being dwarfed by the intensity and beauty of nature, coyly reminiscent of John Ford’s similar framing then juxtaposed with intimate (or, more frequently, uncomfortable) close-ups.

18. Paul Thomas Anderson

P.T. Anderson started his career strong with the phenomenal Hard Eight and has continued to turn out films that are both fan favorites and impressive cinematic achievements. Anderson’s two early hits Boogie Nights and Magnolia borrow heavily (very heavily, in the case of Magnolia) from the sprawling films of Robert Altman, both in his dark and vaguely unsettling emotional tone and in the way he spryly choreographs an enormous cast of talented actors. Anderson’s next film, Punch-Drunk Love was not only a grim interpretation of the romantic comedy but it revealed a crushing, mournfully dark side of SNL goofball Adam Sandler. Five years later Anderson followed with his best film to date; the explosive, furious There Will Be Blood which stars Daniel Day Lewis in a role that will not soon be forgotten. There Will Be Blood showed huge strides forward for Anderson, where his visuals were always strong now they were overwhelming and a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood steered Anderson away from the song-heavy soundtracks of his previous films and in the direction of a score that is downright chilling. These sorts of strides so far in his career suggest that Anderson is just getting started.

17. Terrence Malick

The poster child for the belief that if you’re going to do something you should do it right, Terrence Malick has managed to solidify himself as one of the greatest cinematic visionaries of all time while making just five films in his 40 year career. Known for his meticulous planning, Malick’s movies are simply beautiful; his Days of Heaven includes some of the most gorgeous images ever put to film. In 2011, Malick debuted his Tree of Life at Cannes film festival, and many have proclaimed it to be his masterwork. As pretentious as it is ambitious, The Tree of Life attempts to quantify the life of one boy (clearly a stand-in for Malick himself) across the expanse of space and time. The Tree of Life is flawed, sure, in its hammy narration and corny ending but still it speaks to the power of cinema as a medium which can evoke the unsayable. Malick’s ability to compose images that suggest the intangibility of time, memory and life itself is very much unmatched by any other filmmaker living or dead.

16. Mike Leigh

Known for a style called “kitchen sink realism” Mike Leigh’s films tend to be grimy tales set in low-income areas of London about grimy people whose meager lives prevent them from expressing the emotional urgency that is gushing inside them. In early films, such as Naked Leigh follows a man who would maybe be an academic if his life were different, but instead waxes philosophical to junkies on the street or security guards working a graveshift. More recently, however, Leigh has taken that voice away from his characters but left them with the same emotional yearning. In Happy Go-Lucky this results in one of the most harrowing meltdowns I’ve ever seen. Leigh is remarkably a patient director whose camera remains very still, in his observations of total chaos.

15. Steven Soderbergh

I don’t think there is or has been anyone with a career like Stephen Soderbergh’s. His first feature, sex, lies, and videotape is cited as one of the films that kickstarted a whole new movement of American independent filmmaking. His two documentaries Gray’s Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine are considered definitive documents on late, great monologuist Spalding Gray. He has made a huge crime drama with Traffic and his epic, 4 1/2 hour biopic Che evolves through about 30 different visual styles. His tiny-budgeted Bubble is a thriller about small town factory workers and is cast entirely by non-actors while The Girlfriend Experience stars hardcore porn actress Sasha Grey as a high-end escort who does not have sex with any of her clients. With Solaris he remade the scifi film of the same name by famed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. His Ocean’s Eleven is a huge-budget, Hollywood remake of the Rat Pack film of the same name has has so far spawned two very successful sequels. He has made surreal political comedies (Schizopolis), period dramas (King of the Hill), medical thrillers (Contagion) and that’s not even all of them. The thing, though, with Soderbergh is that not only are his films wildly diverse, they are all incredibly well made and I’m not sure that he’s ever made a really bad movie (well… The Good German)

14. Aki Kaurismaki

A grouchy, surly, miserable Finnish writer/director who makes bleak, ironic Scandinavian films that are more funny and endearing than they have a right to be.  Aki Kaurismaki is, I suspect, more bark than bite when he speaks of a dreary misanthropy and self-destruction as his films continually betray a deep adoration for his grungy, sad characters and an all-around optimism about the human spirit. Kaurismaki’s strange aesthetic is a remarkable one, placing scrawny, leathery people in harsh, economically ravaged industrial wastelands and splashing them with some heavily ironic Rockabilly subculturing which lends an off-kilter tone that is at once intense realistic and loftily surreal.

13. David Fincher

David Fincher is distinguished as a fairly high profile American director who employs weird and experimental techniques in his popular films. Fincher’s Seven and Fight Club, one a revolting crime thriller and the other a head-twisting breakdown of masculinity, are seminal American films of the 90s. His more recent career, starting with Zodiac (though fully ignoring The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) Fincher has shown incredible control over his craft. In making The Social Network Fincher turned what felt like the least pressing, least compelling possible story into a a subtle period piece, a perceptive biopic and a very sly evocation of contemporary human interaction. Following the success of The Social Network, Fincher then did successfully what very few people thought he should do at all: he adapted The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as an American-produced, English-language film. Visually, Fincher is capable of things that are always unexpected, incredibly stylish and always pertinent to the story he is telling.  He is a director who is always aware of the experience of his audience and repeatedly inserts bold, experimental elements into his films that underscore his purpose without alienating the viewer.

12. Nicholas Winding Refn

One of the sharpest critics of masculinity in film right now is Nicholas Winding Refn, the Danish filmmaker responsible for last year’s best (in one guy’s opinion) film Drive. Refn’s films tend to feature typical male protagonists, criminals, fighters, etc. who, by the very way they are portrayed, are revealed as weak, absurd or pitiable characters. In Drive Refn explores his protagonist’s emotional landscape almost entirely through the frigid euro-pop soundtrack of the film, while in Bronson he betrays the title character’s repressed creativity by framing the story with a flamboyant one-man stage show performed as an autobiography by Bronson (Tom Hardy) himself. In doing such things Refn perfectly demonstrates the strength of film to communicate silently, visually in an instant those complexities which must be felt to be entirely understood.

11. Darren Aronofsky

What Aronofsky excels at is showing characters whose psyches unravel with such intensity that the audience begins to feel it themselves. Has anyone every forgotten the experience of watching Requiem For a Dream? For that film Aronofsky employs a technique which combines rapid cuts and time lapse that drags his viewer through emotional stress that reflects that of the film’s drug addled characters. Aronofsky’s films all explore the awful jittery effects of self-destruction in a way that is so tangible and affecting.

10. Park Chan-Wook

I think it takes very little to be convinced of the talent of Park Chan-Wook. His films feature classic themes such as love, betrayal, sacrifice, temptation and, of course, vengeance but they are splashed with the extreme violence and gore that has come to define the K-horror genre. Park’s Lady Vengeance  is a stunning experiment in the emotion of color, while his most recent Thirst extends the metaphor of vampirism into a consideration of absolute pleasure fulfillment. Park’s films are striking visual efforts that are all the more brutal for their tireless style and construction.

9. David Cronenberg

Waxy, oozing, pus-filled fleshy globs. Mysterious, gaping, bloody, vaginal wounds. Weird, sharp, deadly, poisonous, swollen protuberances. Horrible, unstoppable physical deterioration and transformation. Nightmarish hallucinations all born of fear, self-destruction and hatred. It is all this and more on which the marvelous David Cronenberg built his fascinating career. Images from ScannersVideodrome, eXistenZ and The Fly will forever haunt and define all of the nervous body- and age-based fears that determine my every thought and decision. And yet, more recently Cronenberg as an older man has been producing films that, though every bit as terrifying as his early work, display an incredible amount of restraint and and a lot less explosive gore.

8. Quentin Tarantino

I don’t really know what I can say here about Quentin Tarantino that hasn’t already been discussed to death over countless pints of beer since 1992. He makes movies that are 300% recycled material that feel as though they’ve never been seen before. The man is an absolute original with an insanely specific vision that he is constantly updating and rearranging. When your worst film is still as good as Death Proof and you have masterstrokes like Kill Bill and Jackie Brown tucked under your belt,you’ve led a career that is an absolute embarrassment of success.

7. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s early career, composed of the slight-but-good Following, the very famous Memento and the underrated English-language adaptation of Insomnia, was certainly a strong start for a filmmaker. Though it was, of course, with 2005’s Batman Begins that Nolan’s career turned in the direction that would make him one of the premiere filmmakers working. I refer not only to his amazing, genre-changing The Dark Knight, but to his approach to blockbuster filmmaking in general. Firstly, with Batman Begins Nolan found the aesthetic that would carry all the way through (so far) to Inception, one of darkness lit by the orange warmth of firelight, combined with chilly, almost clinical helicopter shots that sweep along landscapes and cityscapes. Even more impressive is Nolan’s fidelity to high-quality special effects, as he goes to great lengths to get impossible shots without resorting to digital effects. At a time where the biggest Hollywood releases are simply expected to be packed with CGI, Nolan repeatedly insists on really creating the effects in his impressive setpieces. While digital effects are no doubt cheaper, faster and easier, there’s no question that scenes like the flipping transport truck in The Dark Knight or the revolving-room dream sequence of Inception have a weight and realism that is felt in the very pulse of Nolan’s films.

6. Ramin Bahrani

Roger Ebert has referred to Bahrani as “The new great American director” and there was a period where all three of Bahrani’s films were rated between 97-100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Those things only stand for so much, but it’s unquestionably rare for such a young filmmaker to achieve such universal acclaim. But of course so few people have even ever heard of Bahrani because he makes small, brutal films about the abandoned, sub-low-class citizens lost in the margins of American society. Bahrani’s films have all been cast with non-actors and are filmed on lower-quality, handheld digital cameras. His films are not stylish in the usual sense, but he finds a stunning beauty within the poverty-stricken wasteland of America that is so frequently ignored. Bahrani’s films are intensely heartbreaking; Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo are filled with so much yearning and insurmountable pain, and Man Push Cart has an ending so quietly devastating I found myself entirely speechless. For good measure, Bahrani’s most recent release Plastic Bag is the crushing autobiography of a plastic bag with a deeply poetic soul.

5. Martin Scorsese

Certainly the dustiest old name to be included on this list, I think that Martin Scorsese’s career has demonstrated a continued strength that really can’t be ignored. To my mind, Scorsese has never really made a bad movie… though that depends on your opinion of The Color of MoneyKundun, The Gangs of New York and Shutter Island. Of course Scorsese is most famous for his crime dramas (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, you know the ones) but really he has made an astonishing variety of films, all of which find brutal pain and desperation at the core of human nature. In making his most recent, Hugo, Scorsese displayed a totally new focus, celebrating one of the fathers of cinema and delivering the beauty of the earliest films to a modern audience. Scorsese is not softening, nor slowing down but he is certainly demonstrating the same consistent energy and originality that he has since the 1960s.

4. Joel and Ethan Coen

Mentored by the great Sam Raimi, The Coen Brothers have led an unbelievably even career. Having long made their name with Fargo and The Big Lebowski, among others, the Coens’ recent career has been a pretty amazing run (save for the really unfortunate Burn After Reading). No Country For Old Men was an incredible study of evil, featuring Javier Bardem as Anton Chugurh, an iconic and wholly evil villain. Their follow-up (seriously, can we just agree that Burn After Reading isn’t there?) A Serious Man is a bleakly comic and gorgeously filmed tale of faith, doubt and self-loathing that quite possibly amounts to the finest work the Brothers Coen have ever done.

3. Pedro Almodovar

My discovery of Pedro Almodovar stands as the point where my interest in film transitioned from passtime to passion. His early films were rauchy, flamboyant farces that celebrated the freedoms of a post-Franco Spain. By the time Almodovar made All About My Mother and the amazing Talk to Her he had stripped away the extravagant silliness and begun to focus on the dark and pressing issues that had always been lurking in his work. Almodovar is a great champion of freedom of expression, particularly with regards to sexuality, and he fearlessly looks at the worst of humanity without losing his underlying hopefulness. Always an eye for style and flare, Almodovar has adopted for his recent films a crisper, more meticulous style of composition that is remniscent of Hitchcock (Broken Embraces) and Mellville (The Skin I Love In). He has made his best films around his muse Penelope Cruz, who proves her incredible talent as an actress under Almodovar’s direction, and he has also brought out some of the finest work from the likes of Gael Garcia Bernal, Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas.

2. Michael Haneke

Known for his bleak metacinema, Haneke is the Austrian filmmaker responsible for fierce, intriguing greats including Cache, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. Haneke’s camera is always a stand-in for the audience, placing them in the inherently guilty position of the voyeur. Violence tends to be the central focus of Haneke’s films, while he frequently breaks the fourth wall by placing cameras, films and candid footage within his film and in some cases by having characters address the audience directly. A ruthless critic of modern culture, Haneke is an expert at forcing us to stare straight into the abyss of cruelty and perversion that drives the weird obsessions of popular culture.

1. Werner Herzog

I think a pretty solid argument can be made for German director Werner Herzog as the greatest living, working film maker. All of Herzog’s films are, at their very core, obsessed by the absurdity of existence itself. His fictions focus on people who drive themselves well beyond the point of madness, while his documentaries feature weird loners on the fringes of society who are stand-ins for more typical everymen. Herzog’s notion of an “ecstatic truth” is, quite simply, the most perceptive understanding of the cinematic art that I’ve ever encountered. Beyond his twisted, brilliant and happily muddled films, Herzog himself is one of the more incredible figures in cinema and in fact all of pop culture. His intense and instantly recognizable voice and comically bleak outlook make him a particularly fascinating character, while the tales of his behaviour make him almost mythical in stature. Tales of the rivalry between him and his best friend/muse/enemy Klaus Kinski are shocking as they escalate far beyond usual behind-the-scenes bickering, while the production of his Fitzcarraldo quite famously found him making his cast and crew drag an enormous riverboat over a jungle mountain.  He once ate his shoe because of a bet he made with Errol Morris. Recently he has been running a mysterious, pop-up travelling film school for aspiring filmmakers that teaches as much about picking locks and forging documents as it does about using a camera. A fascinating and unerring force, I truly believe Herzog to be a visionary working at the outer reaches of his craft.

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