Recently we gave you a list of 30 movies we think every Highsnob reader should see. It wasn’t easy and if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that there are many more movies out there worthy of your attention.
As part of an occasional new series covering culture in its many forms, we’re expanding on the theme of our original list to bring you 30 film directors we think our readers should be familiar with. Some of them are obvious; others, less so. All of them, however, are names you’d want to at least be aware of in a serious discussion about film.
So, think of this as conversational ammunition or cultural homework. In the interests of saving space, we’re assuming everyone has names like Spielberg, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Lucas and Tarantino up their sleeve already, so here’s a few more to make sure you’ve got something with a little more impact when the time comes.
1. David Fincher
Renowned for his dreary color palette and a sinister atmosphere that hangs over his scenes like a gloomy cloud, even in broad daylight, David Fincher is one of modern cinema’s most recognizable talents. A notorious perfectionist, what he lacks in compromise he more than makes up for in the consistency of his output.
2. Paul Thomas Anderson
A prodigious talent who both writes and directs all his own work, Anderson’s second film Boogie Nights was responsible for launching the career of a young Mark Wahlberg back in 1997. Famed for crafting epic, ambitious narratives that often span large periods of their characters’ lives, his triumph came in 2007 when There Will Be Blood earned Daniel Day Lewis an Oscar for Best Actor.
3. Kathryn Bigelow
Defying all lazy stereotypes applied to the cinematic gender gap, Kathryn Bigelow makes movies that hit harder than a hollow-point to the temple. Action-packed, yet never to the detriment of plot or character development, she’s living proof that you don’t need to dumb down in order to up the intensity.
Notable work: As if six Oscars for The Hurt Locker wasn’t enough, she then netted another one (albeit in sound editing) for Zero Dark Thirty in 2012. If you’ve already seen both of those, head back to Strange Days for a tense thriller against the now-rather-quaint backdrop of millennial Y2K angst.
4. Rian Johnson
Another joint writer and director, while Rian only has three full-length feature films to his name, it says something about their quality that he was recently given the outrageously daunting task of scriptwriting and directing forthcoming Star Wars sequels VIII & IX. If anyone can breathe credible life into that ailing franchise, it’s him.
5. Shane Meadows
Often held aloft as one of the UK’s greatest living directors, Meadows makes films so proudly British they should come served with a bowl of sarcasm and a side of fish and chips. While frequently gritty in their subject matter and unafraid to show just how tough life can really be, at their heart is a core so touching and personal that it could melt even the hardest of emotional cynics.
Notable work: Without doubt, This Is England is his crowning achievement – a film so strong that it spawned its own spin-off series that’s about to enter its third season. Dead Man’s Shoes, meanwhile, is about as chilling a revenge flick as they come.
6. The Coen Brothers
Perhaps the most consistently brilliant sibling pairing in Hollywood, the Coens have managed the unfeasibly rare achievement of being both masters of comedy and suspense – often within the same movie. Winners of four Oscars and the writers of one of the most quoted films of all time (The Big Lebowski) if you haven’t seen at least one of their films, you have some serious catching up to do.
Notable work: Where to begin? Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski are perhaps the Holy Trinity of their comedic works, while their adaptation of Cormack McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men has to be one of the tensest thrillers of the past decade.
7. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
A true cinematic auteur, Jeunett – like Tim Burton – is someone whose work is defined by a distinctive visual aesthetic that treads the line between childlike fantasy and dark surrealism. His intensely stylised creations are a real feast for the eyes, and have earned him a dedicated cult following around the globe.
8. Harmony Korine
Having first raised eyebrows as the scriptwriter for Larry Clark’s infamous Kids, Harmony Korine continued on an ever-spiraling quest for shock and outrage once he started directing features of his own. Often unsettling, deeply disturbing and the subject of repeated public controversy, these are films that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
Notable work: Korine’s directorial debut Gummo frequently makes it into “most WTF moments in cinema” lists, so maybe start with the more palatable Spring Breakers if you need a little easing into his world.
9. David Cronenberg
To some, he is a god, famous for his willingness to pair unusual narrative themes with visceral gore and bouts of extreme violence. To others, he’s just weird and gross. Whichever side you fall on, however, there’s no mistaking a Cronenberg film when you see one.
Notable work: The ’80s will always be Cronenberg’s golden period, when he made groundbreaking works like Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly. In more recent years he’s explored a greater level of realism, with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises both held up as some of his best work.
10. Michael Cuesta
While perhaps best known in America as the producer and sometime-director of shows like Dexter, Homeland and Six Feet Under, you’d be a fool to overlook Michael Cuesta’s feature-length work. While his highly regarded early efforts are personal, profound and with a deep emotional resonance, recently he’s shown himself to be just as adept at the smart-thriller end of the spectrum.
11. Takeshi Kitano
Consistently lauded as one of Japan’s greatest living filmmakers, Kitano’s popularity nevertheless stretches far beyond the borders of his native homeland. While he started out making gangster movies, he has since touched on everything from awkward romantic comedies to historical epics, bringing his trademark emotional sensitivity and thoughtful, considered pace to each one.
Notable work: While perhaps best known in western circles for the samurai epic Zatoichi, his early Yakuza films Violent Cop, Sonatine and Hana-bi (aka Fireworks) are what many would consider his strongest work.
12. Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s cinematic footprint is so unyieldingly consistent that it’s become something of a joke. Still, while his movies are stylistically all very similar, there’s no denying the charm of his unapologetic love for nostalgia and storybook visual treatment. Plus, in Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson he has arguably the strongest lineup of in-house acting talent Hollywood has to offer.
Notable works: You might think there was little to choose between Anderson’s eight-or-so films, but while they’ve all clearly fallen from the same mental tree, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and The Grand Budapest Hotel are the three we’d recommend above them all.
13. The Hughes Brothers
Twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes began experimenting with filmmaking at just 12 years old, making it rather surprising that, at 42, they’ve only completed five feature films. Still, between ’93 and ’95 they directed two of the most seminal pieces of urban black cinema of the decade, and for that we can forgive the fact they followed it up with From Hell…
14. David Lynch
Perhaps the most lazily referenced movie director in history, the term “Lynchian” has come to be a byword for anything vaguely surreal or peculiar. While his films themselves are far more complex than that narrow assessment gives them credit for, it’s safe to say that if you’re used to straightforward Hollywood-style narratives where things happen for a clear “reason,” then you might want to brace yourself before trying him out.
Notable work: Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are the definitive introduction to his more adventurous work, but if you’re looking for something a little more conventional (although no less troubling), give The Elephant Man a try.
15. Nick Broomfield
A powerhouse documentary maker with over 30 productions to his name, Nick Broomfield will likely be best known to Highsnob readers for his pop culture biopics Biggie & Tupac and Kurt & Courtney. His quaint Britishness conceals a remarkably insistent nature that’s able to extract truths and revelations from the most unlikely of subjects – something he’s applied to topics across the board with great success.
Notable work: His aforementioned rap-feud and grunge-romance features are a good introduction to his style. Once you’ve got to grips with those, try out his poignant double feature on serial killer Aileen Wuornos, or the revelatory Iraq-probing Battle For Haditha.
16. Oliver Stone
No stranger to controversy, Oliver Stone has made it his life’s mission to paint an unflinching portrait of what it means to be American through some of its most contentious figures and ideological phenomena. War, politics, capitalism and celebrity are all frequent themes of his work, and his much-anticipated forthcoming portrait of whistleblower Edward Snowden is certain to call a few of those into practice.
Notable work: His Presidents Trilogy (Nixon, JFK and W.) is a fearless critique of U.S. premiership, Platoon is up there with the most earth-shattering accounts of Vietnam, while Wall Street tackled the free-market greed culture of the ’80s head-on.
17. Darren Aronofsky
Six films into his career and the world is still waiting for Aronofsky to make a bad movie. There’s something about the sheer pathos of his characters that cuts to the very core of what it means to be human, even if we can’t relate to the exact scenarios being portrayed. Whether he can continue that winning streak with his forthcoming bible epic Noah, however, remains to be seen.
Notable work: Justifiably held up as one of the strongest moments in ’00s cinema history, Requiem for a Dream is an absolute must-watch. Beyond that, The Wrestler is a heart-shattering portrait of human loneliness, while The Fountain takes a fascinating look at how humans deal with death.
18. Alfonso Cuarón
There’s not a lot to tie Alfonso Cuarón’s past films together, other than their quality. Still, that alone is enough to make him worthy of your attention. While his earlier work often dealt with romantic themes and difficult personal relationships, his shock selection as director of the third Harry Potter film heralded a far darker turn in style and subject matter.
Notable work: If you missed his surprise Oscar hit Gravity in 3D at the cinema, then you really missed out. We’d suggest you head for the dystopian Children of Men instead, followed by his excellent teen road movie Y Tu Mamá También.
19. Charlie Kaufman
This one is cheating slightly, because Charlie Kaufman has actually only directed one film (the superlative Synecdoche, New York). As a scriptwriter, however, he is such a unique force that his place in this list cannot be discounted. Wracked with his own personal insecurities, his willingness to point the spotlight on himself so often carries an uncomfortably accurate resonance with the world at large.
Notable work: The aforementioned Synecdoche, New York is his magnum opus, but one that would perhaps have not been possible without films like Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All deserve your attention.
20. Terry Gilliam
Given that he was once a part of Monty Python, it’s unsurprising to find that Terry Gilliam’s films frequently lean towards the fantastical. However, despite his predisposition for crazy characters and wild plotlines, the sheer breadth of his directorial vision and commitment to incredible set design results in some of the most beguiling cinema around today.
Notable work: Twelve Monkeys is often touted as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made, but Brazil is (to our mind) even better than that. His adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, meanwhile, is a bona fide cult masterpiece.
21. Christopher Nolan
He’s so much in the public eye these days that it seems almost unnecessary to mention him here, but it would be remiss to overlook Christopher Nolan, given how fast he has risen in a relatively short space of time. Renowned for his penchant for flawed, almost sinister anti-heroes, he’s one of only a handful of directors to successfully bring narrative darkness to the glossy sets of mainstream Hollywood.
Notable work: Personally we’d head straight for the convoluted brilliance of Memento followed by historical pseudo-fairytale The Prestige for a little context. Then take on the saga that is his blockbusting Batman trilogy.
22. Hayao Miyazaki
To the uninitiated, the world of Japanese anime can seem impenetrable and foreboding. Despite this, one man has successfully managed to break through the wall of Western apprehension and bring his complex narratives, outlandish characters and complete disregard for Hollywood cliché to an audience of tens of millions around the globe. Who said cartoons were only for kids?
Notable work: For those seeking their first taste of Miyazaki’s fantastical world, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle are all good places to start, given that they’re dubbed into English. Beyond that, My Neighbour Totoro has a particularly strong cult following.
23. Spike Lee
While he’s taken a few dubious turns recently, Spike Lee should forever be remembered as one of the most powerful proponents of black cinema of the past 50 years. In an unbelievably prolific career, at its height of his fame he was turning out a movie a year, serving as a conduit for the voice of young black America that Hollywood was so reluctant to hear.
Notable work: While Do The Right Thing tapped right into the heart of late ’80s New York youth culture, it was his much-celebrated biopic of civil rights activist Malcolm X that truly spoke out against the hegemony of white America.
24. Danny Boyle
Unlike contemporary Brit Shane Meadows, Danny Boyle’s career has long since transcended the roots of his native England. A notably dependable presence in any project he’s involved in, he’s tried his hand at drama, horror, comedy, sci-fi, social realism and heartwarming family blockbusters – all with similarly brilliant results. No wonder they put him in charge of the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.
Notable work: If you can penetrate the Edinburgh dialect, then Trainspotting is absolute required viewing. Meanwhile, 28 Days Later rewrote the book on zombie flicks, while 127 Hours will show you just how tense a film can be with only one character.
25. Guillermo del Toro
Part maker of big screen blockbusters, part lover of niche psychological horror, Guillermo del Toro is a director whose two halves frequently overlap on screen. Particularly fond of elaborate makeup, fiendish gore and gruesome animatronics, his incredibly stylish output will delight and disgust in equal measure.
Notable work: Pan’s Labyrinth is perhaps the greatest example of del Toro’s two loves combining in one movie. To experience them in separate doses, check out Blade II for a blockbuster fix and El Orfanato (del Toro as producer) to crap yourself for two hours straight.
26. Larry Clark
Famous for his candid portrayals of youth culture and the difficult truths that come with it, Larry Clark is something of a legend in the world of cult cinema. Applauded for his commitment to authenticity, it’s not unheard of for him to spend weeks hanging out within the urban subcultures he’s trying to document to help truly capture what they’re like.
Notable work: Clark’s unsettling debut, Kids, came to define an entire generation with its questionable glorification/critique of disenfranchised young skaters in ’90s New York. Following on from that, Bully and Marfa Girl are both worth a peep.
27. Nicolas Winding-Refn
Brutal and uncompromising to the very end, Denmark’s Nicolas Winding-Refn certainly isn’t afraid of a little on-screen violence. Still, while likeminded directors can end up pushing things into gratuitous territory, Refn’s films retain an element of class and sophistication that make those visceral moments all the more shocking.
Notable work: Ryan Gosling’s back-to-back appearance in Drive and Only God Forgives turned a wider audience onto Winding-Refn’s work, but 2008’s Bronson was a far earlier highlight, while his relentless Pusher Trilogy is equally deserving of your attention.
28. Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu
Though he wasn’t the first to experiment with the technique, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu is recognised for his use of a clever narrative structure involving seemingly unrelated stories that later reveal themselves to be interlinked. His first three works formed an unofficial trilogy that received huge praise for its breadth and ambition, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in 2007.
Notable work: While there’s no specific need to watch them chronologically, we’d recommend viewing Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel in the order they were made to fully appreciate Iñárritu’s development as a director.
29. Chan-Wook Park
For many, Chan-Wook Park was the name that turned them on to the rich and varied pickings of Korean cinema. Thanks to some clever themes, a few stomach-churning moments and a handful of particularly devious plot twists, his films have earned him a unique place in the hearts of independent cinema fans across the globe.
Notable work: While his latest film, Stoker, was his first to be shot in English, we recommend you head straight for Oldboy (bypassing Spike Lee’s limp remake) – the second, and best, in his career-defining Vengeance Trilogy.
30. Steven Soderbergh
A notoriously eclectic and difficult-to-pin-down force, Soderbergh is a director who can only really be judged on the collective strength of the movies he’s produced – all 35-or-so of them! From violent gangland thrillers to historical dramatizations, heartwarming biopics, sci-fi epics and big-budget Hollywood capers, he’s ticked almost every box there is. Perhaps that’s why rumors of his retirement from filmmaking seem to be gathering pace.
Notable work: While his 2000 hit Traffic netted an Oscar, head back to King of the Hill or Sex, Lies and Videotape for a glimpse of Soderbergh at his raw, early prime. His mammoth, two-part dramatization of the life of Che Guevara is also something of a late swan song.
That’s 30 great names but this is by no means the end of the list. We’ll be back with more names in future. In the meantime, however, you can get a regular supply of top-quality movies in our weekly feature 5 Movies to Watch this Week.