America was once defined on film by the Southwestern landscapes of John Ford’s Westerns, MGM’s Andy Hardy family fantasies, and the rural life romanticized in post-war Disney films. The country’s most influential living directors now have very different visions: saluting and/or gently mocking suburban rituals, exploring the dark sides of modern cities, celebrating the beauty and cruelty of youth.
These 10 filmmakers have established turf that’s decidedly their own. Each uses his own, persuasively personal filter to view a wide range of subjects.
With rare exceptions, Allen’s America begins and ends with his beloved Manhattan: the ditzily romantic New York of “Annie Hall,” the streets and apartments inhabited by broken upscale families in “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Husbands and Wives,” the Gershwin-flavored landmarks of “Manhattan.” He defines the city as no other filmmaker has, yet Allen’s New York is subtly different in each picture. With the notable exception of his much-praised 1999 riff about a jazz guitarist, “Sweet and Lowdown,” Allen has seemed irrelevant lately. But so did Clint Eastwood before “Mystic River.”
Although young moviegoers may know him only as the creator of a droll British mystery, “Gosford Park,” Altman redefined the Western with the elegiac “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” turned the American service comedy upside down with “M*A*S*H,” cut through the Los Angeles smog in “Short Cuts” and “The Player,” and used country-western music to comment on celebrity-driven politics in “Nashville.” His best movies are wide-screen canvases that overflow with the contagious delight of telling several stories at once.
From the trickily noirish “Blood Simple” to the folksy “Fargo” to the Depression-era tale-telling of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Coen’s vision of America almost always offers a unique blend of horror and hilarity. Who else would mix a Ku Klux Klan rally with a chorus borrowed from “The Wizard of Oz,” or turn a wood-chipper into a source for comic relief? Joel seems inseparable from his writing-producing brother, Ethan; for two decades now, they’ve been making strangely beautiful movies together.
Francis Ford Coppola
For too many years now, he seems to have been content to create merely satisfying entertainments such as “Tucker” and “The Rainmaker.” Not since the 1970s, when he made “Apocalypse Now,” “The Conversation” and the first two “Godfather” movies, has he directed anything exceptional. But that quartet of classics raised the bar as high as Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” did in the early 1940s. Movies have not been the same since Coppola found, in the family bonds and betrayals of the Mafia, his great metaphor for 20th Century America.
You never know when a career is truly over or showing signs of autumnal glory. The latter has happened twice with Eastwood: more than a decade ago, when his “Unforgiven” became one of those rare best-picture Oscar winners with true depth and grit, and now with “Mystic River,” his deeply unsettling modern urban drama about corrupted childhood friendships. For those who have followed his career as an actor who first made an impact in spaghetti Westerns, it’s astonishing that this is his 24th film as a director.
The surreal imagery of Lynch’s early experimental films, “The Grandmother” and “Eraserhead,” was tolerated by relatively few people. Yet he found a way to package those dreamscapes in a series of movies (“The Elephant Man,” “Blue Velvet”) and television series (“Twin Peaks”) that drew unexpectedly large and fascinated audiences. The jury’s still out on much of his work Was “Dune” an incoherent fiasco or the ultimate midnight movie? Did “Mulholland Dr.” deserve its rude treatment by the television network that financed it and then refused to air it? When it was released instead to theaters, did it deserve its Cannes prize, critics’ awards and Oscar nomination for best director?
He directed only three movies over a period of 30 years, but he’s revered by critics and filmmakers as much as anyone on this list. His 1974 debut, “Badlands,” is a still-chilling blend of beauty and gallows humor, loosely based on the lives of an amoral young killer and his tag-along girlfriend. Perhaps the most gorgeous movie ever made, “Days of Heaven” is a nature epic in which the landscape overwhelms the doomed characters who inhabit it. “The Thin Red Line,” Malick’s most recent and popular picture, is a surprisingly spiritual World War II drama in which a Pacific island becomes as much of a presence as the two armies that battle over it.
A working-class hero among filmmakers for the past quarter of a century, Sayles first earned attention as a novelist (“Union Dues”), then as a screenwriter of campy horror movies (“Piranha”), then as the director of a cheaply made counterculture classic, “Return of the Secaucus Seven” (which Hollywood more or less remade as “The Big Chill”). His movies often recreate historical events (labor troubles in “Matewan,” a baseball scandal in “Eight Men Out”) or play with historical ironies. He’s had a few weak innings lately, but he can’t be accused of repeating himself. “Lone Star” (1996), which deftly mixtures past and present to tell a story rooted in Texas history, remains his finest accomplishment to date.
If Woody Allen is fixated on the romantic foibles of upscale New Yorkers, Scorsese consistently emphasizes a darker side of the city: celebrity worshippers who become kidnappers (“The King of Comedy”), a loner who turns killer (“Taxi Driver”), the murderous thugs who helped build the city (“Gangs of New York”). A deeply religious upbringing informs most of his work, quite directly in “Kundun” and the much-misunderstood “The Last Temptation of Christ,” less so in such painful stories of redemption as “Raging Bull” and “Mean Streets.”
The country’s most successful filmmaker, he’s a master of white-knuckle action movies (“Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), a poet of 20th Century suburbia (“E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), a superb chronicler of the Holocaust (“Schindler’s List”) and a semi-official spokesman for the Greatest Generation (“Saving Private Ryan” and the “Band of Brothers” cable series). At this point, he could do almost anything he wanted. Most recently, he’s lightened up with a charmed and stylish con-artist comedy, “Catch Me If You Can,” that suggests a wide-open future.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com