Saturday, 23 March 2013

Directing Your Attention - The Ten Best Filmmakers Working Today Pt. 1

There’s been a lot of argument recently by the likes of Will Self, David Thomson, Geoff Dyer etc, that cinema is a dying medium. One can’t deny that its cultural dominance has waned since the last decades of the 20th century. But those who would insist that there’s less and less stuff to get excited about are simply being lazy, not thinking to look beyond the upcoming screenings at their local multiplex, or consider the enormous wealth of cinema produced elsewhere in the world, often in countries where the movies continue to enjoy a level of prestige and importance they have lost in the UK.

Here, in no particular order, is the first part of the list of the ten contemporary filmmakers I think are most worth getting excited about:

  1. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

A soldier is chased through a steaming jungle by the spirit of a shaman, in the form of a tiger. A princess receives cunnilingus from a carp. Everyday people relive their past lives, and experience the same lives over again in different parts of the world... 

Weerasethakul (who calls himself Joe to help us poor tongue-tied Westerners) makes films that share something of their worldview with David Lynch: packed with inexplicable incident and abrupt, rug-pulling shifts in narrative mode and style. Both Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century morph entirely at the halfway point: the former switching from a gay love story to the aforementioned, mysterious jungle-set fable; the latter recasting the rural hospital staff who form its subject as similar, but not quite identical counterparts (reflections? rebirths?) in a city medical centre.

Aside from this dazzling experimentation with cinematic form, his films are also distinguished by their deeply humane and compassionate treatment of life: sexuality, the tension between tradition and progress, and, especially in the Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the political turmoil of Thailand’s recent past. Of all the filmmakers on this list, his are perhaps the most purely and good-naturedly enchanting.

Must Watch: Syndromes and a Century

  1. Lynne Ramsay

Making headlines recently for dropping out of the Natalie Portman western Janie Got A Gun at the last minute, Ramsay is renowned for her uncompromising approach to making movies: Previously attached for many years to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, she bailed when the book became a surprise smash and the producers decided that they wanted a more faithful adaptation than the one she had planned. Having seen Peter Jackson’s woeful (and very loyal) screen version, it’s impossible to doubt that Ramsay would have made something far less insipid out of it.

All of this integrity and vision obviously comes at a price in the cut-throat world of film financing, particularly when you’re a woman in an inflexibly male-dominated industry, and she has only been able to complete three feature films in over ten years. But each of them is a marvel: Her dynamic and extremely visceral visual sensibility, every bit the equal of Danny Boyle or Ridley Scott in his heyday, is apparent in all of them, and most recently on display in her BAFTA-winning short Swimming, commissioned for the 2012 Olympic games.

Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin are constructed around strong and genuinely complex female protagonists, the likes of which are rarely seen in English or American cinema. These women fight for the freedom to define themselves away from the impositions of men and society; they are intelligent, maybe even a little bit ruthless because they need to be. It’s tempting to see something of Ramsay herself in them.

Must Watch: We Need To Talk About Kevin

  1. Leos Carax

There’s something of a pattern emerging: Like Lynne Ramsay, Carax has had similar struggles getting his singular ideas realised on the big screen, with only three features to his name in the last twenty years. Of course, when you watch a Carax movie or hear some of the stories about his productions, you begin to understand why the money-men might get cold feet whenever he enters their offices. For all their brilliance, Carax makes movies that are wilfully un-commercial.

He subverts the conventions of storytelling or rejects them outright: his latest, Holy Motors, has the thinnest of skeleton plots about a man being driven around in a limo who must impersonate different characters, on which Carax hangs a series of staggering set pieces encompassing slapstick, sci-fi, social realism, and the musical, as a love letter to the endless possibilities of cinema and a satirical commentary on what might be termed the medium’s inherent ridiculousness.

He has flirted with outrageous subject matter: incest in 1999’s Pola X, and homelessness in 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, which provocatively depicts living on the streets as one part urban hell, one part Broadway spectacular, and yet somehow, miraculously, comes off as sublime instead of tasteless. The latter highlight of this most recklessly creative of director’s remarkably freewheeling career was the most expensive French movie ever made at the time, costing its private backers a small fortune and dying spectacularly at the box office. Long may he continue to wreak the same kind of chaos.

Must watch: Holy Motors

  1. Asghar Farhadi

The first Iranian to win an Academy Award in any competitive category, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012, and on the verge of releasing his first picture made outside of his home country – it’s fair to say that Asghar Farhadi’s career is on the rise. It’s well deserved: his taut, claustrophobic domestic dramas cum minimalist thrillers are increasingly masterful. Both About Elly and A Separation use genuinely gripping plots and dramatic conflict to probe the tensions in Iranian society.

As a screenwriter, Farhadi’s uncanny ability to plumb the abyss of human emotions and relationships, and depict them in such a way that his stories become microcosms of all humanity, has earned him lofty comparisons with Ibsen.

Must Watch: A Separation

  1. Ang Lee

Of all the directors on this list so far, Lee is closest to becoming a household name. In a sense, and despite the fact he’s worked in both English and Chinese language cinema, he’s an old-school Hollywood filmmaker. Instead of drawing his projects from his obsessions and dreams, or seeking to establish himself as an auteur-ist presence in his own cinematic canvases, Lee seizes upon whatever great material comes his way and uses his artistry to make something exceptional out of it. By this point, he’s pretty much done it all, and yet his choices remain consistently surprising. There are the indisputable classics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain), the challenging adult dramas (The Ice Storm, Lust, Caution) and even a few duds (Hulk, Taking Woodstock).

Most recently, of course, he captained the adaptation of Life of Pi, about a young Indian boy and a tiger cast adrift at sea together. His consummate marshalling of the special effects and performances ensured that Pi was one of the most mesmerising films I’ve seen at the cinema in years, (especially the second hour). What’s more, in its sensitive treatment of the book’s theme of the kinship and the impassable gulf between man and animals, it passed into the realm of the profound.
Must Watch: It’s tough, because there’s a lot, but Crouching Tiger and Life of Pi are the standouts for me. Go on then, Brokeback Mountain too…