I’m confining myself to American/Canadian filmmakers. Otherwise I’d include many other directors, like Danny Boyle, Gaspar Noe, and Park Chan-wook, and there’s no way I can do such global justice on a top-10 list.
1. David Lynch. The best filmmaker alive (from any country) has been showing us film’s unlimited potential since his Eraserhead debut. It was a conversion experience for me when I saw Blue Velvet in the ’80s and his latest masterpiece, Twin Peaks: The Return (considered an extended film as much as a TV miniseries), is cinema at its stunningly purist. Lynch would top this list even if I were considering filmmakers no longer alive (like Kubrick).
2. William Friedkin. He practically reinvented cinema in the 70s, fell from grace a bit in the 80s, then got his second wind afterwards. He ruined my 11-year old psyche with The Exorcist, but no matter, it’s still my favorite film. His induced-documentary styled films, his intense adaptations of stage plays, all tap into a uniquely raw energy. He also remade 12 Angry Men better than the classic, and that’s saying something. He’s one arrogant son of a bitch, and I feel for some of the actors who suffered under him, but then pain is temporary and film is forever.
3. Terrence Malick. The characters in his films play second fiddle to the main character of Nature itself, and he makes that work without being pretentious. His films preserve a still in almost every frame that you’d be proud to hang in your living room. There aren’t many directors who can get away with picturesque styles and meditative voice-overs, but Malick has full command of these techniques. Tree of Life and A Hidden Life are his masterpieces.
4. Kathryn Bigelow. She’s a Jack of all Trades and master of all, having done police thrillers (Blue Steel, Detroit), industrial sci-fic (Strange Days), war films (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), and on top of that the best vampire film of all time (Near Dark) — a horror western with serious attitude. She’s as good as her ex-boyfriend (James Cameron) is bad… and that’s saying loads. I laughed for days when she rightly won an award for The Hurt Locker while Cameron was snubbed that same year for Avatar.
5. Quentin Tarantino. Most directors have at least one or two stinkers to their name, but Tarantino has never made a bad film. (His worst, Kill Bill, is still pretty good.) His contributions to nonlinear storytelling, cathartic violence, and insanely compulsive dialogue are unrivaled. He never went to film school and didn’t need to. He has a brilliant ear for music and scoring, and for sounds to use for violence. And he can make you laugh at horrible things that no one else can.
6. Martin Scorsese. A bone of contention among his fans who argue endlessly about what the masterpieces are. I say his five best are Taxi Driver, The Silence, Casino, Goodfellas, and Shutter Island, in that order (yes, Casino before Goodfellas, sue me), and I believe Raging Bull to be obscenely overrated. He has made a few duds (Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun the worst offenders), but in many ways his greatness is unparalleled, and his influence on other film makers can’t be exaggerated.
7. Richard Linklater. His characters are as real as Friedkin’s, and he’s a master of the interplay between story, documentary, and experience. His greatest success is writing a trilogy in which the sequel is better than an already excellent first, and third is even better than the second. No other trilogy in cinematic history can boast such a progression of excellence. I’m speaking, of course, of the Before trilogy. Other great stuff from him too.
8. Denis Villeneuve. His early efforts (Polytechnique, Incendies) are as underrated as his recent masterpieces (Blade Runner 2049) which did rather poorly at the box office. His films are patiently plotted, with atmospheric scores and staggering use of color. They hint at a voyeuristic obsessiveness with the camera, used to mighty effect. I may be inflating him a bit high without Dune having its say yet, but I’m confident it will deliver. David Lynch is the film making god, but his Dune sucked balls.
9. David O. Russell. He makes films about topics I have no interest in (boxing, football & ballroom dancing, household cleaning products) but become immersed in the manic worlds of dysfunctional characters who find salvation in themselves from the oddest places. I’ve seen Joy so many times it’s ridiculous; and The Boxer and American Hustle multiple times each. I wouldn’t want to work for this guy — judging from some reports he ages his actors ten years from the stress he puts them through — in this sense he reminds of Friedkin.
10. Paul Thomas Anderson. I’m not the biggest fan of this giant, but his highs are so high (especially There Will Be Blood and Magnolia) that I have to include him. As far as I’m concerned, There Will Be Blood is to the 21st century what Citizen Kane was to the 20th: the film of all films. Punch Drunk Love, on the other hand, may be one of the most offensively steaming piles of artistic shit I’ve suffered through.
Honorable mentions: Darren Aronofsky, Joel and Ethan Coen, David Cronenberg, David Fincher, Chris Nolan, Peter Jackson, Steven Soderbergh.
Way overrated (WO) or downright shitty (DS): Woody Allen (WO), Wes Anderson (WO), Tim Burton (WO), James Cameron (DS), Alfonso Cuarón (WO), Ron Howard (DS), George Lucas (DS), M. Night Shyamalan (WO), Stephen Spielberg (WO), Oliver Stone (WO), Joss Whedon (DS).