60. Abderrahmane Sissako
We’re including ourselves in this when we say that Western cinephiles on the whole, remain rather blind to the cinema of African nations: the filmmakers of the continent in general haven’t yet been reocgnized at major festivals in the way that’s happened to almost every other region of the world. The happy exception to this, however, is Abderrahmane Sissako, the French-based Mauritian filmmaker whose last film wowed critics in competition at Cannes, and rightly so. Beginning with 1998’s “La Vie Sur Terre,” Sissako’s reputation has grown and grown internationally, with both 2006’s heady docudrama “Bamako” and the remarkable, Oscar-nominated “Timbuktu,” about the rise of Islamic extremists in Mali, won raves. And rightly so: the latter in particular was an immensely powerful, visually stunning story shot through with humanity and beauty. Two moments in particular — a murder in a river shot at a distance, and an invisible game of football — are among the most indelible images of recent years.
59. Jafar Panahi
The thing about Jafar Panahi is that it’s such a miracle he manages to make films at all (he has been branded a dissident and alternately banned from filmmaking, imprisoned and placed under house arrest in his native Iran) that there’s a danger the results are being celebrated simply as worthy tokens of an indomitable filmmaking spirit. And well, they are, but they’re also exceptionally inventive, enjoyable films, that overcome whatever creative limitations the state places on him with self-aware humor, sly wit and and deep irreverence. This was particularly in evidence in his last film, Berlin Golden Bear-winning “Taxi,” but also marks out prior titles “Closed Curtain” and “This is Not a Film” both of which are direct responses to his circumstances, and while his earlier work, such as debut “The White Balloon” is extremely accomplished also, it feels like his later career has been the most fruitful, proving in exceptional fashion that adage about art flourishing in adversity.
58. Andrea Arnold
This week will see probably more American film fans become introduced to the work of Andrea Arnold, thanks to the release of her beautiful coming-of-age tale “American Honey,” her first U.S-set movie, and arguably her starriest thanks to the presence of Shia LaBoeuf and Riley Keough. But those in the know won’t be new to Arnold’s work, after three striking, beautifully shot films in the last decade (plus an Oscar for her short “Wasp”). The former actress broke through with the gripping, Lars Von Trier-associated psychological thriller “Red Road,” before her even better “Fish Tank,” about a teenage girl’s relationship with her mother’s older boyfriend. Third film “Wuthering Heights” was unfairly dismissed, but “American Honey” has her back in the critics’ good books again (and got her a third Jury Prize at Cannes). And about time: few filmmakers are as sensual, invisive with character, or as great with detail. Go see her latest this weekend.
57. Spike Lee
In our ongoing debate about legacy versus recency, Spike Lee is one of the battleground directors. If we rank him based on his importance as a guiding light — make that a tractor beam — for black cinema, and for the heights he’s achieved historically he’d be a lot higher, but with the best will in the world we can’t ignore that since his last really great fiction feature (probably his atypically Hollywood-friendly “Inside Man” in 2006) he’s turned in subpar work, ranging right down to the outright terrible (his desperately ill-conceived “Oldboy” remake, for example). His most recent feature, “Chi-Raq” was a small step back in the right direction so perhaps we’re seeing the beginning of a Lee resurgence? Whatever the case, with “Do The Right Thing,” “The 25th Hour,” “Malcolm X,” “4 Little Girls” and even less well-regarded work like “Clockers” and “Mo’ Better Blues” numbering among the most formative films of our lives, we’ll always get in line for a new Spike Lee joint.
56. Quentin Tarantino
Twenty years ago — ten, even — Quentin Tarantino might have sat atop this list. And he remains one of the few filmmakers who’s work will always be an event, someone that we’ll always turn up for, and whose work always provides something rewarding, be it an indelible scene or an unforgettable performance. Of late, his work’s been characterized by indulgence, peaking (we hope) in “The Hateful Eight,” an over-extended, fairly tone-deaf attempt to look at race in America, gorgeous to look at but ultimately bloated and empty. After the similarly swollen “Django Unchained,” it began to suggest that the filmmaker doesn’t have much new to say, but the good bits are so good — and his earlier films so unforgettable, that we’ll still be keenly anticipating whatever he does next. The film’s financial failure likely means he’ll face some more constraints next time out, but that may turn out to be the best thing ever to happen to him.
55. Charlie Kaufman
One of the best arguments for the writer as at least co-“author” of any given film, Charlie Kaufman’s utterly distinctive sensibility shone through in his screenplays for Spike Jonze‘s “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” and Michel Gondry‘s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But where those offbeat, metatextual and extraordinarily clever scripts were mediated through the filters of two very distinctive filmmakers in their own right, when Kaufman made his own directorial debut, we got the magnified hall-of-mirrors version. “Synecdoche New York” simply proved too sprawlingly meta, too involved, too self aware, too clever-clever, too everything for many but we absolutely dug it — it’s an enormous folly that knows it’s an enormous folly and finds a crazy nobility in that knowledge. Its wilful uncommerciality means it’s hardly surprising that it took Kaufman so long to mount a follow-up, but when that film finally came, it was last year’s heartbreakingly wise adult animation “Anomalisa,” co-directed with Duke Johnson, and it made us genuflect once again before the tortured mad genius of Charlie Kaufman.
54. Jim Jarmusch
The supercool uncle of the American independent scene now, Jim Jarmusch remains a true original (you rarely describe a new filmmaker as Jarmusch-ian, and there’s a reason for that: his work is basically unreplicatable). And, while we worried with 2009’s ‘The Limits Of Control” that Jarmusch was shifting into a sort of inaccessible obliqueness, he responded with three of the best films of his career in the last few years. The “Down By Law,” “Mystery Train” and “Dead Man” director went genre for the first time with “Only Lovers Left Alive,” a sultry vampire movie with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton that took the best qualities of the director’s work and gave it a Gothic romantic twist. And this year, he made the Adam Driver-starring “Paterson,” arguably his sweetest, smallest and loveliest film (not to mention his hugely enjoyable Iggy Pop doc “Gimme Danger” too. Over thirty years into his career, Jarmusch can still surprise and satisfy us like few others.
53. Kenneth Lonergan
With now just three films to his name, spread out across 16 years, Kenneth Lonergan is not going to be winning any prizes for productivity, but when your three films are the kind of toweringly humanist, occasionally messy but massively heartfelt movies that he makes, they’re worth waiting for. As are the performances he gets (his theatrical background shows itself there perhaps) — his debut, “You Can Count on Me” still features perhaps the defining Laura Linney performance as well as the Mark Ruffalo role that really put his indie star in the ascent; the tortuous, storied post-production woes on his sophomore film “Margaret” finally yielded a quite incredible Anna Paquin performance, several years after she’d shot it; and by all accounts the cast (especially Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams) of his upcoming drama “Manchester By The Sea,” which has had sustained awards buzz since becoming a Sundance hit, is similarly outstanding.
52. Werner Herzog
He’s as much meme as man these days (since his last theatrically-released fiction feature, he’s played the bad guy in a Tom Cruise movie, and guest-starred on “Parks & Recreation” and “Rick & Morty”), but only a fool would dismiss Werner Herzog, even after a misfire as large as “Queen Of The Desert,” which remains unreleased in the U.S. “Rescue Dawn” and “Bad Lieutenant,” which were made not all that long ago, were among his best fiction films since his 70s heyday, and from the beautiful “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” to his recent internet investigation “Lo And Behold,” his documentary work puts him among the very best in the world in the non-fiction field. He might be easy to parody, but he’s also endlessly inquisitive, utterly singular, wryly funny and completely intellectually stimulating, whether tackling jungle-bound madmen or volcanos as his subject, and long may all of that continue.
51. Nicolas Winding Refn
One of the fascinating things about compiling a list like this is that it feels like such a specific snapshot of the state of our cinephilia at exactly this moment. Take Refn, for example. Had we been compiling this feature four years ago, he’d have been top ten, probably — after we’d all fallen in slick neon-noir love with Cannes winner “Drive,” which had come on the foot of such stylish and uncompromising titles as “Valhalla Rising,” “Bronson” and the “Pusher” trilogy. Then again, if we’d done it a couple of years ago, after the disappointment of “Only God Forgives” which suggested that Refn was simply recycling his “Drive” mojo with added hyperstylized violence, he’d probably have been lower. But this is 2016 and we’ve had “The Neon Demon” which is neither as good as his best work, nor as bad as his worst, and at least has the decency to make a virtue of its shallowness, so he’s bang in the middle. We’re sure he’d be horrified.