So many auteurs, so little time… It’s less than 24 hours since the unveiling of Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade extensive poll of film critics to find the quote-unquote greatest film of all time, which for the first time ever, saw Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” fall off the top spot and replaced by Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Vertigo.” And as ever, the list has already inspired extensive and fervent debate.
And as with any such list, there are absences. Not just in terms of films, but also directors who failed to crack the top 50 (all that’s been offiicailly revealed by the BFI so far). While Godard gets four, Tarkovsky and Coppola three, and several other directors more than one, there’s all kinds of great filmmakers who miss out entirely. Of course, one shouldn’t read too much into such lists: they will always be divisive and controversial/subjective and many will take them all too seriously, often in a counter-productive, over-emotional manner.
But lists such as this one can also spark debate and discussion, so in the spirit of that notion, we wanted to respond by highlighting some of the most surprising omissions. Below, you can find five classic auteurs and five still-working directors who seem to have been strong candidates for having a film included, and yet still missed out. Angry that both Sight & Sound omitted your own favorites? Let us know in the comments section.
5 Classic, Much-Missed Auteurs
With arguably three masterpieces under his belt (one composing of an entire trilogy, the other spanning a sprawling 10-episode social epic and another chasing his perennial themes of kismet, predestination and chance), the late Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski never quite gets his due on holistic and sweeping cinephile lists like the Sight & Sound one. Sure, his final film in the Three Colors Trilogy “Red” was nominated for three Academy Awards, busting out of the foreign category ghetto to earn plaudits for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. And even Quentin Tarantino himself was surprised when “Pulp Fiction” won the Palme d’Or in 1994 over “Red” (as was some of the audience who booed and jeered the decision vocally). And while “The Decalogue” — his masterful 10-episode film series based on the ten commandments about interconnected people living in a housing complex — the Three Colors Trilogy and “The Double Life of Veronique” (the latter two having been certified modern classics by the Criterion Collection) definitely received their rave reviews at the time, Kieslowski always falls short on all-time lists; something we’d love to be reconsidered in the future. The late Stanley Kubrick, a man known for his reluctance in praising others said about Kieslowski, “[His] very rare ability to dramatize ideas rather than just talking about them [was done with] such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.” And Roger Ebert said, “There were those who believed Kieslowski was the greatest living director. Certainly he ranked with such modern masters as Scorsese, Kubrick and Kurosawa.” Called a metaphysicist and a moralist (both two reductive), one could argue Kieslowski was always trying to remake the same film. His was a relentless search of the the invisible mysteries of life, manifesting in doppelgangers and coincidences that were so much more, and the ineffable and elusive intersections where accidents, chance, fate and the synchronicity of time sometimes met and unraveled. Now mind you, Kieslowski’s film weren’t remotely close to science-fiction, instead hewing closer to a enigmatic quality of the unforeseeable that was spiritual, but ultimately agnostic. His determined exploration of these themes created deeply moving, thought-provoking and emotionally vibrant films, never over-intellectualizing and always grounding each story with a strikingly relatable moral sheen. For Kieslowski, the world had no strangers, just an interconnectivity that most of us weren’t cognizant about. He is certainly one of the all time greats and the hope is one day he is recognized beyond question.
The Spanish-born Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel is still perhaps best known as the guy who sliced up eyeballs with Salvador Dali for the infamous 1929 silent surrealist film “Un Chien Andalou” (immortalized in the Pixies song “Debaser”). But Buñuel’s long career, which spanned almost six full decades (1929 to 1977) grew into something much more, evoking spiritual themes, scathing and grotesque (and often hilarious) social and political critiques and yes, often within employing an illusory patina of ambiguity and opaqueness. And while the Mexican period of his filmmaking spawned “The Exterminating Angel” and “Simon of the Desert” — the former, a nightmarish and comical look at guests at an upper-class dinner party who find themselves inexplicably unable to leave — it’s perhaps his final French period (six films, five of which are in the Criterion Collection, “Tristana” unfortunately being the odd man out) that birthed a period of oblique, surrealist classics like “Belle Du Jour,” “”The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and perhaps his masterpiece about lust, jealousy and identity, “That Obscure Object of Desire.” Buñuel was well-lauded in his career: “Viridiana” won the Palme d’Or in 1961, “The Exterminating Angel” won the FIPRESCI prize the following year, ‘Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ won the Best Foreign Oscar award in 1972 and ‘Object of Desire’ was nominated for two Academy baubles in 1977. Still, how about a Sight & Sound mention?
Head to any independent film festival, particularly in America, but also across the world, and one starts to understand how hugely influential John Cassavetes is. From the mumblecore movement to big-budget studio comedies from Judd Apatow, the director changed the face of American cinema, essentially creating the independent genre as we now know it and inspiring many to pick up a camera. A veteran character actor who used his acting roles (including “The Dirty Dozen,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and “Rosemary’s Baby“) to finance his films, he made his directorial debut with 1959’s “Shadows” (a film he had already shot in 1957, but disregarded and shot again), and went on to make several films, including “Faces,” “Husbands,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Opening Night,” in a similar style: self-financed, using a regular rep company, including Seymour Cassel, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and wife Gena Rowlands), and featuring non-traditional, oblique and challenging characters and situations. By putting the actors first, and with his visual style tailored to the resources available — handheld visuals, little or no lighting — Cassavetes made filmmaking look achievable for those outside the system, while still delivering a number of searing dramas. Cassavetes’ films seem curiously out of fashion among critics, given their influence, which seems to be the major reason for their exclusion. Still, we live in hope for the next time around.
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Arguably the greatest British filmmakers in history (or at least the ones who stayed in Britain), the team of Powell & Pressburger (Hungarian emigre Emeric Pressburger wrote the scripts, Michael Powell directed, and the two produced together) were behind a string of solid-gold classics through their company The Archers, mostly in the 1940s, beginning with 1943’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” Among their best-loved films: 1946’s wartime fantasy “A Matter of Life and Death,” dark, nunnery-set psychological thriller “Black Narcissus” and perhaps most of all, 1948’s dance-fuelled fairy tale “The Red Shoes.” By 1957, the two had amically parted, and never quite matched their early success, particularly after Powell directed the critically-reviled thriller “Peeping Tom,” which derailed his career near-permanently, and as a result, the films never quite got the critical standing of some of their contemporaries. Their reputation was restored thanks to Martin Scorsese (whose editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, married Powell in 1984), and they’ve been mainstays in lists of the finest British films ever (“The Red Shoes” placed at number nine in the BFI’s list in 1999). But like fellow British director David Lean, they missed out on the top 50 this year. Will their critical standing improve by next time around or are they destined to always miss out?
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Few filmmakers in the history of medium burnt as brightly in such a short period of time as Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Despite passing away in 1982 at the age of 37, the German filmmaker produced forty feature films, two television series, three shorts and twenty-four stage plays. The director was always controversial and divisive, but his critical standing has only improved over time thanks to retrospectives and the like. And while his track record isn’t flawless, the best of his work — “Love Is Colder Than Death,” “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant,” “Ali: Fear Eats The Soul,” “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” “Veronika Voss” (read our retrospective on the director for more) — stands with anything that German cinema produced during the 1960s and ’70s. But while he’s always had passionate advocates, it may be that his Douglas Sirk-influenced films are too brash and vulgar for some of the polled critics in Sight & Sound. And with such an enormous filmography, which even the most passionate cinephile is bound to have a few gaps in, it may have been that the votes were spread too thinly among his work to register in the top 50 (we’d be interested to know where he comes in the poll of critics’ favorite directors, which will be revealed soon). Short of his influence being called upon by a new generation of filmmakers, we’re less confident that Fassbinder will ever crack the top of this list, but we can always hope.
5 Great Living, Still-Working Directors
Probably the most surprising absence from the Top 50, certainly in terms of directors who are still active, the cult around Terrence Malick only grew in his near-twenty-year absence from filmmaking, between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” And even into his recent (relatively) prolific patch, he’s been an absolute critical darling. While it was divisive, “The Tree of Life” inspired some passionate critical raves and indeed, many had tipped it to crack the list. But not only did that film fail to make the cut (which we’d expected), but his four earlier films, from 1973’s “Badlands” to 2006’s “The New World,” were also nowhere to be found. Few would argue that the films are not extraordinary (even the less-well regarded “The New World”) but we wonder if the lack of a single film to get behind was what kept him out. “Days Of Heaven” is the most obvious critical favorite, but we can see the votes being split fairly evenly among the others. Other directors on the list had more than one film, but those have one obvious frontrunner that collects the most votes (Hitchcock‘s “Vertigo,” Godard‘s “Breathless“). With Malick, it may be that no one film stood out from the pack, and as such, the director might have to wait a little longer for cinephile recognition. With three films due in the next few years, there’ll be plenty more opportunities to cement his standing on the list.
It was only a few months ago that Michael Haneke became one of only seven directors to win the Palme d’Or twice times at Cannes, the world’s most prestigious film festival. He took the prize with two consecutive films (2009’s “The White Ribbon,” and this year’s “Amour“) and he also earned Best Director in 2005 for “Cache.” And really, the Austrian helmer has been on an extraordinary run for a couple of decades: ever since his international breakout “Funny Games” in 1997, virtually every one of his films (bar the redundant English-language “Funny Games” remake in 2008) has numbered among the best of that year. And yet not one of Haneke’s films made the Top 50. In some respects, it’s not surprising: only three of the fifty were released since Haneke became internationally renowned, and this year’s Palme d’Or win might have suggested to critics still compiling their lists that the director’s best work might still be ahead of him. It may also be that, as with Malick, no one film has had the time to emerge as the consensus critical favorite: “Funny Games,” “Code Unknown,” “The Piano Teacher,” “Time of the Wolf,” “Cache” and “The White Ribbon” all have their advocates, and it may be that the next decade will see one of 70-year-old Haneke’s films come to critical prominence. But given that he might be the most influential filmmaker in world cinema right now (just look at something like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” to see his stamp), it’s still a little surprising not to see him make the cut.
These days, Spanish helmer Pedro Almodóvar is one of the most respected filmmakers in the world, an Oscar winner whose films have become Cannes mainstays and who’s capable of attracting almost any talent that he’d like, despite having never made a film in the English language. But his global reputation is all the more remarkable considering just how challenging his fare can be. His violent, sexual taboo-pushing early work is the most obvious example, but throughout his career his interest in gay issues, Sirk-ian melodrama, explicit sex and obsessive behavior has hardly been the kind of thing that usually makes the chattering classes line up around the block. But it’s the quality of his work, the way that his films are weirder, sexier, wittier, more puzzling, more moving and richer than 95% of the stuff that sees the inside of theaters, that’s made him one of the most beloved filmmakers working. And there’s barely a bad film in his canon, particularly in the extraordinary run of films since 1997’s “Live Flesh.” And yet none have cracked Sight & Sound’s list. While our own favorite of his, 2007’s “Volver,” is probably too new to judge whether it’ll stand the test of time, some of his most acclaimed films like 1999’s “All About My Mother” and especially 2002’s “Talk To Her” (which Time named among the Top 100 Movies Of All Time in 2005), didn’t make the crop either. Are his films, like Fassbinder, too vulgar, too sexual, and not serious enough for the critical establishment? Or is it simply a matter of letting time pass a little?
With a career marked by controversy and tragedy, triumphs and disasters, that Roman Polanski has shaken off personal obstacles and professional setbacks is a feat in itself. But that he has become a legendary and influential filmmaker in the process speaks to his remarkable strength and skill behind the camera no matter how you feel about the man personally. Though best known as a craftsman of stylish thrillers — most notably the informal Apartment Trilogy of “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Tenant” — films that trade on nightmarish images, claustrophobic spaces, and creeping paranoia, Polanski has actually tackled a wide variety of genres, from literary adaptations (“Tess,” “Oliver Twist“) and comedy (“The Fearless Vampire Killers, “Carnage“) to harrowing WWII drama (“The Pianist“) and sizzling noir (“Chinatown“). And yet there’s no Polanski to be found on the list, despite a wealth of options. Has his troubled personal life tainted him in the eyes of too many critics? Or has the unneven nature of much of his work in the 1980s and 1990s (which included disappointments like “The Ninth Gate” and outright disasters like “Pirates“) seen the quality of his earlier work diminished for some? We know that “Chinatown” would certainly sit on this writer’s personal Top 10, and we imagine that it’s true of many others, so we’d be interested to see how that film, and some of his other works, did in the rundown.
Few filmmakers have had as varied or colorful a career as Werner Herzog. A man that François Truffaut once called “the most important film director alive,” Herzog has been knocking out classics, in both the feature and documentary worlds, for over 40 years now. Perhaps still best known for his tempestuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, with whom Herzog produced many of his very best films, the director’s oeuvre goes far beyond those five, from minor classics to eye-opening documentaries, from classics of German cinema to a star-driven remake of an Abel Ferrera film. In recent years, Herzog has become something of a famous cultural figure, inspiring memes and YouTube impersonations, and is now carving out something of a side career as an actor (he’s currently voicing a character on Adult Swim series “Metapocalypse,” and will play the villain in Tom Cruise blockbuster “Jack Reacher” later in the year). Is it this sideshow that saw Herzog’s work fail to crack the Top 50? Few would argue that the likes of “Aguirre, The Wrath Of God” or “Fitzcarraldo” are undeserving, even if his later work is patchier. Could it be that we’ll only truly appreciate Herzog’s work after he’s gone? We certainly hope not.
Other Notable Absences: Of course this is a quick smattering of five directors we feel passionate about, but this list could be endless. What about Robert Altman, Sergio Leone, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Hayao Miyazaki, Howard Hawks, The Coen Brothers, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Cocteau, Nagisa Oshima, Andrzej Wadja or Seijun Suzuki? Any others you felt were missing from the list? Let us know in the comments section below.
– Oliver Lyttelton, RP