Tom Jolliffe on the directors who can take cinema forward over the next decade…
There’s a cinematic crossroads on the horizon. As the market gets swallowed up by a core consumer taste leaning toward spandex and radioactive arachnid bites, there’s a need for modern thinking, engaging directors to offer something different. After all, there’s only so long the Marvel cow can be milked. It will dry out. It’s the way of things. Studios now bank on billion dollar returns. These seem safe bets now, but for how long? Ultimately it will become a huge gamble.
We’re still seeing interesting film-makers doing their best to re-invigorate or subvert genres. Edgar Wright just smashed it out of the park with Baby Driver. There was a degree of hyperbole about marking him as a cinematic master (until he improves his depiction of women in films, that may allude him). The film was very good but it’s not his masterpiece. Does he have one in him though? Potentially yes. Earlier in the year we had Get Out (written and directed by Jordan Peele). Fiercely intelligent and well written and deeply relevant. It didn’t just open up on the nature of society and race but cut through aspects within Hollywood beneath its surface. It was also important as it showed that you can still write and sell an intellectually challenging screenplay which works on both the intellectual and emotional level. It’s also a good horror film. It’s also darkly comic (and you’d expect so given Peele’s comedic background). Shot for a paltry budget the film actually grabbed audience members by force. Exquisite word of mouth spread and clever marketing helped entice audiences in and part with their cash. A film that would ordinarily have to wait years to slowly attain cult following, seemed to hit it big instantly and gain mainstream levels of box office receipts.
Right now we’re heading into a new generation, a new world. In the west especially, things are changing. Ultimately, as these major shifts always do, this will run off into art and culture, including film. Old masters like Scorsese and Spielberg continue to work. They still (more so in Marty’s case) manage to hit the bullseye more often than not but they can’t go forever. Tarantino is no longer the fresh and invigorating jolt to cinema he was 20 years ago. He has almost become a pastiche of himself since the turn of the century. He does good films with exceptional moments, but often mired in over-indulgence and hasn’t matched the raw perfection of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction (and in all honesty, the vastly underrated Jackie Brown is better than his last few). James Cameron’s self imposed exile to work on blue Aliens in CGI worlds, but not on fresh screenplays has taken him well and truly out of the game.
So what we need right now, is for the younger grouping of directors who are just finding relevance now, to push cinema forward into a new era. We need this underbelly of important and challenging cinema to exist underneath the megaplex blockbusters. They’re great for simple escapism and fun but they don’t keep cinema fresh. They don’t challenge those film-goers who want something more engaging to sink their teeth into. So I’ve already name checked Jordan Peele and Edgar Wright. Who else?
From the female perspective you have Sofia Coppola. She’s a veteran now. She’s got the medals. She’s the definition of new generation having begun her directorial career around the time her father, Francis Ford (a true cinematic icon) was drawing an increasingly below par career to a close. It happens to most great directors. Tastes change around them or the creative well runs dry. Ridley Scott hasn’t made a great film in 35 years, topping since with the slightly overrated Gladiator, which while decent is now showing its age. Nowadays a success for the Riddler is when he does a film that is solid. They’re always visually arresting but not much more. Sofia Coppola has an important role. As she moves away from being a new wave director to being a beacon of inspiration to the aspiring female director, she must solidify her career and keeping flying the flag. Someone like Kathryn Bigelow is still going strong but she’s got about 15 years on Coppola and is coming close to the wind down. For Coppola, The Beguiled was a return to form for a career that hasn’t really lived up to The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation. If she can inspire, then there are plenty of promising female directors who can follow. Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, Amma Asante (who like DuVernay and Rees will also help no end in opening Hollywood up to show more ethnic diversity behind the camera)and Jennifer Kent among others. Overall numbers of female directors are apparently on the decline. This is a trend that needs to change.
Along with Peele and Wright there are a number of important film-makers working now. Steve McQueen has delivered important, socially relevant (even in period pieces) cinema. He’s a director who cuts to the core of humanity and comes out with honesty. Should Shane Meadows make a big screen return, he too captures the beautiful contradictory nature of human emotion like few others. A little more underground than others, This Is England remains gut wrenchingly powerful, but he can’t ride that forever. His other cinematic works were nuggets of brilliance flying around somewhat scattershot, from the bitter-sweet if inconsistent Somers Town, to the haunting, intense, but often meandering, Dead Man’s Shoes (featuring an exceptional performance from Paddy Considine. As far as diversity goes. If Peele, McQueen, Ryan Coogler and Justin Simien for example craft a path for ethnic diversity, then Meadows does so for class in a business where money gets you a leg up.
Jonathan Glazer whose three features have spread the course of 13 years (and we’re now four years waiting for a follow-up to Under The Skin) started with a cult bang with Sexy Beast, threw up a controversial (if forgettable) middle with Birth and then delivered the thoughtful, beautiful, existential work of art, Under The Skin. Stephen Fingleton similarly offered a quiet and thoughtful insight on human nature with The Survivalist. His following works will be awaited with bated breath. A director capable of the visually striking but philosophically involving. Trey Edward Shults also brought It Comes at Night to attention recently. Another film which offered intense character study within intimate confides. Engaging, involving and effective.
Damien Chazelle has steamed into the theatre with the force of a typhoon. He followed Whiplash with La La Land. Two films with a musical core running through but wildly polarising in tone. Yet in both, thoroughly involving on an emotional level. They show a director (and writer) with a gift for grabbing the audience from the first minute and not letting go until the end. In their own individual ways, both excellent (although Whiplash by its nature is more gut-wrenching) and leave discerning film-goers salivating at what is to follow next (Ryan Gosling playing Neil Armstrong in First Man).
David MacKenzie followed the brutal and intense Starred Up with engaging and visceral Western, Hell Or High Water. A gift for engaging the senses promises much for his future output. Jeff Nichols has had an extremely promising directorial start with Take Shelter, Mud, Loving and Midnight Special. He’s worked fairly consistently and there’s plenty of anticipation with what will follow.
We’ve recently had a few very interesting science fiction films. Whether the respective directors continue in that genre, who knows but Denis Villeneuve has a brilliant track record, including Arrival and the trailers suggest that Blade Runner 2049 could be another excellent film. Much is expected of Alex Garland in his next film following the beautifully minimalist, Ex Machina. Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) has temporarily derailed with the disastrous Warcraft film, but if he can get back away from blockbuster gun for hire jobs, then he has plenty of vision to offer.
We could potentially be entering an era with some of the most fascinating and engaging directors, offering challenging films since the 1970’s. A big onus remains on the studios greenlighting more engaging films and success for films like Baby Driver and Get Out can only add to the chances.
Let us know which modern directors inspire you in the comments below.