The recent critical re-evaluations of Wes Anderson and James Gray have got us thinking about other divisive directors: those auteurs who divide opinion in bizarre, yet pleasing ways. Anyone who’s into film might recall a tense pub conversation, or a water-cooler-at-work chat, about a controversial director – these conflicts are the spice of cinephilia. The 10 heavily personal and style-drunk directors here define this idea; they are the Molotov cocktails wedged in your Blu-Ray shelf.
'The Great Gatsby' (2013).
Mention Luhrmann's name among friends at a bar and you’re sure to ignite a fiery debate. Some will tentatively admit that his films are a “guilty pleasure” or simply, “wildly entertaining”, while others – myself included – will dismiss his work as fluffy, vomit-inducing spectacle cinema. On this very site, someone boldly stated why Baz Luhrmann’s films don’t suck; but as someone who derides Luhrmann’s movies on a day-to-day basis, I remain happily in the “against” camp. Why? Because, I’ll admit, I detest that excessive, operatic style of storytelling that Luhrmann holds so dear. I mean, if you come out of the cinema feeling nauseous, like you’ve just eaten an entire bag of Haribo on a plane during turbulence, generally that’s not a good thing, right?
'Enter the Void' (2009).
Like Baz Luhrmann, Gaspar Noé’s movies will leave you feeling queasy, although in a very, very different way. Combining mind-melting drone music with dizzying camerawork, Noé’s films are challenging, uncompromising and, needless to say, not for everyone. On the one hand, there are those who praise his audacity as one of Europe’s great provocateurs to emerge from the New European Extremism. On the other hand, there are those that dismiss his films as shallow shock cinema: as the filmic equivalent of the playfully offensive Chapman brothers.
Brian De Palma
'Dressed To Kill' (1980).
Brian De Palma is a peculiar director, because his absolute technical mastery is always applied to the most sordid or trashy of subjects. It’s like J.M.W. Turner only deciding to paint pictures of discarded chewing gum on the pavement. He’s the cinephile-beloved director I’ve struggled with most: spellbinding in his oft-silent montage sequences, like a perverted, amoral Hitchcock – but so, so cold too.
Nicolas Winding Refn
'Only God Forgives' (2013).
On the other hand, here is a confrontational and confounding director I’ve gone great lengths to defend. In an art form that lives to celebrate the highest, flamboyant style, I don’t understand why Refn gets docked points for rising to this challenge. Only God Forgives, in particular, was a very misunderstood movie; the focuses of its grisly retribution, quite rightly, were the interloping American criminals of Gosling and Scott Thomas, hopelessly condemned by nocturnal Bangkok’s phantasmagoric spirits.
'The Darjeeling Limited' (2007).
Wes Anderson’s had a remarkable, redemptive journey over the past decade. Finally showing the mettle that always lay underneath his whimsy, he’s answered his critics with a spectacular recent three-film run (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel). Still, just uttering the name ‘Wes Anderson’ can make some break out in hives – for many, he’s still a tooth-rottingly twee savant, on a mission to infantilise indie films’ outsider integrity.
'The Tree of Life' (2011).
For as many people The Tree of Life beguiled on its release in 2011, another majority were still baffled and underwhelmed. Perhaps the most troubling element to sceptics was the director’s sheer religiosity. In the secular, and often ironic world of modern cinema, Malick’s belief was pure blasphemy. Yet others saw a deeply felt complaint and address, to a God that could tragically deprive us of our loved ones, as well as confer grace.
'The Immigrant' (2014)
Already defended in these pages, as you may have seen. Gray has been the best-kept secret of American film over the past decade; inevitably the French had realised this a long time ago, but isn’t that always the case? Melodramatic, operatic, and gorgeously made, Gray’s films have alienated some critics with their sincerity, but delighted a selective coterie of cinephiles for that same, mandatory reason.
M. Night Shyamalan
'The Happening' (2008).
A director once seen as the next great hope for intelligent genre cinema, he’s now a punching bag for those looking to decry the mystery box-alike storytelling obsession of current Hollywood. Yet the daring, and the eccentricity of oddball later works like Lady in the Water and The Happening have won some highbrow admirers, particularly with younger critics on Twitter. He’s been recently described as a ‘vulgar auteur’- a director with a highly specific and personal vision, but working in a more disreputable genre.
Lars von Trier
The trouble here is that Lars von Trier probably wants you to hate him. No modern director goes more out of his way to prod and provoke, to toy with the political correctness of his audience. He delights in scandal, and welcomes condemnation from the squares. But his films stand apart from this bother; viewed more sympathetically, they’re actually experimental, insightful and humane. Underestimate him at your peril.
'Lost in Translation' (2003).
Admittedly less in-your-face than the majority of directors on our list, Sofia is still polarizing debate, with the naysayers – as usual – the more vociferous camp. The most common criticism? Her films’ superficiality. It’s all surface, no substance, they say; just a pretty, pastel-hued palette, with hollow characters trailing in the aesthetics’ wake. However, with the exception of The Bling Ring (a genuinely shallow work), I would completely disagree. No, she doesn’t always give her audience much to bite on; yes, her films are quietly beautiful, with certain shots lingering for longer than is perhaps necessary. But fundamentally, her images drive the story, which means you’ve got to put a little bit of effort in as a viewer. And hey, I guess some people just aren’t willing.
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