Lecturer in Screenwriting & Development
|The Act of Killing
|Full Metal Jacket
|Paul Thomas Anderson
|No Country for Old Men
|Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
The modern European master, for me Audiard is the greatest living filmmaker. Profoundly moral, with an absolute mastery of story craft and a realist-expressionist approach which floors me every time. For me, his underrated Read My Lips is one of the greatest works of modern crime cinema, but A Prophet is his masterpiece. The sequence in which Malik is forced to kill a fellow Arab inmate is one of the most brilliant and important in cinema, demonstrating the correct way to depict cinematic violence – suspenseful, powerful but life-alteringly abhorrent.
Farhadi, and not Kiarostami, is for me the greatest Iranian master – combining tropes of pre-Revolutionary Iranian cinema with those of Hollywood and the international art cinema of Bergman and Kurosawa, Farhadi has created a cinema all of his own, rooted in moral conundrums and refusing steadfastly to offer easy answers. A Separation is probably his finest work, but all his films from About Elly on are masterpieces.
The Act of Killing
An astonishing work of moral, political, humanist and humanitarian filmmaking ten years in the making, Herzog was right to describe it as a watershed moment not just for documentary cinema but for cinema as whole.
Full Metal Jacket
Whilst for many Apocalypse Now represents the pinnacle of achievement in the war genre, for me Kubrick’s scabrous masterpiece, with its daring and iconoclastic two-act structure (which bamboozled many critics on its release) beats it. In characterisation, style and pacing it’s consistently superb – and its deliberately anti-climactic ending represents on the structural level the Vietnam conflict’s unsatisfying realities. Two-act narratives are extraordinarily rare in cinema – Kubrick’s use of this model is daring and brilliant, and absolutely right for his subject matter.
P.T. Anderson is not just a modern master but a canonical master, and several of his features could appear on this list. Magnolia is, for me, his most complete, most human and most impactful film, demonstrating an absolute mastery of the screenwriter’s skill set with bravura direction and magnificent performances.
The most humane, heartful and loving film I have ever seen. Perfectly crafted in narrative and characterisation, it's hard to imagine a more exquisitely humanist cinematic experience.
The pinnacle of achievement in both science-fiction and horror cinemas. An utterly immersive and transportive experience.
Startling and compelling from start to finish, with an extraordinary use of off-camera space and open resolution, Haneke's cinema is profoundly moral and magisterially crafted.
A perfect film, longing and heartbreak and beauty in every frame, the finest American film of the 21st century, and as with L'avventura, Ugetsu monogatari and Persona in the 1962 poll and Bicycle Thieves in the 1952 poll, thoroughly deserving of a place in the canon despite its newness.
No Country for Old Men
Four or five of the Coen brothers’ films could easily warrant a place on this list – they are, for me, the modern American masters of cinema. No Country tops my list because of its extraordinarily radical third act, modelled on Hitchcock's protagonist-butchering midpoint in Psycho, perhaps not as radical as Kubrick’s iconoclastic closing movement in 2001 but, I would argue, more effective. For me, the Coens are not just modern masters but all-time masters, blending self-reflexive postmodern humour with the highest of skill in narrative structure, characterisation, dialogue and genre. A lightness of touch and humour that recalls Lubitsch and Wilder, the best hardboiled suspense sequences you'll find, and the will to bend, test and break conventions and expectations. Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing, Inside Llewyn Davis – I think it's time we recognise the Coens as the American masters of cinema, and No Country For Old Men as their finest work.
I’m largely interested in excellence in the interplay between screenwriting and direction – excellence in and mastery of the screenplay is paramount to me. The previous S&S poll favoured filmmakers such as Godard who have little to no understanding of the skill set of the dramatist and who cover this paucity of skill with a series of unconventional and subversive directorial techniques. My list is an argument for a reconsideration of the primacy of the screenplay in exceptional cinema. The most skilful cinema, I argue, exists in the intersection between exquisitely crafted drama and exquisitely realised executions of that drama (Truffaut, though not in my list, was always far superior to my mind to Godard, who has no feel at all for psychological realism or the complexities of character, little sense of genuine emotion).
For me, a further characteristic defines the greatest cinema: iconoclasm. The will to bend, test and break cinematic conventions, and the skill to execute those breaks compellingly – Altman and his multiple-protagonist narratives for example, or Hitchcock's protagonist-butchering midpoint in Psycho, Jia Zhangke's astonishingly balanced consecutive stories narrative in A Touch of Sin, or the open endings that occurred in some of the key texts of the New Hollywood era – The Graduate, The French Connection. There are striking and dynamic and compelling narratives which find a voice and style and feeling all their own by moving away from the dominant linear three-act narrative model whilst retaining a mastery of characterisation and dramatic action – Scorsese's one-act Mean Streets, Kieslowski's two-act A Short Film About Killing, the multiple perspectives of Rashomon, the goal-de-emphasised ambling protagonists of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Taxi Driver and Nights of Cabiria, films driven by what Jeff Menne calls the defection protagonist, which criticised the goal-orientation of the rapidly corporatising broader cultural landscape. Such texts, from my point of view, represent the highest form of excellence in cinema – brilliance at the levels of characterisation and dramatic orchestration, of plotting and narrative structure, combined with the iconoclast’s will to break rules and push the form, and stylistic and tonal brilliance at the level of direction. None of them, however, made it into my list – all, to my mind, beaten by a clutch of modern masterpieces which, I argue, trump their antiquated ancestors in narrative brilliance.
Going back over the history of the poll, pre-1980s new and radical works of exceptional quality were able to make impacts on the cinematic canon – most strikingly Antonioni’s L’avventura, which came second in the 1962 poll ‘scarcely a year after its European release’ (Comiskey and Horwitz, 2012). This trend stopped from the 80s on, when Western cinema as a whole underwent a radical corporatisation and shifted inexorably towards blockbusterism and the pre-sold franchise film, and a concurrent shift in critical acclaim occurred, deifying antiquity and undervaluing, I argue, contemporary mastery. I think it’s time we begin to see our modern and contemporary masters as deserving of their place not just within the canon but at its pinnacle. For me, the modern masters have produced works that regularly surpass the quality of the work of cinematic antiquity – as of course they should. Cinema is a young artform, and surely it is right that each successive generation of artistic master should push and develop the artform to new heights. For me, the Coen brothers, Jacques Audiard, PT Anderson and Asghar Farhadi are at the pinnacle of cinematic mastery – not just contemporary cinema, but all cinema, canon-wide. Edgar Wright didn't quite earn a place on my list, but he's still an all-time great of screen comedy, and 18 years is long enough to consider Shaun of the Dead much more than a silly diversion and in fact one of the greatest works of screen comedy we have, every bit as deserving of honour as more typically canonical comedies like The Apartment and Singin' in the Rain (it was certainly in my top 20, if not quite top 10). The Coen brothers are perhaps the most consistently brilliant filmmakers in American cinema of any era, Jacques Audiard to my mind the greatest living filmmaker. Even ‘minor works’ from these directors and dramatists – the singular and dazzling Blood Simple, the magnificent Read My Lips, any one of Farhadi’s works from About Elly on – could rightly, to my mind, occupy a place on this list. Vertigo has brilliant elements, but is weighted by a hopelessly implausible plot denouement that verges on the cartoonish. Citizen Kane’s technical brilliance and narrative skill has been over-praised for too long – Welles’s work is a classicist narrative weighted by sentimentality and its own grandiosity. Don’t get me started on A bout de souffle.
Rashomon, Persona, Psycho, The 400 Blows, Lawrence of Arabia, Battleship Potemkin, City Lights, Sunset Boulevard – all, for me, sit behind the modern masterpieces on my list.
There are great films which I revisited and culled from the list, finding flaws – Heat is undoubtedly one of the finest American crime films, but its histrionic gun battles scored by rock music seem to be revelling in the vicarious thrill of gun violence. Blade Runner is almost perfect, perhaps the pinnacle of achievement in production design and the creation of an immersive other world, but blighted by the scene in which Deckard forces himself on Rachel. The films which made my list did so in part because, to my mind, they contain no such moral flaws – they are heartful, humanist films, their narrative wonder underpinned by an authorial vision that does no harm.