Sight & Sound, Part 4: Modern Directors

UPDATE: For ease, the previous entrants in this series are linked:

Part one, focusing on the perceived static nature of the list, is here.

Part two, looking at the films that made the list, is here.

Part three, focusing on the most revered directors, is here.

We all know the Sight & Sound poll favors old films, and as a result, old filmmakers, more than modern ones (not that this is a bad thing), but that makes it all the more interesting to look at which “modern” directors, very loosely defined here as directors to make a few notable films in the 21st century. With that in mind, the modern directors whose films received the most votes are:

  • David Lynch: 92 votes (3 films in top 250)
  • Wong Kar-Wai: 71 (2 in top 250)
  • Kiarostami: 65 (3 in top 250)
  • Tarr: 52 (3 in top 250)
  • Malick: 48 (4 in top 250)
  • Kieslowski: 38 (3 in top 250)
  • Edward Yang: 38 (2 in top 250)
  • Hou Hsiao-Hsien: 37 (3 in top 250)
  • Von Trier: 33 (2 in top 250)
  • Weerasethakul: 32 (3 in top 250)
  • Denis: 29 (1 in top 250)
  • Martin Scorsese, post Raging Bull: 25 (1 in top 250)
  • Hayao Miyazaki: 24 (2 in top 250)
  • Michael Haneke: 23 (2 in top 250)
  • Aleksandr Sokurov: 23 (1 in top 250)
  • Coen Brothers: 21 (1 in top 250)

Both Lynch and Wong have a film in the top 30 (Mulholland Dr and In The Mood For Love, respectively), so it’s no surprise that those two have the most votes. Lynch has a considerable lead, mostly stemming from Blue Velvet also finding a spot in the top 100. In addition to having more films in the top 250, each have a number of films receiving votes, and Wong’s Days of Being Wild was just one vote shy of getting on the map.

Kiarostami, Tarr, and Malick are all notable for having received a film to receive votes in the past two years (Certified Copy, The Turin Horse, and The Tree of Life). Neither Tarr nor Malick are prolific filmmakers, Tarr having just five films that are readily accessible (from 1988’s Damnation to last year’s The Turin Horse) and Malick being famous for having almost forty years under his belt and only five films (separated by a 20 year gap). In both cases, votes are easily concentrated: Of Tarr’s films, three received votes, and each placed (highest: 1994’s Satantango, in the top 40). In Malick, The New World received one vote while the other four accounted for the remaining 47 votes (highest ranked: last year’s The Tree of Life just outside the top 100). Kiarostami, on the other hand, has a handful of films receiving a notable amount of votes, with two more being just one vote shy of entering the top 250 and an additional six receiving votes. Kieslowski and Yang, two of the biggest names of the 1990s tied with 38 votes. Yang received all but two for his two on the list, while Kieslowski’s are more spread out.

In the case of Martin Scorsese, it seemed unfair to compare him with these other filmmakers when it is accepted that his two best films were made before the 1980s were even fully underway, so I excluded Raging Bull and all votes before. As one of the greatest, most consistent directors of all time, he deserves a place at the top, and that he could compete even with the exclusion of his two best films is telling.

The website where the full results are available is not entirely functioning. Several films (mostly newer ones) do not have pages to see how many votes they received. Weerasethakul and Haneke both received votes for films (Anthem and Amour, respectively) suffering from this problem that were not included in the above totals. Haneke’s is notable, having premiered at Cannes shortly before the ballots were due and still garnering at least one vote, even though most voters probably have not even seen the film. Likewise, Anthem was not a feature film at all, but one for an art fair; it’s doubtful that very many voters are familiar with it.

You’ll notice that these results still allow lasting filmmakers to climb the list (so much so that I gave Scorsese a handicap). While this is obviously because these films have had a chance to endure and are, quite simply, great films by great directors, for someone looking for great, 21st century films, it may be a bit disappointing. Two of the directors (Kieslowski and Yang) are no longer alive, Lynch drew many votes from pre-1990s Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, almost all of Hou’s and Kiarostami’s votes come from 20th century films, etc. Worry no more, as I did the same thing, exclusively counting votes from films made after 2000 or, in the case of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the very end of 1999 (because it went into wide release in 2000). I could have done the same for Yang’s Yi Yi, but wanted to keep the list to living directors. The results:

  • David Lynch: 46 (2 films, one in top 50)
  • Wong Kar-Wai: 42 (2 films, one in top 25)
  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul: 32 (plus Anthem votes) (6 films, 3 in top 250)
  • Michael Haneke: 21 (plus Amour votes) (4 films, 2 in top 250)
  • Bela Tarr: 18 (2 films, both in top 250)
  • Terrence Malick: 17 (2 films, one in top 250)
  • Lars Von Trier: 15 (4 films, one of which is codirected, one in top 250)
  • Paul Thomas Anderson: 14 (3 films, one in top 250)
  • Jia Zhangke: 11 (4 films, none in top 250)
  • Aleksandr Sokurov: 10 (2 films, one in top 250)
  • Hayao Miyazaki: 8 (1 film, in top 250)
  • Cristi Puiu: 8 (1 film, in top 250)
  • Andrew Stanton:  8 (1 film, in top 250)
  • Claire Denis: 8 (3 films)

Again, Lynch and Wong rise to the top, but it is worth noting that Inland Empire received six votes, one too few to make the top 250. Still, Lynch, while not technically retired, has not worked on a film since Inland Empire to any extent (as far as we know), and Tarr has publicly stated that The Turin Horse is his last film.

So, that aside, Weerasethakul is, arguably the greatest working director, or the greatest director of the 21st century. Wong and Lynch both had more votes, but primarily on the basis of one very highly ranked film, and Wong’s 2046, his other 21st century film receiving votes, garnered just three and his most recent My Blueberry Nights went unrecognized. Still, with two films receiving vote, one of which was crowned received more votes than any film since 1979’s Apocalypse Now, Wong deserves every bit of acclaim (I myself consider In The Mood For Love as a personal top 10). Likewise, Mulholland Drive received more votes than any film from the 1980s or 1990s, and Inland Empire deserves attention, too.

Still, with six films (including Anthem) receiving votes and three in the top 250 (including his most recent), Weerasethakul certainly deserves the title as much as anyone else. I’m, most unfortunately, unfamiliar with most of his work (I have seen Uncle Boonmee, and I liked it but immediately decided I must see it again).

After that, Haneke, von Trier, and Malick place as expected. All have at least one film in the top 250, and Haneke and von Trier had several votes for other features. On a more personal note, I was surprised to see Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, possibly my favorite of his (contender: The White Ribbon), receive relatively few votes. And Paul Thomas Anderson, whose The Master is due out this month, had votes for each film, and early reviews for The Master suggest he has not lost his edge. Going along, Jia, whose Platform has been called the masterpiece of the Chinese sixth generation moment (so says a Wikipedia, citing a dead link), and who finished with two different films in 2nd and 3rd on a large poll of the Toronto Film Festival Cinematheque ( underperforms a bit, with no films in the top 250. Perhaps not having a recent film pushed him to the back of the mind of many voters, perhaps his style is too impenetrable and difficult, his themes and subject matter too specific to Chinese sociology and politics, or perhaps something else entirely. Still, I was surprised.

At the bottom, several filmmakers garnered 8 votes on the strength of one film, though Claire Denis had a few receiving votes (note that Beau Travail, while a qualifier on the above TIFF Cinematheque poll, is 1998 according to Sight & Sound and was indeed a 1999 release in many places. Still, should you include those votes, she has 29, right behind Weerasethakul (Beau Travail listed at #78).

Hopefully, these results are enough for you. If not, feel free to do some research on your own regarding anything of interest, or moving on to the poll of director’s and see what you can find. List some ideas in the comments, maybe I’ll be happy to help. But for now, we can claim Lynch, Wong, Weerasethakul, and Denis as the best directors of our time. As a huge fan of both Lynch and Wong, I am happy with these results, and my research is a spark plug to explore great directors like Weerasethakul, Denis, Sokurov, and others who I am either mostly or entirely unfamiliar with. And, as always, these results could be different if the poll were done tomorrow and have a degree of arbitrariness to them anyway. Still, take it as a reminder to check out these filmmakers.

This concludes my coverage of the Sight & Sound results (barring any great ideas from you readers). I can promise my own similar lists in the future, though not necessarily the near future. Thank you all for reading, and I hope you find these results as fascinating as I do.


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