One of the most established voices in cinema, Canadian-born David Cronenberg is perhaps best known as the father of “body horror”. It’s this that will always define Cronenberg the adjective (though it has yet to be established whether this is Cronenbergian or Cronenbergesque), despite the fact that much of his work deviates wildly from the narrow constraints of what these descriptors commonly mean. Even his most mainstream films though involve troubled relationships between humans and their bodies, whether by masking sexual transgression through fantasy (M. Butterfly ), brandishing tattoos as an underworld code (Eastern Promises), or using disfigurement to signify a history of violence (A History of Violence).
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Francis Coppola is a mainstay on lists like these. A member of the Hollwood elite, the 72-year-old director earned his spot during the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s. Obviously, helming The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now in the same decade would cement anyone’s legacy in film, but the man just kept going.
Though some would argue he fell off a bit in the 1980s and 90s, The Outsiders, The Cotton Club (1984). The Godfather: Part III, and The Rainmaker (1997) are enduring pictures that lesser directors would likely put at the top of their resumes. Although Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not entirely embraced by critics, the artistic bravado—including Eiko Ishioka’s stunning work on the film’s costumes—is in every frame, popping with vibrancy, just as it was with One From the Heart (1982).
Beginning with the acclaimed 1984 thriller Blood Simple, the Minnesota born and NYU educated Ethan and Joel Coen have had one of the most fiercely idiosyncratic careers in the last 25 years of American film, jointly writing, producing, directing and even (under the alias Roderick Jaynes) editing their films, even when the credits may have misleadingly suggested a division of labor. Often working in a small handful of chosen genres, the brothers’ body of work nevertheless suggests some crazed mashup of classic film styles like film noir, screwball comedy and period dramas, all shot through with the post-modern irreverence of film lovers who have absorbed far too rich an array of cinematic history to ever properly color inside the genre lines.
Chaplin’s influence cannot be overstated—a true auteur, he would go on to craft a series of stirring, gorgeous, hilarious, simple parables which, while endlessly entertaining, never steered far from their social message. A committed socialist—he would eventually be treated as a subversive agent in the US in one of their more foolish moments of anti-communist idiocy—Chaplin’s filmography is underpinned by a persistent and stirring attack on the de-humanizing power of a faceless capitalist machine. His most indelible moments rely on the juxtaposition between the softness of humanity and the unbendable steel of progress. It’s hard to think of a better visual metaphor for this than the scene early in his Depression-era satire Modern Times when his Tramp character literally gets caught in the gears of a machine. Both amazingly funny and utterly convincing as a visual metaphor, here was the genius of Chaplin. An entertainer with a purpose. Chaplin died on Christmas Day, in 1977, at the age of 88.
It’s easy to throw around the phrase “godfather of independent cinema,” but actor-turned-director John Cassavetes earned it with his sweat and blood. His move out of the Hollywood system is the stuff of film history legend, and he set a powerful example, showing just how much a rogue, impassioned filmmaker could accomplish. Between Faces in 1968 and his death from cirrhosis in 1989, Cassavetes directly a series of visceral, highly personal dramas that still feel caustic, and fresh. Forged through sacrifice and suffering, his films contain some of the greatest performances you’re likely to see.