This one is an older TOC discard from late 2018 – I just thought it’d be interested to share!
Some would argue that style is one of the key components to filmmaking, stating that it is more the way in which a director uses the various pieces of film form that comes to build a great vision as opposed to simply using the camera and editing to make a movie. I have always found that style is huge in terms of holding my interest in a film, as it can change the way in which a film is viewed entirely. Style is ultimately the perspective from which the film is being created.
I’d argue that style is the key component to cinema, as it is so key to the way that we see movies that without it all movies would essentially be the same. What would Persona be if it were directed in only static shots? What would a Wes Anderson movie be without it’s beautiful range of colours?
Some directors take their stylistic choices to the extreme, and due to this, more often than not we are given a wonderful range of movies which keep film fans on their toes, and remind us who makes movies that are truly worth seeing.
David Lynch’s movies all have something that makes them stand out to anyone in any audience. Whether it be the absolutely spellbinding use of ambient sound design, which can be spotted in the majority of his work and has become one of his trademarks, the bizarre choices of character (think back to the girl in the radiator in his debut feature, Eraserhead, released in 1977). I’m not sure if it would be true to say that any other director has managed to master making their audience feel as wonderful uneasy as Lynch consistently does, due to his unique style and beautiful sense of wonder, which is visible in any documentary or interview featuring Lynch. He’s an incredibly strange person, with many fantastical ideas, and to see them take form on the big screen is a privilege.
I’d say the film that shows this in the clearest way would have to be Mulholland Drive. The excellent, winding storyline, the mind blowing reveals, the ambient sound design and the cripplingly tense atmosphere are all clear-as-day signs that Lynch is at the helm. Many have tried to imitate his strange style, attempting to create eerie, atmospheric and simultaneously frequently funny movies that capture the imagination, however, none have succeeded.
John Cassavetes has been a filmmaker who has stood out to me for a long time. His work may not have a huge range, however, to say that this makes him a poor director would be blasphemous. Cassavetes focused his filmmaking attempts on simply capturing characters in certain situations, with his intent seemingly fully focused on exposing his audience to reflect on their own life, due to the characters on screen being so true to life. His use of actors makes his films stand out in a way that many have tried to imitate, but none have managed to capture the same level of raw authenticity that Cassavetes holds in spades.
There is just something about the control, or lack thereof, that he has over his performers, and the way that he uses them on set is second to none. His most frequent performer, his own wife Gena Rowlands, has spoken about some of the harsher moments on set, such as one time when John Cassavetes told her that he was selling their home to get funds for Opening Night… it wasn’t even the first time he had done this.
Very few filmmakers are as committed to making movies as Cassavetes. The man would act in any role he could get his hands on to help fund his passion projects, he would supposedly carry the film reel of A Woman Under The Influence From theatre to theatre himself for screenings, and he sold many of his belongings. This kind of commitment is sadly very rare, and in the case of John Cassavetes, you can feel his passion bursting through the screen, through his characters and his careful writing.
As the Minnie and Moskowitz advertisement says: “John Cassavetes has an ongoing obsession with people.” and all he ever wanted to do was to present people exactly as they are. A huge amount of directors have tried to frame realism in a similar way, such as Jerry Schatzberg (The Panic In Needle Park, Scarecrow) but I don’t think any of them have managed to hit the same level of emotional involvement through realism… yet.
Bela Tarr’s movies stand out on an entirely unique level. He stands out as one of the genuine auteur directors to have been working recently, in a time when it feels like many directors have similar visions, and that many of those visions are censored. Tarr stands out as one of the very, very few directors whose work you can recognise instantly just by seeing one shot, mainly because his shots are more often than not minutes long. I don’t think there is any other film, ever, that opens with an almost ten minute long take of cows walking through a muddy field, and yet Tarr understands how to take these incredibly mundane images and make them incredibly meaningful, as he is a director willing to take his time to create strong effects from his movies. If Satantango (1994) doesn’t prove this point, I’m not sure that any film can.
Few other directors have attempted similar things, Wang Bing comes to mind however his work is more often than not focused on presenting real life, through epically scaled documentaries that show entire industries at a time in a fascinating way.
Tarr’s style isn’t just unique, though, it’s also almost impossible to imitate with any similar effect. Tarr’s films stand out not because of their slow pacing and long runtimes, but because of their fierce emotional power and also because Tarr clearly never gives up his own vision, for anyone.
Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps cinema’s first recognised auteur, and also quite likely its most recognisable, didn’t just appear out of nowhere. He spent many years working on silent films, whether it be working on the dialogue shots or making his own films, until eventually landing himself the first British talkie, with BLACKMAIL, released in 1927. As his style grew, the characteristics of a Hitchcock film grew more and more defined, whether it be through his consistent use of the same stars (maybe we can thank the Classical Hollywood studio system for that more than anything, but still…), the repetition of icy blondes and his recurring themes of guilt, obsession and love (or the darker side it can have).
His films are also often recognised for their use of music as a key component to the tension. Whether it be his frequent composer Bernard Hermann (responsible for the iconic score of Psycho and the dazzling Vertigo score), his frequently repeated usage of Cary Grant or James Stewart (two of the best actors of their time, surely), or his constant repetition of the mystery thriller genre, Hitchcock is a director so easily recognisable that he was the name that got people into the cinema, even more so than his stars, whom as mentioned previously, were some of the biggest and best names of the time.
I feel like if any director can be pinned for their huge influence on cinema, it would be Hitchcock, and yet, I don’t think anyone has been able to create a film that feels like a Hitchcock film. De Palma often recreated similar scenes or shots, even some narratives, however he always added more than enough of his own style to make the films stand out as their own – if anything, I would refer to De Palma’s films as reimaginings of Hitchcock’s films. Even Gus Van Sant, who literally remade Psycho shot for shot, only with different stars and in colour, failed miserably at creating even a slither of the same emotions as Hitchcock managed to consistently get out of his audience.
This one may stand out a little here, especially seeing as many view Mann’s Heat specifically as a blockbuster, albeit a great one. Michael Mann is one of the only directors with an almost (damn you, The Keep!) flawless filmography. His films are wide in range, despite the fact that he technically made the same film twice, and his interests are also just as wide, meaning that with almost every new Michael Mann film, there are new ideas, new possibilities. This is most noticeable in his more recent films, think the excellent Miami Vice, the terrific Public Enemies and the incredible Blackhat, three of the best films of the 21st century so far. They are so widely ranging, even though they may focus on similar leading characters, that they feel like they come from totally different people. The films are united by just a few things, their use of some of the best actors currently working, the stunning digital photography and the disturbing undercurrent that is constantly leaking out into every single image, especially in Miami Vice, a film that is so flashy on the surface but underneath feels as if it is about to fall to pieces. It’s difficult to say what it is about Michael Mann’s films that make them so consistently excellent; is it the gripping storytelling? Is it the terrific performances? Is it the incredibly ambitious stylistic choices? Well, one thing remains clear, Michael Mann makes brilliant films that are well worth your time… even if he did make The Keep, too.
No, not the actor… the director! Steve McQueen may be the most recent addition to this list, however, that doesn’t mean that he deserves a spot any less. Four feature films into his career, McQueen has proven time and time again that he makes absolutely terrific films, seemingly with ease.
Whether it be Hunger and Shame, two films that do feel quite similar, mainly due to their tone and their having the same main star, Michael Fassbender, or his latest two outings, Twelve Years A Slave and Widows which are connected by clear racial politics as a theme.
McQueen’s short films also have similar focuses, mainly honing in on the human body (specifically that of a male) and race, such as in his short film, Bear, in which we see two naked, black man fighting and embracing each other. The cinematography used in McQueen’s films is also a trademark of his style. He uses strong colour contrasting to make his shots visually arresting, and frames his films in such a way that they are almost instantly recognisable.
McQueen may still have many years ahead of him, and hopefully many more terrific films ahead, and all we can do is hope that they live up to the films we have already seen from him. Hard hitting, immersive films with such a unique take on voyeurism that they’re so clearly McQueen’s.
Okay, this man was bound to appear at some point on this list, wasn’t he? I’ve hunted and hunted for other directors who manage to so consistently amaze me with their stylistic choices, and the closest I’ve come Is with Lucio Fulci, but even Fulci is way off of having the same consistent effect that Cronenberg does.
Whether it be from his focus on the human form (mainly the downfalls of it), his warnings on our future as people or even his brilliant gangster/crime films that he has been working on more recently, David Cronenberg is one director I can always rely on to deliver something that is at the very least interesting.
Whether it be his earlier work which focuses his fascination on the body and the way it can be changed (or the way that changing it would be detrimental), or his newer, colder work which seems to get a large amount of sadistic joy out of making the audience as uncomfortable as possible, Cronenberg has always managed to use the same themes in different, refreshing ways to earn a great reaction. Despite the fact that he hasn’t worked in the horror genre for quite some time, with his most recent output being mainly focused on crime dramas and surreal satirical pieces, he still uses the cinematic techniques he learnt from creating horror films to make his films stand out and stun the audience. Cronenberg seems to enjoy being as shocking as possible, and if you’ve seen Cosmopolis, you’re probably well aware of this trait of his.
Furthermore, I feel like everyone can find at least one Cronenberg film that they enjoy. His films are surprisingly versatile and are all quite different, which makes the fact that his style is so easy to spot all the more impressive to me. I’d like to see any other director even attempt to create such stunning, mature looks at the human body… come on, I’m waiting!
Bresson always stands out to me as one of cinemas most anthropological directors. Almost all of his films may see people in really quite dire situations, however, there is just something so beautiful about the way that he frames people, whether that be in the stories he tells or more literally framing them with the camera.
There is just something so endearing about the way in which Bresson’s camera seems to focus on small nuances of people, tracking their hands as they do various things. Bresson is one of the very few filmmakers who seem to carry with them a constantly child-like curiosity in his camera, with it focusing on every little detail, and when you mix this with his scathingly dark stories of people hurting other people (or animals), there is something truly hard hitting and powerful about his films, and this applies to essentially all of his work.
Surprisingly, I find that L’Argent is where you see this take full form. His almost deadpan stylistic choices just sit back and observe the events, with little change in the actual cinematic style as the events we see continue to spiral out of control in this bizarrely humorous manner that leaves almost any audience member scratching their head a little by the end. No director has ever been able to master deadpan dark humour so well since.
Maybe the most obscure choice on this list, Brakhage is famous for splitting audience with his experimental short films and features. He has worked using a wide range of different styles, whether they be short films compiled out of tiny scratching Brakhage made into the film cells themselves, his timelapse style films (look at Sirius Remembered) or his more simplistic (but still incredibly odd) short films such as The Act Of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes, however he always finds a way to adapt these cinematic styles and make them his own.
His vivacious editing techniques always stand out strongly alongside almost any other filmmaker, especially those who worked at the same time as Brakhage, seeing as editing was so much more physical then than it is now. Another Brakhage characteristic that sets him apart from the vast majority of other filmmakers is the consistent use of his own family, with Window Water Baby Moving focusing on the birth of his child and Sirius Remembered being about the death of Brakhage’s dog, Sirius. Good luck finding a story as personal made by anybody else that isn’t a home movie.
I was trying to avoid the more obvious choices whilst making this list, however, either Kurosawa or Tarkovsky had to end up on here somewhere, didn’t they?
Kurosawa is infamous for his dynamic cinematography styles and how they always complemented his style of storytelling and his choice of story to tell, and quite rightly so. Similarly to Hitchcock, Kurosawa told stories in a way that really leapt out of the screen thanks to his quickly paced cinematography, cinematography which remains astoundingly impressive even to this day.
If anyone is responsible for bringing cinema to life through the camera, it’s Kurosawa. Many other directors have tried to emulate something similar to the vivacious and entrancing style of a Kurosawa film, such as Edgar Wright with his infamous shot transitions that serve to merge scenes together gracefully rather than to differentiate them, however, I don’t think any director has managed to equal the power that Kurosawa had… except for maybe Michael Bay, but we won’t talk about him…