quick list: five really relevant filmmakers working now

What is relevance? It’s not just popularity, but that’s part of it — it’s hard to be relevant if not many people see your movies. It’s not just something-to-say-ness, but that’s part of it too — it’s hard to be relevant if your movies are forgotten before we even leave the theater. With a look at balancing brains and appeal and impact, here are the filmmakers who are driving what we watch, how we talk about it, and what’s to come.
Christopher Nolan
Comic book movies would never be the same after his Batman Begins brought new darkness and trenchant social satire to the superhero genre, but he didn’t rest on that when he upped the ante again with The Dark Knight. And now he has the whole world talking about the nature of reality with Inception. If talk is relevance, Nolan is the king… at least for the moment.

If auteurism is the inescapable feeling of enormous personality on the screen, then Pixar is an auteur: perhaps the first example of such that is the work of a team’s personality rather than an individual’s. For bringing a new powerful sense of soul to animation, which had become cheap and spiritless, Pixar made cartoons suitable for grownups in a way that they hadn’t been since the golden age of Disney in the 1940s.

James Cameron
After taking years off in order to work on getting the technology right, Cameron’s a Avatar introduced us to the most striking advance in the cinema experience since color: truly immersive 3D. Whether you want to blame him for igniting the current fad for 3D, which has resulted in more crappy examples of nonimmersiveness than in anything that approached Cameron’s achievement, or whether you’re eagerly awaiting what he might give us next, there’s no question that he has had a huge impact on how we go to the movies today.

J.J. Abrams
From his reboot of Star Trek, which breathed new life into a franchise that had seemed moribund and catapulted it into a whole new realm of entertainment (and without, notably, negating the history of that universe) to his reinvigorating of the monster movie with Cloverfield — and, we hope, the upcoming Super 8 — this writer-director-producer is updating all things geek for the 21st century.

Tyler Perry
Lest anyone assume this is merely a list of my favorite filmmakers at the moment (it isn’t). I hate Perry’s work with a passion I rarely waste on hate, but I cannot deny that I have a grudging respect for how he makes movies on the cheap and outside the studio system that nevertheless appeal to mainstream audiences. It’s unfortunate that he does so by pandering to the underserved African-American audience. When he can make movies that are actually good, I’ll be able to celebrate him without reserve.

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Thu, Jul 29, 2010 4:15pm

David Fincher, Edgar Wright

Thu, Jul 29, 2010 6:10pm

I’m with you on Tyler Perry. His moralizing on certain subjects rubs me EXACTLY the wrong way (I’m an atheist) but he is a perennial favorite in our household.

I just sit there and bear it.

Thu, Jul 29, 2010 7:39pm

I’ll watch that J.J. Abrams victorian robot thing he’s got going.

Thu, Jul 29, 2010 8:43pm

Hey JoshDM, what’s the “Victorian robot thing” that Abrams is working on?

Thu, Jul 29, 2010 10:39pm

MAJ doesn’t care for Ain’t it Cool News, so I won’t provide a link to it, but it’s currently on the front page.

Thu, Jul 29, 2010 10:43pm

You can link to AICN. It’s fine.

Thu, Jul 29, 2010 10:43pm

Boilerplate; looks like he’s producing.

Fri, Jul 30, 2010 12:26pm

Once I get listing, it’s hard to stop at just five. I can’t argue with Nolan and Pixar, but are a few more:

Michael Bay has really worked to define the action genre in the past decade. I’ll never describe his movies as “intelligent,” but he has certainly placed his own stamp on big explosions and fast car chases. (cf. Transformers and The Island)

Hayao Miyazaki may not be a big name with much of the general American public, but the folks at Pixar owe him loads of inspiration. (cf. everything he’s done, but especially Spirited Away and the end credits of Naussica)

Robert Rodriguez, like Tyler Perry, works largely outside the Hollywood studio system. He continues the New Wave DIY ethic and his work is fresh and irreverent. (cf. Sin City and Desperado)

Ridley Scott may have had a misfire with Robin Hood, but he’s still one of the foremost filmmakers today, and has a long list of accoladed films. To boot, the production company he runs with his brother, Scott Free, has its fingers in a lot of interesting pies. (cf. Gladiator and Black Hawk Down or reach way back for Alien and Blade Runner)

Nora Ephron made Julie and Julia. ‘Nuff said.

Runners up include: The Coen Brothers (Burn After Reading, No Country for Old men); Gore Verbinksi (Pirates of the Caribbean) and his partner in crime Jerry Bruckheimer (who produces more than directs, but he’s had some massive hit films); Steven Soderbergh (Oceans 11, Che); and Paul Greengrass (the Jason Bourne series that everyone is aping, even Greengrass himself with Covert Affairs).