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.
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.
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.
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.
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.