– By Ben Escobar –
Before you continue reading the list, it’s critical to note that such a list is nearly impossible to condense down to 5 esteemed artists. The following directors mostly work in independent cinema and are not widely known by the average person. It is in my opinion, that the work and style of these directors can have a massive influence on budding film students, and teach new things in regards to genre, storytelling, and thematic statements. There is an honorable mention list at the bottom for those who may cry in the event that Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg’s names are not listed here.
Jokes aside, enjoy. There is something great and unique to learn from each one of these artists.
1. Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, The Beguiled)
Genres: Drama, Romance, Character Study
Daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, Sophia started in front of the camera acting in The Godfather part 3, but quickly found that directing was her strong suit. A golden thread of slow-burning, soul-branding storytelling can be seen throughout her work, mainly through her characters. It’s easy to see she’s taken her time with each of the ones that matter, fleshing them out to their fullest on-screen potential. Sometimes not focusing on character arcs too much, her films provide more of an escape for those who want to relive memories, check in on a character, and revel in cinematic nostalgia.
My personal favorite of hers is Lost in Translation, a stellar goodbye-film that draws heavy influence from her own life and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.
Things to note: Interesting characters, memorable climaxes, and pleasantly debatable unanswered questions left after viewings.
2. Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey, Red Road)
Genres: Humanistic Drama focusing on escapism in youth and adults
Now this is someone special. If you were to ever find yourself in a time of life where you are truly lost, whether it be emotionally, physically, or mentally, these films know how to replicate such an experience. Drawing from the raw nihilism and humanity that coincides with American or British teenage years, Andrea Arnold knows exactly how to convey the exhilarating sensation of getting lost. While her stories are primarily focused on troubled female characters, there is a universal appeal to these characters’ stories in the way that highlights their simple hopes and dreams alongside their flaws that keep them from reaching them.
Andrea carries a reputation for shooting in a style that deeply immerses the audience into the worlds of her films, not just because of their humanist stories, but also because of her tendency to cast people right off the street to play the lead of role of her characters. This, alongside her guerilla-style shooting techniques, makes us feel that we are running away alongside her characters to or from whatever chaos they find themselves in.
My personal favorite of hers is American Honey, a beautiful teen runaway movie that acts as a love letter to the trials and freedom of the lower-class American youth. It’s a nearly 3-hour escape you won’t soon forget.
Things to note: Immersive shooting style, brutally realistic storytelling, and a signature ode to cinematic escapism.
3. Richard Linklater (Boyhood, School of Rock, Dazed & Confused, The Before Trilogy)
Genres: Humanistic Drama, Comedy, Character Study, Escapism
Richard Linklater is one of the most honest directors working today. An incredibly nice guy to begin with, Richard is someone who has experiences from life that aren’t anything world-changing. In fact, they’re simple. And for him, that’s all you need to tell a story. If I only had one thing to point out about Richard Linklater’s style, is that he has a wonderful habit of observing everyday life and re-telling it in a way that feels familiar and new at the same time. He has been praised for his style of defying the film school dictum of “show, don’t tell” and reinventing his movies by telling his story through pure, engaging conversation. Sometimes to the point where you forget you’re watching a movie, and not eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation.
There’s something unique about how he looks at cinema. Rather than purely a form of entertainment, he sees it as a preservation of time—an opportunity to capture fleeting seconds that could have been lost forever. Whether it be through characters, conversation, adventure, or laughter, Richard Linklater’s style is one that highlights and preserves the precious moments of life, so that they may be appreciated and never forgotten.
My personal favorite of his is The Before Trilogy, consisting of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Without giving too much away, it is a 5-and-a-half-hour experience (between 3 different films) that will undoubtedly change your life for the better. I’ll let the reviews speak for themselves.
Things to note: Storytelling through conversation, a method of using the same reality we live in as a place for escape, and a genuinely nice guy.
4. Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer)
Genres: Satire, Dark Comedy, Psychological Thriller
The average sentence that is probably repeated within 5 minutes of someone watching their first Yorgos Lanthimos film is, “Wow, whoever made this is a freak.” While that may or may not be true, Yorgos is undoubtedly an expert at holding a mirror in the faces of his audience as means to highlight every flaw and unwelcome truth about them as people and as a society, so that by the end of the film, you are well aware of how ridiculous and twisted that some aspects of life can become.
Contrary to Linklater, his work is also an excellent example of “show, don’t tell” in a way that is both hilarious and rewarding for an audience. Every one of the characters in his films are also like puppets (perhaps reciprocating how he sees those in society) that speak in an awkwardly monotone voice, and express ridiculous thoughts and ideas with little to no hesitation. They are simply oblivious to the insanity of themselves and those around them. It is important to note that while his films often boast discomfort and disturbing imagery, these are films that can carry significant influence to a budding filmmaker.
My personal favorite of his is Dogtooth. While it is definitely not an easy watch, the story and themes are incredible, and earned him his first Oscar nomination for best foreign film back in 2011.
Things to note: Great commentary on society, deeply original and unforgettable films, excellent practitioner of “show, don’t tell.”
5. Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project, Starlet)
Genres: Humanist Drama, focusing on underprivileged/outcast/lower-class American society
Most commonly known for shooting his signature indie, Tangerine, on an iPhone 5S, Sean Baker is one of the most dedicated and ambitiously original directors working today. Drawing most of his influence from the world around him, Sean has proved to have a larger-than-life care as an artist for those who are marginalized in a way that notably greater than most independent filmmakers in the industry.
In his most recent film, The Florida Project, Sean and his co-writer Chris Bergoch highlighted a crisis of children living with single mothers and broken families in motel projects within the shadow of Disney World. The film is told through the eyes of children, acting as an allegory for those who mistake their living hell to be a paradise. Additionally, with Tangerine, Sean focuses on the marginalized transgender community living off of money made via prostitution on the streets of Los Angeles. Similar to the style of Andrea Arnold, his stories both magnify the flaws within the environment in which his characters live in, but allows the beauty of those characters as people to supersede the flaws and mistakes of their lifestyle. Sean has been known to use his art at as a catalyst for awareness and change to be brought upon the worlds in which he depicts and continues to fight for positive change upon completion of every project.
My personal favorite of his used to be Starlet (still a wonderful film), but is now The Florida Project for its wonderful depiction of childhood summers and strong, unexpected message.
Things to note: His films are made with intention of impacting culture for the better, great thematic storytelling, unforgettable characters and story moments.
Here are a few honorable mentions, possibly worth elaborating on in future discussions:
- Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, You Were Never Really Here)
- Dee Rees (Mudbound, Pariah)
- Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Blade Runner 2049, Prisoners)
- Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Medicine for Melancholy)
- Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats)
- Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Rise, Dawn, and War for the Planet of the Apes)
And of course…
- Steven Spielberg
- Stanley Kubrick
- Akira Kuwosawa
- Francis Ford Coppola
- Guillermo Del Toro
And so much more…
About the Author
Ben Escobar is a screenwriting and production student at JPCatholic (Class of 2018) who boasts an immense love for all things relating to the art of cinema. His favorite director is Richard Linklater and his favorite movie is Swiss Army Man.
To read more posts by Ben, click here.