Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred HitchcockName: Alfred Joseph Hitchcock

Essential DVDs: The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers On A Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963)

Oscars: The Irving Thalberg Award (1968)

In His Own Words: “I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.”

Take a flight of fancy and imagine if Alfred Hitchcock was plying his trade in Hollywood today. Back at his old Universal stomping ground, he’d probably knock off a Collateral or two, play himself on The Simpsons, exec produce episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents CSI Leytonstone (the place of his birth) and still find time for the odd curio designed to rub everyone up the wrong way –perhaps a shot for shot remake of Good Will Hunting.

Yet the thing is you don’t have to imagine Hitchcock in modern movies, the seeds of his brilliance are scattered around the current crop of Hollywood helmers. The powers of audience manipulation of Spielberg. The controlled precision of Mann. The detached glee of the Coens. The twisted sexual subtext of Lynch. The shameless self-promotion of Tarantino. The waistline of Michael Moore. It is all present in Hitchcock. Every filmmaker working over the past thirty years has been touched by Hitchcock’s greatness, some lightly (The Wachowski’s Vertigo-inspired rooftop chase in The Matrix), others wholesale (Mel Brooks High Anxiety, Brian De Palma’s career). However many times he has been deigned a Vaunted Auteur –Tarantino once dubbed the study of his work “Film Buff 101” –Hitchcock’s influence, 25 years after his death is still without parallel.

Hitchcock’s is a career spanning 54 years, traversing 65 films, two continents and practically every technical revolution (silents, sound, colour, even, as in Dial M For Murder, 3D). There were some bizarre experiments: remaking his own 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, some 22 years later, passing off ten long takes as one seamless shot (Rope) and creating a whole drama within the confines of a lifeboat (erm Lifeboat). There were some departures from house style; the romantic frippery of Mr And Mrs Smith, the courtroom drama of The Paradine Case and, in musical parody Elstree Calling, the bizarre spectacle of an Alfred Hitchcock directed custard pie fight. En route, there have also been some misfires; Stage Fright, Torn Curtain, Topaz. But even the clunkers bore great bits –witness the fistfight in Torn Curtain that demonstrates how hard it is to actually kill a man –and a Hitchcock film always sang with the possibilities of cinema.

From his early UK work –Number 13 to Jamaica Inn –to the slicker stylish US output –Rebecca to Family Plot –cinema’s greatest heavyweight filmmaker (at his lardiest in the late ’30s, Hitchcock weighed in at 300lbs) delivered that rare thing: crowdpleasing bravura cinema that can be lapped up by the masses yet still complex enough to be pored over by speccy four-eyed academics. No filmmaker can count as many great fllms on a CV; (deep breath) The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Shadow Of A Doubt (reputedly Hitchcock’s own personal fave), Notorious, Strangers On A Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, The Birds. And these are just the can’t-argue-with masterpieces. In the process, he also invented the Filmmaker As Public Figure, cameoing in his own films (starting with The Lodger), extending his persona to books and TV and offering colourful, usually completely false, soundbite in interviews.

Renowned for a mastery of must see- must-talk-about set-pieces –shower stabbings, crop duster dust-ups, avian attic attacks –Hitchcock’s real skill was making silly, often implausible stories engaging and compulsive. Poke around the narrative foundations of The 39 Steps or Vertigo or North By Northwest and you’ll discover that they are built on a bedrock of coincidence and absurdity. Yet the cinematic sleight of hand is so deft, the atmospheres are so intoxicating that you never once question it. What partly makes the films so rich is the dynamic between Hitchcock’s cold, calculated approach and the human passions (and perversions) of the characters trapped in his murky world. Late in life, Hitchcock admitted that two of his then current guilty pleasures were Burt Reynolds redneck-pleaser Smokey And The Bandit and Disney’s pooch parable Benji. Both share an uncomplicated lightness that rarely permeated his own work. While there is playfulness (especially in the Brit flicks and To Catch A Thief), Hitchcock’s movies boasts a pessimism rare in American cinema.

Influenced by Russian horror merchant Val Lewton, Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel and German Expressionist Fritz Lang –Hitchcock cited Lang’s Der Mude Tod (1922) as his favourite film –Hitchcock forged a consistent universe that sprung almost fully formed from his Catholic psyche, a world dominated by emotional dysfunction, voyeurism, sexual guilt, innocent men accused, icy blondes, overpowering mothers and psycho killers all played out against purposefully dodgy rear screen projections and often ending with a chase over a famous landmark. Marked by consistent collaborations with genius artisans –composer Bernard Herrmann, cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini and graphic guru Saul Bass –it remains among the most coherent visions in movie history: take his name off the credits and you could still identify the director in a heartbeat.

Hitchcock’s oft-misquoted pronouncement that actors are “like cattle” –he actually said actors should be treated like cattle –belies the fact that many of Hollywood’s finest did their best work under his direction. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery (in Marnie, Hitchcock makes manifest the darkness implied in James Bond) and, in particular, James Stewart found depths and tones that they never found anywhere else. Allied to his underrated skill with actors is the thrill of technical assurance, the sense that the camera and the cut are always exactly in the right place at the right time. The style is distant, elegant and succinct –when Hitchcock received the Irving Thalberg Award at the 1968 Oscars, he made the shortest acceptance speech of all time: “thank you” –assembled with a precision that makes Swiss clockmakers look slapdash by comparison. Yet in all the buttoned-down formalism, there are moments of wild expressionism –the Dali designed dream sequence in Spellbound, the flashes of red to indicate Marnie’s psychological scarring –that surprise and overwhelm you.

Before he died in 1980, he’d joked that he wanted the motto “This Is What Happens To Little Boys When They Are Naughty” chiselled on his tombstone. It is a fitting epitaph for someone who spent a career revelling in life beyond niceness and convention. Yet perhaps what he ended up with is equally apt, an ode to complicity and his love of bad jokes: “I’m in on a plot”. And, thankfully, he let the rest of the world in too.

Martin Scorsese

Martin ScorseseName: Martin Scorsese

Essential DVDs: Mean Streets (1973); Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980); King of Comedy (1983), After Hours (1985), Goodfellas (1990), Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), Kundun (1997), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Oscars: Best Director and Best Picture (The Departed)

In His Own Words: “I think when you’re young and have that first burst of energy and make five or six pictures in a row that tell the stories of all the things in life you want to say, maybe those are the films that should have won me the Oscar.”

When the Academy convenes in a year a Martin Scorsese film is in contention, the phrase “America’s greatest living director” seems to magnetically attach itself to sentences containing the director’s name. It’s rather odd, then, that Scorsese has never won an Oscar. His collaborators —editors, actors, actresses, cinematographers, production designers —have reaped awards in their droves. But not little Marty.

It seems inconceivable, a travesty. After all, this is the man who detonated Travis Bickle upon New York’s unsuspecting underbelly in Taxi Driver. The man who unflinchingly traced the self-destructive descent of Raging Bull’s Jake La Motta. The man who with Goodfellas seduced a generation with the glamour of life as a gangster, before gleefully rubbing their noses in its repugnant, violent flipside. But then that’s the problem with Scorsese –at his best it feels like he’s almost too raw, too honest, too dark for the mainstream to let him into its comfortable bed.

It’s the nature of his material: abrasive and challenging. He refuses to flinch from the ugliness of the lives he portrays; typically those of alienated and morally compromised characters stumbling through modern life, grasping at some elusive metaphysical salvation. Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle, a pressure-cooker of frustration, disgusted with both New York’s festering nightlife and his crippling inability to communicate finds salvation in violence. Jake La Motta, the boxer forced to compromise his integrity who viciously avenges his lack of self-esteem on his wife and family. Henry Hill, the Bronx kid seduced by the exhilaration of being a gangster, only to taste a cocaine-charged cocktail of paranoia and brutality. Three of Scorsese’s most resonant central characters, all rooted in New York. Which is no coincidence.

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Scorsese was raised in Manhattan’s Little Italy, and arguably his best work all derives from this teeming milieu. As he saw it, the two career options in the “spaghetto” were those twin pillars of Sicilian life: organised religion and organised crime. You either worshipped God or the godfathers, and the pull between these two opposite poles, each with its own system of beliefs, ethics and punishments, plays out through Scorsese’s films. Even his earliest works are replete with religious themes and iconography, as if in atonement for his own lapsed Catholicism (Scorsese had originally studied to become a priest). Boxcar Bertha sees a criminal crucified to a train carriage. Mean Streets finds Harvey Keitel’s Charlie wrestling with the conflicting demands of his mob bosses and his Catholic conscience. The logical culmination was The Last Temptation Of Christ, whose portrayal of Jesus (not to mention a fallen Mary) brought ecclesiastical brickbats.

In stark counterpoint to such spiritual explorations is the violence that pervades much of Scorsese’s work. Ugly, unflinching, flirting with the gratuitous: Scorsese can’t seem to make up his mind if he is repulsed or titillated, as often can’t we, his audience. While the climactic carnage in Taxi Driver serves a cathartic purpose, and the sickening homicides of Goodfellas reprimand the audience for buying into gangsterism’s glamour, Casino’s crescendo of ultra-graphic brutality seems less justifiable. Again, not the stuff of Oscar success.

Even at his most brutal, however, Scorsese’s vision is breathtakingly cinematic. Never more so than when set loose among New York’s steaming sidewalks and skyscraping edifices. In the same way Michael Mann has captured the definitive on-screen aesthetic for Los Angeles, Scorsese has defined his home city. He catalogues life under the toenails of the Big Apple’s tower blocks with the same mixture of fascination and repulsion found in so many of his characters. His daubing of colour among night time cityscapes – the neon-lit processions of human detritus in Taxi Driver and Bringing Out The Dead; the drab, alienating décor of After Hours; even the sweltering, tawdry glow of Casino’s Las Vegas horizon of advertising hoardings — impeccably generates mood and atmosphere.

Never one to milk a trick or a flourish for its own sake, Scorsese is the consummate director. When necessary, his camerawork takes a back seat, remaining muted and distant, as in the sinister, absurd King Of Comedy. Elsewhere, virtuoso steady-cam shots come laden with meaning: we too feel the excitement that electrifies Karen (Lorraine Bracco) in Goodfellas as she is lead through the exclusive back entrance into the mobsters’ night club inner sanctum, traversing kitchens, tables full of respectful wiseguys and finally to stage-front where a comedian is in full flow. The scene then cuts to Henry (Ray Liotta) completing a robbery, accompanied by the stand-up’s pat one-liners. The amoral elation of the successful life of crime is conveyed with immense concision and ease.

Such eloquent inter-cutting speaks volumes of Scorsese’s long term collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Working on every Scorsese film since Raging Bull (for which she won an Oscar), her contribution gives the director’s arsenal of steady-cam work, tracking shots and framing its proper deployment. The combination of their skills creates films that exhilarate on every level: visually, intellectually, emotionally, even aurally (it wasn’t Tarantino who trailblazed rock music scores). Her collaborative contribution is only matched by Scorsese’s on-screen avatar Robert De Niro (who plays leading roles in eight of Scorsese’s finest films) and Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ and Bringing Out The Dead.

Following the early 80s, and the Heaven’s Gate-spurred clamp-down on big budget director-led projects, Scorsese veered between small scale independent (the underrated After Hours) and crowd pleasing studio picture (Colour of Money, Cape Fear). Flying the New York coop, films such as Kundun and Age Of Innocence have spanned continents, centuries and genres, to varying degrees of success.

Most recently, his scope — and budgets — have widened further. The Best Director nomination he received for the long anticipated, flawed, though magnificent, Gangs Of New York only highlighted the keenness among the Academy to atone for earlier omissions. But seeing as even his return to form with The Aviator —despite its Academy-pleasing focus on Hollywood heritage —fell short of that elusive gong, the sight of little, hyper-sensitive Marty, brow furrowed, shrinking into his chair at yet another rejection, could be a fixture for a few years to come.

Stanley Kubrick

Stanley KubrickName: Stanley Kubrick

Essential DVDs: Paths of Glory (1957); Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); A Clockwork Orange (1971); The Shining (1980); Full Metal Jacket (1987); Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Oscars: Best Visual Effects (2001: A Space Odyssey)

In His Own Words: “Telling me to take a vacation from filmmaking is like telling a child to take a vacation from playing.”

On this day, we remember the legendary and visionary filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick.

If Stanley Kubrick was still alive and had kept to his familiar stately schedule of completing a movie every six or seven years, we’d have been able to enjoy a 13th project. But though the legendary, visionary director may be gone, we have the films; 12 made in half a century of work, each radically different from the others — there was science fiction and sex, heists and horror — yet familiar themes snake through them. There are meditations on the usual big subjects: war, violence, love, sex and death but if he had overriding concerns they cluster around notions of reason and irrationality; control and chaos; of man’s attempts to corral and master the world, to impose his will, and his inevitable failures.

The theme reveals itself in his first properly “Kubrickian” movie, The Killing (he disowned both Killer’s Kiss and Spartacus, the first as an amateur, practice, piece of work, the second as a studio picture on which he was a hired hand) in which a perfectly planned heist slowly unravels with deadly and then comic results. Dr. Strangelove, Paths Of Glory and Full Metal Jacket gaze, horrified, on the phenomenon of war, not so much on its injustice and violence, but on its insane, deadly illogicality. In Dr Strangelove a plan, The Doomsday Machine, supposed to prevent the apocalypse actually precipitates it; in Paths Of Glory a general winds up ordering his troops not to fire on the enemy but on each other, while the first act of Full Metal Jacket (and its best) has R. Lee Ermey (one of only two actors ever encouraged, indeed allowed to improvise dialogue on set –the other was Peter Sellers) turning his troupe of boys into inhuman killing-machines, but the unintended consequence is that one kills his tutor, and then himself. (Shades of HAL here, a being created to be perfect turns on his creators and destroys them.) For Kubrick, a man famously devoted to order and reason, these collapse into chaos and self-contradiction provoked a ghastly fascination.

If the intellectual content of Kubrick’s films has an admirable consistency, then so do his astonishing visuals. He once compared the experience of watching a film to be near to dreaming, and dream motifs and ideas repeat, mutate and develop, symbols that slip from one film to the next. There are the hotels: The Shining’s Overlook obviously but also The Orbiter Hilton in space in 2001, and the New York hotel foyer where Alan Cumming flirts with a nervy Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. Ballrooms recur in The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut and as the scene of the court-martial in Paths Of Glory. And, of course, there are the lavatories. He had an almost mischievous love of setting vital scenes in the room that has us at our most undeniably human. Jack Torrance confronts his demons and determines to kill his wife and child in the Overlook gents. Tom Cruise begins his odyssey reviving an OD victim, who will subsequently save his life, in a luxurious Manhattan penthouse bathroom while in Full Metal Jacket (starring NYFA Board Member and Master Class Instructor Matthew Modine) Vincent D’Onofrio unleashes his fury and his rifle in a barracks latrine. It’s a version of that old tension again, the perfections and profundities of drama set against the realities of life: we all have to go to the crapper.

No other director has had such a sure technical grasp of the mechanics of filmmaking: the lenses and film stocks; the cameras and contraptions. He pushed the technical envelope with almost every movie he made: he shot by candle-light in Barry Lyndon; he pioneered the now overused Steadicam in The Shining while his last film, Eyes Wide Shut gains its hallucinatory luminousness from his daring, borderline crazy decision to “push-process” the entire movie, a dangerous strategy, usually only used in emergencies since the slightest miss-timing can destroy the negative. But Kubrick managed to marry this technical virtuosity to an almost spiritual understanding of cinema’s intangibles: the relationship of images to our subconscious; the feelings and attitudes that can be provoked by space, colour and movement –the things that make cinema a uniquely potent art form. 2001: A Space Odyssey is as near to a purely visual experience as cinema gets. What dialogue there is is deliberately banal and unhelpful, but the imagery: bones transforming to bomb platforms; a ballet in orbit performed entirely by spaceships; Bowman bathed in HAL’s amniotic-red light as he performs, in the film’s most ironically emotional scene, the termination of a machine, are unforgettable. They communicate more potently than words.

Red, in fact, forms another of Kubrick’s repeating motifs, it gushes out of elevators in The Shining, signals decadence and danger as the scarlet carpet in Eyes Wide Shut, it’s the colour of the typewriter that looms in shot at the house of Alex’s rape victim in A Clockwork Orange and her fetishistically ripped jump-suit.

He didn’t live to see critics tear into his last masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut though he may have been aware of them arming themselves during the dimwit hysteria that surrounded its filming. (None of his films received unalloyed praise immediately, but most were subject to the gradual, embarrassed shifting of critical opinion in the years that followed their release.) Many publicly lamented what they saw as Kubrick’s stunt casting of Cruise and Kidman, bemoaned the film as a crass celebrity fuck-fest and were secretly disappointed when said treat didn’t materialise. In fact, it might be his finest film, synthesising the pessimism of The Shining and the glorious optimism of 2001 into a human experience both intimate and recognisable, the stresses and contradictions of sex and marriage. And it unambiguously cements Kubrick’s belief that film is akin to a dream (mind-bogglingly some critics failed to notice the theme: the clue’s in the title guys). It certainly, like all of them, bears repeated, fascinated re-watching.

In matters of mystery, Stanley Kubrick once said, never explain. His films are, as they always will be, precise, elusive, beguiling. They often seem at first glance to be alien and cold, yet later we find that they can speak to us at our most human level. Unique against the cinematic landscape, they stand like monoliths in a desert.

Sir Ridley Scott

Ridley ScottName: Sir Ridley Scott

Essential DVDs: Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), Matchstick Men (2003)

Oscars: Best Picture (Gladiator, 2000)

In His Own Words: “I’m a filmmaker, not a documentarian. I try to hit the truth.”

Poor old Tony Scott. He may be one of the finest crafters of blockbuster action working today, but he will forever be huddled in the shadow of his elder brother; the auteur to his movie director. Even in their well-known childhood project, Boy On A Bicycle, it was older brother Ridley calling the shots.

Before music video directors were the great swirling pool from which future filmmakers would be fished, it was TV commercial directors who were prodded and preened for big-screen glory. Scott was one of the first to make the crossover, developing his ability to sell a product in 30 seconds into a knack for selling a story in 100 minutes. Scott’s searing sense of style is what he will be remembered for.

Even without words, a Scott film is recognisable by its play of light and shadow and near-lascivious love of sprawling wide shots and intricate detail. So exacting and skilful is the look of his films, that in the early days he was much accused of favouring style over content. The worlds he created were much bigger than the characters he placed in them. Scott’s cinematic debut, The Duellists, was praised, but for its visual sheen rather than its slight storyline. Even recognised classics Alien and Blade Runner focus far more on mood than on their heroes (it took James Cameron’s Aliens to help us learn more about Ripley besides her penchants for mammoth handguns and scanty knickers). But it’s in Scott’s ability to immerse an audience in an unknown world and to make aloof characters fascinating that he created his cult following. Those are also the two films that illustrate the care he has for his projects even years after, both being subject to reworked Director’s Cuts (a trend Scott popularised).

His power with visuals may be his trademark, but the former ad-man remains unafraid to venture into quieter character pieces. There’s chick-flick Thelma & Louise –that most un-Scott-like of projects –in which he delicately examined the inner clockwork of his heroines, winning the praise of both sexes and critics. Or Gladiator, a roaring sandstorm of Roman architecture and violence come to life around the outwardly granite, inwardly sensitive Maximus. But perhaps it’s the more recent Matchstick Men that shows his full versatility. A film with no room for flash, it’s as delicate a character construction as the title suggests, with one of the best performances Scott has elicited in Alison Lohman’s mysterious woman-child. The mark of a master of any field is that he never stops testing himself.

Akira Kurosawa

Akira KurosawaName: Akira Kurosawa aka The Emperor

Essential DVDs: Ikiru (1952); Seven Samurai (1954); Throne Of Blood (1957); Yojimbo (1961); Sanjuro (1962); Ran (1985)

Oscars: Honorary Award (1990)

In His Own Words: “For me, filmmaking combines everything. That’s the reason I’ve made cinema my life’s work. In films painting and literature, theatre and music come together. But a film is still a film.”

Strip away the literary fabric that now shrouds the works of Akira Kurosawa, delve beneath the Japanese costume and external architecture, and you will discover the throbbing heartbeat of the Everyman. His canon is neither esoteric nor arcane, simply a collection of works that explores universal themes: man’s labour for fulfillment; the necessity for humane action in the tornado of an oppressive world; that world’s propensity to disguise the truth beneath a veneer of deception. In fact Kurosawa has often been credited with reflecting an image of his native culture that Westerners can easily grasp; he made films that seem intrinsically Japanese, yet prove universally popular.

Significantly, while Kurosawa set out to reinvigorate a Japanese cinema subdued by defeat in WWII, the filmmaker himself drew much inspiration from the West. He trained as a painter in a Western art school, absorbing a love of non-Occidental literature and film as well as painting, dipping into this treasure trove throughout his career. He wove tales with the threads of Shakespeare (Hamlet in The Bad Sleep Well; Macbeth in Throne Of Blood), Dostoyevsky (The Idiot) and Gorki (The Lower Depth), while the genius of John Ford shone through the sweeping, painterly compositions of his epic period films.

Indeed, it was his visual inventiveness, perhaps above everything else, that cemented Kurosawa’s reputation, inspiring slavish remakes of his films (from 1957’s Magnificent Seven right up to last year’s King Arthur) and a list of fans that includes the cream of modern moviemakers, many of whom are featured within these covers, all drawn to the banner he thrust into the ground with his most famous film, Seven Samurai. All Kurosawa’s movies showcase the director’s dazzling technical artistry, but it is those that spin round the vortex of action which benefit most. Where better than the field of conflict to contrast benign judgements with malign, to offset social chaos with humane actions? Matching his style to his content, Seven Samurai remains the Kurosawa masterpiece, whipping up bold effects and contrasting moments – intense wind and rain, violent wipes to join the scenes, fast-tracking shots, montages of action, all hewn from a creative temperament that that embraced the unorthodox. He near perfected his much-loved bloody, violent montage.

Sift through the history of Japanese cinema and Kurosawa’s lustre may fade when compared to earlier filmmakers Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Teinosuke Kinogasa, but without Kurosawa their work would not have found such a fertile audience in the West. Akira Kurosawa was a giant among Japanese filmmakers, both literally and metaphorically. Standing at almost six feet tall, he towered over most of his national peers; it is fitting that his action movies still tower over the innumerable imitators that have followed in their wake.

Peter Jackson

Peter JacksonName: Peter Jackson

Essential DVDs: Braindead (1992); Heavenly Creatures (1994); The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001); The Two Towers (2002); Return Of The King (2003)

Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Return Of The King, 2003)

In His Own Words: “What I don’t like are pompous, pretentious movies…I have a moronic sense of humour.”

Peter Jackson is a director who seemed to arrive on the Oscar podium a fully formed auteur without the decades of turmoil to back it up. Before making the biggest trilogy of all time, outside a dedicated fanbase and New Zealand, there was awareness of an ability to realise the most complicated book, bar The Bible, in a way that would be so stunningly lauded both by critics and fans. Yet the hints, not to say the talent or the tribulation, were to be found. He was adept at fabulation, with a particular brand of Gilliamesque schlock horror blended with wry humour (and impactful effect work on a very low budget); just try Braindead’s deranged blood bath. With Heavenly Creatures, the real-life tale of teenage murderers, he indicated that he could handle stories with weight and had a fine eye for casting (Kate Winslet, came care of Mr. Jackson, as would Orlando Bloom). With The Frighteners, hooded figures were swooping over Wellington, a comedy-horror throbbing with atmosphere. All roads, were in fact, leading to Bag End.

From the day he was given a Super-8 camera at the age of eight, Jackson had a fascination with special effects and a fearsome determination to find ways to project his imagination onto the screen. For his first junior project, World War II, he would burn holes directly into the celluloid to simulate the flash of gunfire. For his first major project, the alien gore fest, Bad Taste, he would commandeer his mother’s oven for baking prosthetics, forcing the family to live almost entirely on fried sausages. And when money eventually became more prevalent he would set up Weta digital to create the doughy fantasy land of Heavenly Creatures and eventually the gruesome hordes of Uruk-hai, mumakil and orcs that ravaged Middle-earth.

But none of Jackson’s films is remembered primarily for effects, because he never lets them become the focus. More than any other filmmaker he has managed to use CGI and prosthetics to help tell stories, rather than to simply provide spectacle. In Heavenly Creatures, the CG fantasylands gave a view into the heads of the heroines, always keeping character front and centre. In Rings the battles always rage around a nucleus of well-drawn characters (Jackson writes as vividly as he shoots).

Where George Lucas, whose lead Jackson seems to be following in terms of big budget independence from Hollywood, used his digital mastery to create a photo-realistic fantasy world without believable human inhabitants, Jackson breeds characters first and then erects magisterial settings around them. An intelligent treatment of material coupled with his ability to play to the crowd (even Rings still shows traces of the mischievous gruesome humour of Bad Taste and zombie gadabout Braindead) has won him almost unparalleled respect from audiences and critics. How many other directors could announce that they’re remaking a recognised classic like King Kong and be greeted with cheers rather than howls of derision? He’s fearless, and the best part is, he’s barely even started.

Quentin Tarantino

Quentin TarantinoName: Quentin Jerome Tarantino

Essential DVDs: Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), The Kill Bill Collection (2005), Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012)

Oscars: Best Screenplay (Pulp Fiction, 1994), Best Screenplay (Django Unchained 2012)

In His Own Words: “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘No, I went to films’.”

It must be every film geek’s wildest dream: you start out as a humble video-store clerk, and wind up slamming an adrenaline-loaded syringe into the solar plexus of the American indie movie scene, becoming a filmmaker so influential, film critics turn your name into an adjective. It’s not even like you need to worry about being original; in fact, those who criticise will still praise you for your cinematic magpie-work, conceeding that at least you steal from the best: Howard Hawks, François Truffaut, Sergio Leone…

With his perma-smirk features and breathless jabbermouth conversational style exuding an air of limitless enthusiasm and glee, it’s clear Quentin Tarantino knows he’s hit his personal mother lode and isn’t about to take it for granted. But it’s not like he lucked out, after all, his Reservoir Dogs script was lambasted when he first workshopped it at the Sundance Institute in 1991. He could have given up there and then. Yet one year later, he was back in Utah with the finished product. A heist movie where you don’t see the heist. A noir shot in Californian sunshine. A crime movie which opens with some guy — Quentin himself, of course — verbally assaulting the audience with a theory about Madonna’s Like A Virgin. People didn’t know what to make of it. Even the projector spazzed out, breaking down halfway through the first ever screening. Soon after, cinema was never quite the same again.

Back to that well-earned adjective, then: Tarantinoesque. Fractured, chronologically reshuffled narratives; violence often played for laughs as much as for shocks; incidental dialogue scenes pushed centre stage; astute, bold use of music… And that’s not even mentioning his numerous visual trademarks.

That’s the style, but what’s the substance? QT’s detractors point to his films as moral vacuums more concerned with coolness than warmth, all those winking tributes to the director’s faves sitting where there should be some kind of thematic throughline. Well, here’s a theory for you: Tarantino’s movies are all about trust, primarily between mentors and pupils –the betrayal of which is the worst thing one can do to the other. Mr Orange certainly knows that when he tells White, who’s trusted him enough to tell him is real name, that he’s really a cop. In Pulp Fiction, Butch betrays Marsellus Wallace’s trust by not throwing the fight; Vincent lives up to it by not having an affair with Wallace’s wife. Jackie Brown and Ray Nicolette need to trust each other to ensnare Ordell. And Bill’s terrible punishment of his number-one DiVA was basically for a breach of trust, her trying to both flee him and — most offensive to her mentor — her own bad nature. Yes, it is just honour-among-thieves, but it’s as close to morality as you’re going to get from the man who once said, “If I’ve made it a little easier for artists to work in violence, great! I’ve accomplished something…”

Orson Welles

Orson WellesName: George Orson Welles aka Orson Welles

Essential DVDs: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Macbeth (1948); Touch Of Evil (1958)

Oscars: Best Screenplay (Citizen Kane, 1942); Honorary Award (1971)

In His Own Words: “I started at the top and worked down.”

“The biggest electric train set any boy ever had,” pronounced Orson Welles in 1940, surveying his new domain — or, at least, that corner of it occupied by RKO, the studio that had lured the 24-year-old wunderkind to Hollywood with the promise of absolute freedom to make his directorial debut in whatever fashion he saw fit. Having conquered both theatre and radio in spectacular style, Welles’ gargantuan ego was inflated to bursting point. He quickly abandoned plans to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness and opted instead, in a fit of monumental hubris, to launch an all-out assault on one of the most powerful men in America.

That Citizen Kane is an epic tour de force, fully justifying its reputation as the greatest American film ever made, goes without saying. But beyond its cataclysmic brilliance, it encapsulates everything that is so compelling about Welles. He must have known that Kane, a sublime hatchet job on media baron William Randolph Hearst, would bring the temple walls crashing round his ears, but he had the balls to do it anyway. Welles’ superhuman talent was forever wedded to a streak of willful iconoclasm that compelled him to punch the self-destruct button just to hear the sirens wail. Even so, his stature as a filmmaker rests as much on the battlelines he drew against the forces of mediocrity as it does on his supreme artistry. He paid the full price for his audacity. In Kane’s turbulent wake, RKO butchered The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Journey Into Fear (1943). They took away his new toy and showed him the door.

A pariah in Hollywood, Welles declined to eat crow. Scorning the iron rule of the studios, he took hired-gun assignments only out of necessity, usually appalling his paymasters with the results. Although recognized now as the masterpieces they are, both The Lady From Shanghai (1948) and Touch Of Evil (1958) went belly up, thanks to Welles’ absolute refusal to compromise.

It’s painfully ironic that of Welles’ many unfinished films, his most cherished was an adaptation of Don Quixote. He spent his exile in Europe vaingloriously tilting at windmills, seizing every scrap of work available to fund his own projects. His ambitions invariably outpaced his means, but his indomitable spirit shows through in the Falstaffian Chimes At Midnight (1966) and the mischievous F For Fake (1975). Even at his lowest ebb, hawking cheap sherry, Birdseye peas and ‘probably the blandest lager in the world’, he still had fire in his belly. Listening to the bootleg of one of these sessions is undeniably sad, but there is something manifestly heroic in this once-towering figure, brought down by magnificent obsession, railing at the quaking tape ops like Lear bellowing into the storm. It’s as if what’s at stake is not a two-minute spot for frozen vegetables but the thing he was permitted to hold in his grasp just once: a work of art that could change the world.

Woody Allen

Woody AllenName: Allen Stewart Konigsberg aka Woody Allen

Essential DVDs: Sleeper (1973); Love And Death (1975); Annie Hall (1977); Manhattan (1979); Broadway Danny Rose (1984); Hannah and Her Sisters (1987); Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989); Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993); Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Match Point (2005), Midnight in Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013)

Oscars: Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture (Annie Hall, 1978); Best Screenplay (Hannah And Her Sisters, 1987); Best Orignal Screenplay (Midnight in Paris, 2011)

In His Own Words: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying.”

If ever a line has come back to haunt Woody Allen it is the one spoken by one of the aliens in Stardust Memories, an uncharacteristically sour moment of introspection he borrowed from Fellini: “We like your films, especially the early funny ones.” Allen’s weary response whenever this is thrown in his face is that not all of his early films were funny, and not all his later ones have been serious. The irony here is that most of his recent films, despite their intentions, have been about as funny as a burning orphanage. Still, he has a point.

With formative influences comprising The Marx Brothers and Ingmar Bergman, Allen’s oeuvre was always going to be a mixed bag. There were glimpses of the existentialist in Borsht Belt clothing as far back as 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (spoofing Antonioni in the female orgasm segment), 1973’s Sleeper (a sly Orwellian satire) and 1975’s Love And Death (philosophical debates on the battlefield, Tolstoy, Einstein, the whole bit). And throughout his career, he has flattered the urban sophisticates who make up the bulk of his audience with asides on Kierkegaard, McLuhan and Mahler, even as the masturbation one-liners came thick and fast (if you’ll pardon the expression). It should also be clear that you can’t mine his level of neurosis for belly laughs indefinitely without going completely off the dial.

His ‘serious’ films have not all been dreary experimental duds like September (1987) or Shadows And Fog (1992) either. Crimes And Misdemeanors, to cite the most obvious example, is a superbly wrought meditation on guilt and culpability that would’ve had Doestoevsky in fits.

As a true auteur, humour has always been Allen’s sharpest tool. He did Bergman far better in 1982’s delightful A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy than he did in either September or Interiors (1978), and sensibly delivered Hannah And Her Sisters (1986) with wistful smiles and a dollop of sentimentality, rather than the rain clouds of despond the material might have suggested in one of his more ‘Scandinavian’ moods. 1979’s Manhattan is, of course, Allen’s masterpiece and his Valentine to New York is as affectionate and wryly amusing as the city that made him deserves.

If Memories’ E.T. had professed a preference for these bitter-sweet, mid-career musings on life’s persistent questions — sex, death, religion, allergies, all the big ones — he would have been more in tune with public opinion. “When a thing is funny,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “search it for a hidden truth.” Sound advice, which reveals that five minutes of the lobster scene from Annie Hall paints a more perceptive portrait of human relationships than an interminable two-hours of self-important, disingenuous shouty angst like Closer could ever hope to. It’s a hell of a lot funnier, too.

Clint Eastwood

Clint EastwoodName: Clinton Eastwood Jr. aka Clint Eastwood

Essential DVDs: Play Misty For Me (1971) ; High Plains Drifter (1973); The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976); Pale Rider (1985); Unforgiven (1992); The Bridges of Madison County (1995); Midnight in the Garden of Good And Evil (1997); Mystic River (2003); Million Dollar Baby (2004); Gran Torino (2008)

Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture (Unforgiven, 1993); Best Director, Best Picture (Million Dollar Baby, 2005)

In His Own Words: “I love every aspect of the creation of motion pictures and I guess I am committed to it for life.”

When Clint Eastwood decided to direct the thriller Play Misty For Me, with its cautionary view of celebrity, in 1970 he inadvertently took the first step to a kind of cinematic respectability that had thus far eluded him. He was certainly successful by then, and popular. He had been almost constantly in work since his debut on television as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide. But the spaghetti westerns he had made with Siergio Leone were yet to be subject to the critical re-appreciation led by British writer Sir Christopher Frayling and, though finally they became hits with the public, were mostly thought of as curious rip-offs of their Hollywood inspirations. Dirty Harry, who made his debut in 1971 and continued through a series of four sequels of ever deteriorating quality was considered to be essentially fascist by a number of critics, a barely disguised vigilante movie typical of the decade and virtually indistinguishable from the likes of Death Wish. Other, kinder, commentators simply regarded it as an efficient enough policier(ital) with a charismatic star grittily directed by Don Siegel.

But with Play Misty Eastwood revealed not only a facility for directing, but a (until perhaps recently) savvy taste for good material. He made four westerns, both High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider were solidly made examples of the genre from a man who thoroughly understood it, but The Outlaw Josey Wales is the most fascinating of the early ones; a daring, postmodern riff on Western mythology (filtered with anti-war sentiment in its post Civil War setting) that begins a task that his later masterpiece would complete.

Until the success of Million Dollar Baby, there was a school of thought that had wished he’d retired after making Unforgiven. Made from a brilliant screenplay by David Webb Peoples that Eastwood had cannily kept in store until he was old enough for the lead, it was a perfect grace note on which to end a career; it is after all a film about age and endings.

There have been missteps in the last few years. Space Cowboys was a woebegone attempt at dealing with the familiar theme of aging in a poorly written comedy-adventure while True Crime had a typically incendiary performance from James Woods as a newspaper editor but little else to recommend it. But there were the superior literary adaptations of The Bridges of Madison County and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to keep us going.

Mystic River showed a return to form, it was efficiently directed, though for some it was a little too reverent for its pulpy roots and the performance he coaxed out of at least two of his leads were so honed towards Oscar glory you almost felt they were wearing their tuxes under their workshirts. The austere, multi-layered Million Dollar Baby is another masterpiece, a thematic return to the concerns of Unforgiven—age and death were again the key subjects. Made guerrilla style in little more than a month and pretty much without anyone noticing, it maintained that Eastwood’s pre-eminence as one of Hollywood’s most daring and personal filmmakers.

Sir David Lean

Sir David LeanName: David Lean

Essential DVDs: Brief Encounter (1945); Oliver Twist (1948); Great Expectations (1946); The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957); Lawrence Of Arabia (1962); Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture (The Bridge On The River Kwai); Best Director, Best Picture (Lawrence Of Arabia, 1963); Best Picture (Doctor Zhivago, 1966)

In His Own Words: “Actors can be a terrible bore on the set, though I enjoy having dinner with them.”

What is often forgotten amid the beautiful reaches of his vision, his rapturous storytelling and tireless quest for perfection, is what a practical soul David Lean was. He grounded himself in the industry editing such films as Michael Powell’s One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing and 49th Parallel, and when he came to direct, it was in the dusty edit suites of old Soho and not among the far-flung locations or shadowy backlots that his true alchemy was born.

Lean was a dreamer, a supreme visualist, who ripened into, arguably, the finest director this country has ever produced. His was in every sense a true romantic; he pursued women as fanatically as he pursued the light. It was a career that can be roughly divided into the two schools of design: the shimmering black and white of his early work, especially the standard-setting Dickens’ adaptations (Great Expectations is the purist’s choice when picking out his best work) and the Technicolor splendour of the glory glory years. Bridge Over The Kwai, the still astounding Lawrence Of Arabia and the voluminous romance of Doctor Zhivago, are the trio that have come to define him. Although, interestingly, he always saw the slight, tender Venice romance of Summertime, with Katharine Hepburn, as his favourite.

For it was not just the oceans of sand or lush jungles that fuelled his muse, he intricately understood the workings of a script. English playwright Robert Bolt became his resident scripter, who shuffled through the politics and range of those big, big books to find an essential filmable core. Then the actors were carried along by Lean’s maniacal control, his sheer exertion and this journey toward some kind of divine yonder where cinema could transcend (Lawrence took two years to conclude its shoot, Lean more or less dragged kicking and screaming from the set). For much of his career it did.

That he took his art, and himself, so seriously got its most damaging note when having been berated by a clutch of New York critics, led by the redoubtable Pauline Kael, for the bloated Ryan’s Daughter, he swore off moviemaking for a staggering 13 years. His return was the elegant, if muted A Passage To India. Age and a certain dulling of the passions left the film elegant but overly poised. Such intriguing possibilities as Nostromo and The Bounty were never to happen.

Yet Lean’s work remains undimmed. Spielberg, a champion of his late revival, routinely watches Lawrence to glean inspiration before starting on a film. He was an architect of scope, romanticism and grandeur, certainly, but it was the confines of the human heart that fascinated him.

The Coen Brothers

The Coen BrothersName: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Essential DVDs: Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), No Country for Old Men (2008)

Oscars: Best Screenplay (Fargo, 1997); Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (No Country for Old Men, 2008)

In His Own Words: “We do pander to the audience. But the audience we think about is us.”

It was as dreamy teenagers one soporific 1960s Minnesota summer that Joel and Ethan Coen decided they should make a film. They cut lawns to afford a Super-8 camera, and then sat down to decide what to shoot. Finally, they filmed a movie playing on TV. Two brothers from small-town Minnesota playing with cameras, making a film of a film: a cute family snapshot, but also the crystallisation of what would become practically a modus operandi.

Raised far from the studio soundstages of Hollywood or New York’s artistic set, the Coens are all Minnesotan. How else to account for their peculiar, restless imagination than a childhood spent in a cultural backwater? Unschooled in filmmaking dogma, the brothers were nonetheless immersed in filmic tradition, lapping up noir whodunits, Ealing comedies and Sturges’ 40s satires as kids. Their films, which reverentially toy with these conventions, admits Ethan, are, “about other movies.” Blood Simple, their debut, betrayed a love affair with noir, a relationship taken to obsessional extremes with The Man Who Wasn’t There. Hudsucker Proxy’s feelgood Capra absurdities concealed a film about the Hollywood studio system. Barton Fink actually took place in Tinseltown, and The Ladykillers was a straight-out remake of the earlier classic.

Since their formative, for-fun Super-8 experience, the Coens have never stopped playing with cameras. All their films are comedies of a sort, usually the deliciously dark — and frequently surreal — kind. “We’re not trying to educate the masses,” they once agreed, and each film simply bulges with a sense of joy at the possibilities of life through a lens. The mercurial eye of their “self-conscious camera”, especially in earlier works, doesn’t merely observe a scene, but participates — the tracking shot along the bar in Blood Simple that hops over a laid-out drunk; the plentiful point-of-view perspective in Raising Arizona. The uninhibited camerawork and inventive editing becomes as integral to the comedy as any dialogue or sight gag.

Despite the fact Joel is credited as the director, the brothers share all duties, including editing (albeit under the alias Roderick Jaynes), producing and writing. And what writing it is, breathing life into a carnival of eclectic characters cast somewhere between the pitifully mundane and the hilariously grotesque. What stands out among their procession of hyper-real humanity is the love the brothers invest in even the most marginal character. Typically inhabited by a stock company of some of the most creative character actors around, vivid, larger-than-life cameos are another Coens’ hallmark (John Turturro’s Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski, John Goodman’s Big Dan Teague in Oh Brother…, Steve Buscemi’s Mink in Miller’s Crossing, et al). And filling these creations’ mouths is the arch, cartwheeling dialogue that betrays the brothers’ literary loves – pulp authors Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammet and Elmore Leonard among them.

James Cameron

James CameronName: James Cameron

Essential DVDs: The Terminator (1984); Aliens (1986); Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991); True Lies (1994); Titianic (1997); Avatar (2009)

Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Editing (Titanic, 1998)

In His Own Words: “Less isn’t more. More is more.”

The future is what we make for ourselves,’ is a refrain repeated throughout James Cameron’s first film, The Terminator, and it’s a phrase he’s clearly taken to heart. But Cameron doesn’t just see the future coming; he makes it happen. He deserves to be known as more than just the master of the big budget, the huge grosser, and the high concept, or even the self-styled King Of The World, but instead as one of the most progressive and important technological innovators in cinema history.

Perhaps, second only to George Lucas, Cameron has been directly responsible for the staggering development in visual effects capabilities over the last fifteen years. The Abyss, TitanicAvatar, and everything in between featured effects that hadn’t been possible until Cameron pushed the envelope, while he’s recently developed a brand-new 3D camera system. Because he can.

And yet for a man who’s so clearly in love with the possibilities of technology, his movies constantly warn against the dangers of becoming enslaved to machinery (what is Titanic if not a lecture on man’s folly writ large?), while his preoccupation with nuclear weapons (there’s an atomic explosion in every Cameron film, bar Titanic… and yes, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning) burns throughout his movies. As does a great humanist streak, which sometimes gets lost amid the brouhaha about his occasionally clunky dialogue, financial excesses (Terminator 2, True Lies and Titanic were all, at the time of their release, the most expensive movies ever made), and his innate skills with an action sequence (he’s as influential in the action genre as Peckinpah or Woo). After all he took the measure of Ripley and turned her into the font of strong, modern female leads, from which he mined his own Sarah Connor, Rose in Titanic, and Jamie Lee Curtis’ ballsy housewife in True Lies.

Part of Cameron’s appeal is his go-for-broke nature—an enormous personality with a legendary temper (crews on his movies often sport T-shirts having wry pops at his demanding ways), no challenge is too great. You want a great sci-fi movie? He’ll knock out Terminator 1 and 2. A great sequel? How about Aliens, one of the greatest of them all. A great love story? Hell, he only went and made the most successful frickin’ film of all time.

Ah, Titanic. Since its immense success (11 Oscars, $2.2 billion worldwide), some snarly critics have perceived his failure to direct a full-length, live-action movie as a failure of nerve. In fact, it’s given him enormous freedom to do what he wants to do: make hundreds of deep-sea dives, produce films for other directors, and develop technology for his forthcoming fully 3D manga adaptation, Battle Angel. And to cap it all off, he’s planning to shoot a film at some point soon—in space. His career up to now has been brilliant, but Cameron prefers to focus on the future—and right now his is bright as it’s ever been.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford CoppolaName: Francis Ford Coppola

Essential DVDs: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), The Godfather: Part III (1990)

Oscars: Best Screenplay (Patton, 1971); Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture (The Godfather, 1973); Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture, (The Godfather Part II, 1975)

In His Own Words: “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

Age 35, Francis Ford Coppola departed the 1974 Academy Awards clutching statuettes for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, a place in film history assured. At the forefront of a precocious pack of film school auteurs — Scorsese, Bogdanovich and Lucas were his acolytes — Coppola had just directed three back-to-back classics: the elegant and epochal The Godfather (which, at the time, became the biggest grossing film in history); taut post-Watergate paranoia trip The Conversation; and the sublimely orchestrated sequel The Godfather Part II. His next film, the feverish Vietnam fable Apocalypse Now, would apply indelible gloss to his entry in Hollywood’s pantheon.

Come 1992, and the director/producer was filing for his third bankruptcy, a golden seventies having been sullied by a disastrously leaden eighties. High-budget follies One From The Heart and The Cotton Club had destroyed his bank balance and ruptured his once watertight credibility. Whether it was the ravages of battling executives, egos and the elements during the five-year making of Apocalypse Now, or the obsessional — many would say megalomaniac — quest to carve out his own empire with the ill-fated studio-cum-artistic-haven American Zoetrope, Coppola was never the same director once the seventies drew to a close.

But those four consecutive era-defining classics alone staked his claim for greatness. They combined majestic productions with themes that underpinned the post-war American experience: immigration (Coppola was the son of Italian migrants); family in a baby-boomer nation; political corruption following Watergate; and the war in Vietnam. Coppola stands as a cornerstone of Hollywood’s sadly short-lived seventies golden age.

Oliver Stone

Oliver StoneName: William Oliver Stone

Essential DVDs: Salvador (1986); Platoon (1986); Wall Street (1987); Born On The Fourth Of July (1989); JFK (1991); Natural Born Killers (1994); Nixon (1995)

Oscars: Best Director (Born On The Fourth Of July, 1990); Best Director, Best Picture (Platoon, 1987); Best Adapted Screenplay (Midnight Express, 1978)

In His Own Words: “I consider my films first and foremost to be dramas about individuals in personal struggles and I consider myself to be a dramatist before I am a political filmmaker. I’m interested in alternative points of view. I also like anarchy in films.”

Where do you start with a problem like Oliver? He is Hollywood’s coruscating conscience, part madman, part genius, entirely troublemaker. He just can’t help himself. JFK had critics fired and death threats landing across his desk, Natural Born Killers appalled and aggravated the liberals and hard-liners alike, and with Alexander he sprawled in every direction picking up hoots of derision for his trouble. Inconsistent he maybe, but Stone continues to scratch away at boundaries while the likes of Scorsese or Coppola, are either clutching for the mainstream or dozing on their veranda somewhere in the Napa Valley. If he’s going to falter, he’s going to do it in the full glare of the limelight. Stone is so public a persona, his stars tend to feel like second billing.

His vision, sharpened by the frenetic lash of his edits and the full arsenal of camera tricks he uses to powerhouse his intrepid ideas, was born from his three tours of duty in Vietnam. It fed directly into his art, the modern, curdled history of America becoming the backbone of his muse. He is driven by a furious passion to deliver the truth, a fury that can be felt in every frame of every film. “People are suckers for the truth,” harries Donald Sutherland’s deep-throated X in JFK. “And the truth is on your side, Bubba.”

Ultimately, and beautifully, he refuses to be confined by ideology. He is both politico and bohemian (hell, why else make a film about The Doors?). As a filmmaker it is a unique voice, hectoring and heartfelt, and when they come to write his epitaph it should be quite simple: “Never bland.”

Sergio Leone

Sergio LeoneName: Sergio Leone

Essential DVDs: A Fistful of Dollars (1964); For a Few Dollars More (1965); The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966); Once Upon A Time In The West (1968); Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Oscars: None

In His Own Words: “I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes, obviously; it fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.”

After the muscle-man quickie The Colossus Of Rhodes, Sergio Leone directed a mere six films, making up two trilogies, the ‘dollars’ films about Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) and a panoramic trio (Once Upon A Time In The West, Duck, You Sucker, Once Upon A Time In America) about corruption and power in the New World.

It was said that Leone’s Westerns were ‘realistic’ depictions of grim 19th century Tex-Mex frontier life, but actually they are stark, simple fables. Though the body counts are higher, his Westerns tend to be as morally cut-and-dried as any kiddie matinee oater. Appropriately, His world is divided into good, bad and ugly. Heroes gun down a great many people, but each and every one of them deserved what was coming to him. In his last film (Once Upon A Time In America), however, he took the good out of the equation, and showed only bad or ugly men while dividing women into angels or whores.

Leone was a lover of grotesque faces, wide screens, corrida-style gunfights, craggy landscapes, long shots, absurd comedy, earthy physicality and bursts of swift, ghastly violence. He signed up Ennio Morricone to provide a soundtrack for the Italian West and cut Eastwood out of the corral and made him the last great cowboy star, deciding how the Western would look and sound for the next four decades. Leone realised Westerns were also historical movies and obsessed over the precise types of gun, boot, pocket-watch or hat his characters should sport. Not to forget the various political readings of his movies.

John Ford

John FordName: John Martin Feeney aka John Ford aka “Pappy”

Essential DVDs: Stagecoach (1939); My Darling Clementine (1946); She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949); The Searchers (1956); The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance (1962)

Oscars: Best Director (The Informer, 1935); Best Director (The Grapes Of Wrath, 1940); Best Director (How Green Was My Valley, 1940); Best Director (The Quiet American, 1951)

In His Own Words: “Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eye.”

When John Ford self-deprecatingly introduced himself with, ‘My name’s John Ford, I make Westerns’, he had a canny sense of the way he would be remembered. Though he started cranking out silent quickies (his first director’s credit was Red Saunders Plays Cupid in 1917), his great Hollywood years found him hailed as an important, Oscar-worthy maker of significant films like The Informer, How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes Of Wrath. After the silent superproduction The Iron Horse, he stayed off the range until 1939, when Stagecoach revived a genre that allegedly was just for kids by mixing shoot ’em up thrills with literary merit (the inspiration is a story by Guy de Maupassant) and breathtaking pictorial skills.

He rescued John Wayne from the Bs, and showed him to be a better actor than we’d imagined in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. He managed the lyrical legendary of My Darling Clementine and the harsh revisionism of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The embarrassing Oirish belief that drunken brawling is the highest form of social interaction is blotted out by moments of beauty, sensitivity, heroism and sadness that are unmatched.

Few other directors can make male audiences cry in the way Ford manages in sober moments, as he mythologises the men and women who made the West and the loveliness of the savage landscape, but acknowledges those times are gone and there’s probably no room in the meagre modern world for the man who really shot Liberty Valance.

Sam Peckinpah

Sam PeckinpahName: David Samuel Peckinpah aka Sam Peckinpah aka Mad Sam

Essential DVDs: Ride The High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Straw Dogs (1971), The Getaway (1972), Pat Garrett And Billy the Kid (1973), Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), The Cross of Iron (1977)

Oscars: None

In His Own Words: “The point of [The Wild Bunch] is to take this facade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it… and then twist it so that it’s not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut.”

The unprecedented cataclysm of blood-soaked violence that wrapped up Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was a cinematic watershed. Critics walked out disgusted. A ban was called for. “Bloody Sam”, the “Picasso of violence” in one stroke created a reputation that persists to this day.

But to dismiss Peckinpah as just a purveyor of pornographic violence is foolhardy. In fact, Peckinpah’s cinematic legacy is not his graphic action, but rather his stylistic and thematic approach: neither film editing nor the way traditional genres were represented remained untouched by his coruscating impact.

Using several cameras running at multiple speeds together with extravagant cross-editing to create dazzling, kaleidoscopic montages of action and exposition, Peckinpah’s technical and stylistic innovations reverberate through De Palma and Scorsese, to Stone and Tarantino. His total distrust of institutionalized power particularly the studios for which he worked resulted in films so inimitably Peckinpah in both message and execution, that he blazed a trail for the auteur generation which succeeded him. He re-wrote scripts during shoots, embraced spontaneity and improvisation, and rarely delivered on-budget. After Peckinpah’s increasingly ill-tempered, drug and alcohol-fueled excesses and confrontational material, even the most troublesome of subsequent bad-boy directors would appear a pussycat to studio bosses.

Although The Wild Bunch’s Western revisionism remains the touch-stone for his work, Peckinpah tackled multiple genres. Straw Dogs is a shockingly provocative psychological horror, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia is a beguilingly nihilistic road movie, and The Cross Of Iron was to Orson Welles the best anti-war film ever made, predating Saving Private Ryan’s hand-held, in-the-trenches approach by 20 years. Just don’t mention his treatment of women.

Steven Spielberg

Steven SpielbergName: Steven Allan Spielberg

Essential DVDs: Jaws (1975); Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977); Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981); E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982); The Color Purple (1985); Empire of the Sun (1987); Schindler's List (1993); Jurassic Park (1993); Saving Private Ryan (1997)

Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture (Schindler's List, 1994); Best Director (Saving Private Ryan, 1994)

In His Own Words: “If you have a story that is very commercial and simple, you have to find the art. You have to take the other elements of the film, and make them as good as possible, and doing that will uplift the film.”

In analysing Steven Spielberg, the first thing you need to do is clamber past Steven Spielberg. The success, the deification, a near unquantifiable contribution to not just cinema but modern culture itself, and the reams of praise that smother him like a giant quilt. Given such a position, it almost feels moot to extol virtues that have been ringing in his ears for years. Thus it is to the films, in the end, you must return, to cut them loose from the hallowed tag and understand again why this small guy from Cincinnati, Ohio stands so tall over the medium.

So, we'll have no talk of the child within (although, he is expert at conveying multifaceted innocence); no talk of some kind of modern-day P.T. Barnum, barnstorming cinemas with non-stop thrills (are you willing to think of Jurassic Park as a deliberate piece of self-parody?); and hold no truck with the narrow-minded view of a director as Hollywood edifice, unwitting murderer of the poetic seventies. Dash it all, he put Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters. He threaded a Christ allegory into an alien visitation movie. And he finally cut Hollywood free from its outmoded Vietnam preoccupations with the most salutary, shocking twenty-five minutes of war movie footage ever created. That's the thing, Saving Private Ryan's harrowing opening salvo is transcendent, you can feel the medium buckle under its skill, the narrative tappings of cinema being rewritten. There are a scant few who can lay claim to that level of effect. And, goddamnit, Jaws was(ital) a seventies movie.

There seems to be a fair amount of misrepresentation about Spielberg. That he is a formulaic man, a predictable purveyor of the easy-fit populist frame-of-mind. In reality, he is far more elusive, tapping into something subliminal, an understanding of how we work as human beings. His is not the convention of myth and bland heroics, his lead characters come cut from an ordinary cloth, suburban and middle-class more often than not. Even Indiana Jones, certainly born from a heroic archetype, while effortless with a whip and a quip, is forever a man in over his head. He is not just a dusty James Bond. Spielberg puts the audience, their very idea of themselves, into the extraordinary. These are not fantasies but glorious, romping realities of the heart. The greatness of Jaws is not the malfunctioning shark, but the disparate triumvirate of honest-to-god masculinity –the gruff machismo (Robert Shaw), the stubborn intellectual (Richard Dreyfuss) and the determined family protector (Roy Schieder) –required to undo the unknowable force of nature.

Another aspect so often overlooked, or maybe taken as read, is his visual genius. He is, in his own distinct way, as good a stylist as Ridley Scott or John Ford or David Lean (and very much inspired by the latter two). The stunning use of amber light, almost liquid as it pours through the door in Close Encounters, is worthy of Kubrick. The magnificent simplicity of shooting so much of E.T. from not only a child's perspective but the physical dimension of a child. The shifting visual tone of Schindler from the elegant expressionism for the Nazis to the stark, quasi-documentary shudder of the Jewish ghetto. It's the stuff critics clamour about with Scorsese, yet his good friend and compatriot is every bit as film literate and gifted.

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The patterns of his career have been picked clean by the due attention his massive success has brought: the early films, still carrying the vestiges of the Movie Brat movement even as they invented the blockbuster; the towering eighties when he could do no wrong; the quest for the Oscar; the complexities of his post-Schindler era. The shapes are clear, but categorisation is almost impossible (it's why he's been lumbered with his own category: “The Spielberg Movie”). 'Once a month the sky falls on my head, I come to, and I see another movie I want to make,' he said of his approach. Surely, it can't be that simple. Seemingly, it is.

Perhaps more fascinating to us now, are the failures, or should we say, relative failures. Empire Of The Sun, alongside The Color Purple his gearshift into literary aspiration following the popcorn exterior of the early films, is a troubled but noble attempt to capture not only the scope but also the surrealism of J.G. Ballard's memoirs. Is there a more ambiguous Spielberg shot than that of a semi-demented Jim Graham bathed in the holy aura of acetylene sparks, caressing the metallic surface of a Japanese fighter plane? AI, so emotionally uneasy, feeds on an anti-fairytale mythology more Terry Gilliam than E.T. And why did so many critics circumvent the cynical, abusive undertones of The Terminal? Portraying America as a prison cell was hardly the presupposed idea of a Spielberg movie. Hook, we'll grant, is a misfire. But 1941, with its criminal excess, is as magnificent a site of creativity run amuck as Coppola's One From The Heart.

The trouble, as always, is that his name continues to arrive ahead of the film. He's doing his darndest to avoid it –the variety of project in the autumn of his career cleaves closest to the genre hopping likes of Howard Hawks and is way more challenging than the drift into bloated mediocrity so evident with Scorsese. You can bet your bottom dollar, War Of The Worlds will still filter H.G. Wells' socialist context. The Munich Olympics political thriller Vengeance could be his most daring film since Schindler. While a Lincoln biopic sends signals of his great work on his beloved America. And, boy, it needs it.

Spielberg, the world's greatest living director and contestably up there even if you include his deceased forebears, is finally worthy of his status because he speaks to everyone –understanding our fears, translating our dreams and revealing both the world's chaos and its beauty –not just a select realm of highbrow intellectuals or pontificating ironists. The miracle is, he has proven it is not simply entertainment but also art and truth we crave. At twenty-four frames a second.