Picking the most important film director working today is tough. In fact, it almost feels wrong.
Why? Because film is a subjective experience. You sit in a theater and you unpack the movie, picking out the parts you enjoyed, the parts you hated, the parts you remember and quote to your friends, and the parts that inspire you.
So, really, an important director, on the most honest, truthful level, is an individual and complicated choice, intrinsic to your own unique approach. But Hollywood is a business, so there’s not a whole lot of room of individual feelings and truthful examination. It’s all about money. Which does make sense. For all of cinema’s diverse enjoyment, the prohibitive cost of filmmaking dictates that what people think will sell becomes what is made — all in order to turn a profit.
So what director capitalizes on this capitalistic rancor in order to drive cinema and become the most important director working today? Well, in order to define this mystery ubermensch with a megaphone, let’s look at who missed the cut.
There’s a recency bias in film that’s difficult to ignore. As a curmudgeonly person, I agree that kids these days don’t know what a good movie is, but also kids these days are the audiences that movies these days are being made for these days. So this pushes out something I would refer to the nostalgia market. If you look at the greatest of all-time, a lot of those guys are still working today, but the level of work is less than the overall market. Take for example Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Closest thing to mainstream American auteurs, and they’re making solid to great movies, but it’s not driving the market or even the imagination of moviegoers. As great as “The Departed” or “Bridge Of Spies” may be in my estimation, their viability is called into question because they have the shadows of more successful movies from the 1970s-1990s on them, and are less driving cinema’s future than feeding a lingering look towards its past.
The business angle means that there’s going to be a push towards the mainstream. A lot of defining what the most important director is now is dependent on the effect I expect they will have on the future, and you don’t have to be a psychic to understand that 18-34 year old white males are going to define the market, or even more pointedly, what white male studio execs anticipate that market to be. This is a constant. As different as movies have been over the ages, anticipating what’s safe for the bulk of the audiences is a universal constant. And just like Disney movies and Star Wars movies and whatever Titanic was doing making that much money defined what got made in the past, comic books are the now and the immediate future…or forever, or the immediate future feeling like forever.
As I mentioned in my commentary about upcoming comic book movies, “Futurespective: Comic Book Movies In The Future”, the comic book machine took control over the cinema market in a sustainable way. They invested a ton of money in creating action movie spectacles that work for non-comic book nerds, drawing immense talent in front of and behind the lens, and building an overarching linked network of movies where seeing one makes you see the rest of them, in perpetuity. And critics like them, audiences like them, and they make money, so they’re going to make more, with cemented planned releases extending several years ahead.
And while this gigantic machine is dictating the market, I can’t say that most important director working today is the machine. Skynet is not real and did not go to NYU and does not have a McMansion in the foothills of Burbank, California, so there is no automaton who can produce 12 movies from Marvel’s Phase 22 all by itself. Which means there’s a lot of directors working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and the relatively stupid but still filling up the marquee DC Cinematic Universe), so the directorial shock and awe is spread a little thin.
For all the relative brilliance in the comic book directing process of Joss Whedon or the Russo Brothers, or even like Kenneth Branagh or the amalgamation of comedy writers who did Ant-Man — and there is some captivating artistic pedigree with them — no one stands above the fray completely. You’d be like “as important as you are, I could get one of the others to do the Booster Gold movie and it’d be fine”.
But that’s where my choice, Christopher Nolan, comes in. He’s the best of all worlds. His comic book pedigree is ridiculous. He made three Batman movies, two of them are really good and made the character popular again, and one them gave me that Tom Hardy respirator voice to throw out at parties. And if that wasn’t enough, he likes Zack Snyder for some reason, doing some helping business on “Man Of Steel”. Zack Snyder for reasons that escape me becomes the shepherd of the DC Universe, the Bizarro Joss Whedon, if you will (you probably won’t), so Nolan’s influence is cemented on half of the biggest market going in cinema (and if you look at Suicide Squad’s box office, keeping in mind that movie was a mess, imagine how dominant DC could stand up to Marvel, furthering Nolan’s impact).
But more broadly, Nolan’s style influences all of the comic book movies and the styling. The dark touches, grounding the character in an affected reality, it’s something that audiences now expect and think is the best thing ever, and the movies are following suit. DC is hoping to be confused for a re-release of the Dark Knight with each of its somber releases, and even Marvel, with its own unique spin and more sense of humor and stuff, definitely shows some effects in places, like the depressing violence things in Netflix’s “Daredevil”.
But what makes Nolan particularly potent is that he extends beyond the excessive maw of comic books and makes artistically noteworthy cinema. He’s got your Criterion-level stuff for the indie crowd, like “Memento” and “Following”. Heck, he made a movie called “The Prestige”, and I have yet to see any hack critic write a review like “it’s ironic it’s called ‘The Prestige’, because this movie is not prestigious”, which is a testament like no other for Nolan’s prestige-y-ness. And this large network of success that touches on all quality levels and box office success allows for his diversity in the market. He can make trippy science fiction like “Inception” and “Interstellar” or he can be all WWII in the upcoming “Dunkirk”, and audiences and everyone else is all in.
And so the saturation of Christopher Nolan in the market, and a positively received saturation in the market where people like what he does, allows for this bulk of Nolan and Nolan derived influence to fill up movie screens, and fill up the gaze of aspiring directors and just wowed audiences, influencing generations to keep coming back for more.
This cultural movement of The Dark K-Nolan will change with the passing course of time, but they can retcon in some younger director in his place in order to fit the changing continuity. There of course is a large mess of skilled and popular directors to challenge his title, but Nolan is Mr. Right Now for sure.