FilmNerds presents: The Untouchables

It’s time to introduce yet another new feature for 2011 here at FilmNerds, this time with a bit of a democratic twist. Nearly every form of human achievement has its own Hall of Fame somewhere in the world, a pantheon committed to honoring the greatest in their particular field. While there are a number of institutions that recognize greatness in filmmaking, we here at FilmNerds lament that there’s no official body that recognizes a director’s body of work in total and declares him or her a true titan of their craft. This feature, which we’re calling The Untouchables, aims to create a list of the filmmakers that we here at FilmNerds believe to be unquestionable masters in the history of filmmaking. Each month, a panel of contributors here at Filmnerds including Ben Flanagan, Corey Craft, Graham Flanagan, Benjamin Stark and myself, Matt Scalici, will cast our ballots for who we believe to be the greatest filmmakers to ever live. The top three vote receivers each month will be inducted into our list of Untouchables and enshrined somewhere here on this site.

We proudly present to you our first three inductees and hope you’ll join us as we add new members to The Untouchables list each month.

Steven Spielberg

Many cite Steven Spielberg as the inventor of the cinematic “blockbuster.” That’s not exactly accurate, since hugely successful efforts by Walt Disney, David O. Selznick and other pioneers from the Golden Age of Hollywood certainly predate Spielberg’s first appearance on the scene. What Spielberg did do, however, was bring the blockbuster back to life. This happened in the summer of 1975 when Jaws simultaneously horrified and captivated the worldwide movie-going public. While many lesser filmmakers might have capitalized on the success the level of which Jaws experienced by attempting to repeat the formula found in that picture, Spielberg dedicated himself to his own creative evolution. In the years that followed, he gave us a list of classic blockbusters that’s too long to include here. Even this year he continues to create cinematic magic intended for mass consumption. In December we’ll get two new works from Spielberg the director. The first: a highly stylized, technologically groundbreaking interpretation of the classic comic Tintin. The second: a work that speaks more to the Spielberg of old; his adaptation of the children’s novel War Horse, which promises to combine elements from previous Spielberg classics like E.T. and Empire of the Sun. Very few filmmakers not only exist within the pantheon of the greatest filmmakers of all time… they continue to prove exactly why they belong there. Spielberg is one of these artists.

– Graham Flanagan

Woody Allen

While many of the filmmakers you’ll eventually see appearing in this list have perhaps sold more tickets, won more awards, or even been more influential on mainstream blockbusters, no filmmaker you’re likely to see in this list was anywhere near as prolific or consistent as Woody Allen. With a career now entering its sixth decade and including over 40 feature films, no director in history has worked at being great for as long as Allen. You’ll hear some critics say Allen’s films are all alike. Once glance at his filmography shows screwball comedies, dark melodramas, film noir and romantic comedies all represented, and that’s just to name a few. Some other critics will tell you that while, sure, he’s made a lot of films, those films are varying in quality at best. True, not every Allen film is Annie Hall, but consider this: Allen has earned 21 Academy Award nominations for 14 different films. Annie Hall may have been his sole Best Picture winner but ask Alan fans what they believe to be his best film and you’ll get answers in the double digits. Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters would all get votes. Meanwhile, Woody himself says The Purple Rose of Cairo is his best film. Allen is a filmmaker who was willing to try just about anything but the one consistent element of nearly every film he made, whether it be comedy or drama, is a deep, penetrating understanding of what drives us as human beings, what it is that people want. No one captures the exquisite pain that comes with romantic relationships, along with the occasional elation that makes it all worthwhile, quite like Woody Allen.

Matt Scalici

The Coen Brothers

Joel and Ethan Coen set a potentially grim standard for original storytelling. You rarely see anyone plagiarize or even pay homage to their work because they wouldn’t really know where to begin. Nobody has a handle on language like the Coens, whether it previously existed in another time or is totally made up in the brothers’ heads. Nobody sets or builds on painfully tangible tone like the Brothers, and hardly any other filmmaker makes the viewer think about what they’ve just watched quite like them either. You find yourself asking plenty of questions after watching Barton Fink, A Serious Man or No Country for Old Men, but the strangest thing is your totally satisfied with the unsatisfactory answers you or others come up with. Joel and Ethan Coen never come across as violent men, but their characters do. Their films depict seedy, misguided and often evil people whose immoral behavior rarely goes unpunished by either coincidence or some higher power. Many would suggest the latter, but the Coens wouldn’t. They don’t suggest anything apart from their characters and whatever else you see on screen. We decide. That’s our chore. Good luck picking your favorite Coen Brothers movie. Scaling their catalog, it becomes a moot point, far greater than a “tough call.” What’s more daunting is landing on a favorite character. The films are populated with a universe of individuals who look funny without chinks in their armor. They’re defined by their rugged edges. Joel and Ethan Coen did and do it their way. Studios bend over for them (see The Hudsucker Proxy), and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Try, if you dare, to find any storyteller with as stellar a track record as the Coens from 1987-1998. Yes, they’re weird dudes. But they’re untouchable.

– Ben Flanagan