In film criticism, auteur theory — the idea that a film reflects a director’s personal creative vision — has been a controversial subject since 1954, when French critic-turned-filmmaker François Truffaut first advocated that the director was a film’s primary author. For Truffaut and other critics who wrote for Paris-based Cahiers du Cinéma, a film was most reflective of its director, displaying the style and themes that would be unmistakable throughout that person’s body of work.
While auteur theory has continued to be highly influential in the film community, there’s an obvious problem: It minimizes the roles of the huge amount of people that work on a film, especially if the director is not the screenwriter. But does the director deserve author credit as the person who is responsible for directing all those different areas to shape his or her vision? That’s much harder to say, which is why the argument has shown no signs of slowing down after 60 years.
That being said, here are seven modern American directors who seem to lend credence to auteur theory with a distinctive visual style that appears throughout their bodies of work.
1. Wes Anderson
When it comes to distinctive style, there’s probably no better modern example than Wes Anderson, the director of Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, and last year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The writer-director is one of the best examples of a modern auteur, with a whimsical visual style all his own and narrative tendencies that remain consistent across his body of work.
Chances are that if you know of Anderson and his past films, you can spot whether a movie is directed by him within five seconds of watching one his works or viewing a trailer for an upcoming film. With a distinct color palette that links everything from a the production design to the outfits, Anderson adheres to a meticulous set of visual flourishes that give the director’s films the specific fantastical feeling that all Anderson films have.
When it comes to framing, Anderson is known to keep his camera mostly stationary, preferring to shoot scenes in straight-on fashion — something most directors avoid because it prevents the scene from taking on a three-dimensional feel. This is what Anderson prefers, and the net result is a series of a shots that often feel as if they are part of a painting rather than a three-dimensional, moving image.
2. Martin Scorsese
With 59 directing credits (according to IMDb) under his belt during a 47-year feature film directing career, Martin Scorsese is one of the most prolific American film directors ever. While Scorsese’s career has been marked by a concerted effort to make films in varying genres — even if the crime genre seems to be his favorite — there have been several stylistic flourishes that are associated with the director.
When it comes to Scorsese’s visual style, the three things that immediately come to mind are his frequent use of slow motion, long tracking shots, and the use of popular music. Beginning with his first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), slow motion has often been used as a way to heighten a moment, particularly during scenes of psychological duress. Tracking shots, on the other hand, are often used for the opposite reason: to ground a moment or scene in reality — such as the long, extended shots in Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.
Music, too, has been a consistent factor in Scorsese’s directing career, with his use of The Rolling Stone’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets becoming one of the most famous scenes in his career. And Gimme Shelter, another song by the Stones, has appeared in three of Scorsese’s films: Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed.
3. David O. Russell
David O. Russell has always been a very stylized director, but it wasn’t until his last three films — The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle — that specific visual tendencies began to emerge in a way that feel unique to the director.
Starting with The Fighter, Russell’s films began to employ increased camera movement using Steadicam rigs — camera-stabilizing devices that render movement as smooth as tracking shots but can be handled by an operator. In his recent films, you’ll notice camera movement that moves toward characters, away from characters, and even circles around characters in order to imbue the frame with energy.
While some onlookers have complained that Russell’s style sometimes feels unmotivated and could perhaps be seen as distracting, it is a style mostly his own as the camera smoothly flows around a scene.
4. Zack Snyder
Love or hate him, Zack Snyder has emerged as one of the most influential filmmakers in the modern era, especially when it comes to the action genrem which now feels as though it can be divided into the “before Snyder” era and the “after Snyder” era. But while the director is sometimes branded as a Michael Bay-type talent who does more harm than good, he is also responsible for reversing a somewhat troubling trend of modern action films.
The first thing to get out of the way is Snyder’s use of slow motion, specifically speed ramping, which smoothly changes the speed of a shot between slow motion, normal motion, and fast motion. These days, the kind of slow motion that Snyder pioneered can be seen in nearly every action film, whether you’re a fan of the technique or not. But the more important style that Snyder established is how he shot and continues to shoot action scenes as a whole.
While most Hollywood action films increasingly pushed toward action scenes with close-ups and fast editing during action scenes (think the Jason Bourne series), Snyder’s films eschew close-ups for wider shots that emphasize choreography over a shaky camera. If you’ve found yourself complaining about not being able to see or understand what’s going on in an action sequence, you can at least partially thank Snyder for pushing back in the opposite direction.
5. Tim Burton
When it comes to well-known directors with a highly distinctive visual style, Tim Burton ranks among the top of the list. Over the course of 17 films, starting with 1985′s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Burton has blazed an idiosyncratic path full of peculiar loner characters, unique production design, and an obsession with the macabre.
Coming from an art and animation background, the first thing you’ll notice in Burton’s films is a strict adherence to gothic color palettes, production design, and costume design. In general, Burton’s film and production tend to employ designs that harken back to expressionist filmmaking, specifically German filmmakers like Fritz Lang or Robert Wiene. Burton has often referred to Wiene’s silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as a strong influence in his films, using the work as inspiration for Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, among others.
6. Quentin Tarantino
There are many people who believe Quentin Tarantino is the most gifted technical filmmaker of his generation, if not the most gifted modern filmmaker altogether. While that is something that will become clearer in the years and decades ahead, there’s no doubt that giving Tarantino that distinction doesn’t exactly feel wrong.
As a writer-director, much of Tarantino’s trademark style stems from his talent as a wordsmith, specifically his talent for dialogue, which may be unmatched in modern film. But that doesn’t mean Tarantino doesn’t have visual flourishes that make his films distinctive. The influences of B-movies, Hong Kong films, and Japanese films often become apparent, as do homages to just about every genre imaginable. His style can also be likened to Scorsese’s, with the use of long tracking shots and other examples of technical mastery like crane shots which track above characters.
Also like Scorsese, Tarantino’s love of music often plays an essential role in his films — think Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs, or the use of Nobody But Me by The Human Beinz in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 as The Bride massacres the Crazy 88s. Hyper-stylized violence and strong female leads are also mainstays throughout Tarantino’s career. And don’t forget the patented “trunk shot,” in which the camera is placed at a low angle with the characters looking downwards, towering over the shot.
7. Terrence Malick
No one knows why famously reclusive director Terrence Malick waited 20 years after his 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven to make The Thin Red Line, or even why he took seven years between The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). But at age 70, Malick is now working at a breakneck pace, with two films completed in 2011 and 2012 and three more works all coming within the next two years.
Famous for a meticulous adherence to shooting an enormous amount of footage during “magic hour” — the hour before sunset and the hour before sunrise — Malick’s recent films have also employed stunning use of Steadicam shots first used in The Thin Red Line. His films can often be distinguished by their use of natural light, handheld footage, muted colors, and a focus on stories in the Midwest. The director’s work almost always employs heavy use of voiceover narration, sometimes by multiple characters, using a whispery stream-of-consciousness that often hints at existential struggle. And in general, Malick’s movies often dwell on the struggle between man and nature.