Somewhere — probably in a corner of hell that looks just like Chasen’s — Hollywood’s old moguls are muttering darkly into their cocktails about the state of modern movies up topside. First, there’s all that sex and violence. Then there are all these new directors, so different from the good ol’ guys the moguls hired: Now there are women, African-Americans, Asians, uncloseted gays, even movie geeks who’ve learned everything they know at school. Who wants to see movies made by such people?
We do, of course. That’s why the current movie landscape is richer, more imaginative, and more personal than at any time since the early 1970s, when the creeping counterculture resulted in a sort of Prague Spring in Hollywood. It’s different this time around, though: While mainstream product may seem duller and more corporate than ever, savvy directors with more on their minds than Stallone’s biceps have learned to dart around the dinosaurs’ feet and get movies made their way. The following 20 filmmakers don’t represent any one group — some are Hollywood insiders, some are way out on the fringes, some are simply uncategorizable. But all could conceivably be on the list of Great Directors in a decade or two.
PEDRO ALMODOVAR: The bad boy of Spanish cinema was the darling of the moment with 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Just as suddenly, he was très passe. But his new The Flower of My Secret indicates he may be too irrepressible to stay down long.
GILLIAN ARMSTRONG: My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, High Tide — no one gets under the skin of smart, troubled women like this Australian director. And Little Women proves she can do it on Hollywood’s terms.
KATHRYN BIGELOW: Proving her worth in such macho genres as action and horror, she has a knack for outrageous visuals and a love for over-the-top plots. Point Break and Strange Days should age well, and the redneck vampire saga Near Dark is a classic right now.
JAMES CAMERON: He galvanized action movies with thinking man’s brawn in The Terminator, T2, and Aliens but has since immersed himself in his F/X company, Digital Domain. His upcoming Titanic looks to be a sink-or-swim proposition.
JANE CAMPION: With three startlingly original features (and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the third, The Piano), this New Zealander has carved out a niche as an uncompromising artist. Her adaptation of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady will hit theaters in November.
JOEL COEN: Never commercial heavy hitters, Joel and his producer-cowriter brother, Ethan, specialize in quirky gimcracks — and with Fargo, they’ve connected with humanity for the first time.
DAVID CRONENBERG: It’s been a long, strange trip for this Canadian, from B-movie horror (Rabid) to art-film abstruseness (Naked Lunch), with some amazing stops (The Fly, Dead Ringers) in between.
JOHN DAHL: Dahl makes neo-noirs with long, sly fuses. Behind pulpy titles such as Red Rock West and The Last Seduction lurk twisty plots and meaty roles for actors like Nicolas Cage and Linda Fiorentino.
ATOM EGOYAN: With his cool meditations on voyeurism and love, Canadian Egoyan is a taste worth acquiring; start with The Adjuster or Exotica (which isn’t a brain-dead stripper movie, no matter what the cassette box implies).
CARL FRANKLIN: The former actor turned heads with 1992’s One False Move, a throwback to the days when film noir meant good moviemaking about bad characters. The underrated Devil in a Blue Dress confirms the suspicion that he’s one to watch.
ALBERT AND ALLEN HUGHES: Menace II Society was as frightening a look at urban violence as the movies have yet produced. Sophomore slump hit for the ambitious follow-up, Dead Presidents, but the 24-year-old twins possess a mastery of technique that belies their age.
JIM JARMUSCH: From 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise to the upcoming Dead Man, the films of this gifted boho have gazed drolly at outsiders: Japanese punks at Graceland, a West African cabbie in Paris, an accountant in the Old West.
RICHARD LINKLATER: From the snarky found humor of Slacker to the biting nostalgia of Dazed and Confused to the love-struck verbosity of Before Sunrise, this Austin, Tex.-based director is growing up right before our eyes.
DAVID LYNCH: He’s been lying low since Twin Peaks blew up in his face, but he certainly could have another Blue Velvet in him. It might even be the upcoming Lost Highway.
MICHAEL MANN: Once dismissed as the guy responsible for Miami Vice, Mann has become a director who, at his best (Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans), recalls the exquisite craftsmanship of Hawks and Ford.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: ”It’s all downhill from here,” Soderbergh said in 1989 when he accepted the Palme d’Or at Cannes for sex, lies and videotape. Smart kid. But also smart enough to make the striking King of the Hill, and way too smart to be counted out of the game.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Okay, he’s made two brilliant, bloody movies, revived the art of diamond-sharp dialogue, and injected the kitschy values of the video underground into mainstream pop discourse. And he’s almost as good at selling himself as Hitchcock. So when’s he gonna shut up and make some more movies?
GUS VAN SANT: He keeps dancing close to the mainstream, and he keeps falling on his face. On the plus side are Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For. On the minus side are the head-spinning My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
JOHN WOO: With Broken Arrow raking in the cash and his balletic Chinese action classics in video stores, the Hong Kong director is hot stuff. Will Woo get Hollywoodized — or will Hollywood get Wooed?
ZHANG YIMOU: Mainland China’s moviemaking gift to the world, he makes sweeping, poignant epics that baffle the authorities — movies this good are subversive by default. With his latest, the crime saga Shanghai Triad, Zhang and frequent leading lady Gong Li have almost gone Hollywood.