Last week, the legendary David Cronenberg announced his return to the director’s chair, as he’ll soon be filming sci-fi movie Crimes of the Future in Greece, his first since 2014’s Maps to the Stars. It was a nice moment for fans of the 78-year-old director, who may have thought The Fly and Videodrome helmer had quietly retired, effectively passing the torch to likewise lauded son Brandon Cronenberg, director of last year’s Possessor. But as we reflected on Cronenberg’s accomplishments, it occurred to us that he’s one of those directors who has earned a special sort of recognition over the years: His very name has become an adjective for describing other films. When someone labels a movie as “Cronenbergian,” a film geek knows exactly what that implies—it’s equivalent to a film enthusiast’s secret handshake. It implies some belief in auteur theory, the idea that the influence and worldview of certain directors permeates their entire filmography in a way that is constant and recognizable.
Cronenberg, however, is far from the only director to have his name used in such descriptive terms. You’ve likely heard a film described as “Spielbergian” at some point, after all. Perhaps you’ve also seen the likes of “Tarantinoesque,” or “Lynchian.” To experienced film buffs, such labels are self-explanatory, but to your average moviegoer, they’re potentially mystifying. Therefore, we’ve chosen 10 iconic directors who have commonly had their names used as adjectives, and endeavored to explain exactly what it implies when you see a film described that way. Consider this a crash course in directorial oeuvres.
Note: In assembling this list, we focused on the most commonly used director’s names we could find, which revealed something that is sadly unsurprising: It’s a very white, male-dominated field. Although there are of course many prominent female film directors, few have had their names widely used as adjectives—yet another side effect of industry-wide problems with representation in all forms, from who gets to make enough movies to establish an auteurist reputation to who gets written about over and over again. And so, we decided to jump-start this conversation by canonizing some of our favorite women directors ourselves, the definitions of which you can find at the end of this list.
1. Steven Spielberg
Meaning: The films of Steven Spielberg are noted for their sentimentality and humanist themes, often blended with the fantastical or allegorical. A “Spielbergian” film classically evokes a sense of wonder and danger in equal measure, with rays of humor, faith and good-heartedness shining through, and an ultimately positive outlook on the human condition. Spielbergian heroes are often “ordinary” people thrust into extraordinary situations, and many of his protagonists have been children or young adults at a “coming of age” moment. Family and parent-child relationships are of key importance, as is exploration of the unknown. “Spielbergian” films have wide, family-friendly appeal to audiences.
You likely know a “Spielbergian” film when you see one.
2. Stanley Kubrick
Meaning: Stanley Kubrick was an intense, challenging, brooding man who made challenging, multilayered and immaculately designed films. “Kubrickian” therefore implies an extremely high level of technical precision—a sort of detached beauty and calibration of design and execution that is highly atmospheric but also on the emotionally cold side of the spectrum, combined with themes of societal downfall, war or dangerous human impulses. Kubrickian films have all the austere beauty of a carved piece of marble, but can be equally cold to the touch.
3. David Lynch
Meaning: The author David Foster Wallace once described “Lynchian” as being “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” This is a good way to say, within a single sentence, that Lynch’s films often explore the surreal and sinister elements of what initially appear to be mundane environments. “Lynchian” implies a stylized presentation that is very frequently described as “dreamlike,” with menace existing under an idyllic surface. Lynchian films also typically feature pristine sound design that heightens the surreal, dreamy or nightmarish mood.
4. Quentin Tarantino
Meaning: No doubt one of the most heavily used of these adjectives in the last few decades, “Tarantinoesque” implies films that can be expected to contain graphic and heavily stylized/unrealistic violence, within the framework of tributes to the history of the artform itself. Tarantinoesque films often feature non-linear storylines with multiple protagonists, or even no true protagonist, and are replete with references to other films, social satire, anachronistic musical choices, a dark and perhaps mean-spirited sense of humor, and scenes of extended witty dialog/banter between groups of characters. Many of Tarantino’s films are rooted in his passion for genre movies of the 1960s and 1970s, and “Tarantinoesque” films transplant many of these stylistic cues to their stories regardless of whether they’re period pieces or set in the present day. Regardless of the genre, expect blood.
There was a period in the late ‘90s when every indie director wanted to be described as “Tarantinoesque.”
5. David Cronenberg
Meaning: The films of David Cronenberg are noted for their often disturbing themes and depictions of sex and violence—a particular focus in many of his earlier works on transformation and metamorphosis, as well as the corruption of the physical and mental form, led to the term “body horror” being used to describe many of his works. In later years, Cronenberg embraced other film genres and new themes, but the term “Cronenbergian” almost without a fault implies more of the style of his earlier works. Films described as “Cronenbergian” tend to encompass themes of the physical manifestation of deep-seated psychological trauma, as literally occurs in Cronenberg’s The Brood. Cronenbergian films often revolve around the corruption of innocence, temptation, seduction and the downfall of powerful men.
6. Robert Altman
Meaning: The films of Robert Altman are typically described as dramas and dark comedies with sharply satirical elements, tending to feature elements such as multiple protagonists, interweaving storylines and unusually naturalistic, sometimes improvised dialog. Films described as “Altmanesque” typically have the air of “serious cinema” about them, being ambitious dramas with ensemble casts and many characters, structured in a way that the satirical point being made expresses the director’s (often critical) opinion on society or culture. Altmanesque films are typically unconcerned with “plot,” revolving far more around the vagaries of human behavior and folly, and themes such as luck, mortality, infidelity and hypocrisy. They have a tendency to be on the longer side, allowing conversations in particular to breathe in a naturalistic way.
7. Frank Capra
Meaning: The works of golden age of Hollywood director Frank Capra are noted for their humanitarian and down-to-Earth themes, revolving around “ordinary” American citizen heroes who strive to make a difference in the world around them. “Capraesque” films are typified by having a somewhat lighthearted feel, buoyed by rapid-fire editing techniques, with themes that affirm the basic ideals of American society—democracy, individual freedom, perseverance, sacrifice, etc. Like Spielberg to come, Capra’s films often made a point of the decency of the common man, and the way that man is able to change the world if he retains his faith. Such wholesome themes, however, have also meant that “Capraesque” has occasionally been used as a pejorative as well, in order to mean schmaltzy, pollyanna-like, or overly sentimental.
8. Werner Herzog
Meaning: Director Werner Herzog is a man who indisputably has marched to the beat of his own drum since he began directing feature films in the 1960s, and the idiosyncratic nature of his personality and purview as a director is implied in the term “Herzogian.” In particular, protagonists described as “Herzogian” are often obsessives who are driven toward accomplishing some great task or feat; one that may be impossible. Isolation and anti-socialism are common themes, which pairs with naturalistic and sometimes improvisational-sounding dialog from eccentric characters. Herzogian protagonists typically do not feel at home in society, or on our planet in general, and are often skilled in unusual ways or find themselves retreating into nature.
Of course, “Herzogian” can also mean “in The Mandalorian for some reason.”
9. John Ford
Meaning: John Ford was one of Hollywood’s most iconic and extremely prolific directors of classic Westerns, family dramas and war movies, with a no-nonsense style that favored evocative but naturalistic depictions of both nature and man’s struggle against society. “Fordian” films are classically noted for their beautiful vistas, location shooting and themes of personal fortitude in the face of isolation, loneliness or duty. Stoic, tough protagonists are associated as “Fordian,” although they’re also often impressionable young men who are part of a unit, such as soldiers facing the harsh realities of war. “Fordian” also often implies beautiful cinematography typified by restraint from rapid editing or excessive camera movement, favoring static medium and long shots that drink in haunting natural vistas and illustrate the relative smallness of human beings next to them.
10. Martin Scorsese
Meaning: Even those who barely know American film are aware that Martin Scorsese is one of the most influential movie directors of all time, so it goes without saying that the term “Scorsesian” implies a combination of great technical skill and lush moviemaking magic. “Scorsesian” films are typified by dynamic camerawork and editing, engrossing visuals and the synchronized use of deeply emotive soundtracks, which often include popular music selections that call immediate attention to themselves. Common themes include religious faith, sin and seduction, the possibility of redemption, and fragile masculinity, with New York City as the classic location for “Scorsesian” dramas to unfold—although one can by no means pigeonhole the director to just one locale. Scorsesian films typically contain elements of violence, and how it intersects with religion, greed and the gray areas of morality. Scorsesian protagonists are often conflicted about their role in this world, seduced by the dark side, and made to eventually pay the piper.
Six Female Directors Whose Names Should Be Adjectives
The fact that all the director names most commonly used as adjectives are those of men isn’t particularly surprising, but that doesn’t mean we have to simply accept it. Here are some of our favorite female directors whose own names should be canonized and used as adjectives in the same way.
1. Kathryn Bigelow
Meaning: Kathryn Bigelow has compiled one of Hollywood’s longer and more eclectic filmographies among her peers, with an evolving style that has embraced genres from westerns, to horror, to action, to geopolitical award-winners over the decades. A “Bigelowian” film would be expected to not shy away from tackling issues of gender, race and politics in particular—especially how women may or may not be welcome in various avenues of achievement, despite their brilliance or qualifications. Her films tend to have a heavy focus on action, which she has described as exploring “film’s potential to be kinetic,” and have often revolved around friendship and camaraderie in the course of engaging in dangerous or deadly enterprises. “Bigelowian” films feature an active and lively camera, as well as a critical point of view that questions the prevalence of cruelty and barbarism we tell ourselves is “necessary” to create a better world.
Bigelow is a master of several styles of action cinema.
2. Sofia Coppola
Meaning: A “Coppolan” film, specifically here used to denote the movies of Sofia and not Francis Ford Coppola, captures an unreality of fabric and flow—soft light and ambiguous feelings. “Coppolan” cinema possesses a dreamy lyricism, with a lavish aesthetic balanced by bittersweet emotions. Waking up to sunlight through your gauzy sheets is “Coppolan,” especially if the night before left you unfulfilled in some way. The desires of women and a slow burn push “Coppolan” films through their lavish looks at the disaffected. —Jacob Oller
3. Greta Gerwig
Meaning: To the directed films of Greta Gerwig we’re also adding the handful of films she’s co-written, from Hannah Takes the Stairs to Frances Ha, which helps to fill out a definition for “Gerwigian.” These films and their uniformly female protagonists are all about growth, change, personal identity and rites of passage, rooted in the personal experience of the writer/director. “Gerwigian” protagonists are young women who are either unsure of themselves and coming of age, or recently past the point of so-called maturity, feeling as if it passed them by. Family relationships are a major theme, especially the stresses of fractured mother-daughter relationships. There is often a palpable sense of ennui for the millennial generation—the driftless sense of idleness and lack of achievement felt by 20- and 30-somethings who are technically “adults,” measuring their workaday existence against parents who likely already had a mortgage and two kids at the same age.
The first character one would cite as a classically “Gerwigian” protagonist.
4. Kelly Reichardt
Meaning: A Kelly Reichardt movie is sparse and thoughtful, driven by a sense of quiet (perhaps even impossible) yearning. “Reichardtian” cinema doesn’t spell anything out. It is likely isolated, with a lonesomeness that may or may not be subverted but always exists in the hearts of its characters. A “Reichardtian” film quietly wheedles into your brain with its infectious quiet, giving you more questions than answers as the credits roll. The neorealism of “Reichardtian” films leaves space for thought and encourages contemplation through its stark Americana. —Jacob Oller
5. Agnès Varda
Meaning: Agnès Varda’s films, perhaps explained best in her final work Varda by Agnès, often combine a warm and eccentric adoration for the everyday with inventive and realistic New Wave techniques. A “Vardian” film feels like a documentary even if it’s fictional; feels realistic even if its experimental style achieves its groundedness. Steeped in frank and personal observation, “Vardian” cinema often centers women and always centers intimacy with its photographer’s eye and fringe-loving populism. —Jacob Oller
6. Chloé Zhao
Meaning: The movies of Chloé Zhao have thus far been defined by poetic, modern reexaminations of the American West. A “Zhaoistic” film appreciates landscape and uses it to enhance the isolation—and latent potential that may never be fulfilled—of its characters. With melancholy realism only made more gripping thanks to the prolific use of non-professional actors, “Zhaoistic” cinema digs deep into communities forgotten or abandoned by their country. These films look askance at the American Dream while appreciating the vast natural bounty that helped inspire it in the first place. —Jacob Oller
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.