Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Movie directors -- top picks

It's the movie season. Time for the awards if the writer's strike ever gets settled. So let's have some fun.

A buddy of mine has spent more than 20 years in Hollywood acting in films, TV commercials, pitching scripts, producing and directing short subjects. The time served has given him special insights into the art and the industry. From time to time, he'll share thoughts, opinions, etc about the movies.


By Lars Beckerman

Regardless how subjective the subject, we all like to find a list that validates our opinion and pats us on our back for having such damn good taste.

So, here ya go: My list of film directors who always deserve your time and almost always deliver something you can sink your teeth into. Consider it a film enthusiast’s guide to avoiding some of the well-intended, ‘star-studded’ blockbusters that land on your local video shelves. My advice: follow directors, not actors. Actors attach themselves to projects for a wide variety of reasons. Unfortunately, the script is often not one of them.

The Coen Brothers – Fargo, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men. With very few exceptions (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) the Coen Brothers can be counted on to deliver something highly unique and entertaining every time they put out a film. Their ironic, sometimes folksy dialogue splattered across a deeply rich cinematic canvas, usually the result of the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, engages us on a very personal level. This year they delivered No Country For Old Men and it may be one of their best films yet.

Martin Scorsese – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York. Total mastery of film as art form. Like the Coen Brothers, Scorsese’s writing shows a deep affection for his actors and subsequently you can always expect high caliber performances in his films. His innovative camera moves and poetic meshing of popular music almost always elevate the material and the result has produced some of the most memorable films of the past 30 years. His films are violent but rarely gratuitous. Although you will probably notice that I did not include his Oscar winning The Departed, a film I found depressingly gratuitous. A cash grab if ever there was one.

Paul Thomas Anderson – Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punchdrunk Love, There Will Be Blood. It is a rare moment at the movie theatre when you have to pinch yourself to make sure you haven’t died and gone to movie heaven. The opening sequence of Magnolia narrated by the magician Ricky Jay supplied me with one such moment. Then, later in the film when all of the central characters begin to sing I realized what a special talent P.T. Anderson is. He is almost in a league of his own in terms of “what will this guy do next?” Anderson may not yet be the complete storyteller he is striving to be, There Will Be Blood has huge problems in that regard, but there is no doubt that this director is worth watching and tracking.

Francis Ford Coppola – The Godfather I & II, Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, The Conversation, The Cotton Club. The word that always comes to mind when I think of Coppola is “operatic.” His films spin out like deeply invested fables where he is willing to sacrifice realism for poetry. Coppola has had a difficult time working within the studio system and he may be running out of creative gas, but if he is attached to a film it means the film has integrity. Although I did just finish watching a film he produced where he conveniently snuck into the background a bottle of his Coppola cabernet. One more thing, his daughter Sofia made Lost in Translation, an excellent film.

Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill I & II, Death Proof. Tarantino is definitely odd and his films are at times obnoxiously hip, but his dialogue is still incredibly inventive and fresh and his ability to make camp seem cutting edge is totally unique. His casting choices are inspired and his knowledge of film history is significant, but it his writing that may ultimately be his greatest strength (see True Romance) so beware of his name being attached to projects he did not write. Also beware of his acting ability, which is limited at best.

David Lynch – The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story. While I’m not a huge fan of his inaugural effort Eraserhead or even the fetish classic Blue Velvet, I admire his innovation and his commitment to what he calls “dream logic,” a concept and rationale that works brilliantly in one of my all-time favorites, Mulholland Drive. Lynch really knows how to get actors to spill their guts (see Sheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive). Like Coppola, Lynch is also operatic in style as demonstrated most notably in his continued collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamente. The soundtrack to Lost Highway is haunting as hell.

Michel Gondry – I was curious to see how on earth Gondry could possibly follow his masterpiece, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He did not disappoint with the thought-provoking and touching The Science of Sleep. This director is an artist in the purist sense of the word. With all of the visual technology at his fingertips he still chooses to create ‘special effects’ that are primarily done with perspective change and slight of hand image manipulation. His next film, Be Kind Rewind with Jack Black, can be expected to deliver some cinematic surprises.

Baz Luhrmann – Strictly Ballroom, Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge. Total visionary genius. His films are bold, musical and witty. Actors love to work with him because of his theatrical and melodramatic flare. What he was able to do with Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, and the awesome Jim Broadbent in the musical numbers of Moulin Rouge was jawdropping.

Doug Liman, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer - Three names to remember. Liman broke through with the 1996 indie sensation Swingers and is now the creative force behind the Bourne series. Nolan made the brilliant Memento and is now driving the Batman franchise. Singer directed the Oscar winning The Usual Suspects and went on to helm the X-Men films.

Notable directors missing from this list: Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone. Obviously, all of these guys have made some great films but they are also very prolific and somewhat uneven. I gravitate to directors who put their personal stamp on a film and have a consistency of thematic quality. And you may have noticed I also gravitate to directors who dare to be bold and aim high for their emotional payoffs while respecting the intelligence of their audience.

Finally, a warning to all who read my rants. Occasionally I am going to tell you that a film you love is garbage and you are going to hate me. I know this because of numerous confrontations and subsequent unreturned phone calls I have endured over the years after dismissing such films as Mystic River and L.A.Confidential as style over substance and bravado over balance. “What?” you say. “Next thing you know you’ll be bashing The Shawshank Redemption! …or…heaven forbid…Braveheart!” Stay tuned.


Max Fischer said...

An impressive list, however tainted with the glaring omission of Wes Anderson; "Rushmore", "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" are cinematic originals to the core. The way Anderson blends his vividly colorful visual narrative, clever dialogue and soulfully relevant and appropriate music makes even his overtly quirky efforts ("The Darjeeling Limited") a worthy trip to the IndiePlex.

Lars said...

Excellent director! In my opinion, tho, you missed possibly he best film - BOTTLE ROCKET. I loved RUSHMORE, liked elements of TENENBAUMS (kind of one note) and laughed out loud at LIFE ACQUATIC (very disjointed story/pace). The fact that I'm not even that interested in DARJEELING tells me I've kind of lost faith/interest in his sensibilities. I'll probably rent it.

A director I probably should have added is Alexander Payne who made the hysterical ELECTION and the hugely popular SIDEWAYS; not to mention a pretty fun ABOUT SCHMIDT.

Happy New Year, Max.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, Lars has not seen my spine tingling Kodak 8 movies of a trip to Alaska.---Goose

The South Plainsman said...

Agreed with him more than I thought I would when I started reading the post. Agree totally with his take on The Departed. I left the movie right after I finished my popcorn.

My thought is that Hollywood has become too political, and particularly far left, to get many of my entertainment dollars. I enjoy the movies for the fun of it, and do not like being preached at, particularly by fools.

As an old geezer, I particularly like the films of guys like John Ford. Too bad they are not making any like that any more.

lars said...

I could not agree more with that sentiment. It is extremely frustrating to work in an industry that has such a stubborn, lockstep agenda. If it's any consolation, all of the recent films (LIONS FOR LAMBS, REDACTED, HOME OF THE BRAVE, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH) combined for about two nickels at the box office. So, I guess the good news is, that you and I are not alone in our disgust.

A recent film that you might enjoy is THE GREAT RAID. Heroic WWII story of a dramatic POW rescue. The kind of film that portrays our fighting men in the light they deserve.

pip said...

I like your list of directors. Here are a couple of new (well, maybe new to some) up-and-comers you should investigate. You will be impressed!

1) Kasi Lemmons (Talk To Me, Eve's Bayou, Caveman's Valentine)

2) Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees - in pre-production)

lars said...

I have seen and enjoyed both Eve's Bayou and Love & Basketball. I especially like Sanaa Lathan. Very easy to watch. Love & Basketball reminded me of a film I own called Love Jones with Larenz Tate and Nia Long. I wonder whatever happened to that director, Theodore Witcher. Romantic comedies are hard to do well and I would have thought a director like that would gain some traction.

Thanks for the heads up, I'll keep an eye open for both of the directors you recommended.

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