Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time

This is not an easy list to compile.

Feature films are a director’s medium. He or she is the one who handles and guides the artistic vision of a film. But there are so many moving parts and essential jobs on a movie that it is truly a collaborative art. If any of those elements are out of balance, even a great director can falter. That is why failure is more common than success. And that success may be due to other factors. For example, It’s a Wonderful Life is a great movie, but so much of the magic there is found in the amazing performance of Jimmy Stewart. Pulp Fiction is praised as a great movie by many, but the directing is not very good.

So when compiling the list, it had to only include directors who made more than one great movie. You can make one amazing film as a fluke. Jeanot Szwarc made one of the best films ever made, Somewhere in Time, but he was never able to make anything nearly as sublime. But to summon your talent at will is a sign of greatness. I’m also requiring that these different movies cannot be the part of a same series. For example, the George Lucas did an amazing job directing Episodes III and IV of Star Wars, but outside of Star Wars, he has not shown us his skill as a director (American Graffiti is an excellent movie, but the directing is not what makes it shine. And THX 1138 is bad).

Another problem is that often directors get better and better, and then they begin to decline. They seem to hit a peak and then decline. Hitchcock’s last movies were often panned as terrible, which they were. And even though this leads to a sour experience of the director, it does not take away from their earlier successes. So though today a director may have devolved into a hack, their earlier great successes should still be credited to them to remind us that they were once great directors.

So who are the best directors?

Today I will start with #24, and I will dedicate the follow Sunday Best articles to counting down to #1. You may also notice that many of the directors are ones from the last 30 years. This is less a comment on the older, classic directors but on my own lack of experience seeing older films.

(incedentally, I would have started with #25, but that would have been Ben Affleck, and I already wrote extensively about his directing prowess in my Argo review)

Best Directors
#24- Edgar Wright

photo by Gage Skidmore

Great Movies: Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Decent Movies: Hot Fuzz
Bad Movies: none

Edgar Wright is one of the most energetic and visually exciting directors. He knows the visual cues for standard horror, comedy, and action fare and he turns it on its head.

Watching Shaun of the Dead was a revelation. He seamlessly blended real, true horror with insane comedy. Normally when people try this, either the comedy falls flat or the threats become trivial. Amazingly, he keeps both the laughs and the screams completely intact. Think about that scene where Shaun climbs the silly children's slide only to reveal a street full of the undead.

He uses visual repetition to highlight the developments in the story. Early, there is a single continuous shot of Shaun walking through his mundane neighborhood. This exact same set up is revisted after the zombie apocalypse. The scene is scary and hilarious.

He also infuses his camera moves and edits with such kinetic chaos that another director could easily lose himself in it, but there is always a consistent through-line to follow.

His next film, Hot Fuzz was a love-letter to buddy cop movies, but it was his last film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that truly set him apart. He fills his movie with a dream-like quality that allows for true visual insanity while holding to the movie own internal logic. Everything is strange, but it all makes sense if you follow it.

He lets the visuals tell you what the characters are thinking and feeling. When Scott first kisses Ramona, we see that crazy animation of Scott, surrounded by hearts, playing the bass. In one visual he sums up the uplifting feeling of triumph and romance Scott feels. Or when he breaks up with Knives, he drops out the entire background with nothing but black. This sucks you into Knives' complete sense of devastation. If any other director had tried that, it may have seemed like a cheesy afterthought. But Edgar Wright effortlessly invites you to see the world through his strange eyes.

He trusts his audience to follow along the funky flow of his films.   

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