One of the Grantland legacies I’m fond of, although I’m sure the idea didn’t start there, is the championship belt (RIP Grantland, long live Barnwell and Hyden). The purpose is to go year by year and create a list of who’s at the top of some field, which is a deceptively simple task, and one that always makes me admire the people in them more. It’s one thing to watch Nashville and wonder at it, but it’s another thing to look at Altman’s incredibly productive ’70s (and his ’60s, and his ’80s, and so on) and soak in all the work he did. It takes a heck of a long time – maybe someday I’ll do this for actors/actresses and directors regardless of language, but I’ll need more time on my hands.
Some ground rules:
- The belt is up for retaking every three years, starting in 1918. The goal is to give the average director a chance to make at least two movies in a three-year period, even though not all directors work at that sort of pace.
- I have not altered the three-year periods to suit anybody’s best stretches. In other words, it would certainly benefit Orson Welles if the period were like, 1941-1943, but they’re 1939-1941 and 1942-1944, so we have to split Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Aside from screwing Welles over, other directors lose out from what’s a fairly arbitrary set of rules.
- You don’t have to outdo the last belt winner to take his/her belt. It’s given up every three years, and it’s taken for the next three just as a rule. There are no limits to how often someone can win the belt, either.
- Entries must primarily be in English. Just because Alfonso Cuaron has made English-language movies doesn’t mean Roma gets him credit; just because Michelangelo Antonioni made Italian-language movies doesn’t mean Blow-Up is left out. I could have done this for directors regardless of language, but, actually, no I couldn’t, because I’m not insane.
- I’m highlighting one winner. one runner-up, and a couple serious contenders for each three-year period. I’ll highlight at least some, and sometimes all, of their productions for the given period.
- A co-directed movie gives credit to both directors, so John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy both get Mister Roberts on their CV. Directors who were taken off the movie and the directors who replaced them—this is the George Cukor/Victor Fleming debate over Gone with the Wind—get credit, but maybe don’t get all the credit.
- People who do other things with their movies, such as writing screenplays or composing music or what have you, don’t get extra credit for that. This is not a screenwriter belt competition.
- Some methodology things:
- A director can take the belt for a single movie, but that’s more a statement of the competition than it is a statement about the movie. In my head, it should be really really hard to have the belt for a single great movie when so many other people made movies, and some of them made multiple movies that are some percentage as good as that single brilliant accomplishment.
- A director is not penalized for a bad movie in a three-year stretch, necessarily, but it doesn’t help.
- This isn’t just a statement of who made the best movies in three-year period; I’m not explicitly separating “best direction” from “best picture,” but I want to leave some space between them. For example, Leo McCarey directed Duck Soup in 1933 (among other stuff from ’33 to ’35), but as you’ll see, he doesn’t take the belt for that section. The Marx Brothers would have been about as funny without him shooting the picture, and so while he certainly gets points for making Duck Soup, he’s not given as much extra credit for it. All the same, I have used “Who made the best movie of the triennium?” as a tiebreaker of sorts more than once.
Here goes. (I can already hear myself four or five years down the road screaming, “What were you thinking?” It’s gonna be great.)
Winner: D.W. Griffith (Broken Blossoms, Way Down East)
Runner-up: Charlie Chaplin (A Dog’s Life, Sunnyside)
Other contenders: Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim
In his post-Birth of a Nation days, Griffith started to make a turn. Intolerance, a couple years too early for this exercise, famously attempts to countermand what was wrong with Birth of a Nation, seeking a way to look at the world without the brutally racist view of that film. Intolerance has a vast scope, and although Griffith remained as fond of the long picture as anyone else in his day (except maybe von Stroheim), both of his major films from this triennium are significantly more intimate. Even if they shove Lillian Gish down the ice floe, that’s not exactly Babylon. Broken Blossoms is even a relatively intimate movie. And both of them are social problem films. Broken Blossoms is primarily about a boxer who abuses his daughter, but it’s also about as positive a vision of Asian-born individuals as one can find in mainstream cinema a hundred years ago. (That the Buddhist missionary of Broken Blossoms is played by Richard Barthelmess in a role that’s informed by a heckuva lot of Orientalism is one of those unfortunate, ugly ironies of history.) Way Down East pities another woman, who was done wrong by a wealthy man and whose past very nearly sees her expelled from a safer, kinder home. (The woman in both cases is Lillian Gish, and the hero of both is Barthelmess.) Griffith continues to expand his conscience, and the result is that he’s our first triennial winner. For his part, Chaplin was starting to feel himself out as a director. A Dog’s Life in particular is awfully enjoyable, with probably the single greatest sequence in movies that requires the protagonist to stuff a dog down his pants.
Winner: Charlie Chaplin (The Kid, The Pilgrim)
Runner-up: Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments, The Affairs of Anatol)
Other contenders: D.W. Griffith, Fred C. Newmeyer
Arguably, the best performance by any non-Chaplin figure in his movies belongs to the child Jackie Coogan in this film; Chaplin’s wonderfully funny antics are so often balanced by heartbreaking moments, and one of the best of those is Coogan reaching desperately from the wagon for his adoptive father who, in the eyes of the state, cannot take care of him. We can read his lips: “Papa! Papa!” It’s a heartrending scene even if you’ve never had kids and never been poor. (Or, perhaps most of all, if you’ve seen many children crying for their parents in the pictures.) Nor does Chaplin stint on the gags, even if this movie is especially thoughtful about poverty. How do this man and his child support themselves? They’ve tapped right into capitalism at its best. Superior to finding a need is creating one, and so the boy breaks windows and his father comes along with plate glass to make new ones. I laughed harder during The Pilgrim, though, when a man loses his hat at a Sunday dinner only for everyone to discover that it has been covered in icing and served as dessert. It’s one of those beautiful moments in Chaplin’s movies when you know how it’s going to end and it’s somehow even better in the payoff than you could have hoped.
Winner: Buster Keaton (Sherlock, Jr., The General, The Navigator)
Runner-up: Erich von Stroheim (Greed, The Merry Widow)
Other contenders: King Vidor, Charlie Chaplin
Comics swap places at the top here. The Gold Rush is arguably the best movie of this three year period, maybe even the best of Chaplin’s career, but it’s also his only movie in this three-year period. Thus, Buster Keaton at the height of his cerebral powers deservedly takes this one home. Keaton’s audacity as a director and writer is still somehow understated, I think; we spend too much time on the physical genius of the stunts and not enough time talking about how the man literally blew up a bridge and drove a literal train into a literal river all for the (totally insane) effect. Even as much as The General sets a tone for brazen brilliance, Sherlock, Jr. is the more intellectual, one of those movies about movies on a level with Rear Window. Keaton’s meditation on what the movies do to us—they make us bigger than life, they make us mad, they fill our heads with vainglory—is jumbled together with some of his most remarkable gags. Around twenty minutes in, Keaton calls attention to the power of editing. He knocks on a door, gets no answer, and tries to go down the steps when the cut places him in front of a wall, and he tumbles off a little bench. He looks around, confused, and tries to sit on the bench; it’s replaced at the last moment by a cut to a road, and he falls flat on his butt. So on we go to the edge of a cliff, a pit of lions, a hastily dug desert grave (right next to the railroad tracks), a lonely rock at the seaside, a snowbank, that wall again. When the camera finally zooms in on the movie screen, putting us in the picture with “Sherlock, Jr.,” it’s a dazzling, threatening moment. It’s not safe in there, and yet Keaton makes sure we come along with him.
Winner: Alfred Hitchcock (The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, Downhill, Blackmail, The Farmer’s Wife, The Manxman)
Runner-up: Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman)
Other contenders: F.W. Murnau, King Vidor
The last director win the belt in the silent era is Hitchcock, even though other directors were making the greater accomplishments that would define the last active hours of the time: Murnau’s Sunrise, Vidor’s The Crowd, Chaplin’s The Circus. There’s a certain irony to Hitchcock taking the belt away from Murnau, who is deeply unlucky as far as this goes. If 4 Devils weren’t a lost film, he would almost certainly have the belt himself instead of being merely the primary influence on the winner. So it goes. As it stands, Hitchcock is the only director who takes this belt for a period where he made both silent and sound pictures, as Blackmail was the first British sound feature.
The Lodger is a marvelous drama, the first among this group that even in the ’20s set Hitchcock apart from his peers, beautifully made and leading up to that twist we all see coming and adore just the same. We know that Ivor Novello would never be a serial killer, but we know that his pale face, his strange manner, his aloof persona, and most of all his Hitchcockian adoration of blondes means he has a mystery he intends to keep to himself. We fear for him when a mob comes to believe that this lodger is the notorious serial killer “the Avenger,” when in fact he means to avenge himself on that person for the murder of his sister. Still wearing handcuffs, the lodger tries to get over a fence but gets stuck on it. Hanging by his wrists in agony, hands clenching in pain, a mob finds the trapped man and closes in. Paranoia and pain were hardly new concepts in cinema, but Hitchcock made them new, as he would continue to make them new for the next four decades.
Winner: Josef von Sternberg (Morocco, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, Dishonored, An American Tragedy, and we can count The Blue Angel even if maybe we oughtn’t to)
Runner-up: Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, Rain)
Other contenders: Ernst Lubitsch, Clarence Brown
Apologies to Milestone, who has two outright classics with true scathing power, but bigger is better here. Von Sternberg crammed most of his great movies into this stretch; of the household names, only Underworld and The Scarlet Empress are out in the cold. Everything comes together in these pictures which are among the most transgressive and futuristic in movie history. It’s not the same without Dietrich; it must be her in the men’s clothes planting a kiss on another woman, or her popping her head out of a gorilla costume to befuddle Cary Grant. While it seemed like the rest of the world was making gangster pictures or leaning into Broadway revues, von Sternberg was practically on a different planet, thinking differently, shooting differently. A movie like Morocco, dense with decor, recognizes what the veteran of silent pictures already knew: if a film is art, it must primarily be a visual one. And even though von Sternberg was famous for mortifying actors, a movie like Shanghai Express understands that sometimes we show up to see them and, post-Jazz Singer, hear them. Maybe speech came to the screen with, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” but it didn’t earn its place until Marlene Dietrich said, “It took more than one man to change my name to ‘Shanghai Lily.'”
Winner: Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps)
Runner-up: George Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Little Women, Sylvia Scarlett, No More Ladies, Manhattan Melodrama)
Other contenders: Leo McCarey, Ernst Lubitsch
Hitchcock becomes our first repeat belt winner, although this is a much less impressive win than his 1927-1929 performance. George Cukor’s very full slate of comedies (and a legendary film among the queer theory set in Sylvia Scarlett) is good, but lacks a real standout in the bunch. Give me, with a little help from hindsight, the movies where Hitchcock appealed not just to our sense of horror but our sense of justice. Blackmail is a movie that’s terrifying because of what Alice endures, where The Lodger scares us because of the mysterious title character. Even though the world is put right by the detectives after their ordeals, it’s not really what the movie is focused on; The 39 Steps and, to some extent, The Man Who Knew Too Much are both about people who do their own dirty work to put the bad guys in their place. Maybe Scotland isn’t quite as grandiose as the continental U.S., and a music hall is a less remarkable place to end your drama than Mount Rushmore, but The 39 Steps is nearly as strong as North by Northwest with fewer resources and fewer predecessors. These are shadowy, fitful movies where the camera spins and turns, where the audience is made to feel like they’re in on the huddle that Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are hosting.
Winner: Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow)
Runner-up: William Wyler (Jezebel, Dodsworth, Dead End)
Other contenders: Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz
McCarey is getting a little boost here for pure whiplash. One of the worst subgenres in the movies is the “People in a relationship torturing each other for lols,” and yet The Awful Truth is delightful. Maybe it’s that not everyone can be Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, or that dogs haven’t been the same since Skippy, I dunno, but I think McCarey deserves credit for the wonderful balance. Neither Grant nor Dunne dominates the picture. For every fake gift of oranges Grant sends from “Florida,” Dunne has a roadside mishap with another man. Grant sends Dunne out on the dance floor with the beleaguered Ralph Bellamy; Dunne shows up at an engagement party for Grant and his new flavor and pretends to be his totally nutty sister. When they decide they’re not ready to be without each other for good at the end of the movie, as we always knew they would, it’s wonderful because it’s like watching someone mark the punctuation at the end of a very long sentence. Make Way for Tomorrow works with a very different kind of balance. The first two-thirds of the movie is hurt, hurt, hurt, followed by a romantic, affirming interlude that’s just long enough to make you believe it isn’t an interlude. After all, Make Way for Tomorrow ends with a scene so heartbreaking it takes your ribs too. For pure deft filmmaking that he’d never really come close to meeting again, McCarey gets the prize.
Winner: John Ford (Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home, Drums Along the Mohawk, How Green Was My Valley)
Runner-up: Preston Sturges (The Great McGinty, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve)
Other contenders: Orson Welles, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock
They call 1939 the “Miracle Year,” but 1941 is nearly as deep and 1940 was no slouch either. For my money, this was the most difficult triennium to win, and John Ford did it primarily with volume. How Green Was My Valley and The Long Voyage Home are fine—How Green Was My Valley is a prescription from Dr. Feelgood, but there are bright spots when Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara get to spread their wings—and there’s a reason people don’t mention Drums Along the Mohawk first when we talk about his stuff from this time even if it was his first time working in color. I watched an even six hundred movies last year, and there aren’t more than ten I’ve thought about more than Stagecoach, a movie which is widely available on a bunch of streaming services and which everyone ought to see. It’s a movie which is directed at the cutting edge of what people were doing in 1939, using deep focus before it was fashionable, zooming in on John Wayne’s shockingly young face, depicting a (racist, yes) and remarkable chase sequence. The stagecoach rumbles forward as the Indians dart around behind them. Wide shots of the valley are countered by close-ups of John Carradine and Louise Platt’s faces, of his gun placed for the mortal wound he intends to give her to “save” her. Carradine is in The Grapes of Wrath as well, playing a totally different role as the humble, aw-shucksin’ Jim Casy opposite Henry Fonda. Fonda is in three of these five movies, playing some virtuous paragon in each. The Grapes of Wrath gives him the best monologue and the tastiest role to chew on in what is probably Ford’s best movie of the five; Young Mr. Lincoln is appreciated in France, at least, as one of the great American pictures of the period, as Ford’s sense of scale interweaves itself with Fonda’s home-cooked portrayal of a pre-fame Lincoln. With three movies to compete against, Orson Welles has a chance (to say nothing of Preston Sturges, who was absolutely on fire in the first half of the decade). With five from Ford, the man who made CItizen Kane loses out to the man who made How Green Was My Valley again.
Winner: Michael Powell, and I guess Emeric Pressburger (One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale)
Runner-up: Ernst Lubitsch (Heaven Can Wait, To Be or Not to Be)
Other contenders: Preston Sturges, Orson Welles
Ernst Lubitsch is one of my favorite directors, as he is one of everyone’s favorite directors. He gets edged out because, as has been the problem for him virtually this entire time, he hasn’t had the best movie of the period that would break the tie for him. Colonel Blimp and The Magnificent Ambersons, which are the challengers for that title, are on similar planes. Both are generational dramas, but where Ambersons is about a family’s decline, Colonel Blimp is about an empire’s brush with destiny. Clive has no family to speak of beyond Theo, who is more of a blood brother anyway; his concerns are not with the future of a representative capitalist brood but with what he perceives as the light of the world in the middle of its darkest days. That Colonel Blimp is a better-directed movie than either one of Heaven Can Wait (yet another generational story, probably more like what RKO wanted The Magnificent Ambersons to be) or To Be or Not to Be, which was too clever by half for the time, is enough to make Lubitsch our runner-up. As lush with color as Heaven Can Wait is, Colonel Blimp uses its Technicolor better by using less robust colors. Heaven Can Wait knows it’s in color and dashes to use up as much as it can, where Colonel Blimp uses color the way people already used to it would decades later. The performances that Powell and Pressburger got out of Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, and Deborah Kerr are stronger than the ones Lubitsch got from Carole Lombard and Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. And more than that, the Archers have a pair of solid flicks to go with Colonel Blimp, each meeting the propaganda needs of Britain in a different way. One of Our Aircraft Is Missing does for the Dutch what 49th Parallel did for the Canadians; A Canterbury Tale is an odd movie, at once in the mode of “that green and pleasant land” as well as a low-stakes mystery. It’s a good enough combination to put Powell and Pressburger over the edge.
Winner: David Lean (Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Blithe Spirit)
Runner-up: Michael Powell, and sure, why not Emeric Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus)
Other contenders: John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock
It hurts to cut Powell out, especially when he’s riding a stronger set of movies than he had the last time when he took the belt, but look, Brief Encounter is probably the best British movie ever, the only film romance that deserves to be talked about in the same breath as those archetypal stories of a thousand years ago. If that weren’t enough, Great Expectations is a real classic as well, a delightful and occasionally frightening movie that goes full Gothic weird whenever we’re inside Satis House. And then there’s Blithe Spirit, which is, as the British used to say in the mid-’40s, “queer.” (That there are at least two major movies from Britain by two of their best filmmakers about people communicating from beyond the grave or, indeed, trying to circumvent it entirely, speaks volumes about the mental state of the nation at war’s end.) Say what you will about A Matter of Life and Death and the way it balances black and white with color, or the majestic visuals of Black Narcissus, and believe me, I’ve thought about it. But they are prettier than they are affecting. Powell and Pressburger might even have a technical argument for the best direction of this triennium, but then I go back to the way Lean shows us Trevor Howard’s hand on Celia Johnson’s shoulder, the way he leaves the refreshment room without looking back, and let’s not talk about it anymore.
Winner: John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, Key Largo)
Runner-up: Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, Knock on Any Door, Roseanna McCoy, A Woman’s Secret, Born to Be Bad)
Other contenders: John Ford, Carol Reed
The prize comes back to America for an exceptionally American director. (Carol Reed has a real argument, even a convincing one, to keep the belt in Britain for another three years; it’s not every three years someone makes The Fallen Idol and The Third Man.) Huston wins this one quite narrowly, I’d say, and maybe he’s even benefiting from the fact that I love They Live by Night the way Tina Turner loved that rag doll and thus don’t want to overrate it. Or maybe there’s just something to be said for the fact that Huston could direct a scene with lightning. In that scene above, Huston keeps his camera still for minutes. He cuts back and forth between characters, giving Louis Calhern’s character the low angle type, balances Sam Jaffe’s beady eyes with Sterling Hayden’s giant mitts. And then in a second he moves the camera at a pivotal moment. It’s a breathtaking moment, and it really isn’t more than that. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is filled with scenes like that as well, where Huston turns the camera to point at a new speaker (the bandits), closes in on a face (Bogie looked rough) or treats us to an unusual angle (as in the bar in Tampico). In a long filmmaking career, this is perhaps Huston’s most fecund three-year period. It’s also Nicholas Ray’s, from where I’m sitting; I don’t think there’s another director who comes so close to winning the belt with his first movie in tow. (I am sorry, Orson.)
Winner: Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, The Bad and the Beautiful, Father’s Little Dividend)
Runner-up: Billy Wilder (Stalag 17, Ace in the Hole)
Other contenders: George Stevens, Fred Zinnemann
Billy Wilder, spoilers, is arguably the best primarily Anglophone director who never wins the belt. (If he could get Some Like It Hot and The Apartment into the same triennium he might have a better case, but that’s for later.) As well made as Stalag 17 is, and as wonderfully as it uses the claustrophobia of the prison barracks to close the walls in on William Holden, it’s just not a good enough movie to put him over the top. Even though three of Minnelli’s movies I’ve noted above (excepting Father’s Little Dividend, which, whatever) are showbiz stories, all of them see what showbiz is from a different angle. The Bad and the Beautiful is hard-boiled and cynical with an eye on the bottom line, appropriately shot in black and white. An American in Paris is concerned about what it means to break into the big time out of nothing; it’s why its best scenes, such as Kelly and Caron’s understated dance by the river and the final ballet, are so invested in discovery. And The Band Wagon sees the opposite side of An American in Paris, finding the peevish humor in what it’s like to feel like a has-been trying to break into the business all over again. If there’s a criticism I can already hear, it’s that when you have Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly putting on their tap shoes you don’t have to direct quite so hard. Watch the “An American in Paris” ballet again, or watch the way Minnelli lovingly captures Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the park; it’s one thing to have talent in front of you and quite another to let us in on how remarkable they can be.
Winner: Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief)
Runner-up: Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind)
Other contenders: Elia Kazan, John Ford
The difference in quality between Hitchcock and Sirk here is not all that significant, and if I were working on this from a perspective of relevance to its time, then Sirk’s take on Eisenhower’s America would probably put him over the top. The problem for him as it was for Lubitsch earlier is that he doesn’t have the best movie. All That Heaven Allows is marvelous, but it’s simply not as strong a movie as Rear Window, which is one of the most interesting movies ever made. Hitchcock, around the midway point of his career, made a movie that essentially boiled down why we’d been going to his stuff for the past twenty-five years and more: it’s just sheer voyeurism. It’s the delight of being able to look out your window and catch the channel with a beautiful blonde, the channel where they play music, the channel where a middle-aged couple gets caught in the rain, the channel where you think someone’s been chopped into bits. That three of Hitchcock’s good-not-great efforts surround it is part of what makes the competition close. The other part is that Sirk was beginning to flex his muscles as one of the finest directors working in the United States, even if you’ve never liked Jane Wyman (guilty) or if you don’t care for shameless melodrama (not guilty). Sirk’s use of color was utterly resplendent. His movies show an ability to make dialogue meaningful on multiple levels, showing us the critique under the heartbreak. Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows use reflective shots to effect; in the former, Robert Stack can’t look at himself in one, prefiguring his inability to self-critique; in the latter, Jane Wyman has a television rolled into her sitting room and all but sentenced to stare into it.
Winner: Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, North by Northwest)
Runner-up: Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Witness for the Prosecution, The Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon)
Other contenders: Basil Dearden, Otto Preminger
I said earlier that if Billy Wilder had been able to squeeze The Apartment in with Some Like It Hot, he may have had a chance at the belt. Maybe he would have. I haven’t had to think about it much. But Hitchcock has one of his most impressive visual feasts in this triennium with North by Northwest: the closeness of the 20th Century Limited, the intensity of the crop duster, the heartracing suspense of the scenes in the Black Hills. (Just as impressive as the crop duster? The way Hitchcock slowly but surely builds this sense that something is terribly wrong from the moment we see the bus in the middle of nowhere. The quiet, the hum of said crop duster, the agent who isn’t, the shots of farmland. It’s eerie and wonderful. Best part of the movie.) And there’s Vertigo, the reigning #1 movie at the top of the Sight and Sound poll, a movie which I think is, without hyperbole, one of the ten or so best-directed movies ever. That scene above makes me mist up just thinking about it. It’s not that I believe, or that any well-adjusted human being can believe, in the romance of Scottie and Judy. It’s that it’s made to perfection.
Winner: David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia)
Runner-up: Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus, Lolita)
Other contenders: John Frankenheimer, Otto Preminger
David Lean is one of only two directors who wins the belt for a single movie over a three-year period. Then again, Lawrence is long enough for two movies, and this is not a terribly strong period. (Unsurprisingly, the ’60s are the least inspiring decade here. If these were real championship belts, the ’60s directors would get noticeably smaller ones than the people in the ’40s or ’70s.) Lawrence of Arabia is a masterful character study that does not eschew close-ups entirely but uses them sparingly. There are more shots which seem to encompass miles in this film than there are close looks into Peter O’Toole’s face. Sometimes a director gets an advantages from his or her actors—O’Toole’s eyes and diction, Sharif’s mustache, how much taller Jack Hawkins was than Claude Rains—and in the best of cases s/he manages to wield those actors to their greatest advantages. Despite the overpowering light of the sun on the desert sand, Lean finds his actors shadows to color them in outcroppings, in campfires, in officers’ clubs; he (and especially Anne V. Coates) finds ways to bring indoors outdoors, as in that famous cut from the candle to the sun rising. The connection between Lawrence’s vast egoist ambition and the equally vast desert he intends to make good on is done with real elegance. He makes a four-hour movie feel somehow not long enough. Despite the sheer number of episodes in Lawrence of Arabia, all of them feel essential and fascinating. I wish there were another two hours of it.
Winner: John Schlesinger (Billy Liar, Darling)
Runner-up: Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds, Marnie)
Other contenders: Joseph Losey, Samuel Fuller
What this really boils down to is whether a pair of mid-level Hitchcocks with very good direction and a couple of iconic scenes, made when Hedren accused Hitchcock of harassing her, should sneak in over a guy doing his best Godard impression. Billy Liar has a lot of character to it, but Darling is a very stylish bore; even if you grant that Marnie is a little too weird to work, the balance of “better movies” goes to Hitchcock. But I’ll still take Schlesinger here. One, I take Hedren’s allegations of sexual harassment seriously, and two, Schlesinger gets more from his actors than Hitchcock gets from his in this period. Julie Christie won her Oscar for Darling, and she has to lug that movie around with very little help from say, the writing. (She gets plenty of help from Dirk Bogarde, who I rather like in this perpetually pained role, and Laurence Harvey, who fills the screen as the movie’s resident louche.) All the same I prefer her smaller role in Billy Liar, where she represents this earnest possibility that Billy (Tom Courtenay, in one of his best roles) wants to take up but cannot out of the sense of decency he’s been repressing all along. It’s a far more interesting part than the inexplicably desirable woman who’s bad news for everyone. At a time when Hitchcock’s leading men were a little milquetoast—even Connery in Marnie is just shomeone who would try out leather for shex rather than commit to the identity whole hog—it’s hard not to notice what Courtenay was up to in a dizzyingly fun part and think that has something to do with Schlesinger’s guidance.
Winner: Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Runner-up: Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West)
Other contenders: Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski
This started out as a justification for why Leone’s two great spaghetti westerns outweighed 2001, and I got about two sentences in and realized I was overthinking this. It’s not that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West don’t deserve all the acclaim we can pile on them, and certainly two masterpieces ought to top one, but in this belt competition 2001 is Muhammad Ali when he won the Thrilla in Manila.
Winner: Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud)
Runner-up: Nicolas Roeg (Performance, Walkabout)
Other contenders: Sam Peckinpah, Hal Ashby
It hurts not to reward Nicolas Roeg, whose Walkabout is, with apologies to Kes, probably the best movie of the period. But neither Roeg nor Loach nor Cassavetes nor Bogdanovich nor Ashby brought three movies to the three years, and Altman does. Of the three, M*A*S*H is probably the worst of the bunch, but even that one landed on an unsuspecting movie populace like a bomb. All three of these movies, particularly McCabe, advance Altman’s idiosyncratic and then iconic sound, which layers conversations on top of each other without regard to some “objective” idea of what’s important in the scene, which brings ambient noises in without fear. If Howard Hawks (who, as you can tell, has sort of been jobbed here) brought the overlapping voices in conversation to the forefront, Altman brings overlapping conversations in a scene to the forefront, squaring his predecessor’s contribution. That two out of these three movies are grainy and blurred is another choice that makes Altman’s work distinctive and wonderful. From the get-go McCabe is like something out of a fever dream, where the internal logic remains but the faces and voices are slurred. So too are the morals of the little Washington town (to say nothing of the entire American army in Korea in M*A*S*H), where a greedy company’s representatives are either slimy or lethal and where a rump group of those who would fight them are eliminated and left in the snow to freeze like legs of beef. Optimism crushed by the real world is on the menu in each movie: doctors interrupt their farces for the whirring of helicopters bringing mangled bodies, a young man who wants to fly is brought down to turf, a madam who almost singlehandedly brought order to Presbyterian Church lays still in an opium den while her partner slips away.
Winner: Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II)
Runner-up: Peter Bogdanovich (What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon)
Other contenders: Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese
There’s not another director for whom the dates work out better than Francis Ford Coppola, who gets all of the stretch so famous that even your college roommate, who has never seen a frame of The Conversation, knows about it. There are a bunch of good challengers for this belt, from early Scorsese to a prolific Altman stretch to John Waters, but Coppola’s got them all beat. Perhaps he heard someone challenge The Godfather—you can’t possibly bring in more chiaroscuro lighting than this!—only for him to do more of it and better in some of the best scenes of the flashbacks in Part II. And if credit is due to the aforementioned Schlesinger for bringing out what was great about Tom Courtenay, here’s a list of people who did some of their best work in these movies, who are stars and supporting actors alike: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, John Cazale, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Allan Garfield, Robert De Niro. This is an elite combination of faces, most of them somewhere short of really handsome, all of them vivid and engaging. Coppola finds the rage in Pacino before he was a caricature of himself, finds the pity in Brando, the stoicism in Hackman, the victim in Cazale, the brainiac in De Niro. If I assigned belts by decades, Coppola would have more competition, but for this three-year period I’m not sure anyone else is all that close.
Winner: Robert Altman (Nashville, 3 Women, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson)
Runner-up: Sidney Lumet (Network, Equus, Dog Day Afternoon)
Other contenders: Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes
The end of Nashville is the first perfect scene in American movies since “Scene d’Amour” from Vertigo, so no, this was always going to end like this. It helps that Altman has 3 Women in this triennium as well, which is what puts him over the edge in a strong group. Lots of people, including Altman, have two good movies. Only Altman has the best American movie, though; Nashville is a triumph of all of those categories at the Oscars, plus intangibles like intelligence, observation, organization. That 3 Women feels like a decent update, if hardly superior, to Persona, and it’s also a very different type of movie from Nashville. Where Nashville sprawls, 3 Women curls up, letting us cozy up to Shelley Duvall’s haughtiness and Sissy Spacek’s meekness before flipping them with the same kind of energy that all of the anarchy of M*A*S*H imbued. As much as any other belt, this one makes me a little sad. After holding the belt for six years out of nine, which are as competitive as any nine year span in Anglophone movie history, Altman will not come particularly close to reclaiming it again.
Winner: Hal Ashby (Coming Home, Being There)
Runner-up: Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate, The Deer Hunter)
Other contenders: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese
It’s tempting for a one-movie director to win this prize, and I very nearly awarded it this way. Both Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull are hanging around here, and if Coppola or Scorsese had another movie in this period, then it could have been his. But Coppola begins his deluge, and Scorsese will, in a blog-imitates-life kind of way, have to wait. Ashby, who always seemed to get the fuzzy end of the awards lollipop, wins on a very weird technicality. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate as released in 1980 is not the same film as the director’s cut as released by Criterion, and for that reason the combination of The Deer Hunter and the theatrically released Heaven’s Gate can’t quite top Coming Home and Being There. I’m not as high on Being There as the rest of the world, which is to say I don’t think it’s the apogee of Ashby’s career. His movies rely so heavily on location, which is what I love about them. His California outdoors in Harold and Maude and Coming Home are gloomy even when the sun is out, which is rare. His Mid-Atlantic in The Last Detail and Being There are so cold to the touch that you need to put on a jacket before watching. The movies that win it for him here are entirely different, though they both have critique on the brain in a real way. Coming Home does it with pure melodrama and Being There does it with satire, and Ashby’s easy in directing either mode is unusual and praiseworthy.
Winner: John Carpenter (The Thing, Escape from New York, Christine)
Runner-up: David Cronenberg (Scanners, Videodrome)
Other contenders: Brian de Palma, Ridley Scott
This is a triennium dying for another movie by Spielberg or Scott or Kaufman, but instead it’s Carpenter at the head of the class and I’m pretty chuffed about it. Carpenter feels like an appropriate figure here anyway, someone who takes the lessons of the New Hollywood and applies them to genre filmmaking. Snake Plissken and RJ MacReady are sneering iconoclasts as much as Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, the young Vito Corleone, Nick Chevotarevich, Jake La Motta, Hawkeye Pierce, or Wyatt of Easy Rider. They know the system that runs them is brutal, stupid, slow to adapt and thus weak in the face of a new strength. They do not trust easily, but for all of that they are fiercely loyal. Carpenter takes such figures and drops them in ridiculous situations. After a decade of movies about what a dump New York City was, Carpenter takes it one step further and makes the city an enormous prison. After the Cold War intimations of previous versions of “Who Goes There?” Carpenter imagines a world where the enemy is us, not the intruder. That these are two adventurously corny movies—the sets of Escape from New York, the wild special effects of The Thing—makes them that much easier to love. Carpenter’s direction is not sensational, but his ability to tell a gripping story in these movies is undeniable.
Winner: Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Stranger than Paradise)
Runner-up: Woody Allen (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose)
Other contenders: Martin Scorsese, Peter Weir
This is one is real close.. I don’t know that Down by Law and Stranger than Paradise are like, much better than Purple Rose and Hannah, but here’s where I land. First, Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law are funnier than Allen’s offerings and on the whole more thought-provoking, and second, it makes me happier to give Jarmusch the belt instead of having to talk about why widely rumored skeeze Allen should have it. That’s not nothing. These early Jarmusch offerings are so spare. Nothing happens in either movie, which is saying something, because in the hands of someone else Stranger than Paradise would be a schmaltzy family drama and Down by Law would be a prison break action movie. Down by Law can make Roberto Benigni’s “I SCREAM YOU SCREAM WE ALL SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM” an immemorial mantra. I know the motel room in Stranger than Paradise like I know my own bedroom. Jarmusch has it figured out in these movies (and in later efforts as well); sometimes if there’s less to look at and wonder over, there’s more to really pay attention to. And so I could really pay attention to Tom Waits and John Lurie and Eszter Balint, get to know the wrinkly faces and jutting teeth and stringy hair. I know their grungy apartments and graffitied prison cells and diverging roads in the wood. That a director lets us into the story and the characters so fully, explaining nothing and depicting all with these unpretentious long takes, is a joy to watch.
Winner: Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, School Daze)
Runner-up: Rob Reiner (The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…)
Other contenders: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese (who, it’s beginning to occur to me, really hasn’t gotten lucky with these years)
Dutch angles, faces staring right into the camera, the indelible reds and yellows and oranges, the unquestioned sense of place, the brilliant cast, the wall of sound. Do the Right Thing is not just an important movie. Important movies, almost by definition, can’t help being stodgy in the moment and lumbering once they reach their second or third birthdays. Do the Right Thing is a vital movie, one that feels like touching a hot stove and is almost as fun. In a shade over two hours, Lee manages to cram in the most memorable and scattered cast in Anglophone filmmaking since Nashville, a bunch that has a veneer of funny (Buggin’ Out) or sympathetic (Da Mayor) or patronizing (Sal) that lacquers the raw feeling underneath. By that measure, the trash can that Mookie throws is pure turpentine. If direction is as much a question of organization as anything else—and if it’s not, boy howdy have I misjudged this belt activity—Spike Lee’s work on Do the Right Thing is masterful. I’ve totally neglected School Daze so far, which isn’t ideal; that’s a movie that feels like the master’s thesis that became Do the Right Thing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Lee manages to create an utterly believable black community in Do the Right Thing after School Daze examined the various elements that make up such a community. It’s not organized as well as Do the Right Thing, although its ending which calls for the assorted stakeholders to “Wake up!” is not unlike that trash can, but it’s still a potent movie. In a fairly mild triennium (apologies to Rob Reiner, who made his two most lovable movies here), Lee is an easy choice.
Winner: Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Cape Fear)
Runner-up: Spike Lee (Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, Jungle Fever)
Other contenders: Robert Altman, Joel Coen
There’s a counterintuitive genius that permeates the really good use of popular music in movies, and not everybody has it. Louis Malle and Otto Preminger used jazz when you wouldn’t expect it (Elevator the Gallows, Anatomy of a Murder), and it shone. David O. Russell and James Gunn (American Hustle, Guardians of the Galaxy), on the other hand, don’t seem to realize that a great movie soundtrack has to be better than a mix tape. Richard Linklater has it, understanding that there’s something about “Slow Ride” or “Rapper’s Delight” that fits the ethos of his characters. And Martin Scorsese has it in Goodfellas. There’s nothing about it the last four minutes of “Layla” that screams “a man eliminates everyone who could snitch on him,” but you can’t hear the song without thinking of the corpses. Goodfellas is a great movie (and yeah, also doing an absolutely killer Godard impression sometimes) which is adventurous but never gimmicky. For its part, Cape Fear is a bona fide thriller which uses ridiculous camera angles to create our sense of impending fear. It’s a frightening movie on the merits of its plot, but Scorsese finds ways to De Niro’s face to be the least threatening piece of him for the vast majority of the movie. His sunglasses, the fireworks behind him, his ridiculous car, the dumb scenery on a high school stage adds the the hulking menace of De Niro’s body. Something is badly wrong, and I know it, and you know it, and Nick Nolte and family know it, and we’re as helpless to assist them as Nolte’s lawyer is.
Winner: Richard Linlater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise)
Runner-up: Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park)
Other contenders: Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman
So you’re leery about this idea that Linklater’s two movies are better directed than Spielberg’s, I take it, and I don’t blame you because the conventional wisdom meter in my head is barking at me. There’s certainly more direction in Spielberg’s movies. There’s the recreation of Holocaust, down to a pretty accurate simulacrum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There are animatronic dinosaurs and puppets and animation that’s all stood the test of time. (There’s Mr. DNA!) But Linklater has to be graded on a curve, I think, because his movies are more difficult to organize and organized better. What’s the story of teenagers meeting at the “Moon Tower” after the last day of school? What’s the story of a pair of young people meeting on a train in Vienna? How do we find out about these people, come to love them or hate them? These are movies that don’t speak to us because we feel the obligation but because our obligation is freely given. There are no girls in red jackets, no roaring T-rexes. And in these freewheeling films which are shot with such intelligence, we know that we can give ourselves over to the movie without it asking anything in return. In short, Linklater deals in authenticity of feeling where Spielberg, even in an excellent stage of his career, is working in artifice. His movies aren’t spectacular in the literal sense, but you don’t make movies that affect people so deeply without blocking movements and positions, without impeccable command of camera angles, without confidence in long takes that make us feel we’re with every character every step of the way.
Winner: Joel Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski)
Runner-up: Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights)
Other contenders: Ken Loach, Terrence Malick
I love how representatively weird this combination is. Both Fargo and The Big Lebowski owe something to old-fashioned noirs. William H. Macy’s performance was filmed in the same year that Elisha Cook, Jr. died in a ceremonial coincidence; much ink has been spilled comparing The Big Lebowski to The Big Sleep, making The Dude effectively a stoner Bogie. (Stogie? God, I wish I could think of a portmanteau honoring weed here.) Joel Coen doesn’t ape the style, but finds what’s transferable instead. He makes the ridiculous coincidences of noir and the weirdo characters into the humor in Lebowski, the violence that must have been shocking in 1946 into violence that’s shocked beyond 1996. And it’s all done with panache, an affinity for overhead shots (the dance on the Persian rug, the immaculate snowy parking lot), an uncomfortable willingness to make us witness the humiliation of others, the use of music to punctuate scenes. Above all, Coen makes scenes you can’t unsee, whether it’s Peter Stormare stuffing a foot into a wood chipper or that unforgettable, unreal stairway to paradise to the dulcet tones of Kenny Rogers. (I mean all the things I said up there, but they’re still lucky to have won this belt when they did. If Terrence Malick had like, squeezed in another movie into this timeframe, or if we were witnessing a more mature Paul Thomas Anderson, I’m less sure that Coen takes the prize.) (Also, this means Joel Coen has a belt but Ethan Coen doesn’t. I know, it’s weird to me too.)
Winner: David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story)
Runner-up: Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven)
Other contenders: Ridley Scott, Michael Mann
More representative weirdness, although there’s something almost distressingly acceptable about these two Lynch films. The Straight Story is just that, really, a movie that’s close enough to normal that Roger Ebert could actually sink his teeth into it. But let’s be real: Lynch is here for Mulholland Drive which They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? has determined to be the second-most acclaimed film of this century. There’s good reason for it, but just in terms of direction this is a haunting, emotional movie, one that knows it can rip the tablecloth off a surface so swiftly that the silverware won’t even flinch. That scene above is a good example; a man tells the story of a nightmare he’s had, only to go outside and have the nightmare while he’s awake. I feel silly coming back to this example, which I feel like I’ve written about a dozen times, but I’ll stop writing about it when it stops being sensational:
It’s a tape playing music. He must know it awfully well, for he’ll throw his hands up at a burst of sound from the taped trombone. A man comes in, looking for all the world like he’s playing a muted trumpet; of course he isn’t, though, for he throws his own arms out and the sound continues. A woman (Rebekah Del Rio) comes on next, singing a Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Her performance is tremendously powerful, in the way that only live vocals can be. Betty (Watts) and Rita (Harring) begin to weep after appearing stricken for about half of the song…And then, fool me twice, shame on me; she collapses and the singing continues anyway. That is cinema: to have a representation of something false in front of you, to occasionally be reminded of the falseness of cinema when you’re eating your real popcorn or looking at the real exit signs, and then to be swept back into it with the same kind of furor as before.
Winner: Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, Gangs of New York)
Runner-up: Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Gerry)
Other contenders: Mike Leigh, Spike Lee
I’ll grant that this is not the pair of movies I would have guessed would win Martin Scorsese the belt for the second time, but the competition is everything. The Aviator is still a contender for Scorsese’s best movie of the 21st Century, a movie which pays homage the cinematography of the pre-Technicolor days (which lends the golf outing and the Coconut Grove alike a toothpaste-blue tone unlike anything seen since like, the early 1930s) and of course the glory of Technicolor itself. It uses miniatures instead of CGI, which is why the planes that are so essential to the movie look so dang good fifteen years later. When people talk about “old-fashioned Hollywood movie,” what they mean is The Aviator, this lengthy Great Man picture that also knows better than to valorize anyone too much. The Aviator lets us see too many perceived warts (OCD) and honest-to-goodnes warts (the way Howard Hughes goes through women like an elementary schooler goes through a bag of M&M’s). Gangs of New York is, for its part, an unbelievably ambitious film, one of the movies that genuinely deserves the overused “Shakesperean” label. Think of that shot pulling away from the warren at the center of the Five Points which shows a thousand things happening at once, the tracking shot through it later, the thrilling effusion of blood. There’s a shot during the Battle of the Five Points where the little kid who supposedly grows up to be Leo DiCaprio jumps up with exaltation; it’s how I feel watching that entire movie. For what it’s worth. Scorsese also directs two of our great actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis, to what are probably their best (I’m sorry, I gotta be me) roles. In what’s a pretty fallow triennium, there’s no reason not to bring Scorsese back for another turn with the belt.
Winner: David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence)
Runner-up: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Other contenders: Joe Wright, Paul Greengrass
If Anderson had made any other movie, he’d get the belt. As it is, the first two-thirds of Cronenberg’s Viggo Mortensen phase make a strong enough tandem to win it for the Canadian. (They haven’t made a movie together since A Dangerous Method, which came out in 2011. We’re overdue for another entry by one of the best actor-director pairs of the century.) Maybe this is the wrong choice, but the competition for the belt is stronger in this period than it was in 1960-62 or 1966-68, nor do I think There Will Be Blood is the equal of Lawrence or 2001. But we’re taking away from Cronenberg, which is wrong. These two movies are seedy down to the core. Think about that scene where Mortensen and Maria Bello have sex while she’s in that cheerleading outfit, for example. The lighting in that room is not romantic at all. There’s no glamour in that sex, not when it’s a room so dingy and gray. It’s one of the better sex scenes out there—Cronenberg can make sex as intimate and generous as Barry Jenkins when he wants to—but it’s a statement about what will follow in A History of Violence as well. Not long after that, the film becomes unrelentingly grim. A coffee pot becomes an unforgettably lethal weapon, a standoff in the front yard is undeniably horrifying. I personally think that the fight sequences in A History of Violence are superior to that naked bathhouse scene that made headlines for Eastern Promises, but I get it if that’s more your style. For what it’s worth, I think Eastern Promises is the better movie. The space around people, from Naomi Watts to Vincent Cassel to Mortensen again, is always making a statement. While he works on a bike, Mortensen has a clear space around him and a brick wall behind. Watts seems constantly surrounded with stuff, whether it’s hospital paraphernalia or the rich hangings of the restaurant she gets sucked into. It makes this world of Russian gangsters and trafficking, which for the average viewer is the stuff of fantasy, into a very real setting indeed.
Winner: Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy)
Runner-up: Steve McQueen (Hunger)
Other contenders: the Coen Brothers, Mike Leigh
If I ever totally lose my mind and start accosting people on the street about their sins, you’ll know it’s me because I’ll be yelling at them for not adequately appreciating Meek’s Cutoff. This movie is a stylistic masterpiece, an absolutely beautiful depiction of rural Oregon. Covered wagons grumble softly on the ground which is never quite smooth. In the beginning, a river thunders and a little bird in a cage cheeps nervously. At night, there are no sounds short of whispered conversations and the occasional sound of a fire cracking. Maybe the phrase “every frame a painting” is a little hackneyed now, but it’s true about Meek’s Cutoff, which is puts the art back in arthouse. It’s also a horror movie too about some nice families who, it seems, will die of thirst in this seeming desert of salt lakes and bold mountains. Reichardt, like Linklater, trusts the audience to figure out what emotions they’ll decide to feel, and it makes Meek’s Cutoff a shining audience experience. Wendy and Lucy has the same sort of command of silence, although it’s a significantly less beautiful movie, which is right; why should poverty—the real thing, not the stuff we see in movies—look desirable? Wendy and Lucy is a movie about crushing poverty, about the slim hopes that people pin themselves to, about finding peace in loving someone else. Wendy loves her dog, and losing her in the same town where she loses the junker she’d hoped to drive to Alaska to work fishing salmon is a fastball to the temple. Wendy and Lucy is so personal that any bump Wendy feels is one we internalize as well, and it’s done with a camera that never goes far from Wendy and a face that can never lie for long. Like Cronenberg and Mortensen above, Reichardt and Michelle Williams are a must-see duo; Reichardt has arguably given Williams her best roles over the years, roles that rely on body language and facial expressions above language, which is so easy to misconstrue. Take away little things like “institutionalized prejudice” and I could see the two of them stealing D.W. Griffith’s belt on his own turf.
Winner: Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Haywire, Side Effects, Magic Mike)
Runner-up: Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master)
Other contenders: Lars von Trier, Terrence Malick
While I was in college there was a point where I think I saw a commercial for a new Soderbergh movie what felt like twice a week. He was just cruisin’, and although none of his movies are likely to stand up to some of the individual competition (The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Master…), something about this collection shows the virtuosity and individuality that’s the best of Soderbergh. My favorite of the bunch is Side Effects, which gives Rooney Mara one of her better roles; my wife, who has a fondness for movies featuring pandemics, gravitates to Contagion; the rest of the world is still talking about how much better Magic Mike was than it had any right to be. It took me a good forty-five minutes to realize I was watching an honest-to-God movie there, a movie that’s going to continue to be interesting long after the phenomenon of Channing Tatum’s abs has passed us by. And then there’s Haywire, which reads the classic long fight scene of the movies less as an opportunity to make the viewer feel tough or to make our pulse race, but to see the absolute choreography of Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender’s becoming the Charisse and Kelly of pugilism. You could set that scene to “Uptown Funk” and it would translate brilliantly. (Seriously, try it. Don’t believe me? etc.) That all of these movies are so different in content but still share a similarly seedy visual style is something dangerously close to auteurism.
This is the third and final time we’ll see Paul Thomas Anderson mentioned here. There are an awful lot of extraordinary directors who don’t win the belt in this scenario (paging Welles, Orson Welles), and unless Anderson starts popping out movies at the rate he was doing it in the late ’90s, I’m not sure I like his odds to get there. The Master, which I think belongs in the conversation as one of the 100 or so best American movies ever, is not quite good enough to get him over those four strong Soderbergh offerings even though none of them are exceptional. Lars von Trier merits a mention as one of those folks making movies outside his native language; this is the only set of years where he gets more than one movie into competition, and I’m not sure I want to bite on Nymphomaniac being the movie that pushes him over. This is all another way of saying that I could see myself stripping Soderbergh of the belt if I ever revisit this.
Winner: Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!!)
Runner-up: Alejandro G. Inarritu (The Revenant, Birdman)
Other contenders: George Miller, Terence Davies
Linklater wins again in the face of a director whose technical gifts are more obvious, which is sort of the reason he’s topped Inarritu. I respect Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers as much as the next guy, but their Centre Pompidou is so like Birdman: the idea is more interesting, and less sustainable, than the execution. Birdman is little more than a series of cuts hidden more or less where you’d expect them, and the movie is so overcome with the effect that it becomes its entire reason for being. In Rope, at least, the false long take helps make the movie that much more taut. What’s it doing in Birdman besides appealing to pretension? In my eyes The Revenant is a much stronger film—the 360-degree pan during the Indian attack is simply remarkable—but still a little too interested in the trappings of what will sound good in the trades, albeit regarding DiCaprio’s performance. Boyhood is as high-concept as you could want, but the effect isn’t showoffish in the least. In practice, does it matter so much that Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane reprised their roles over a decade of filming? It matters more, I think, that Linklater made a movie in a way that resists the typical shooting schedules that build up studios’ bottom lines. If Linklater had only been in charge of organizing the direction of Boyhood and had never stepped behind the camera, it would still be an accomplishment. That he makes the story engrossing on its own terms is the real triumph of the movie, and it’s hard-earned. Mason and Sam have a childhood that is ripped right from the guest appearances of after-school specials and soap operas, but it’s tied together masterfully by Patricia Arquette’s Olivia. How does this woman who is so circumspect and intelligent with her kids and her professional life continue to make such egregiously bad decisions with men? It’s a question that Linklater engages with earnestly, as he does with so many of his characters. What’s waiting for Finn once he’s no longer the BMOC? Will Jake learn enough from the softness in Finn’s prospects to realize that he can indulge his love of competition and his willingness to find the metaphors for day-to-day life in the myth of Sisyphus at the same time? By the end of Everybody Wants Some!!, we come to think it’s entirely possible, and it’s why that movie is so warm to the touch. It’s a crime that that movie didn’t reach a larger audience, but then again I suppose weed is a more universal experience than college baseball.
And finally, here’s a bonus round. After two years out of three…
Winner: Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite)
Runner-up: Steve McQueen (Widows)
Other contenders: Jordan Peele, Paul Schrader
I’m giving Lanthimos a 50-50 chance of holding on to the belt through 2019. There simply aren’t enough contenders releasing two movies or more who are likely to steal this out from under him, although the most credible threat definitely comes from Jordan Peele; Us would probably need to be better than The Favourite to get him the belt. It’s not an insurmountable task by any stretch of the imagination; The Favourite is much more costume drama than it is Lanthimos’ very individual type of potboiler, and the movie lets Queen Anne’s court, a faint semblance of history, and a smidge of optimism infect it. In other words, I miss the Yorgos Lanthimos who let the blood drip from his chin while he laughed. The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t as good as The Lobster (or Dogtooth, don’t even think about it), but it’s a movie that I think is going to age extremely well. People are so rarely prepared to be napalmed at the picture show, and that was what Killing excelled at. It gives the lie to the belief that our culture gained, perhaps about the same time we gained cinema, which say there’s always a solution to our problem or a way out of a fix. Lanthimos gives Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman no way out of their fix except to play by the rules given them by a superior power. Lanthimos’ camera is as surgical in Killing as it is anywhere else. Those fisheye lenses in The Favourite are replaced with normal ones, although that unsettling position at the edge of the room is a fixture of both. In the world according to Yorgos Lanthimos, as it was in the world according to Alfred Hitchcock, we can never forget that watching a movie means unbridled voyeurism, and yet the movie is not powerless to defend itself. Like a poisonous flower, it lets us consume it and waits for our stomachs to convulse.
Alfred Hitchcock: 12 years
Robert Altman, David Lean, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorsese: 6 years
Hal Ashby, John Carpenter, Charlie Chaplin, Joel Coen, Francis Ford Coppola, David Cronenberg John Ford, D.W. Griffith, John Huston, Jim Jarmusch, Buster Keaton, Stanley Kubrick, Yorgos Lanthimos, Spike Lee, Leo McCarey, Vincente Minnelli, Kelly Reichardt, John Schlesinger, Steven Soderbergh, Josef von Sternberg: 3 years