“Best Director” Madness 2023: Round of 32

To see the intro page for “Best Director” Madness, click here. To see the Round of 64, click here.

After one round, all the 1- and 2-seeds are safe, and so are all the 5s. A little chalky, but the criteria was maybe a little murkier than some of the others will be.

Each round of the bracket will use a quote from a Roger Ebert review of a Best Director-winning or -nominated film as its criteria for which director moves on to the next. Using one of those online wheels of choosing things, the Round of 32 will be decided by this sentence from Ebert’s review of Psycho, which is…the one I wasn’t looking forward to, we’ll put it that way:

That is the mystery of why Hitchcock marred the ending of a masterpiece with a sequence that is grotesquely out of place.

Roger Ebert, December 6, 1998

The trick in this round will be to avoid stereotypes of the contestants. It would be simpler to just break this down into “Which director is the more famous control freak?” and then make the decision from there. And obviously I don’t want to turn this round upside down and take the more literal version of Ebert’s line, which really is a direct challenge to the didactic ending of Psycho.

I remember when I started reading James Joyce for the first time, I was blown away with the absolute specificity of his language. I loved that feeling of reading a pair of sentences at the top of a short story which acted as a statement of purpose: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.” Given the choice between perfection and imperfection, I’d rather eat, sleep, and watch the former. I’m not one of those people who looks at his 4.5-star movies on Letterboxd and gets misty about how much more interesting they are than the presumably staid 5-star winners. I’m not one of those people who would rather talk about how effectively wonderful it is for a director to screw up, because if I had my ‘druthers I’d rather think about what they did that was doubly successful rather than singly approachable. Going through this round, I’m not going to limit imperfections to endings, but I am going to have to cosplay a very different type of movie person. My guiding light here isn’t James Joyce but Bones Howe, who mixed “I Saw Her Again,” accidentally tossing in Denny Doherty jumping the chorus, and then ultimately leaving it in the final song. There is a story (which I assume is apocryphal but still instructive) about Paul McCartney listening to that “I Saw Her Again,” hearing the false start, and saying “No one’s that clever.” Without knowing the intimate history of each movie made by each director remaining, I think I want to find the people who make me say, “No one’s that clever.” How do these directors wrap an imperfection into their greatness?

Picking up in Jupiter, where we have our first genuinely shocking result of the bracket.

  • I wanted to go with Kubrick here, because his career is filled with unusual, maybe even counterintuitive casting choices. Casting Ryan O’Neal to be at the center of your picaresque shouldn’t work, and yet…it’s perfect? Putting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman together in your dreamworld thriller is not even as interesting/technical as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, but…it’s firm? And Cassavetes, for all of the praise he gets for this loose, rambling style, is absolutely building his movies with pristine foundations. His writing, his frequent collaborators. How many directors would look a lot better if they got to pull some combination of Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Seymour Cassel as often as Cassavetes did? The reason I ultimately landed with Cassavetes is because that aforementioned style is a brilliant example of “No one’s that clever.” Stanley Kubrick was absolutely that clever, and it’s true frame by frame in his films.
  • Even in more minor Jean Renoir films (The Woman on the Beach, say), the themes he wants to bring out in his work are crystalline, and how straightforward they are, especially in comparison to the lavishness of his filmmaking, can fall into a kind of anticlimax. He’s guided more by his mind than his heart even in a film like Grand Illusion, which ends with the former POWs trudging across a border rather than the final confrontation between German and French nobility. It ends not with biceps flexing but with triceps contracting. The Coens don’t go well with crystals or exercise—imagining what a Coen Brothers movie looks like when it runs brings to mind someone whose stride is just a little too short, whose arms are somehow not moving at a speed like his legs—but even in the movies that fewer of us like, that same sweet-sick scent falls around them. The queasy criminal humor of Fargo is here in Intolerable Cruelty, just as much as the grim fallout of Fargo is in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
  • Orson Welles’s middle name was, in fact, Orson. His first name, though, was “No one’s that clever.”
  • Billy Wilder is made for this too, though I guess a little less than Orson Welles is. If you don’t like Billy Wilder, chances are high that it has to do with his “cynicism.” As a Wilder apologist, I’m not sure which of his films feel cynical at the expense of other feeling. Ace in the Hole gets credited for being especially cynical, but there’s nothing cynical about the serious guilt that Kirk Douglas can’t swallow. Maybe Sunset Boulevard is, but it’s a film about cynicism which falters in the face of two completely unironic people. Double Indemnity might be, but those last thirty seconds have a way of completely changing how we read that film.

To Thailand.

  • As expected, I had the devil’s own time trying to figure out who I’d rather see move on, Lean or Lubitsch. For better or worse, the miscalculations in Lean are in dramas (Breaking the Sound Barrier, This Happy Breed) and the miscalculations in Lubitsch, while rarer, are in comedies (That Uncertain Feeling). Alas!
  • I really wanted to put Linklater here. But Linklater never wrote a character that is as messy and difficult as Benigno of Talk to Her, the nurse who “falls in love” with a comatose patient and rapes her. What was already a painfully challenging movie becomes almost unbearably twisted. Talk to Her, with its focus on these comatose people and the more obviously alive people they leave behind, shows that something even worse can happen to someone than to be put to sleep on a ventilator, or having to watch a loved one waste away while maintaining a peaceful visage. There are doughfaced men with evil plans out there, and Talk to Her asks us to do something difficult with this amiable nurse we never expected this out of; it asks us to condemn him even though he was our friend before.
  • So here’s something cheerfully ironic. People have been giving Orson Welles credit for shadow-directing The Third Man for ages, which of course is not supported by facts and on top of that is insulting to Carol Reed, who was more than capable of directing a film as good as The Third Man. But you know what feels like it could have been a terrible mistake? Setting up Harry Lime for more than half the film and then betting the movie that the reveal of the guy will work.
  • In Hitchcock’s filmography, you can absolutely find a number of examples of “no one’s that clever.” For example, there’s that glowing glass of milk that Cary Grant carries upstairs in Suspicion. On the other hand…that movie turns on glowing milk, as The Birds turns on you know what, as Marnie turns on psychodrama that Freud would chortle at, as The 39 Steps ends with, let’s be frank, a real downer. That those are all at least good movies despite these missing pieces implies that Hitchcock may not really need to be hitting all his free throws to have a big game.

To the other side of the bracket, and Mount Aso.

  • Neither Kurosawa nor von Sternberg speak to me as especially messy filmmakers, but I got to thinking about my least favorite Kurosawa, which is Throne of Blood. It’s a very, very good movie, though for me it never overcomes the messiness of Macbeth, a play which I’ve always found unsatisfying in the end and which feels a little bit clunky throughout. Like Macbeth, Throne of Blood flags once its protagonist has become the king, and even with that flagging the movie is still shot beautifully and Toshiro Mifune is still arresting. If this is imperfection, then it’s what most directors would sacrifice limbs to achieve.
  • Robert Altman’s first name was Robert, but his middle name was “no one’s that clever.”
  • I agonized a little bit about Friedkin against Malick, and then I realized that I was thinking mostly weird shoots they’ve had in their past, their habits of going a little over budget (or a lot), doing weird stuff, going places to shoot which are not exactly great for shooting a motion picture, y’know, the usual. And then I thought about the stuff after the shoots, and you know what, only one of these guys has a history of cutting his movies so wildly that people aren’t even sure if they’re going to make the final cut.
  • Somewhere, Spike Lee is absolutely livid about getting the one about immediacy last round and not the one about this weird habit of fooling around with his movies, because boy oh boy he would have smoked anyone he went up against. Kathryn Bigelow’s films don’t speak to me as being potentially chaotic, or even taking all that many risks; look at her work from The Hurt Locker on and it’s the same kind of stuff that you can imagine Aaron Sorkin taking on. (Shoot, if you count Charlie Wilson’s War, it almost is the same kind of stuff that Aaron Sorkin took on.) Scorsese’s work is almost always on the edge of some knife, with the exception of his earliest movies and Shutter Island. His more prominent “failures,” such as they are, are still fascinating. New York, New York and Kundun are, to be sure, no failures at all, and yet it’s understandable to have some discomfort in watching De Niro’s slightly unconvincing saxophone playing, or in watching Scorsese’s transfaith interpretations of the Dalai Lama.

And finally, Wales-watching.

  • The virgin “‘Capracorn’ is an unfortunate name for the kind of patriotic, homey splendor that Capra believes in and which was obviously reflective of what his audiences at the time believed in as well, and which is not wrong so much as it is passe in a postmodern world” versus the chad “haha look at Victor McLaglen punch people.”
  • David Lynch and Federico Fellini would have been a title-worthy bout no matter what the theme or the round was, but on these terms, I’m not sure that even Fellini’s idiosyncratic strangeness compares to like, Eraserhead Baby. Even when Lynch is doing something that is positively awards-season bait, like The Elephant Man, he still can’t help but put literal elephants in there as if that’s got something to do with Joseph Merrick. This is a guy whose material doesn’t always hit. For example, I adore The Straight Story, and it’s not like every single vignette in there is blowing me away. On the whole, though, it doesn’t matter. Even stuff like the hot dog girl near the start of the journey turns out to be intensely meaningful even if it’s not brilliant.
  • James Cameron, absolutely the Cinderella of this tournament. The rich get richer? Steve McQueen did not get a good theme for him this time out, because, like Kubrick (or Bong Joon-ho, who didn’t get this far), there is such Joycean precision in his filmmaking. Cameron is precise too. He has to be, given the kinds of movies he makes. But his movies can be just complete messes too. Leave out the door business or dropping the big gem into the ocean Titanic, which I qualify less as “marring an ending” and more as “who gives a tinker’s cuss.” How about the incredible messiness of this movie’s weak critique of capital, or that Cal magically survives the sinking of the Titanic, or that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet don’t actually have that much chemistry together? And yet that movie still works on people like gangbusters.
  • Tell you what, it’s really hard not to choose the guy who made The Fountainhead when it comes to this criteria. But The Fountainhead is one movie, and Bergman made dozens of movies with this roundabout, murmuring, simple-sentences dialogue that doesn’t stick nearly as long as his images do. It’s not obvious to me that this kind of stuff should work as well as it does: see for proof “Bergman imitators” and “anyone who’s ever written a movie that played at Sundance.”

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