“Best Director” Madness 2023: Round of 64

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

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, I wound up with this line from Ebert’s review of The Apartment:

…the great Wilder pictures don’t play as period pieces but look us straight in the eye.

Roger Ebert, July 22, 2001

This isn’t a comment about period pictures. Ebert was a great admirer of Lola Montes and The Remains of the Day, Barry Lyndon and The Age of Innocence, and on and on. The part of this that I like is “look us straight in the eye.” There are days when my primary joy in watching movies is in the anthropology of it, how you can learn something about a moment in time that even a book can’t show you so efficiently. But that’s not the only reason I watch movies, especially old ones. An actor who looks you straight in the eye from their position on screen is almost always unsettling; a movie that looks you straight in the eye from its position in time is even more so. I don’t believe in “the human condition” or “human nature” or anything that banal, but I do think that time is not the root of immediacy. Immediacy is Bud Baxter sniffling outrageously at a desk in front of God and everyone, Fran Kubelik threatening a handsy elevator passenger, Dr. Dreyfuss chewing out Bud for a sin he is simultaneously not guilty of and most guilty of. In short, the question which I used at the start of each matchup is, “Which director looks me most in the eye?”

Here’s how the Jupiter Region looks after a single round.

And the rundown, with winning scenes or moments noted.

  • James L. Brooks took the play-in matchup against Peter Jackson. Brooks, especially in the 1980s, had this incredible gift of immediacy, this ability to note the inadequacy in (usually male) characters and to make that epiphany for Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment or Holly Hunter repeatedly in Broadcast News feel obvious and crushing all at once. I mean, it’s not the Star Child emerging at the end of 2001 or the plaintive, angry fear of the condemned soldiers in Paths of Glory, but it’s pretty good.
  • This one hurt me a little, but Peter Weir’s films simply dissemble too often. The Truman Show is a period piece, outdated and clunky, in a way that even an old Cassavetes simply isn’t.
  • I almost went for the upset here in the 4-13 matchup. And then I thought about Going My Way as opposed to like, Woman on the Beach, and I couldn’t do it.
  • Another near upset for me here between the Coens and Michael Curtiz, to be honest. Curtiz is not a particularly immediate filmmaker, at least not as we’re defining it here. So much of the Curtiz that I adore is fairy tale material. The perfect age to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood is 10. The perfect age to watch Casablanca is 14. Michael Curtiz is this slightly perfect example of classic Hollywood, from the immigration to California from Europe to the sheen on his work, the pleasure of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart stomping about, the renewal of Joan Crawford, the casual animal cruelty. But is the “Marseillaise” sequence in Casablanca more immediate and gripping than anything the Coens ever made? There’s a sheen on the Coens as well, one from a greasy, slick quality that their writing has (that, to be clear, I love). If Curtiz is the paragon of ’30s and ’40s studio filmmaking, then surely the Coens are the great figures of envy for anyone who’s premiering their wry work at Sundance and SXSW. Curtiz is ensconced in his period as much as the Coens’ movies are trapped in the late ’80s or early ’90s, but in the end there’s just too much honesty in their work. The scenes in the woods in Miller’s Crossing, the end of Fargo, the end of A Serious Man, the country sirens of O Brother.
  • Spielberg-Kieslowski was another matchup I really struggled with, and for similar reasons. In the end, Three Colors: Blue worked on me harder than anything Spielberg has ever made. The Three Colors movies are anthropological, like Code Unknown. The fact that every movie critic over forty (ditto Spielberg himself) is trying to push him as a latter-day Ford is proof that nostalgia amplifies the loudest cooing. Spielberg and George Lucas share this calculating temperament, this knowledge that people react to certain events or actions. That calculation, no matter how studiously they erase it, never comes off the screen entirely.
  • I couldn’t pass Mankiewicz on for much the same reasons I couldn’t pass Curtiz.
  • Both Bong and Teshigahara are kings of elevator pitch films, movies that have these incredibly engaging stories to begin with; what makes them exceptional is that you want to follow them off the elevator and like, back to their homes to keep learning more about it what they’re selling. Teshigahara looks me in the eyes more than Bong does; he demands rather than ingratiates.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson deserved better than a 15-seed, although I think he might have had some trouble regardless of seeding because I don’t think that immediacy is necessarily the quality that makes us love his movies. There’s great structure in all of his films, but that structure is purposefully languorous, and in his best work you can feel your orbit around the silver screen slow. He is not afraid of lulls, not even in Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood. On the other hand…we’ve covered Wilder. So it goes.

Down to the Thailand Region, with notes to follow:

  • In 1998, Kansas beat Prairie View A&M by fifty-eight points in the first round. Something similar happened between the directors of Brief Encounter and Lost in Translation.
  • Two directors who were better at sentimentality than almost all of their peers, but as much as I want to move Stevens on for the flashlight shining into the Secret Annex or that fight Rock Hudson gets into at the diner in Giant, I can’t quite overcome the breathless thrill of the carnation in The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch is renowned for his delicacy, but there’s nothing delicate about the way he grabs your shoulders and asks you to look into and through his eyes at a shimmering romantic moment.
  • Stone is already a period piece.
  • Ditto Tarantino. (This wasn’t quite Kansas-Prairie View A&M, but like…it wasn’t far off. There might be more wonderfully immediate moments in like, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown than Tarantino has had in his entire career.)
  • The 6-11 matchup brings out another upset. Reed trounced del Toro in the play-in, and then went on to soundly defeat Ang Lee in the actual matchup. There are a number of options here to fete Reed for, though the one that I couldn’t get out of my mind was the tragedy of The Fallen Idol.
  • We’ve covered Lucas already, I think, although Huston is closer to Curtiz than Kieslowski is. On the other hand, Curtiz never made a movie like The Asphalt Jungle, with desperation seeping wetly around the corners of the frame.
  • Atom Egoyan romped pretty cleanly through this one as well. It doesn’t have to just be Ian Holm saying, “Well, enough rage and helplessness turns to something else,” but good God that moment from The Sweet Hereafter has seared a hole in me that I still feel air zipping through on blustery days. There aren’t many directors in the entire field who could hold up against Egoyan’s immediate, raw power.
  • The 15-seed wasn’t quite as interesting here, but then again neither was the 2-seed. Hitchcock is very much in the same vein as Spielberg and Lucas. He must rely on the thrill of transverse waves across the our adrenal glands rather than longitudinal soundwaves in the gut, for the thrills of even his most immediate movies are a little distant from anything that normies like us can feel. Too many of us in the audience are the right men, not the wrong ones.

Moving right along to Mount Aso.

  • Like James L. Brooks, Tony Richardson was a clear winner in the play-in. The zanier stuff doesn’t necessarily hold you with that hard look in the eyes, but there are these stretches in A Taste of Honey, ones where the ugliness of Rita Tushingham and the tubercular tautness of Murray Melvin, where you just feel these scrambling fingers around your ankles. It’s a remarkable feeling. Not as remarkable as like…Kurosawa’s filmography, but…
  • I like this matchup between Otto Preminger and Josef von Sternberg a lot. It’s a pair of unlike stylists who still do wonderful things. Preminger prefers austerity even where there rests a little luxury or richness: Laura’s room in Laura, Biegler’s study in Anatomy of a Murder, the fine but not lush homes of Daisy Kenyon. And Josef von Sternberg could, as is right for someone who wanted Marlene Dietrich in everything, could find lushness anywhere at all. I like Preminger a lot, but the fact that his films feel much older than von Sternberg’s do says it all for me. Amy Jolly is Carmen, her gender-bending display of sexual magnetism a “Habanera” for pre-Code audiences. I struggle to find a person in Preminger, even people played by Ben Gazzara or Charles Laughton or Nicol Williamson, who demands us like Dietrich does throughout von Sternbeg’s films.
  • I went back and looked at all the different Ebert quotes I’ve got as options, and while Clint Eastwood was always going to have a tough road in a bracket where I get to make the decisions, I think the one I’m using as criteria here must be the least felicitous for him.
  • I’m not an expert in late-stage Coppola, and I’m not a huge expert when it comes to Lina Wertmuller either. I think what bothers me about Coppola in this particular matchup is how neat and tidy his work is. Like I’ve complained about with Spielberg and Lucas, there’s this slightly too clever calculation going on his screenplays. Richard Brody’s article about how American cinema diverged in a yellow wood between The Godfather and, say, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie has never left me. Pale imitators abound on television of Coppola’s work; there are no imitators, milksoppish or otherwise, of Wertmuller’s. Giancarlo Giannini in Seven Beauties, photographed with the clean mustache of a bon vivant but the raspy voice and watery eyes of an asthmatic child, forces you to reckon with this pathetic, beaten man. Even when people are pathetic and beaten in Coppola, like John Cazale in Godfather Part II or Frederic Forrest in Apocalypse Now, it’s more Halloween spookiness than authentic heartbreak.
  • For completely different reasons than Eastwood, Michelangelo Antonioni just does not get much help from this set of criteria. There are a couple others I’m looking at which would put Antonioni through with a bullet, but so much of the point of Antonioni’s work is that it’s not meant to put its thumbprints in your suprasternal notch but the icepick in your conscience. If William Friedkin had a single talent, surely it was in his ability to design these individual shots that take your breath away with urgency. Something must happen as Gene Hackman scowls furiously in that brown car, as we find out what, exactly, your mother might be putting in her mouth in Hades, as a truck swings in a storm across the world’s most rickety bridge. Something must happen or we might die first.
  • Terrence Malick is, for this prompt, maybe a slightly rickety 3-seed, but you know who’s a real rickety 14-seed? Wes Anderson. Even in his best work (which has the grace, by and large, to be more recent), it’s hard to get that sense of the right-now. It’s not because his films have a genuinely pleasing way of unmooring themselves from time, but because there is only so much pressure to have an untinted emotional response to his films. Anderson makes work for raised eyebrows and slight dimples, the small muscles in our face that leave outsize impressions. But Malick, whose films are spiritual leg presses, just asks for more of us. Maybe some of his work is slower than Anderson’s brisk ambling, but how can someone watch A Hidden Life without feeling August Diehl’s fingers against his face, or watch The Tree of Life without feeling Jessica Chastain’s icy fingers place the cube on her back?
  • Like I expected, the Spike Lee-Kathryn Bigelow matchup is a really interesting one. Honestly, part of the reason that I sent Bigelow on here rather than Lee is because her hit rate is just better with these criteria. I love Spike Lee because he is temperamentally incapable of calming down (and trust me, I understand that one of the most famous scenes in Bigelow’s filmography is a homoerotic skydiving incident), but even the stuff that other people really like in so many of his movies is stuff which is just too loud for me to identify notes in: Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods, Denzel Washington more on the Ryan Gosling in La La Land side of things than the Harry Belafonte from Odds Against Tomorrow side in Mo’ Better Blues, the oversimplification of family life in Crooklyn. I’ll take Bill Paxton’s scorched midwestern vampire, Bigelow’s blue steel cinematography, and I guess even the up-front-and-center torture of Zero Dark Thirty.
  • I want to show you something real quick. It’s two black-and-white shots, one from Scorsese and one from Cuaron. I really like both movies! Both of them come from hugely acclaimed movies which were nevertheless absolutely mugged at the Oscars in their given years. Both of them are incredibly personal films. For Scorsese, it’s the sense of witnessing one’s own personal downfall because of an increasing surrender of control, while for Cuaron it’s an adaptation of his childhood. Ready?

Let’s head to Wales.

  • Bogdanovich wasn’t going to knock out any of these 1-seeds, but it’s especially hard for him to go up against one of the key figures he learned how to be immediate from in the first place. Tough luck, Pete.
  • The Frank Capra-Bernardo Bertolucci matchup here is such an important reminder that I’m not trying to decide who’s the better director here, because I don’t think there’s much of a competition here. But I react to The Conformist because it’s shot as well as literally any other movie I’ve ever seen, and I react to It’s a Wonderful Life because it’s the Book of Job masquerading as America’s favorite Christmas film. Bertolucci at his best is timeless.
  • Bob Fosse is one of my favorite directors. I don’t know that I’d say that I much prefer him to Fellini, but an evening with Bob is usually more fun for me than an evening with Federico. The other side of this coin is that there’s no question which of these directors is more potent, and which one has more moments that absolutely demand your attention. It’s serendipitous that the two of them are meeting here, actually, because Nights of Cabiria and Sweet Charity are actually the films that I’d pull from here as my major contenders. It’s “The Rich Man’s Frug” up against the end of Nights of Cabiria, with that single drawn-on tear on Giulietta Masina’s face.
  • Fred Zinnemann was not going to hold up against David Lynch here. Almost nobody was going to hold up against David Lynch here, given that Lynch is a master of the instantly reactive audience: blood freezing mid-vein, eyes popping, skin crawling. It sucks for Zinnemann, who was so good at demanding our attention through clean shots and the bodies of his actors. The steely-sad expressions of women leaving their men, of Katy Jurado in High Noon and Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity, match; so too the limp despair of Jarmila Novotna in The Search and Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding. He’s the first of a few classic Hollywood directors who fall to a more recent director in this region, which is, to say the least, out of character for me.
  • Pushing Steve McQueen ahead of David Fincher is an interesting choice, or maybe just an ironic one. Those two directors make the smart set feel very self-conscious while watching a movie. This is a literal statement. The way that they make their films calls attention to the act of filmmaking itself, putting us in our own minds as much as we are in the mind of the film. (Anecdotally, I can’t think of a lot of critics who venerate both directors equally? I’m thinking about someone like Adam Nayman, who is a great admirer of Fincher and a frequent denigrator of McQueen.) I happen to think that McQueen does a better job with this kind of work; Hunger, especially in its most physically violent scenes, holds us bodily. Pushing McQueen ahead of Hawks, whose more laconic approach to feeling usually leaves me wanting more, feels a lot easier. Heck, even Fincher might have had a shot there.
  • James Cameron instead of William Wyler is a choice, one I feel guilty about in personal terms, but God forgive me I found myself thinking about the two of them doing action epics. One of them fumbles the ball a little there: Ben-Hur, The Desperate Hours, Friendly Persuasion. The other made T2, The Abyss, and…look, I know Titanic isn’t really any better than Ben-Hur, but it’s just more immediate to me. Cameron’s ability to create real danger on screen is as great as anyone else’s, and that danger feels personal rather than situational.
  • The story of the blog in the past six months has been “Man, it’s crazy how little respect Vincente Minnelli gets, what an incredible director, what a marvelous personal touch, what talent with multiple genres and not simply the one he’s most famous for.” Anyway, King Vidor made The Crowd.
  • I know Hal Ashby is absolutely more fashionable right now than Ingmar Bergman. Ashby is the director who everyone has been “discovering” once every six or seven years, saying the same kind of stuff like “Wow, I can’t believe he never got his due in his time.” And Bergman is unfashionable now because his form of existentialism is unfashionable now. I really like Ashby a lot, but even if you were to take the most immediate films of his oeuvre, things like The Last Detail and Coming Home, they would still feel awfully distant compared to the permanence of the work of even one of his favorite actors. Liv Ullmann alone feels more immediate in her collaborations with Bergman than anything Ashby ever made.

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