“Best Director” Madness 2023: Sweet 16 and Elite 8

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

To see the Round of 64, click here.

To see the Round of 32, click here.

We’ve lost one of our 1-seeds, and in the Sweet 16 we’ll lose another.

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 Sweet 16 will be decided by this phrase from Ebert’s review of The Bridge on the River Kwai:

…in Kwai he still has an eye for the personal touch, as in Saito’s private moments and Nicholson’s smug inspection of the finished bridge.

Roger Ebert, April 18, 1999

What Ebert is identifying are not personal moments, per se, but quiet or silent ones. Think of Saito alone in his quarters, reading, his face hidden from the camera. Or the way that Nicholson brushes some barely seen shmutz from the bridge, or how he looks on from his position on the little car rattling down the track. Basically any moment is a personal moment; it’s these moments of silence that Ebert has in mind for Lean. Those moments of silence in Lean, or moments of inhalation before a yawp, or moments of exhalation after a climax, are essential to his filmography as they are essential to cinema writ large. The beats are what I’m after here, the equivalents to drags on a cigarette or eyes closing before prayer. It’s “The Long Day Closes” in The Long Day Closes, putting the seats down in the theater in Topsy-Turvy, the prince’s dance in The Leopard, the bike ride on an American road in Late Spring. Who has the gift of revelation without relying on something as tawdry as speech?

The Jupiter region:

  • Cassavetes against the Coen Brothers in a category about those quiet moments of personality…brutal, brutal, stuff. In the end, I think chaos is more important to Cassavetes’s emotional impact, where I can find more moments of that silence not just in the Coens, but in their best movies. Jerry Lundegaard, walking out into the snowiest parking lot, hacking at his windshield with scraper and then stabbing it murderously. Jerry Lundegaard, behind the hood of his jacket, horrified at the strange scene that has everything to do with him and which he was absent for. Llewellyn Moss, surveying the carnage of a crime scene that no one has found yet. Ed Tom Bell, recounting a dream. Danny Gopnik, staring down a tornado.
  • Orson Welles and Billy Wilder make for a hilariously talky matchup now that we’re privileging the films which are significantly less talky. Of course, they both have these moments of intense personality with little to no dialogue in their greatest accomplishments. “Rosebud” speaks for itself, but so does the deranged expression that Norma Desmond wears on her way down the stairs with her final close-up. In the end I went with Welles because I trust in him more to set up a shot, or to move the camera, in a way that’s effectively characterizing more than I trust Wilder. Think about those lovely shots in F for Fake where Welles, in the costume of some Puritan magician, sits on a park bench, or the endlessly revealing close-ups of scattered Janet Leigh or grotesque Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil.

Things move fast in the Sweet 16. Here’s Thailand:

  • I was going to choose Almodovar instead of Lean in this matchup. I typed his name in and everything; we’re talking about a director whose entire life has been finding his characters in these quiet moments where we can practically hear their thoughts from the looks on their faces. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is funny because of what’s said but terribly melancholy because of what those people are feeling, particularly Carmen Maura. That extra burst of sadness works in Parallel Mothers and Volver, using Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz’s faces much more than it’s ever reliant on their words. The thing is, I started writing about those quiet moments in David Lean and it made me remember just how many of them there are and what marvelous heights they reach. The hand on the shoulder in Brief Encounter, Claude Rains’s hard-won epiphany in The Passionate Friends, Sarah Miles trembling at the fire after a public humiliation in Ryan’s Daughter, the dirty windshield covering Peter O’Toole’s face at the end of Lawrence of Arabia.
  • I had an easier time with Reed against Hitchcock. The quiet moment is not really what Hitchcock is about; you’re always supposed to be able to hear your heartbeat when you watch one of his movies. You could, and maybe even should make the case that the scene where Judy becomes Madeleine in front of Scotty’s eyes again is the greatest scene in movie history. It’s wordless…but Bernard Herrmann does so much to ensure that the sequence is never that quiet a reflection. So theoretically stimulating is Hitchcock, so aggressively intrusive his portrayals, that those moments of “the personal touch” are overwhelmed by something even more potent but a little bit less human. This is not really something I associate with Carol Reed. Odd Man Out is a film made out of the black box of personal touches, the increasingly quiet suffering of James Mason depositing himself helplessly or being deposited thuddingly, bleeding and wheezing around Dublin as a decidedly secular IRA messiah.

Mount Aso.

  • Here’s where we lose another one of our 1-seeds. The issue with Kurosawa is not really the same as the issue with Hitchcock. It’s not that his work is too theoretical, abstruse, or penetrating to work through. It’s that I think Altman was just better with these quiet moments, personal moments, alone moments. Kurosawa, despite Altman’s remarkable skill with ensemble casts, was probably the director I’d trust more to create a devastating moment in a social setting. The confrontation between high and low in High and Low or, almost on the opposite spectrum, the closeness between Dersu Uzala and his pet Russian in the film named for him. Shoot, it’s Seven Samurai. I just can’t quite find a quiet moment for him that burns like the separated pair of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as he freezes to death in his snowbank and she smokes herself into an opioid stupor. The Long Goodbye is a pretty talky movie, but anything that involves Elliott Gould and something cat-adjacent works as a very different kind of sparkling personal moment.
  • A third 2-seed falls here. I yield to no one in my devotion to The Aviator and Silence, both of which bring themselves to a close with these unbelievably individual moments: “the way of the future,” the burning coffin of once-Rodrigues. But more often than that, Scorsese (whether this is Paul Schrader’s fault or not) pulls voiceovers in to bounce the character off the character, or to bounce the character off of us: Taxi Driver, Casino, Bringing Out the Dead, The Wolf of Wall Street, and most of all Goodfellas. I know. I can hear you from here: “This guy is knocking out Scorsese over voiceovers when the guy he’s going up against is Terrence Malick?” Yes. Because even when there is no voiceover at play, Malick insists on a quiet, often backed by music but not necessarily so, where we are asked to see into the soul of a person simply through their body language. Days of Heaven has a number of these marvelous shots, like Richard Gere looking up into the window of the house where he’s accidentally sent his girlfriend to be a devoted wife, or Sam Shepard looking sternly towards the ground.

Spoiler alert…Wales is chalk. Go figure.

  • David Lynch ultimately falters for much the same reason that Alfred Hitchcock does. The two of them share mostly muted moments of voyeurism between Rear Window and Blue Velvet, where a character is looking at other characters and making their judgments, breathing, pointing their eyes at the most appealing body in sight. We are not able to reflect on Jimmy Stewart or Kyle MacLachlan in those moments. The focus is not on Isabella Rossellini or Raymond Burr. The focus is on the gaze. It is not a personal but a purposefully impersonal moment, a moment that the camera forces us to join in on if not necessarily participate in. John Ford, so often through John Wayne of all people, provides the personal touch in a beautiful shot. Ethan Edwards looking at the family scene he can never join in as The Searchers ends, Sean Thornton walking the Irish countryside, the Ringo Kid twirling his gun as the camera cannot quite stay in focus on him.
  • Our lowest-seeded director finally meets his match, and look, as fun as it would be to come up with some reason why James Cameron actually does the personal touch better than Ingmar Bergman, I’m not an actual Film Twitter personality and I don’t have to do stuff like that to burnish my Personal Brand. I can’t think of a personal moment in this mode from Cameron which is better than, say, Max von Sydow trying to uproot a tree with his bare hands in The Virgin Spring, which is literally the first one I thought of for Bergman.

All right: a new round means a new Roger Ebert quote. The criteria for the Elite 8 comes from Ebert’s review of The Departed, which is fitting given what just happened to Martin Scorsese last round:

This movie is like an examination of conscience, when you stay up all night trying to find a way to tell the priest: I know I done wrong, but oh, Father, what else was I gonna do?

Roger Ebert, July 5, 2007

I think he’s overstating how much this suits The Departed, exactly, but this gets at the heart of the dilemma which animates some ludicrous proportions of our great stories. (Too bad Robert Bresson wasn’t invited to this party, because something like A Man Escaped or Pickpocket would suit this prompt pretty well. On the other hand, “Academy Award-nominated multihyphenate Robert Bresson” is one of the worst phrases I’ve ever seen.) What stands out to me here is not so much the sin or the anxiety so much as the irresistible nature of it. The tragedy in the statement is not of wrongdoing but of the fate of wrongdoing, or, if fate’s not your cup of tea, then the metaphysical rationalization of wrongdoing.

Now that we have only one more matchup per region, we may as well just take the four of them in one swoop. Here’s the state of the bracket, and who’s headed to the Final Four.

  • The Coen Brothers come out of the Jupiter region less because I think they make a bunch of movies about these moral or immoral compulsions and more because I don’t think Welles made movies that honestly cared all that much about belonging to the kind of universe where these moral decisions held sway. There are certainly good and bad people on either side in Welles, which would be obvious even if he hadn’t adapted a bushel of Shakespeares. What Charles Foster Kane and George Minafer do which isolates them, crushes them, defeats them is not something which forces either of them to have that introspective moment. Charles wants unfaltering adoration, George wants unflinching deference, and the two of them do not spend a lot of time thinking about whether that’s something they need to confess or change. The moral decisions they make matter, clearly, but those moral decisions are prologue, windowed in via childhood scenes. The Coens get after this internal examination of conscience with relative infrequency, but when they do it, the (murderous!) result is Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing or Liam Neeson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
  • The Brits have segmented themselves in Thailand, which is kind of the opposite of what happens in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean is through here as well, because those moments of self-examination are so closely related to the personal touches in his work which have already moved him on. The blood soaking the back of Lawrence’s British uniform in perfect stripes after he’s given up the robes, Laura’s horrified “At that moment, the first awful feeling of danger swept over me.” I mean, we haven’t even gotten to Summertime yet, but there’s a movie which forces this kind of deep, painful look inside.
  • It’s not like Altman doesn’t do this stuff. I think a movie like Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean does well to express this feeling of self-entrapment, whether it’s physical or mental, and this feeling that one must try something to escape it or suffer terribly. It’s just like…that’s Terrence Malick over there, the guy whose movies are always about this feeling of “I know I shouldn’t but I will” or “I know I don’t want to but I must.” A Hidden Life, The Tree of Life, The New World, and above all The Thin Red Line, which tosses that idea in the air for target practice for the length of the film.
  • The thing that makes this Ford-Bergman matchup especially funny is that the winner was going to go on to face Terrence Malick, which, for me, is just so so silly. Sigh. Anyway, John Ford has a better claim to this criteria than Welles does. The Informer is hanging around back there, and movies he made in the 1960s (Sergeant Rutledge, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn, 7 Women) really home in on this feeling of being forced into a role or a part that feels antithetical to one’s nature. It’s just like…that’s Ingmar Bergman over there, who just by sheer volume makes Terrence Malick look like John Ford in this category. For the son of a prominent Lutheran, there is something very nearly (and rebelliously) Catholic in the way people are confessing themselves, revealing themselves reluctantly in his films. The knight’s moment of weakness in The Seventh Seal, Marta’s long dermatological letter in Winter Light, the father’s regretfulness on the boat in Through a Glass Darkly, and, more warmly, even the lawyer’s breaking point in Smiles of a Summer Night.

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