Apr 7, 2010

March Madness: Film Directors, final four

We're down to the final four. The WEEKEND Veterans bracket looks slightly different from ours, with Sam Mendes of all people going up against Scorsese. No contest. Scorsese wins. Our bracket has him against Spielberg, which feels like one of those quarter finals at the world cup where Brazil play France. In other words: the final.
1. Martin Scorsese ("The Departed," "Shutter Island") vs. 2. Steven Spielberg ("Munich," "Minority Report")
We are at the great divide in film appreciation, as telling in its way as Lennon versus McCartney, Satchmo versus Davis.In many ways it comes down to an argument about the medium of film itself; whether you think it a fallen form that can be redeemed only at the hands of a master, or an entertainment medium with occasional day dreams of being art. One the one hand we have our "greatest living director", who understands male rage from the inside out, and the women who live with it, but whose work has nothing to say about love, or tenderness. An unrivalled master of film rhythm, he has lost the lightness of touch he displayed in Mean Streets and Alice; these days, his movies exhaust themselves, and their audiences, rather than finish. Raging Bull is like watching someone repeatedly butt their head against a brick wall: a rise-and-fall biopic that has no time for the rise, only the fall. It's spiritually dead. Scorsese at times feels vertiginously in thrall to the marytrdom of self destructive men. He remains chronically unsuited to making genre films or epics (his films with Weinstein have been horrible). Which leaves his reputation resting, precariously, on that brilliant fusillade of early movies — Mean Streets, Alice doesn;t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver. Which director can honestly say that they have forestalled the inevitable, grown up, adapted, had a triumphant second act? Our other contender, Steven Spielberg is who. There are those for him he will always be a lightweight, according to the dubious snobbery that accords greater weight to the dark over light, punishment over the transcendence — Spielberg is one of the great artists of joy, a merchant of delight, like Beethoven or Matisse. He also has range, humor, Hitchcockian sinew, a gigolish devotion to the audience's pleasure. He is one of the great American communicators, up there with Reagen and Disney, although his is more perfectly cinematic than any director currently working. If aliens landed and started asking questions about cinema — what it does, what it is if for, what it is capable of — Spielberg's work would be the place I would point them. Other directors have bent the medium to their will — Spielberg feels flush with it. In the late seventies and early eighties he almost single-handedly saved a film industry on the point of collapse, made a quartet of the most purely entertaining movies ever made — Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET — and then he has successfully reinvented himself, after many false starts, to make Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, before returning to the box office with hit after hit, his innate bouyancy now freighted with shadow. It's easy to overlook how hard this is — a 40 year career that remains so consistently surprising. Spielberg's omnipresence is his worst enemy. He's the boring old sun around whom everything revolves. He wins this bracket, to howls of outrage from cineastes everywhere.

Moving onto the
Newbies bracket, we have:—
8. Judd Apatow ("Funny People," "Knocked Up") vs. Sofia Coppola ("Marie Antoinette" "Lost in Translation")
Sofia Coppola has had a good ride but this has to be Judd Apatow's. My fourth round Indies bracket looks like this:—
1. Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") vs 6. David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Zodiac")
Ang Lee, for range, temperament, depth. Moving onto the Populists, we have:
1. James Cameron ("Avatar") vs. Robert Zemeckis ("Beowulf," "A Christmas Carol")
This is Cameron's. Things are moving pretty quickly now. The first semifinal is as follows:
2. Steven Spielberg ("Munich," "Minority Report") vs 8. Judd Apatow ("Funny People," "Knocked Up")
Spielberg wins this handily, obviously. The second is a little harder.
1. Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") vs 1. James Cameron ("Avatar" "Titanic")
Hmm. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Cameron. Aliens, The Terminator, T2, Titanic, Avatar: that's as impressive a body of work as it gets. I'm only partially swayed by howls about his writing abilities. Cameron movies are like Vegas mansions: the interior decoration may be awful but they;re built to withstand earthquakes. Cameron's achievement, and his place in cinema history, is solid and unshakeable. And yet I'm more inclined to go with Ang Lee. He's the more complete director. He is capable of power, subtlety, empathy, with an emotional range born of his innate reticence. He has also developed, learning as he goes along; you get the impression of someone following nothing but his curiosity. Cameron scores very highly in certain key respects — spectacle, narrative drive, overall vision — but Ang Lee ticks more boxes. He is one of the few working directors who could hold his own in Hollywood's golden age. I'm going with him.

First Round here
Second Round here
Third Round here
Final Four here


  1. Off topic Mr. Shone, but have you seen the famous review of "Star Wars: Episode 1" that was posted back in late 09?



  2. Whole body of work? Spielberg wins it all. Kind of easily, really, if you consider how many of his movies I've been willing--eager--over the course of my life to watch two, three, four, five times: Raiders, Schindler's, Private Ryan, Close Encounters, Jaws, Munich.

  3. I just watched parts I and II of the review. Very droll. He touches on most of the main faults of that movie, particularly the over complication, over-filled frame and lack of clear agency with regard to the bad guys. The problem with TPM was always, it seemed to me: 1) it's set during peacetime. The first three were, amongst other things, war movies. 2) The jedi knights are too omnipotent, thus killing all suspense. 3) No Harrison Ford to cut through all the ceremonial-deferential-your-highness crap.