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Best Director 2011: When I Paint My Masterpiece

“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.” — Hugo

This year saw films by arguably the greatest directors America has ever produced — Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. Those guys are the reasons many people have become filmmakers at all. Whole schools of filmmakers, generations flooding film schools everywhere, cut their teeth on their films. And they happen to be my own personal favorites. You might say my whole life has been shaped and decided by what I saw in films by these men over the past three decades. It is a strange turn of events that they will be in the race the same year. Though all three of their films are so good — even with their weaknesses they are still better than almost everything else we’ve seen this year. But of the three, only one has directed a masterpiece. And this because he’s telling the story from his heart, telling the story for his daughter, and at the same time, delving into the evolving technology of 3-D. In other words, Martin Scorsese is still growing, not resting on his laurels.

These three directors, though, have led three different schools of thought where filmmaking and storytelling are concerned. They all three started in the 1970s — was there ever a better decade for filmmaking? The 1970s was a time for open minds, when Fellini and Bergman were the flavors that changed how people thought about movies. The 1960s loosened the knot but the future of American film had its biggest quake in the ’70s because it signaled the beginning of Allen, Scorsese and Spielberg.

My choices for film school were NYU, because of Scorsese, and Columbia University because of Kathryn Bigelow, actually. I didn’t survive at either place and as you can see, I never became a filmmaker. But we all knew how these three guys got their start making movies. We knew their childhoods that produced them — Spielberg, a product of a painful divorce, Scorsese imprisoned at home with asthma, hyper and strange; Woody Allen, a self-hating Jew who longed to be part of the better world over on Manhattan — parents who fought constantly. Spielberg=California, Scorsese and Allen=New York. Scorsese=the Mean Streets of NY. Woody Allen=Brooklyn. Woody Allen=Comedy, Scorsese=the mob, Spielberg=childhood.

As a kid growing up in Topanga, we’d get out to the movies every so often – to the multiplex in the valley. Somehow we’d always end up there – in the choking 100 degree heat of summer, we’d drive with no air-conditioning over the winding hill to where the suburban houses were. We leave the baking heat for the cool, dark movie theater. Everyone surely has their own story of how they became attached to movie theaters but for us it was an escape from all things — the heat being the most obvious one. When Jaws first came out, the dawn of the blockbuster upon us, my sister and I stood in line for two hours to get into that movie. We loved it so much, even if we had to cover our eyes during one scary part (Ben Gardener). But back out we’d go to wait in line again to see it. We saw it 14 times as paying customers that summer. Waiting in line was not just standing there staring at our iPhones — we were a community of movie fans and though I was only around 10 years old or so, I still pretended to talk tough, like I knew anything about anything.

I didn’t identify Jaws as the work of a cinematic genius until I grew up and knew a bit more about what that meant. All I knew was that I loved that movie. When Close Encounters came out, it didn’t create quite the mob scene that Jaws did but we were still there, opening day. Back then, opening day was a big deal. I guess it still is. I stopped counting the number of times I’ve seen it but let’s just say I watch it at least once a year now. When I was 17 years old my sister and I were again at the multiplex — of course, movies then usually meant flirting with boys. We were there to see a movie whose name I can’t even remember now. But when the movie was about to start they told us we would be seeing something else. A movie by Steven Spielberg. It was E.T. Imagine watching E.T. and not knowing a single thing about it in advance? It was shrouded in secrecy — many didn’t even know what “E.T.” meant. When the film ended the audience burst into applause and stood up. I’ve never witnessed a standing ovation at a regular movie screening since.

You can’t really grow up as a woman interested in filmmaking, or film, without eventually tripping over Woody Allen. “You remind me of Annie Hall,” was the thing that got me into my close relationship with the writer/director. As a kid we saw Sleeper, Take the Money and Run — you know, his early, funnier films. But Annie Hall was different. It’s about the girl. It’s a nervous romance. It’s also about life, love and relationships.

If Spielberg taught us how to escape into world that took us away from our own, Woody Allen opened up the discussion about the meaning of life, death, love, sex — with jokes and insight. Like Annie herself, getting his references packed into his films is like going to college — when I look at my bookshelf and I think about what I’ve learned over the years so much of that came from a line in a Woody Allen movie. Nobody can write like he can. Nobody can think like he can. His wisdom came from years of suffering. Listening to him now, I know that the conclusions he’s come to about life, death, aging, celebrity, come from wrestling with them for decades. When he says in interviews that his work is nothing special and that he was far more interested in sports than anything else — I recognize that resignation. When you get to the end of the questioning, life snaps back to its natural state: simplicity. Woody Allen was my philosophy teacher (“Socrates, what did he know, he used to knock off little Greek boys”). He was my sex ed teacher (“As Balzac said, there goes another novel.”), my religion (“How should I know why there were Nazis. I don’t even know how the can opener works.”) and he wrote female characters who were my role models. I was Annie Hall. I was Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters.

I don’t think a day goes by without a Woody Allen line popping into my head. And so when I watched Midnight in Paris this year yes, I recognized the old Woody – the book writer he was before. But I noticed something new there too. He makes a profound statement, “Nostalgia is denial of a painful present.” Though he’s been trying so many different things as a writer and director over the past ten years, he’s really hit something exceptional with Midnight in Paris, both in terms of addressing who he used to be, and illuminating our own thinking about our own lives, which he’s always done so well.

Like Jaws, it’s about filmmaking too. Great storytelling can sometimes pull you in where you don’t really see the strings. Both Jaws and Annie Hall are films I know so well I could probably sit here and write them out very nearly line by line. It took me a little longer to find my way to Scorsese. Spielberg and Allen were filmmakers I came to as an audience member, an escape artist, a fantasy junkie. But when I found Scorsese he made me want to pick up a camera. Why, because no one working in film can do what he does with the camera. His style is as recognizable and unique as Hitchcock’s. Directors like that? You can count them on two hands: David Lynch, David Fincher, Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow…

In Scorsese I found a director who was not only like no one else, but someone whose pictures did what Woody Allen’s words did; it didn’t matter how many times you dug back into them, in and out and through the layers, you unearthed something new. He played with speed of film, with closeups and random snapshots of feeling, he never told me what to feel and never particularly wanted me to react a certain way. This was truth in cinema unlike anything I’d ever seen because he hadn’t yet gotten to answers; he was still asking questions. He knew about isolation, loneliness, rejection, the agonizing paralyzing effects of beauty — he knows the power of a violent image, and the absurdity of it. His twisted sense of humor threads indirectly through even the most brutal of his films. How absurd, then, to have Jake LaMotta, the poor sap, pounding out his champion’s belt to cash in on the stones — when the belt was worth much more. And to have a swollen Robert De Niro reciting a monologue from On the Waterfront. There’s the professor Scorsese, referencing a film that had been such a major force on his life — his own film in black and white, his own hero flawed and all. It’s so brilliant it brings tears for that alone.

And in Taxi Driver, there’s poor Travis trying to take Betsy on a date but he takes her to a porn flick and when he tries to foist a Kris Kristopherson album at her as she’s giving him the brush-off, “I’ve already got it,” she says. There’s Travis, cast aside. It’s so awful and yet someone funny too. Even Harvey Keitel as “Sport” is horrible/funny.

The intensity of passion, the intensity of life lived as an outsider, no one can touch Scorsese here. He isn’t Spielberg, surrounded by a million kids, the King of Hollywood, with his longtime beautiful wife — he is a golden god, living that life. And he isn’t Woody Allen, the absurdist for all time, living in a still scandalous relationship with Soon-Yi. But Scorsese is married. And now he’s the kind of father who at long last can stop and pay attention to that funny little thing called love. Real love, not outsider love. Not pedestal love. Anyone who has raised a curious child, knows that when the questions start coming you have to have answers. More than that, Hugo represents Scorsese’s schooling to his daughter on what it means to love movies. He’s done what I’ve tried to do here — exposed the roots of something affecting and permanent.

Hugo has within it everything that made Scorsese one of the greatest living artists in film. It isn’t just visually brilliant — but it is that. The movie succeeds on its shot set-ups and editing alone. But its theme is maybe the best message you can give to a young person who is artistically inclined. Lonely, desperate Hugo spends his life wanting to be a machine because machines have a purpose. You build them, wind them up, and they do what they’re supposed to do. If they break, you can fix them. But if people break, you can’t always fix them. They disappear, they die.

Hugo lives among things he can fix. Like Scorsese with making movies, it’s the one thing he can do and do very well. The brilliant Asa Butterfield nails the vulnerability, smarts and ambition of young Hugo — how the actors have ignored him is beyond me. All I know about that — time fixes the mistakes of our inability to recognize the vibrancy of that which sits right in front of us during Oscar season.

I’d seen Hugo twice before I played it for my family at Christmas. We’d been watching movies all weekend. But when Hugo came on, it was immediately compelling to everyone in the room. My own daughter was seeing it for the second time. She didn’t have her glasses so she had to sit about ten inches away from the screen, no kidding. Even my mother who has the shortest attention span of all of us was pulled in to Hugo’s world. Why, because like Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men, what Hugo is doing on screen is interesting. How Scorsese shows Hugo’s world from the varying perspectives from life lived behind the pipes and wires is breathtaking. You feel Hugo’s isolation and longing for what is over there, on the other side.

The first part of Hugo got the standard fanboy treatment – one statement gets said and then spreads like a skin infection: “Hugo is great for the last 45 minutes.” But those are people who really are waiting for Hugo to morph suddenly into the flavor of films today — quicker, easier, familiar. But Scorsese and his brilliant screenwriter John Logan are eschewing modern dumbed-down convention and slowing things way way down. Once you realize that, you can’t stop watching what Scorsese is doing with that 3-D and that camera. It’s mesmerizing.

But yes, once the story starts to unfold about the early days of Méliès — realized brilliantly by Ben Kinglsey — Scorsese takes Hugo to such an unbelievably magical level one can hardly believe it’s a Scorsese film. The first time we see Méliès set, the entire room full of viewers collectively swooned. Once these scenes take place it becomes clear that Hugo is in a class by itself. No other film can touch it this year. But that doesn’t mean it wins. We all come to the movies for different things. The Artist, The Descendants, and of course, War Horse all have things they’re giving audiences this year. When that thing clicks within them, it’s like that crazy, haunting automaton in Hugo — they know for a certainty what movie is getting their vote. Since they’re not critics they don’t really consider things like level of difficulty or whether the film will last: it’s all about right now.

Having seen the film three times now I can say without reservation that Hugo is a masterpiece. How do you define a masterpiece? My dictionary defines it as “an artist’s or craftsman’s best piece of work.” You will never get anyone to agree that Hugo is as good as Goodfellas, Raging Bull or Taxi Driver — those films are, quite simply, some of the best films ever made. You’d say Frances Ford Coppola’s masterpiece was The Godfather I and II, but I’d also say Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece. Therefore, to my mind, you don’t necessarily have to pick one. After all, Jaws and E.T. are both masterpieces by Spielberg, as is Schindler’s List. I suppose you could say that Schindler’s List WAS his masterpiece.

What I do know is this. Just when you thought Scorsese’s best films were behind him he delivers his most personal, heartfelt love letter to what he does when he makes movies.

I don’t know what the Oscars are here for. I don’t know what the industry is thinking when they vote for some movies and not others. We all have our own ideas of what is best. I know that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t winning the season but it will have lasting impact for reasons that have nothing to do with golden statues. And I know that if you’re talking BEST, you have to choose BETTER than all of the others.

And so even now, there are film students that divide themselves by the film school of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Steve Spielberg. You can see it in their work.  They themselves went to school on John Ford and Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder.  They influenced the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, PT Anderson, Spike Lee, Michel Hazanavicius, Kathryn Bigelow, Jim Cameron and countless others.   I am beholden to them.  I am most beholden.

Best Director this year will likely feature these three, and Hazanavicius.  It’s possible Woody Allen might not make the list.  Alexander Payne is the next strongest, and Bennett Miller for Moneyball, David Fincher for Dragon Tattoo — and of course, Terrence Malick for Tree of Life.

It’s looking like a long season ahead of us. This year, for me, it’s just a year to appreciate greatness all around. There are moments in War Horse that achieve the level of greatness Spielberg is capable of. And Midnight in Paris illuminates the complex problems of our inability to embrace the time we live in, not to mention why we love great artists the way we do. But it is Hugo that most surprised me most. Once the dust clears from this year and we revisit all of the great films that have come our way, “If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they’re made.”