The recent death of Mike Nichols seemed almost like the final nail in the coffin for the last generation of great directors. We know that isn’t true, of course, but something about it felt like someone had just turned on the bright lights. You could suddenly see everything just as it was, not how we all wish it would be. The fact was — Nichols is gone and there really isn’t anyone who can replace that kind of person.
Suddenly, the paltry scraps Hollywood dishes out for women’s roles seem all the more paltry next to the fascinating character studies in Mike Nichols’ films. Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sure, that was Edward Albee’s writing and Liz Taylor’s acting but it was Mike Nichols’ keen sense of how to balance humor and despair that made it the masterpiece it was. This was also true of The Graduate, even Silkwood. Nichols dove so deeply into his characters that he would never have settled for the kinds of paper-thin supporting characters filmmakers throw in today to satisfy a quota or help move the protagonist toward his goal. Mike Nichols did not come from film school. He didn’t come out of the world of economy and the new school of film criticism that demands a product be “flawless” or else it isn’t good. The last thing Mike Nichols did was value mingy economy and superficial style over depth and understanding.
The greatest living director who hadn’t worked on the big screen in a while, Nichols’ passing comes at a time when the films available for the awards race seem a tad thin. Part of that is that money and efforts are concentrated elsewhere — movies are so hard to get made now that the best talent around is heading for TV. We better save David Fincher fast or he’ll never work in movies again. David Lynch, headed for TV. Soderbergh? TV. Making a movie now means running it through an unbearable gauntlet that starts with studio heads, financiers, and eventually ends with a fickle public that can get the message out to their followers at lightning speed. In between, the publicists are desperate to sell the films for awards, for attention — for anything. Cinemascore, opening weekend… is it any wonder that Mike Nichols’ passing felt like such a grim reminder of better days, better films, a better relationship between filmmakers and audiences. We have all become critics, you see, and somewhere in there is absent the love and enthusiasm for the art itself.
The beauty though still remains in the handful of heroes who still call themselves directors. Those coming up, hoping for big things, and those masters of the craft, working at the tip top of their game, leading films headlong into a Best Picture race that is full of nothing but question marks.
2014 is marked so far by some remarkable talents, some familiar, some not. Some new, some continuing to build what will be an astonishing body of work. Maybe someday they can have the kind of backstory and library Mike Nichols had. Maybe things work like that. Maybe things will get better. Maybe.
We tend to look for movies by directors that fit inside the Oscar box. But what most people forget about the Oscar race is that there is no box. There is only impressive work, when it’s at its best. When the Oscar machine is healthy it recognizes high achievements regardless of genre. We can encourage directors who stand on the edge of a very high cliff and dive off it, even when their spectacular risks are half failures, half magnificent attempts at something just beyond their grasp, some kind of rich, unforgettable couple of hours in a dark theater staring up at a lighted screen.
Then there are the directors whose work is a success by any definition except the Oscar one. Pundits dumb it way down by stuffing every film they see into that round hole — no matter what exquisite shape it is. If it fits that round hole it goes in the pile. Forget that at the end of it you have nothing but little circles that all look alike. It will fit, dammit, because that’s what the Oscar race is: fitting things in round holes.
But maybe because the great Mike Nichols is no longer with us, I’m feeling the need to celebrate the great directors who are working today, especially the masters and those who have been slowly building up to be being masters. They are the visionaries, still there with their hands on the wheel, guiding the story, taking the heat, suffering the losses, basking in the successes.
Here are my top five of 2014 (but I still haven’t seen Unbroken)
No American director has ignited such divisive and enthralling debate as David Fincher, a student of great film, a philosopher of a kind, and an artist with an unparalled eye, he is a director who sees the world from deep underneath, layer by layer stripped back to expose a hard truth. The artist is alive and vibrant within Fincher, yet his movies don’t envelope you in a swaddle of comfort — they are the edgiest of multifaceted pegs that can’t be stuffed into the round hole no matter what. He is cursed twice by a fan-base that always wants to the “Fincher-esque” experience, films and curiosities that Fincher passed through years ago. He’s onto different things, which is probably the best reason to appreciate what he’s done this year with Gone Girl, the most successful and talked about film of 2014.
Why does Gone Girl work? Because it is both a twist on a famous book and also a mirror image to America’s fascination with self. We are holding up a mirror to ourselves constantly, the cell phone camera, or the security camera, or the computer camera. We take who we are and we transform it into something most perfect. Gillian Flynn captured on the page the inner workings of a woman who never really had a chance to find out who she was. She was optioned at birth by parents whose own obsession with image swallowed up their daughter’s identity which then became subverted, which then became manipulative and twisted. Gone Girl freaks people out because it’s supposed to. It is an exacting, funny, chilly study of modern America as it topples all around us. What do we have to cling to in the end but our besotted obsession with self. I don’t know about you but no other film I saw this year made me think as much, offered me the chance to dive deeply into it. His third collaboration with Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross makes Gone Girl almost seem like a trilogy that follows up The Social Network and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — one of them solely about the male-driven tech world, the second one about a girl working within that world and the third about a girl completely out of that world but somehow all of it in keeping with the idea of being watched, stalked, recorded, managed. This is a recurring theme in Fincher’s films, particularly the masterpiece Zodiac (all but ignored by awards groups), three collaborations with Brad Pitt (Fight Club, Seven and Benjamin Button), the equally ignored Panic Room, and of course, the most underrated of his entire body of work, The Game.
Gone Girl’s chances in the Oscar race, though, aren’t determined by ticket buyers who kept it in the top five for eight straight weeks, not by those who recognize Fincher’s growing, impressive body of work, but by the lack of imagination of Oscar pundits who see its square shape and look at that round hole and think – nope. Can’t do it. Can’t fit it in. Is that really the kind of Best Picture race Oscar voters want? I doubt it. But what do I know. I just work here.
You don’t have to watch the documentary made about Linklater’s career to realize his contribution to American film, the path he has carved for himself that is unlike any other. Linklater has gone to school by studying life and he’s turned that knowledge into cinematic rumination on the human experience and all of its major driving forces, love, rebellion, loss, childhood and ultimately the meaning of it all. There aren’t many filmmakers whose commitment to real life storytelling is as piercing as Linklater’s at his best. The humble and soft spoken director made Slacker in 1991, then Dazed and Confused in 1993. It is almost twenty years later that he’s given us Boyhood. Linklater’s 12-year study on the rapid passing of time as we grow up seems, to me, the culmination of his entire canon in one movie. It has great music, it has thoughtful dialogue, it has strong women leading the way, and it has Ethan Hawke, Linklater’s surrogate and muse. Boyhood stands out and remains strong because there is no other film like it. Linklater has gone from improvisational style to firm command of the form. It is spectacular — not because the critics said so but because it a life changing experience to watch that movie.
Boyhood is edited together so that you never really know when time is passing. Linklater wasn’t interested in making a big deal out of it. Rather, he wanted you to have the sensation of watching a film. When a whole year has gone by it is marked merely by a single cut. Of course, the actors have all aged and lived their own lives. There is one cut that stands out particularly well and that’s when the young lead, Ellar Coltrane, goes from that innocent look in his youthful eye to a knowing one. Whatever happened to make him change we don’t see. The change simply appears. Anyone whose raised a kid knows how fast things can change.
Boyhood is a film about teachers. You never know when you will stumble upon them just that they leave you significantly marked. This film shows how good and bad teachers can make equal impact on a person’s life. By the end you feel as though you’ve watched this young boy evolve into a fine young man. It tears out your heart, the swiftness of it all. There is nothing more difficult than the knowledge that life only moves in one direction. Boyhood is a reminder of how fast it all goes.
Linklater’s film is in the top spot not because it’s an Oscar movie that fits into the round hole but because it’s a GOOD movie, a great movie. So far, there isn’t another that can beat it.
Alejandro G. Inarritu
The Mexican director burst onto the scene with Amores Perros, a harrowing story about loss told in three parts. He then went darker and deeper with 21 Grams — a film about the weight of spiritual energy lost at the moment of death. He went back to the varying narratives of people’s lives with Babel in 2006, then dove powerfully into the concept of dying with Biutiful. In its own way, Biutiful most resembles his latest masterpiece, Birdman. It follows the downward spiral of its main character through the people who know him on his way to destruction, with no way out. No way out is a common thread throughout Inarritu’s work, as is magic realism, on display most vibrantly and unexpectedly in Birdman, the director’s funniest film to date. Birdman is, as Glenn Kenny called it, virtuoso directing. It is ferocious, flawless in its execution. It shows a director with an assured hand, with 100% focus on the story as it unfolds. Working with his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a cast of actors who had to know this thing line by line the way you would if you were doing a play, Birdman is the cinematic opposite of Boyhood. If the Oscar race were a cage of animals, Gone Girl would be the mysterious cat by the window, Boyhood would be the sweet puppy dog staring out the window with his tail wagging and Birdman would be the hysterical, carping winged creature trying to fly out but hitting itself against the windows, against the walls – bang, fly fly fly, bang.
Birdman finds a hero thrown out of the trappings of an actor stuck in a superhero’s costume. It comes at a time when there is just one superhero movie announcement after another. The latest great actor to have to put on a goofy costume to entertain the little boys whose mommies buy them tickets for some afternoon fun. It’s bigger than that, let’s face it, it’s birth to death branding that starts by aiming toys and products at the kids then it’s merely a seamless step in the same direction to get them all hyped up about the latest product. Poor Riggan, perfectly embodied by Michael Keaton, who reaches, finally, for some kind of substance in his blanched out world. Like Biutiful, this is a slow spiral towards the end because, frankly, there isn’t anywhere else to go. Though maybe you could also say that Birdman is about how none of that matters at all, how what matters in the end, as with most things, whose sleeping next to you at night, who you love – what we talk about when we talk about love.
Inarritu’s film is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings — where you don’t really know what kind of miracle you have on your hands because you’re always looking for something else. It isn’t that Inarritu wants to leave you with a sappy message, particularly – but it’s there if you want to look for it.
What a thrill to watch this director evolve from 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, which was about a woman’s coming of age. DuVernay focused on the internal world of her lead character, while also focusing on the people who were invested in aiming her life in different directions. DuVernay was rewarded Best Director at Sundance for that movie, which helped propel her to a bigger stage so that when Plan B set about making a film about the March on Selma they thought of Ava DuVernay, taking a pretty big risk with a director known for smaller indie films. Selma does not trade away anything that made Middle of Nowhere so great — but rather keeps the story as intimate and personal as her previous films, even when dealing with one of the most famous civil rights heroes in American history.
Selma is a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. as man and myth but it never forgets he’s a man first. Lead actor David Oyelowo won’t let us forget it as he delivers one of the most memorable performances of the year, every bit as stirring as watching the old footage of King delivering his famous speeches. Selma comes at a time when the country watches Ferguson burning. The small white minority government controlling the large black majority citizenry is the same dynamic that was occurring in Selma. Because voter registration prevented black citizens from sitting on juries, changing the laws, they were continually at the mercy of a culture still stuck in the confederacy, and in many ways, is still stuck there.
But Selma would not be one of the best films of the year if it was only a history lesson, as vivid as that history may be. It is vibrant, alive storytelling in the hands of an inexplicably talented director who has broken every rule society would place in front of her. She’s not young, she’s not white and she’s not male – which is the list of ingredients people seem to want when finding the breakout director of the year. DuVernay and Jennifer Kent are showing the world what women are really capable of behind the camera and it’s quite something to see, indeed, nothing I’d ever imagined I’d see in my lifetime.
Selma, like Gone Girl, is a film that can be enjoyed by the people “out there” as well as those in “in here” ticking off their list of requirements for what defines a “flawless” movie for them, or an “Oscar worthy” movie for them. I’ll always remember my writing teacher saying “there are only two genres. Good movies and bad movies.”
Paul Thomas Anderson
Here is a director devoted completely to his own singular vision as a filmmaker, like all of the filmmakers on this list. From Boogie Nights, to Magnolia to There Will be Blood to The Master — his films do not seek to explain things and never have, although one could make the argument that they’ve gotten increasingly harder to understand. The Master, like his latest, Inherent Vice, exist somewhere in symbolism and absurdity — meaning everything and meaning nothing at the same time. To love his films is to be able to admit that. If you need to understand them you will find them frustrating at best, at worst you will force your own meaning onto them and thereby missing everything else they are. They are not really so much literal stories as they are impressionistic takes on people and the times they live in. Both The Master and Inherent Vice are really films about unforgettable love. Both star Joaquin Phoenix ambling through in a dreamlike state, as though he doesn’t really even get what is happening to him. The Master took place just before Inherent Vice and perhaps that is why they can maybe work well as companion pieces, even though they are wildly different in their origin stories.
The Master is about learning control. It is about how people will try to sell you all manner of products and theories and beliefs to help you control your impulses, to help you behave normally. Inherent Vice is about the aftermath when that illusion implodes. Where Phoenix’s character ends up in The Master is where he finds himself, in a way, in Inherent Vice — all the while that romantic illusion haunts both films.
I don’t know how we got so lucky to have such a great director working within the American studio system. But lucky we are.
When you think about compromise the last person you can come up with is Mike Leigh – you can’t buy him off because making money isn’t his ultimate goal. He seeks to tell the stories that fascinate him, and to work with a team of actors to find that authentic. He hasn’t normally worked on such a large canvas as he does with Mr. Turner. His films tend towards reflecting the inner worlds of their characters but here, he has to paint the world as Turner saw it. He has to create that breathtaking canvas because otherwise no one would ever understand why and how Turner got where he did.
Grumblingly incoherent, freakishly attractive, Mr. Turner is not your average film protagonist. He is probably a little like Leigh sees himself and in that way, this is as close to a self-portrait as you’re going to get with this very talented auteur. While you can’t really put Mr. Turner in a box as a “flawless” film – I dare you to even try to use that word when talking about it. It is a reminder of the days when films were about real costumes, real dialogue, real actors. Does it mean Hollywood has sold itself out that it doesn’t support movies this very often? Probably.
They barely support movies like Gone Girl and look at how that turned out. Stories like one are risky. Thankfully for Mike Leigh he still has an appreciative audience cheering him on.
Miller is a director who follows in Mike Nichols’ footsteps. He is worthy of that title because he, like Nichols, focuses so deeply on, and all of his stories spring from, character. Capote was about a great writer’s obsession with a crime and a killer. Moneyball was about a baseball player finding his own heroism in the most unlikely circumstances and Foxcatcher goes much deeper, hewing more closely to Capote in that it illustrates a madman who built himself a wrestling team then pretended to play the game as though he actually believed in following the rules. Foxcatcher is not the literal retelling of the John DuPont murder so much as it is a larger extrapolation of monstrous American wealth. When I think of the film I see the oligarchy our country has become. They have bought themselves out of playing by the rules that the rest of us must. They don’t need to anymore because they have all or most of the wealth. All they need to do now is buy the government.
That might seem a bit extreme, and indeed Foxcatcher is really more about the relationships between three men than it is about the country’s leadership, but in 2014 it’s hard to separate them. Fincher’s Gone Girl, Inarritu’s Birdman and Miller’s Foxcatcher are two films that paint a picture of American life defined by its limited options. In each of them, desperate times call for desperate measures but for different reasons. Foxcatcher, like Gone Girl and Birdman is filmed beautifully, told brilliantly — though it leaves people cold. And that’s a good thing.
While Interstellar might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is no denying what a major risk the director took in remaining so fully committed to making the film he wanted to make. While it isn’t his best film it is most certainly his most ambitious and for that he earns respect. Films these days that are aimed at wide audiences and aren’t branded within an inch of their lives don’t do as well at the box office and that’s a shame. We aren’t conditioned anymore to think for ourselves. We’re conditioned to get exactly what we pay for, satisfaction guaranteed. So to see a film like Interstellar will be challenging for anyone. Audiences seem divided on it. Me, I admire what he was going for – and would never want to discourage any successful filmmaker from taking those kinds risks. Go big or go home.
Probably there isn’t a more definitive artist who works on film these days than Anderson, who like David Lynch before him, must carve out his own universe every time he makes a movie. Here, it is the Grand Budapest Hotel — an odd assemblage of characters and character actors all existing within Anderson’s diorama. This isn’t real life at all — this is completely imaginary. By this point, though, Anderson has developed enough of a following that many people turn out to see his films, making Grand Budapest his most successful to date. It’s hard to talk about film in 2014 without mentioning Anderson.
While A Most Violent Year isn’t as thought provoking as Margin Call, and it isn’t as experimental as All Is Lost, it is nevertheless a film that illustrates what a dedicated student of art Chandor is. He’s going to be working on a much larger canvas with his next film, about the Gulf oil spill, but for now, what you see with a Most Violent Year is a director fully committed to the art of storytelling. While many are keen to compare it to the cinema of the 1970s, or to Sidney Lumet, it can stand on its own as a story Chandor wanted to tell.