No one likes the word “masterpiece” anymore. No one in the industry likes it. Critics don’t particularly like it. The general consensus is that it is overused by people who are too dumb to know better. But the definition of “masterpiece” is really just “a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship.” You can see how this would apply to the best films of the year quite easily. It doesn’t necessarily mean “the greatest film this director ever made” or even that there should be only one in a year or one in a career. It simply means nothing more or nothing less than this: a master of the form delivers.
With films that rise to be in the Best Director race, that is an easy call to make. What wouldn’t be a masterpiece would be: a good effort, a film that’s almost great. It can still be a good movie. The word is, without a doubt, overused and if it’s lost all meaning then why use it? Because sometimes there isn’t a better word. Sometimes the word is the only one you can use because that’s what it was invented for.
How I personally define it is two ways: first, is the maker a master of the form? Did he/she aim high, damn the torpedoes, take a chance and hit it out of the park, even if it’s not entirely perfect? Second, I define a masterpiece as a film that is superb on its own terms — even if it may not exactly involve a huge risk taken. I personally prefer to use the word to describe the former, but I think it applies to the latter as well. Like, The Godfather movies are masterpieces. Were they huge risks in storytelling? Well, maybe the second one was but overall — they were just deeply-rooted masterworks.
But in general, we usually hear the word masterpiece when the director aims high and hits his intended target.
Take, for instance 1917. There isn’t a better word to describe what Sam Mendes’ aimed for and what was delivered. A simple enough premise — undress movie making, writing, and acting down to the essentials. Film it in a convincing semblance of a single take and see what happens. Set it in World War I — in No Man’s Land, no less — and set a young man on a near impossible quest to get from one place to another, over the most dangerous terrain the modern world had ever known. Did Mendes achieve what he set out to do? Absolutely yes. Does it surprise us even within the bounds of that premise? Yes. Because once a film plays for an audience it comes alive as something entirely new than what the director intended. How we interpret it, react to it, how it changes us heightens the film’s greatness.
It can be argued that Quentin Tarantino has made quite a few masterpieces in his lifetime but there is no question Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, by any definition, a masterpiece. There isn’t a minute of screen time that he doesn’t have the entire film firmly in hand. He tells three different stories that take place roughly at the same time. Each of these is about letting go of the past. The past that embraced the main character but now has forgotten him, the past where a stunt man could get better work but continues working for the guy whose career and life are shifting. The past that we’ve all lived with, the utterly random and horrific night the Manson family drove up to Cielo Drive. It is a fairy tale, of course, and part of a revenge trilogy that spans a century of violent American history. It is also vibrantly alive filmmaking, funny, breathtaking and memorable. It is his most personal and best film.
And then there is Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Scorsese is an indisputable master. Almost every film he makes is a masterpiece because he is a master of the form. He knows what he’s doing and he always aims high to challenge himself in ways he never has before. Even the occasionally awkward de-aging process, which some may see as a misstep, can’t change the definition of “masterpiece” because that’s what it is, particularly its spine — Steve Zaillian’s fantastic script. What else can you call a masterpiece if not this. Scorsese’s goal — use the process of de-aging to allow the same actors to tell a complete story of the past and the present of a mobster’s double life. Throughout the film, he’s pinned under the watchful gaze of his daughter, someone who knows what she sees but cannot say it. She could be, if we want to really deep dive into recurring themes in the Scorsese canon, a representation of God Herself. That gaze, it pins down De Niro’s character and makes his crimes unquestionably observable and therefore inexcusable. Why, because he knows it too. He knows what she knows and he knows he has to die with this truth about who he is.
Bong Joon-Ho is a director who continually challenges himself by telling stories that exist in multiple realities. This is true of all of his films, which start out in one place and then open a portal to another place and an entirely different story emerges. Parasite, though, can be called nothing other than a masterpiece. It fits the definition perfectly. It’s the work of a master who has a lot to say about capitalism, social and economic inequality, the desire to climb, and the system shuts people out. Parasite is funny, frightening, beautiful and unique.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is as risky an endeavor as any major release by a major studio all year. Like the other directors mentioned here, he reached high and far for what he wants to do, which is upend a book and deliver high satire that mocks Hitler at a time when the world seems all too willing to bend towards fascism and genocide once again. Mocking Hitler without diminishing the horrors he brought is no easy feat but Waititi dives in, fully committed, playing Der Fuhrer himself. If you watch Jojo Rabbit enough times (I’ve seen it three times already) you can see how much Waititi’s voice threads throughout, the line delivery of each of the characters to find the absurdist humor but never backing off when it needs to be tragic. It’s deceptively playful, vibrant storytelling that takes us into familiar territory but also holds our hand and leads us out of darkness. This film and 1917 are both about the ravages of a world at war, with the fledgling endurance of the human spirit.
Pedro Almodovar has delivered a masterpiece with Pain and Glory. There is no other word for this film and honestly masterpiece barely covers it. It is his life story, a loving memoir of his life as a child, his life as an artist, and his life as a man and a lover. If someone were to ask me to show me a capable master at the top of his game, I would mention all of these above but I would put Almodovar’s film at the top of the pile and say, if you want to see someone who knows what they’re doing as a director, a man who has done it for so long for so many years he has become expert at every cut, every line, every beat in the story, every performance, I would say, watch this movie to see how it’s done.
James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari isn’t a movie that everyone would immediately call a masterpiece because the word isn’t used as it’s properly defined — it is rather reserved for those movies that are unequivocal. But an argument could be made that a film this good, this smooth, this perfectly rendered could be called a masterpiece because it is most definitely “a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship.” Driven by a dazzlingly script, with an ensemble of talented actors who are all acting in the same movie, Mangold’s hand and voice is all over this film, even though it’s a movie about car racing. Its meaning transcends its plot. Of all of the films released this year, this will hold its place in time for telling such a universal story, which is as good as it gets for studio releases.
Todd Phillips with Joker, has made, to my mind, as close to a masterpiece as the genre of graphic novel adaptations can ever get. It is such vivid realized filmmaking, however dark and misanthropic it is at its core, it is a complete vision that succeeds in redefining what the place of super heroes and super villains have become in our culture. But has anyone ever made a big budget studio film this subversive to blow apart the boundaries of a pop culture genre? It touches upon the forbidden taboos where so many comic book tales originally dwelt, before they turned into franchise profit-making machines. And this one made a billion dollars. No one is going to walk away from 2019 and forget this film, the images in it — they burn into your brain — of the performance of Joaquin Phoenix.
By now, Craig Brewer has a signature thumbprint. Just because a movie is funny doesn’t exclude it from being a “work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship.” Dolemite Is My Name is that, without a doubt. Like all of these films mentioned here, the actors do a lot of the storytelling and without their skill none of these would come off as well. But a director’s job is more than just framing great shots — it is coaxing the performances out of the actors – which Brewer does here to brilliant effect. He tells multiple stories at once — the history of Rudy Ray Moore, how influential and ambitious he was (so rare to see stories about black entrepreneurs in film), the story of the pop culture phenom that was Dolemite and blaxploitation and how the film industry had neglected black audiences until black audiences started to matter, and finally the story of how Eddie Murphy spent 15 years trying to get this made and how no other studio would do it until Netflix agreed.
There of course are other directors who stand out this year. I will be writing more about them in the coming weeks:
Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim
Lulu Wang, The Farewell
Jay Roach, Bombshell
Greta Gerwig, Little Women
Todd Haynes, Dark Waters
Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers
Trey Edward Shults, Waves
Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes
Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn
Jordan Peele, Us