Who, or what, should the greatest director be? It’s hard for anyone to stand out amidst such a diversely brilliant field. There are masters of the camera, of performance, and of design. Some filmmakers’ genius is to capture reality, while others invent entire worlds from scratch; there are humanists who probe the depths of human nature and there are visionaries who explore new ways to see the world and tell stories. Nobody can do everything better than everyone else, but there are a few who, for my money, epitomize what is truly great about cinema and the artistic vision. I’ve already provided my long list; now, here are the best of the best of the Academy Award nominees for Best Director.
If there’s any director who comes closest to reaching every extreme at once, to me it has to be Robert Altman for Nashville. Altman somehow does everything both ways in this film, painting a vast mural out of miniscule character studies, forging a perfect interlocking structure through improvisational shooting style, enacting American dreams and tragedies through the petty tribulations of a few days in Nashville. Channeling Mark Twain as much as Jean Renoir, Altman evokes a clamorous, polyphonic vision of bicentennial America, piercing at the hearts of his many many characters through his signature nonstop bustle. Every time I watch the movie, I catch new details hidden within the ambling style and ingeniously interlocking narrative, as well as being drawn once more to Lily Tomlin’s innate goodness, Ronee Blakley’s fragile grace, and the unobtainable spirit of hope in Hal Walker’s presidential campaign. I remember seeing this film at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and, like a classic Greek tragedy, being so moved by the unstoppable catharsis of the final scene that I went physically numb. Altman sees both the grand design and the intimate interiors of his sprawling epic, and while Ford and Welles and Scorsese offer many candidates for the Great American Movie, none to me captures it all more than this everywhere-at-once vision.
But Altman, even at his very greatest, is still just the first among equals in my pantheon. Many great directors, from Truffaut to Fellini to Altman himself, have turned their eyes toward the story of filmmaking itself, but none has captured its fevered nature better than Billy Wilder does in Sunset Blvd. Wilder’s quintessential Hollywood fable finds the very incarnation of stardom in Norma Desmond, the twilit goddess of the silver screen. Played by Gloria Swanson in the greatest Best Actress performance of them all, Norma is a character who will forever elude me, challenging the line between performance and delusion. Even at her weakest, Norma bends every filmmaker in the story to her will, and Wilder ultimately pulls us into her dream world as well in the greatest final shot of all time.
Wilder’s tragedy of grandeur resonates with those who, since the days of Griffith and (of course) Von Stroheim, have courted the same ruin with their mad ambition. Among those from Lean to Cameron who have tempted fate, though, I must single out Francis Ford Coppola for the pyrrhic genius of Apocalypse Now. Perhaps the most spectacular self-immolation in the history of directorial folly, Coppola’s war epic fittingly captures a journey past the realm of sanity into the psychedelic realm of the subconscious, haunted by the shadowy specter of Colonel Kurtz. Miraculously coherent in its meditation on war and humanity, the film captures some of the most beautiful images and sounds I’ve ever seen onscreen. While Coppola’s near-mythic directorial vision may not have withstood the chaos of this film’s creation, with his last gasps of greatness he did produce one of the enduring monuments of cinema.
In contrast to Coppola’s flawed genius, I don’t know if anyone has ever directed as perfect a film as John Ford’s Stagecoach. In contrast to Apocalypse Now’s blurred line between man and nature, Ford’s classical parable about American ideology structures itself on the rigid divide between the fortified pockets of civilization and the imposing expanse of the unsettled West. I’m astonished at Ford’s thrift, wasting nary a glance or shadow in his complex New Deal morality play, and handling the tacit intricacies of the travelers’ melodrama as expertly as the kinetic passage from Tonto to Lordsburg (including the best action sequence ever shot. Period.) All of Ford’s simplicity and subtlety adds up to a narrative that overtly proclaims American greatness while silently foreshadowing the troubling hypocrisies and shortcomings inherent in the Western myth.
If I had to round out this all-star group, right now I would settle on Joel (and Ethan) Coen’s Fargo. My father—an impossibly exacting audience for movies—once paid this film the highest compliment he knew, saying that everything in the story was perfectly believable. I think that’s the secret to this film’s success, not only in capturing the humor of Minnesota’s quirks, but also the utterly petty motives and deeds from which evil arises. Throughout the film, the Coens’ camera contrasts a detached curiosity toward the miscreants with an empathetic view of the sheriff. Marge’s bewilderment at the monstrous sight that greets her at the movie’s end, and her ultimate resilience, to me says everything about good and evil’s attachment to daily life.
But the fifth slot is always up for grabs. I came extremely close to including King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd or David Lean for either the majestic Lawrence of Arabia or the ineffable beauty of Brief Encounter. The list similarly seems incomplete without a revolutionary work like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a rightful Oscar winner like Milos Forman’s sublime Amadeus or Woody Allen’s gleefully freeform Annie Hall, an incomparable feat like Julian Schnabel’s evanescent The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or an irreplaceable personal invention like David Lynch’s inexhaustibly enigmatic Mulholland Drive. And then there are the two masterpieces of spiritual transcendence that I discovered at the very end of this quest: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Lastly, though this ending is as arbitrary as my fifth mention above, there is Sidnley Lumet’s 12 Angry Men: the alpha of my cinephilia, the film that awakened me to the artistic capacity of filmmaking.
As my unstoppable enthusiasm should suggest, the excellent directing does not end here or at the bottom of any list the Academy or I have ever made. Nor was this project ever just about the very greatest films. While I’ve enjoyed a masterpiece from time to time, the real joy has been in occasionally stumbling upon an unexpected gem or an underrated oddity. I’m thrilled and saddened to close the book (for now) on the history of the Best Director quest. I remain excited to continue discovering excellence in directing both in the finite form of this year’s eventual Best Director nominees and in every any film I watch, no matter how far off the beaten path. And needless to say, I’m also already looking forward to the next major quest! Tune in next week for an update on the Oscar categories that remain. Until then!