The Best Directors of Them All

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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.

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Cliff’s Picks for Best Director

Here they are, the best of the best!  As with my votes for Best Actress, I’m going about this in two ways.  First, the old-fashioned method: I’m casting my vote by year in all 87 races for Best Director.  Lots of fun, and full of impossible choices: Wilder or Hitchcock? Wellman or Reed? Altman, Lynch, or Jackson?  Second, to accommodate the overflow from such strong years (and get rid of the races I could do without), the second column contains my top 87 Best Director nominees of all time, drawn from the entire pool of 426.

Finally, the third column, just for reference, contains the list of actual recipients of the Academy Award for Best Directors.  I’ve shaded in gold the instances where my pick and the Academy’s pick align. Your thoughts, either privately or down below in the comments section, are more welcome than ever!

Now, without further ado:

In image form, for those who want to see the whole list at once:

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8 Down, 2 to Go: Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line

TERRENCE MALICK FOR THE THIN RED LINE (1998)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan

John Madden for Shakespeare in Love

Peter Weir for The Truman Show

Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Whew, dashing this off during a break before the last half hour of Traffic—just in time to bolt out the door! As my word choice probably indicates, these will be pretty quick and instinctive posts, but I’ll do what I can to do justice to both films!

The principal sacrifice I made in setting my June 7th deadline for this Best Director project was passing up the chance to see The Thin Red Line on the big screen. Watching the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray on a 65-inch screen was a pretty decent substitute, but I regret that my first trip to one of his transcendental cinematic planets could not be in the dark asylum of a movie theater. From the very first shot of an alligator gliding into the scummy pond, Malick captures a lyricism that somehow has eluded every filmmaker before or since. Much credit goes to the brilliant cinematography of John Toll (on a hot streak after back-to-back wins for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, but the fact remains that Malick has managed to elicit the same kind of magical aesthetic with three generations of collaborators–even the bombastic Hans Zimmer‘s is tamed by his pacific outlook.  The film is ultimately a testament to an immaculate directorial vision for the ages.

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6 Down, 4 to Go: Bernardo Bertolucci for Last Tango in Paris

BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI FOR LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

George Roy Hill for The Sting

George Lucas for American Graffiti

Ingmar Bergman for Cries and Whispers

William Friedkin for The Exorcist

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Even forty years later, there’s little I can say about Last Tango in Paris that wasn’t said with flair by Pauline Kael, so I’ll refer you to her first. Kael’s iconic rave set the rallying point for the film’s defenders against the vocal legion of moral critics aligned against it. I quite understand the point of view of those who saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s tale of an anonymous love affair between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as depraved and indulgent. However, the beauty of the central relationship is shaped by precisely the dark possibilities of their free explorations–emerging a dream of Bertolucci’s featuring sex with an unknown stranger, the film leaves as much unanswered around its fuzzy edges and it explains. This unpredictability stems from a superlative performance from Brando, drawing upon every last fiber of his legendary improvisatory talents to breathe a spontaneous driving force into the grieving widower (a role turned down by Jean-Louis Tringtignant, in a serendipitous connection to my last post). Maria Schneider also does a fantastic job, intrigued and yet afraid of the alternative to her safe premarital world. For that matter, the fiancé played by Jean-Pierre Léaud presents a more surreptitiously dangerous path, casually probing her as a visual fetish to the more frank and egalitarian sexual partnership offered by the insistently mysterious stranger.

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Best Director Home Stretch: John Farrow for Wake Island

JOHN FARROW FOR WAKE ISLAND (1942)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

William Wyler for Mrs. Miniver

Michael Curtiz for Yankee Doodle Dandy

Mervyn LeRoy for Random Harvest

Sam Wood for King’s Row

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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The first of two World War II dramas I watched last night was startling in its immediacy. Released eight months after Pearl Harbor, John Farrow’s vivid recreation of crushing military defeat was the first full-fledged combat film to emerge during the war, leading a charge of productions that would dominate theaters for several years to come. John Farrow’s realization of the siege and conquest itself portrays the faraway conflict with a close-to-home thrill, while W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler’s screenplay, written under the auspices of the US Marine Corps and the freshly established Hollywood Branch of the Office of War Information, recasts the naval outpost’s surrender to Japanese forces as a heroic last stand. Hitting theaters in the middle of 1942, amid a cascade of setbacks in the American and Allied war effort, Wake Island strikes a powerful minor chord to commence Hollywood’s dramatization of the struggle, framing the story in a somber resolution to fight on.

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Best Director Final 50: Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ

MARTIN SCORSESE FOR THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Barry Levinson for Rain Man

Charles Crichton for A Fish Called Wanda

Mike Nichols for Working Girl

Alan Parker for Mississippi Burning

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These days, Martin Scorsese is the safest Oscar blue chip around. Five of his last six films have returned 42 Academy Award nominations and 14 statuettes, including five Best Director nominations and a win for The Departed. While I’ve neither exalted nor condemned these recent works, for me nothing compares to the unbounded creative force he wielded in the decade between Raging Bull and Goodfellas. However, even trusting the protean genius behind those films as well as The King of Comedy and After Hours, I approached The Last Temptation of Christ with trepidation. I am far from an observant Christian, but the film was coupled in my mind first and foremost with its polarizing theatrical release, and I had a hard time picturing Christian iconography and Scorsese’s iconoclasm mixing well. Even the movie’s title (not to mention the cover of the Criterion Collection DVD) threatened to careen either into indulgent chaos or grueling treatise. These days, how could any filmmaker strike at the central narrative of Western civilization and yield an artistic triumph?

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Best Director Final 50: Carol Reed for The Fallen Idol

CAROL REED FOR THE FALLEN IDOL (1949)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives

Robert Rossen for All the King’s Men

William A. Wellman for Battleground

William Wyler for The Heiress

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol and The Third Man unfold at opposite poles of the same world. At first glance, the grand London embassy in which The Fallen Idol is set, particularly through the playful eyes of the young Phile, stands in stark contrast to the blasted shell of Vienna as seen by outsider Hollis Martin. However, as Phile and Hollis blunder into the fragile equilibrium of secrets that sustain their respective worlds, both open up into the same morass of challenging truths. Each film, adapted from Graham Greene’s work in close collaboration between director and author, concerns itself with the moral dilemma of our inherently limited perception of the world around us. Both stories hinge on the misperception of a death, the true cause of which stands in irreconcilable contrast to the clean official report. While I promise not to keep belaboring the comparison, given the imbalanced renown of the two films, I was surprised at what a rich counterweight The Fallen Idol proved to be. Reed and Greene here create a childhood fable that is at once happier and more troubling than their immortal postwar classic, a brilliant visual and narrative exercise in the ironic play between innocence and knowledge.

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