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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7 Down, 3 to Go: Richard Rush for The Stunt Man

RICHARD RUSH FOR THE STUNT MAN (1980)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Robert Redford for Ordinary People

David Lynch for The Elephant Man

Roman Polanski for Tess

Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull

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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I can only imagine what it would have been like for Richard Rush to make The Stunt Man, a film that implicitly presents the director as divine figure. Peter O’Toole claiming to channel David Lean in his creation of Eli Cross, presents the director as something between God the Father and God the Son, both serenely shaping reality to his will and fervidly preaching to his followers to accept his vision. I got a lot of pleasure out the film’s subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to Cross’ divinity—his sudden descents into the world of the other characters via crane and helicopter, the effulgent beams of light that frame his appearance, his divine voice booming out over the landscape. However, what really expressed this theme was Rush’s own bag of filmmaking tricks, which continually reasserts the director’s total control over the reality we see. The carnage on the beach, which tricks the assembled onlookers, spells out as clearly as possible the unguessable design behind our perception of reality. Even after this pattern is set up, though, I found my viewing habits so strong that I fell time and time again for Rush’s sleight of hand—particularly the hidden segue from one aerial stunt to a completely different setup, fused together because they were cut as though inside Eli’s completed film. All apparent danger in the film turns out to be mere mischief conjured by Cross and Rush in tandem.

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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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5 Down, 5 to Go: Costa Gavras for Z

COSTA-GAVRAS FOR Z (1969)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy

George Roy Hill for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant

Sydney Pollack for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

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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Costa-Gavras’ Z has the next decade of American political thrillers all figured out. The cool paranoia of The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor has direct roots in the sangfroid of this Best Foreign Language Film-winning fictionalization of a real political hit job, a real cover-up, and the real reverberations felt throughout Greece. The director’s dry perversion of the usual disclaimer, stating that any resemblance to actual events or persons “is purely intentional,” draws into focus the implicit political critique aimed at the Greek authorities for the duration of the film. Costa Gavras’ and Jorge Semprún’s adaptation of Vassilis Vassilikos’ novel rings with the truth of government ineptitude: in contrast to the omnipotent and airtight schemes of Hollywood’s conspiracy fantasies, the culprits in this story are a group of military thugs who have ham-handedly incapacitated the head of the opposition, then clumsily tried to cover it up. These figures are not scary because they’re criminal geniuses, but because they’re powerful. After Jean-Louis Trintignant rather handily exposes their crimes and indicts the lot, the conclusion to the film undercuts this triumph in multiple stunning reversals, producing a discordant conclusion bemoaning the brute political reality of subsequent Greek history.

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4 Down, 6 to Go: King Vidor for War and Peace

KING VIDOR FOR WAR AND PEACE (1956)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

George Stevens for Giant

Michael Anderson for Around the World in Eighty Days

Walter Lang for The King and I

William Wyler for Friendly Persuasion

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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I would venture to say any screen adaptation of War and Peace would be folly, but Sergei Bondarchuk’s seven-hour version (thanks to Khrushchev’s munifience, the most expensive film ever made), is apparently waiting to prove me wrong when I finally see it. But at half the length, Paramount’s truncation of Tolstoy’s irreducibly vast novel was a misbegotten dream. The film’s six credited screenwriters indicate the difficulty with which the studio attempted to cram the sprawling story into a *mere* three and a half hours, and the end result—for the most part—feels as though it’s reciting a series of quotes without grasping the underlying meaning of the text. Still, the redoubtable King Vidor manages to wring some highlights—and one masterful extended sequence—from this abbreviated epic. If the film cannot match the peerless quality of its source material, it at least musters up, in Vidor’s visual design, Audrey Hepburn’s ethereal beauty, and Jack Cardiff’s prismatic photography, a sporadic visual eloquence to suggest Tolstoy’s grand vision.

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3 Down, 7 to Go: Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat

ALFRED HITCHCOCK FOR LIFEBOAT (1944)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Leo McCarey for Going My Way

Henry King for Wilson

Otto Preminger for Laura

Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity

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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How great is a minor film by a major filmmaker? If any other director of the 1940s had tackled Lifeboat, it might have been remembered among the landmark cinematic experiments of the decade (witness: Ang Lee). However, as a part of Hitchcock’s prodigious oeuvre, it goes down as a second-tier effort even in terms of the master filmmaker’s middle period. With Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and even the nearly avant-garde Rope close at hand for comparison, Hitchcock’s ambitious if flawed storytelling exercise has been dwarfed in its legacy. Yet to the Directors Branch at the time, Hitchcock’s film, shot over months in an elevated water tank on the Fox lot, presented a masterful and undeniably award-worthy filmmaking achievement.

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2 Down, 8 to Go: Norman Taurog for Skippy

NORMAN TAUROG FOR SKIPPY (1930/31)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Clarence Brown for A Free Soul

Lewis Milestone for The Front Page

Wesley Ruggles for Cimarron

Josef von Sternberg for Morocco

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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For as ubiquitous as adaptations from the comics have become in recent years, Marvel and DC have yet to match the Oscar success of Norman Taurog’s Skippy way back in 1931. Following the ups and downs of Percy Crosby’s comic strip hero, a rambunctious ancestor to Dennis and Calvin, the film showcases Taurog’s signature strength directing child actors. Indeed, his effective (if underhanded) techniques were sufficient to earn his 9-year-old nephew Jackie Cooper the only child nomination in the history of the Best Actor category. The infamous story of Taurog faking the killing of Cooper’s dog to get those tears does diminishes this accomplishment somewhat; in his defense, though, everyone in Hollywood seems to have borrowed this page from his playbook, if you believe the preponderance of stories out of classic Hollywood. And it is a good performance, ranging from the character’s indomitable brightness to those cruelly extracted (but convincing) tears.

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