This time around I’ve been asked to talk about my favorite director.
(Incidentally, this is #32 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
This is challenging because I don’t have one, obvious favorite director.
What criteria does one use to decide such a thing?
Do we just say that it’s the director of my favorite movies?
That’s not so clear, because if you look at a list of my favorite movies, they are made by a whole bunch of different people. In fact, years ago, I made such a list, identifying (at the time) my 12 favorite movies: Singin’ in the Rain, LA Confidential, Some Like it Hot, The Great Escape, Dark City, The General, Quiz Show, His Girl Friday, In the Heat of the Night, Apollo 13, Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those movies are directed by 12 different people (only true because even though Spielberg directed two of them, Singin’ in the Rain has two directors).
Do we say it’s the director whose films I like the best overall?
That sounds okay, but it’s tricky in actual practice, because pretty much every director who has a film I have liked has another one that I didn’t, or was at least quite apathetic to. For example Ron Howard did the enjoyable Apollo 13, but he also did the atrocious Angels and Demons. Alex Proyas made the excellent Dark City, but he also did the excruciating Knowing, and so on. Almost nobody has got a spotless track record.
Do we say it’s the director for whom I found the highest percentage of their films to be good ones?
Well, then my favorite director might be Taika Waititi, who has only done four movies, of which I’ve seen 2.5, all of which I liked. Or J.J. Abrams, who has directed 5 movies, all of which I’ve seen and liked, even Star Trek Into Darkness. But their shear lack of output makes it hard to take seriously the idea that one of them could be my favorite director. I mean, that’d be like saying I really liked Safety Not Guaranteed and I thought Jurassic World was okay, so that makes Colin Trevorrow my favorite director. That’s just ridiculous.
There are also lots of directors I might be tempted to name because I’ve seen one or two or even three or four movies by them I really liked, but where I’m not familiar with most of the other 30 or 40 movies that they were responsible for. People like Norm Jewison (In the Heat of the Night), Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men), John Sturges (The Great Escape). I’ve seen such a small percentage of their oeuvre, how could I really claim they were my favorite director?
Or is it the director whose work I have seen a lot, and who has the highest number of movies that I happen to like?
Well, surely that would be Steven Spielberg, who has made at least 9 or 10 movies that I think range from quite good to really great. But I have a hard time calling him “favorite director”. Maybe it’s just too easy, too obvious an answer. I mean, the guy’s super-talented obviously, and he gives me a sense of confidence when I’m viewing his work (usually), but it rarely inspires in me a sense of cinematic “delight” or “joy” which make a movie really stand out, at least not lately. For that, I have to look to Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables or James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence.
So, who is there who best represents the amalgamation of all these criteria? Who has made a number of films that I consider to be favorites, whose body of work I’m at least generally familiar with, and has given me many hours of not just enjoyment, but has taken me on a regular basis to new and surprising cinematic places?
Well, I guess it has to be Joel and Ethan Coen. You know, the Coen Brothers.
So together, these guys have directed (according to IMDb) 17 feature films (though Ethan was uncredited as director for ten of them), of which I have seen 10. So they’ve made a decent (though by no means extraordinary) number of movies, and I’ve seen more than 50% of them,
Of those ten, I’d say that none of them were terrible, most of them were quite good, and a couple of them were fantastic. And yes, on a regular basis, I’ve been genuinely surprised, startled, tickled, shocked, and ultimately transported by their work–taken not just to another time or place, but to another way of seeing things.
However, a bunch of their films are hard for me to imagine going back to again because of their “adult” content. Even some of the movies that I once really loved are in that category, which made it hard to settle right away on them as “Favorites”. But like I said, I think they fit that idea better than anyone else does, so we’re going to push ahead, and mention some of their movies that impacted me the most…
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
This movie wasn’t on that list of my dozen favorites that I wrote up a while ago and mentioned above, but it would be now. This film traces its lineage from a variety of unlikely sources: Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges (another great film storyteller), The Odyssey by Homer, and bluegrass music all lend their influence to this unpredictable comedy starring George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson. The three leads play fugitives from a chain gang who are chasing after a buried treasure, but their adventures constantly move in unexpected directions, bringing them face to face with the Ku Klux Klan, a manic-depressive bank robber, a group of faithful religious converts and so so so much more. And then, you know, they become radio stars singing bluegrass music. The movie is full of fantastic dialogue and quirky characters, with the leads being supported by an array of fun actors including John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, and good ol’ Ray McKinnon. I can see how the movie’s oddball approach to its story could be off-putting to some, but I thought humor worked beautifully, creating an experience that is always surprising but still accessible.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Another film that reminds me of the work of Preston Sturges, The Hudsucker Proxy is actually one of the Coen Brothers less well-reviewed works, but it’s a movie that’s long been a favorite of mine and which I’ll happily defend if needed. Tim Robbins plays Norville Barnes, a naive young man from Muncie, Indiana who makes his way to the big city and gets a job at Hudsucker Industries, and ends up as the president of the company when the board decides it needs an obviously qualified ninny to drive the price of their stock to the ground. But Norville has an idea or two that takes the company by surprise and make their plan a little harder to pull off then they thought.
The Hudsucker Proxy isn’t as good as O Brother, Where Art Thou? largely because the random asides and unconventional jokes don’t all hold together as well. It feels like a movie that probably needed a few less ideas jammed into it in order to successful, but for this reason it works for me. It is populated by a really memorable series of supporting and bit players, including Paul Newman, Bill Campbell, Steve Buscemi, Charles Durning (again) and especially Jennifer Jason Leigh as the reporter who is out to break the story, who might just be the best Lois Lane I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s also got a moment where the movie pulls off a trick of bringing hope out of nowhere in the face of certain doom. I don’t want to spoil it here but its a perfect example of when a movie was able to genuinely surprise me in a way that was sort of cheating, but was also so delightful that I happily went along with it.
Fargo was a movie that I loved when I first saw it. Maybe I’d even have described it as one of my all-time favorites. Now, I still recognize that it’s a great movie but one in which there is so much swearing and violence along with some nudity, that I don’t imagine I’ll ever be revisiting it again.
The story is about a used-car salesman who has gotten himself into a financial bind, so he decides to hire some crooks to kidnap his wife, so that he can get ransom money from his father-in-law. Things, as you can imagine, do not go well.
The movie is filled with the same unexpected twists and quirks and oddities that I like about Coen Brothers, but this time in the context of a bleak and pessimistic crime movie. William H. Macy delivers an excellent performance as the pathetic but reprehensible fool who kicks off the tragedy. But what breathes life into this downbeat landscape is Marge Gunderson, the local sheriff who is played by Frances McDormand in an Oscar winning role. This pregnant law-enforcement officer is intelligent, principled and determined, and genuinely an inspirational sort of character that really should have been mentioned in my post about movie heroes my daughters could aspire to be like. Her speech at the end about how the desire for money has destroyed all these lives, followed by her support of her husband’s accomplishments (his painting has just been selected for a $.03 stamp) capture the essence of the character.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Big Lebowski is another movie that I probably will never watch again, because the overwhelming amount of swearing and drug use in the movie, as well as a bunch of other uncomfortable content. But it captures something about what I like about the Coen Brothers, so I mention it here. And that’s their ability to create genuinely bizarre but engaging characters, and to tell a gripping and complete story but tell it an unexpected way. The Big Lebowski is a good mystery movie complete with a “revelation” scene where the mystery is solved, but along the way we’ve also gotten to know the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, one of the Coen’s most iconic creations, and seen him navigate a disjointed series of vignettes highlighting his unique take on life and relationships. The Dude is surrounded by an array of funny supporting characters played memorably by the likes of Julianne Moore, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and John Turturro, who all add their particular brands of insanity to everything going on. It’s a movie that can be a bit impenetrable but constantly is putting one odd thing after another on screen that you never feel like you can turn away.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
To be honest, I don’t remember Miller’s Crossing that well, but what I do recall is some gripping performances from both John Turturro (again!) and Gabriel Byrne. Turturro’s character is someone that the Coen’s revisit a number of times, which is a pathetic character fatally flawed with an inability to actually deal with life or his problems without bringing a bunch of harm on others (see William H. Macy’s character from Fargo, for example). Considering I can’t remember the movie’s story that well, he left a pretty strong mark, and it’s made Miller’s Crossing the Coen Brothers movie I’m most interested in revisiting.
Runner Up: I’ve already mentioned most of the possible runner-ups that I’d consider in the lengthy pre-amble up above, but I just have to give Buster Keaton a shout-out. He’s also someone who I have missed out on a lot of his projects, but what I have seen – Seven Chances, The General, Sherlock jr., etc. – are amongst some of the greatest films I’ve ever watched. The guy was obviously a physical and comical genius, and would certainly rank up their with my favorite directors.