May 17, 2013

My Top 10 Directors: Part 2

Alfred Hitchcock
Making a list of cinema’s greatest directors without including Alfred Hitchcock would just seem… wrong. I quite often reject critical consensus, or the idea of a canon of indispensable films and filmmakers, but I’ll make an exception in this case. With over 50 extant films (remarkably for a director who began in the silent era only one, The Mountain Eagle, is lost) Hitchcock could be a daunting prospect to discover, but he isn’t, for two reasons. First, and perhaps most remarkable, is the depth of quality in his filmography. Look pretty much anywhere in Hitchcock’s oeuvre and you’ll find something regarded as a classic (though I’m less fond of Frenzy, which tends to be seen as his last great work). The other thing that makes Hitchcock easy to discover and still so compelling as a filmmaker is how well his films have aged. The Lodger, for instance, hit its 85th birthday last year but, but for the lack of sound, still plays to me like a (fantastic) modern thriller.

I’m still behind on my Hitchcock homework, having seen ‘only’ 24 of his films, but even with only about half his filmography covered I’ve still found what I consider to be hidden gems among his most celebrated periods. For example there’s Hitchcock’s own favourite, the masterful Shadow of a Doubt, the tight little thriller Young and Innocent from the late British period or the Henry Fonda starring The Wrong Man, which floats under the radar among the seldom broken run of classics that constitute the 23 years between Rebecca and The Birds. It’s arguably the greatest run in cinema history, even taking into consideration the odd dud like The Paradine Case, and it’s probably true that without this run, or Hitchcock’s earlier British work, cinema would be very different.

Hitchcock’s greatest talent was for thrillers, and for the construction of a narrative in cinematic terms; he had an amazing knack for holding back information, both from audiences and the characters in his films and thus maximising both suspense and shock. Though he worked in the thriller genre for most of his career, the versatility of Hitchcock still impresses, often within a single film. For the most part, Strangers on a Train is a more psychological thriller, but its murder scene – seen as a reflection in the glasses of the victim – is something out of a nastier kind of horror movie. Psycho also deals in this duality; the film does focus on the psychology of Norman Bates, but it could also be said to have invented the slasher film with its shower and staircase murders.

I could go on and on about Hitchcock; about the joy of the sly wit that runs through his films; about the visual invention and verve that pervades them (look at the way The Lodger uses a see through floor to suggest both sound and tension); about his skill with actors and the way he turned their personae inside out (especially James Stewart and Cary Grant).

Ultimately though, the reason Hitchcock is here is twofold. First of all, as a fan of genre cinema, he’s both the master and the source; there is very little in thriller cinema even now that Hitchcock didn’t do at some point. Secondly, and more importantly, most of his films remain as brilliant; as thrilling, as funny, as suspenseful, as scary now as they were when they came out.
Start With: Psycho / Strangers on a Train
Best Film: Shadow of a Doubt

Satoshi Kon
I debated with myself for a long time about whether to put Satoshi Kon on this list, pondering whether I could justify including a filmmaker with just four features to his name. Ultimately I decided that I could on two grounds. First of all, three of Kon’s films make my Top 100 list, making him easily the most represented filmmaker in terms of percentage of work on the list and secondly, sadly, because it is at best extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see another film with his name on it. Kon died aged just 47 in 2010, and though he had been working on a new film, The Dreaming Machine, which was supposed to be moving forward even after his passing, there has been no news on it since.

Kon became an anime director, but originally his first film, Perfect Blue, was supposed to be a live action project. I’m rather relieved that it wasn’t because, as great a film as Perfect Blue is, the fact that it is an animated psychological thriller marks it out as something a bit different, and I wonder whether it would have made the journey from Japanese to English and American release had it been live action. The film is an incredible blend of influences, notably Hitchcock and David Lynch, telling the story of a pop star who want to become an actress and may also be being stalked by an obsessive fan. It’s one of Darren Aronofsky’s favoruite films, and images from it recur in both Requiem For a Dream and Black Swan (which is essentially an uncredited remake).

Kon’s influence is felt in more than just Aronofsky’s films. Conciously or not, Christopher Nolan co-opted many of the themes of Kon’s final completed film Paprika – in which a machine that allows therapists to travel into patients dreams nearly brings down the walls of reality – for Inception. I’m sure Kon would have appreciated other filmmakers drawing on his work, because his love of cinema bleeds through in all of his films, but most notably in Millennium Actress, which frames a decades spanning romance through the lens of the movies that the film’s female protagonist starred in, as she reflects on them in an interview with another filmmaker.

For me, Kon took all of his influences and remoulded them into films that were compelling, great looking and often dazzlingly original. It’s a tragedy that we will never see another film from him, because there may yet have been even better to come, but though his legacy is small it is stunning.
Start With: Millennium Actress
Best Film: Perfect Blue

Park Chan-Wook
By 2004 I had already dipped my toe in the water of the South Korean new wave, which had begun to come to prominence in about 1998, but it was for me, as it was for most people, Park Chan-wook’s Cannes Grand Prix winner Oldboy that really made me sit up and take notice of what was being produced in South Korea.

Since I love vengeance movies it’s really no surprise that I immediately discovered Park’s cinema, given that his first three really notable films constitute a thematically linked trilogy on the subject. More than that though, all of the Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) offer a great primer on Park’s cinema, with a style that is heavily constructed and visually impeccable, yet also frequently extremely visceral. Park’s early films (including his debut Joint Security Area) also see him building up a stock company from whom he knows that he can get strong performances. Perhaps the key links in that company are Song Kang-ho, brilliant as a Father out to avenge his daughter’s death in Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and as a conflicted priest who becomes a vampire in Thirst and Choi Min-sik, who has large parts in Oldboy and Lady Vengeance as two almost diametrically opposed characters.

Park’s trademark seems to be the almost excruciating precision of his films, and the way that everything in his composition seems, at least to me, to take on meaning (look at the moving moment when Lee Young-ae removes her red eyeshadow in Lady Vengeance). This can mean that, outside of Oldboy, which is his most visceral work, Park’s films can take some time to settle. This was something that happened to me with Lady Vengeance, and ultimately made it extremely rewarding. I didn’t love the film the first time I saw it, but in the back of my mind there was a niggling thought that I was missing something, that I, rather than the film, was the problem. So I went back, and then back again, and again. Each time I saw it the film grew in meaning and significance, and this is something I think stretches through Park’s work; there is so much to see, so many subtleties and layers beyond the (usually rather extreme) hook that for me his films reveal themselves a little more with each watch, and that’s a truly rare thing to do once in a career, let alone multiple times.

The jump to the English language can unstick a foreign director, but Park’s English language debut, Stoker, blew my mind earlier this year. I saw it at the cinema four times in six weeks. It’s unchallenged to date as 2013′s best film and confirmed for me, along with Thirst, that his madcap sci-fi I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay was just a blip. There’s a sense for me, when walking into one of Park’s films, of excitement, because I never know quite what to expect, but I always know it’s going to challenge me.
Start With: Oldboy
Best Film: Lady Vengeance

Francois Ozon
Well, if you know me then you knew this was coming. I was introduced to Francois Ozon’s films, along with a lot of American independent and other European cinema, by a film buff neighbour who used to lend me tapes, including Ozon’s debut Sitcom. I was immediately taken with that rather odd film, but it was only after seeing 5 X 2 at the cinema that I made sure I caught up with the rest of Ozon’s work (I’ve now seen everything he’s made, bar a tiny handful of shorts). What I found was one of the most versatile, interesting, and reliably high quality filmmakers I’ve ever come across. Over 13 features (excluding the new Jeune et Jolie, which just screened at Cannes) the only one I can count as something of a misfire is his one English language effort, Angel.

Ozon flits between genres and styles with an assurance that is rare in filmmakers, but it seem to me that he has two main modes. There are the rigorous dramas, notably Under the Sand, Time to Leave and Le Refuge, which make up his trilogy on grief, and the excruciating 5 X 2, which charts a failed marriage backwards from divorce to first meeting. Then there are the lighter films, the ones that often tend towards camp, like Sitcom, 8 Women and Potiche. Not all of Ozon’s films fall into these categories though, and there rewarding oddities to be found among his work, such as the fairytale gone nightmarish Criminal Lovers and Fassbinder adaptation Water Drops on Burning Rocks.

As I’ve said many times, given his workrate (a film a year), and how that rate has worked out for some other directors (The last quarter century of Woody Allen, for instance), I’m always as nervous as I am excited walking into the new Ozon, because I don’t want to see him make a truly bad film. Because Ozon is so adaptable, there is also a sense of excitement in never knowing what – beyond trademarks like fluid sexuality and, whenever possible, at least one beach scene – he’s going to deliver. For example, who would have predicted that he would follow literary adaptation Angel with Ricky; a social realist film which takes a surreal, even Cronenbergian, turn when the central couple have a baby with wings?

For me though, Ozon is not the traditional jack of all trades, master of none. Nor is he simply a shooter who turns his attention to a variety of projects without bringing anything to them. His films all bear a recognisable auteurist stamp and all share themes, but he is always in motion, and seems always to be interested in finding something that he hasn’t done, hasn’t said, to base his next film around. I an age when I know what to expect from almost any given film, especially from a filmmaker I know as well as I do Ozon, this constant surprise is incredibly exciting and rewarding, and for me it’s what makes him the best filmmaker working today.
Start With: 8 Women
Best Film: 5 X 2

Paul Verhoeven
I think this list has ended up broadly reflecting my cinematic interests, and by that token I suppose Paul Verhoeven is as close as it comes to representing my love of exploitation cinema, which I think is often given unjustly short critical shrift, but does generally lack directors whose filmographies reflect the consistency of those I’ve listed here.

Verhoeven isn’t, strictly speaking, an exploitation director, but even his early Dutch language dramas have the sort of extreme content that defines exploitation cinema, and these are things he would only end up accenting in his American work (what is Basic Instinct if not Hitchcock refashioned as an exploitation film?) Here and in America, largely because of their subtitles, Verhoeven’s early films would be seen as arthouse fare, but in Holland they were popular hits, in fact his second film, Turkish Delight, held the record for most admissions of any film ever released in Holland for years after it came out. Holland is famously more liberal than the US and UK, but that didn’t stop Verhoeven from being controversial. Spetters, though it reached a large audience, was so controversial that a group actually formed purely to protest it, accusing it of being anti-gay, anti-christian and anti-women among other things. It was this reception that would, after making a proto-Basic Instinct in The Fourth Man, lead Verhoeven to Hollywood.

I like Verhoeven’s Dutch films very much, but Hollywood, for me, brought out the best in him. He never toned himself down (indeed his Hollywood debut, Flesh and Blood, is awash in both titular ingredients and is such a rank portrait of the middle ages that the smell fairly leaps off the screen), but Hollywood really seemed to bring out his subversive streak, and for my money he did his best work when taking genre pieces and inserting subversive social commentary into them. He mastered this in Robocop, which satirised Reagan’s America and presented its central figure as, in Verhoeven’s words, an American Jesus (Verhoeven is a member of the Jesus seminar, and has written a biography of Jesus. No, really). Starship Troopers; Robocop‘s spiritual twin, was perhaps even more subversive, so much so that its satire of American militarism was often – hilariously – misread as a fascist tract.

This dedication to messing with his audience, while also delivering the spectacularly entertaining goods, is what I love about Verhoeven’s films. His work can absolutely be enjoyed at face value (sometimes only at face value, of Hollow Man he says ‘Ist hollow film, ja?’), but most of his work has much more going on beneath that surface. The gloss and the dedication to explicit sex and violence, I think, sometimes makes audiences and critics think that’s all there is, but Verhoeven is smarter, deeper and better than that. I wish he were still working more.
Start With: Robocop / Starship Troopers
Best Film: Robocop

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