The Best Directors: A Series—Ang Lee

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I have only seen three Ang Lee movies, but they are all excellent romances in their own ways. The three I have seen are: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lust, Caution, and Life of Pi.  Two of those are much more famous than the other.

Chow Yun Fat and Ang Lee on set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Chow Yun Fat and Ang Lee on set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought two of Hong Kong’s best action stars together: Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. They provided the performances of their lives. The look of the film was amazing, as was the editing. Ditto for the music. And such amazing locations. Only one person can pull that all together…the director. This was the first foreign film I remember waiting for its American theatrical release. And it turned out to be the best film of 2000, and one of the best foreign films ever.

I do not remember much about Lust, Caution, but considering that it was about a romance/espionage between a Japanese collaborator (set in World War II China) and some fledgling resistance members it certainly was tense. Tony Leung is the married target and Yang Wei is the young spy who is meant to set up his assassination. Probably the best “adult” movie I have seen; and by adult I mean NC-17.

Most recently he made Life of Pi.  When I say made, I mean, he directed and produced it. This is only the second time in his career that he has done so. The first time was in the above-mentioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As impressive as the best foreign film of the 2000s and best NC-17 film are, telling the story of a young Indian man stuck with a tiger on a boat was a coup. It was a beautiful film and a terrifying one. He leaves it up to the characters in the film and to us the audience to decide if we can believe in a miracle enough to justify our faith in Pi. I did not wait to see Crouching Tiger and now I wish I had not waited to see Life of Pi. These have been so good that I might have to go and watch his mid-2000’s classic Hulk. Or Brokeback Mountain. One or the other.


Update: The Best Directors: A Series—Paul Greengrass

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If you want to read my original post, it is here.

I had not considered the need to update these “Best Director” posts until I came across this one again. Captain Phillips demands a place for itself in any article on Paul Greengrass. The glowing tone I used Greengrass’s career still had to reconcile the of mediocrity of Green Zone as his most recent work; I left with the thought that he would hopefully be “more than a 2000s Francis Ford Coppola.” Well now Greengrass has his four classics, and has stretched into the new decade.  The future looks bright for Greengrass who has finally combined his two worlds, properly, with Captain Phillips:

World 1—documentary style realism for real stories with anonymous actors, Sunday Bloody Sunday and United 93.

World 2—star driven political thrillers, Bournes Supremacy and Ultimatum.

There was no Tom Hanks in Sunday Bloody Sunday or United 93. There were no actual lives lost in the Bourne movies. Here Greengrass and Hanks managed to convincingly tell a recent historical story without relying on anonymity to make the actors seem more realistic. Clearly Greengrass still did this with the Somali pirates, but Hanks as Phillips himself was an amazing jump from a director for whom I did not see much room for growth.

N.B. I also wished that The Dark Knight Rises would be as good as The Bourne Ultimatum, and it pretty much was.

The Best Directors: A Series—Frank Darabont

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Frank Darabont might be one of the least well known good directors out there. His 1990’s prison dramas are the finest that sub-genre has ever seen. Clearly, The Shawshank Redemption is the best prison movie ever. But number two could be his follow up, The Green Mile. While his star may have fallen with the over criticized The Majestic, he returned to the horror-drama genre on television with his adaptation of “The Walking Dead.”

Frank Darabont of the set of The Green Mile.

While the two prison movies have received great praise—two are in the top 66 films on imdb Shawshank is #1—Darabont himself has been nominated for 3 Oscars, but never as a director. That seems odd, but then again his star fell after The Green Mile when The Majestic failed to garner similarly positive reviews. And The Majestic was just average, not something worth getting sent to prison over! Ha ha! So he has only directed four movies total, and two have been classics. The fourth is The Mist. I have heard good things about it and I do enjoy Andre Braugher a great deal. Also in the cast are Jeffrey DeMunn and William Sadler who are in everything that Darabont does. With such a résumé I think I have to see The Mist. Stay tuned.

The Best Directors: A Series—Curtis Hanson

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I have only seen three Curtis Hanson movies, but they are all excellent for what they are. The three I have seen are: L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile.  Of course only one of those is a classic.

L.A. Confidential brought two of Australia’s finest together with one of America’s best actors, Kevin Spacey. The notoriously convoluted book turned into a perfect film noir. The look of the film was amazing, as was the editing. Ditto for the music. Only one person can pull that all together…the director. On par with The Usual Suspects, this is the best crime story of the 1990’s. In fact, it is one of the best ever.

I do not remember much about Wonder Boys, but considering that it was about a college professor and school with a lot of talking, it is an exciting movie. One of the best adult college movies out there. It also has a crazy cast to wrangle, but wrangle Hanson must have. Robert Downey Jr. is a one man bag of cats, Tobey Maguire was blowing up, Michael Douglas was married to Catherine Zeta-Jones—back when that meant something—and it all clicked.

As impressive as “greatest crime story ever” and “least boringest college professor movie” are, telling the story of a poor, white rapper outside of Detroit with a non-actor was a coup. He tells the story of a little victory, and explains the scale of it. This is not winning the championship in some crappy sports movie, this is about finding the miracle to justify your faith. BEST. RAP. MOVIE. EVER.*

*CB4 is the best rap mockumentary ever, if people thought I had forgotten it.

The Best Directors: A Series—Michael Mann


I love Michael Mann movies. He brings a style and intensity to his movies that I do not find in other directors. The main criticism of his movies is that he cares more about their construction and the efficiency within his characters than their lives or popular aesthetics. None of his films had made a great deal of money and few have garnered general adoration, but he is a master craftsman who loves characters who strive to be the best and to take care of business like none other. That took a boring book like Last of the Mohicans and turned it into a hit.  But that same attitude took his 80’s tv hit “Miami Vice” and, by keeping it real, left many fans disappointed.

This “efficiency” tone can be seen in many of his movies, in descending order of popularity: Collateral, Heat, Public Enemies, & Miami Vice. You can take any major law man or criminal from these movies and stick them into any of the other ones and I guarantee that they thrive. Crockett and Tubbs could have hunted down John Dillenger with 1920’s technology, or Al Pacino could have matched wits with Tom Cruise’s Vincent, with or without his laptop.  While Heat is visually different from those three movies, Mann did not have digital cameras and as advanced of special effects at his disposal.  While his characters disagree on moral issues, they always respect each others capacities to succeed. Through that respect, Mann’s love of his characters, good and bad. He also loves Stephen Lang, who America finally recognizes through Avatar and “Terra Nova.”

Stephen Lang plays a small, but slimy role in Manhunter, the forgotten chapter in the Hannibal Lecter series. Did you know that Red Dragon–starring Ralph Fiennes–is a remake of 1986’s Manhunter and that Brian Cox was the first to portray Hannibal? He is fantastic and every bit as frightening and mesmerizing as Anthony Hopkins in the role. It also is one of the few movies to star “CSI’s” William Peterson.

While he did not cast Stephen Lang in The Insider, Michael Mann cast just about everybody else: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Philip Baker Hall, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, et al… The newsroom world of The Insider is every bit as stylized as the police/criminal world of other films, with far more tension. For everyone who said that they did not want to see a 2:40 movie about someone testifying, this is a gem. While I would watch any of his movies, this is the one I would recommend to anyone old enough to handle it.

The Best Directors: A Series—Jay Chandrasekhar

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Littering and…littering and…littering and…Supertroopers is one of the greatest comedies of all-time. Slightly less well received were his Club Dread, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Beerfest. What they all have in common is that they had the rest of the Broken Lizard crew. And that they all made me laugh and laugh. They each took a genre and put together a nice satire. That is what makes Jay Chandrasekhar a great director.

It took dexterity to tell a traditional police tale with such a colorful band of comedians in Supertroopers. Club Dread tackled the classic genre of teen destination horror and used the same gang in vastly different roles. The Dukes of Hazzard showcased a duo I never thought I wanted to see—at least not without Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the film—Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott. I never watched the tv show, but I enjoyed how it tackled the Confederate flag on top of the car. Keeping it real, without offending modern sensibilities. Beerfest also managed to walk that fine line. Showcasing crude, beer related humor with the class and grace of having the director waking up nude, in a field next to a dead deer. While Chandrasekhar mostly works in tv now—Arrested Development, Chuck, Community to name the highlights—I hope that he returns to film so that he can continue as the finest comedy director of my adulthood.

The Best Directors: A Series—Guy Ritchie

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When I think of Guy Ritchie the music from the opening credits pop into my head. I used to divide Guy Ritchie fans into two camps: those who saw Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels first and those who saw Snatch first. But all that has changed now. There are people out there for whom their first experience with Guy Ritchie’s brilliant dialogue and amazing editing has come through Sherlock Holmes. I acknowledge that some of his movies have not been well reviewed—Revolver & RocknRolla, and even the new sequel to Sherlock Holmes. Still, notwithstanding the time when he was married to Madonna, he has always performed amazingly.

The first way that he elicits greatness is through the dialogue of his actors. Think about the great accents, the great deliveries from not contemporaneously respected actors. Actors like Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Jude Law, etc… Or hiring Americans to play Brits, like Brad Pitt as a piker and Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes.

In that respect, Guy Ritchie is not unique. However, his editing with his eclectic musical selections opened my eyes to a new style of films. Until Snatch came out, I thought that Apocalypse Now was the best movie ever made. It still might be, but I could watch Snatch over and over again in a way that I could not with Apocalypse Now or The Godfather: Part II. Even with great dialogue Ritchie cuts films together to convey information through a variety of ways. Those skills are why he is a great director.

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