My Favorite Directors… or something, it gets complicated, but I tried

I doubt it will ever happen, but I do think about making a movie quite frequently (and I do have pretty good plans as well, at least from the point of view of feasibility financially, because of extremely tight budgeting). I would really like to make a movie like the last two movies by Celine Sciamma. Both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Petite maman are very cozy and secure. At the same time, I realize where my mind goes when working on ideas, my movie would end up more like one by Gaspar Noe, who makes movies about his own nightmares.

Here’s the thing: Sciamma can elevate a simple idea, while Gaspar Noe can take a good idea and completely mess up the execution (okay, “completely” is too strong here, but mess them up anyhow). With the exception of Enter the Void, which feels in many ways like a movie by his wife, who co-write it, those movies just fall short. Sciamma’s last two movies were so great that they actually found a level of love among critics that they made the Sight & Sound list with Portrait of a Lady on Fire debuting at 30. These are also the two newest movies on the list (okay, I didn’t exactly check whether Portrait or Parasite was released first, but they were both from 2019).

I wouldn’t call Noe a hack exactly, but he sort of is. Sciamma, while not a brand like so many other directors, is a master I adore (or is it too early to call her a master of the craft? I don’t think so), even if Noe’s themes are generally more of interest to me.

The inspiration for this article is Jay Bauman’s off-handed remark in an episode of Re:View years ago at this point. Paraphrasing: He named John Waters as one of his favorite directors (maybe even the favorite), although none of his movies are actually his favorite movies. This got me thinking. Obviously we can like directors without really liking their movies.

I mean, I like Quentin Tarantino movies quite a bit, but his personality can be quite abrasive. Then there was the incident on the set of Kill Bill that left Uma Thurman badly hurt pretty much for life, which was basically him just abusing his power. So, I can’t really like him as a person.

On the other hand, there’s a story in Sarah Polley’s Run Towards Danger, where she recounts a story of her discussion with Jaco Van Dormael on the set of Mr. Nobody about a scene, where he wanted to make sure she is comfortable with the dangerous situation and they decide to do something different instead. This came partly after he had heard of her negative and sometimes very dangerous experiences on the set of Adventure of Baron Munchhausen (which the book recounts as well, if you are interested – it’s an interesting pseudo-biography, because it’s not really a biography, but it is biographical). I can respect this. This is the way professionals should behave and think things through… but I don’t like his movies that much. Well, except for Brand New Testament, which is great.

I can’t really say I really know these people. These are just based on various interviews, commentary tracks and other secondary sources so there is plenty of parasocial behavior here. These people might be assholes, control freaks, or otherwise hard to work with behind the scenes, but who knows. I do like to believe that not everyone is an asshole. Even if there is a lot of contradictory evidence.

But let’s start with the previously mentioned John Waters. Like Jay Bauman, I do appreciate him. His movies are mostly okay. They are interesting in various weird ways, but they aren’t something I watch regularly. However, I do think the world would be less interesting and less fun, if John Waters didn’t exist. Throughout his career, he has always been on the side of outsiders, which in itself is great, but these aren’t cool lone wolfs, who fight for justice on the edge of society. These are real outsiders.

It seems to me that now that he’s older and hasn’t directed a movie in a very long time, he is just having fun, doing various things to make little bit of money here and there by basically enjoying himself. Just looking at the list of appearances on IMDb, it would seem to me that he must have been a great judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race (although without ever seeing the show, one might easily argue that all the judges are going to be larger than life, so the competition in that department might be harsh as well).

A few years back, I would have said David Fincher is probably the best director working at the moment. However, unlike most of the top tier directors, he doesn’t seem interested in writing and/or producing his own films. He does a lot of producing, but mostly on TV and not movies, especially his own.

Despite this, he doesn’t seem like someone you just bring in to sit down and instruct the actors. He does have a very distinct style and in the past, he seems to have chosen projects based on exploring humanity through very dark themes.

Here’s how Pier Paolo Pasolini got on to the list: There’s a movie of his called Teorema. It’s about a family that receives a mysterious guest. Each of them, starting with the maid, than the son, the wife, the daughter and finally the father (there’s a hint about the dog as well), tries in turn to clumsily seduce him. He responds to each of these attempts by having sex with them. This completely changes how they look at life.

Okay, it’s a weird movie, but so what? A lot of directors have done weird movies. Well, Pasolini was very left-leaning in an environment where that wasn’t always that popular. On the other hand, this movie wasn’t only hated by the religious, right-leaning people. The left also took offense. He didn’t give a shit. He wasn’t going to bow to the dogmatic views and fragile egos on either side of the aisle. It’s still being debated, but this might have cost him his life, as he was murdered and perhaps as a revenge killing. Some sources claim it was done by mafia for whatever reason. Who knows? Some guy was sentenced for it with ‘unknown others’, but that part was redacted from the documents later on. On the other hand, Pasolini also had a prediliction for young boys. I don’t think he ever broke the law in this regard (except perhaps prostitution laws), but still, any kind of relationship between a teenager and someone in their forties or fifties just doesn’t sit well with me.

So, who am I supposed to like? As quite a few of the posts on this blog lately, this one has had a weird life. The first revision on this one was made over five years ago. So, I’ve been working on this slowly here and there for five years. I didn’t even know who Celine Sciamma was back then. I guess #metoo has also made me careful. You never know what you’ll learn about someone. The fact that Tarantino probably knew about Weinstein makes me like him even less. Fincher’s last movie wasn’t that good. Things change.

So, right now, I think my favorite director is the aforementioned Celine Sciamma. It feels like she is almost discovering a new film language after a century of emphasizing drama and violence. Sure, she’s not the first and she too has worked with the drama, but there is something refreshing in the comfiness of her last two movies. Clearly, based on the love these two movies have received, I’m not the only one who feels this way. If I piqued your interest, you should start with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. You can’t go wrong with that. That is one of those movies that will be remembered in 50 years.

Sean Baker is also great. He doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, such as sex work, and gives visibility to people such as transwomen, poor children and, well, sex workers. He doesn’t judge, even if some of these people are problematic. He is there to document their stories and I like that approach. There is something real in the drama portrayed in his movies. I guess the best starting point here would be The Florida Project, because it has such a unique point of view as it tries to see the world from the point of view of an unruly kid being brought up into petty crime.

Then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos. To me he is kind of like Gaspar Noe, except that he doesn’t fail at the execution. He’s movies have a very bleak worldview, but he can address that in an interesting way. There is always a certain amount of artifice in his movies. Nothing feels quite right. Admittedly, his movies have had more of an immediate effect on me, but that hasn’t lasted. I still like his movies, but they sort of drop from pure tens into nines after I have a chance to think about them. The exception here is Dogtooth, which I adore in all of it’s sick glory. His most approachable movie is probably his current latest The Favourite, but based on the early reviews, Poor Things (coming out later this year) might be a better choice.

I guess after all that, these three are my favorite directors at the moment, but it is also partly because I don’t know much about them. I know them only through their work.

One thought on “My Favorite Directors… or something, it gets complicated, but I tried

  1. Despite all of this, I forgot Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, two people I was going to add on many times, but never got around to it. Oh, well.

    At this point, they’ve each made just three films, but each of those has been at least close to great and in most cases they have crossed that line. I probably shouldn’t just put these two together like this, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who thinks of these two as their own microgenre of sorts. Each researches their work well and uses that understanding of mythology and folklore to explore topical issues in a very interesting way. Beau Is Afraid is sort of an outlier here, but I do like it as well, even if I like it more as an attempt to do something different than as a movie.

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