Wednesday, February 11, 2015

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The Helmsmen: Director, 1971

We've landed on Best Director! Gave a lot of thought to this one in my 1971-2014 linking. I mean, who do I compare to whom? Of the five men nominated in 1971, two already had Oscars, one was on his third nomination, one was a first-time filmmaker, and one had finally found a film that suited both himself and audiences. Of the five men (always men!) nominated in 2014, two are previous nominees, two are beloved auteurs finally embraced by the Academy, and one is Morten Tyldum.

But dammit, I found a way! I found the common threads!

He's not just honing his voice via literary adaptation; he's also riffing off the tone and style of a respected director whose voice and interests neatly align with his own. This could be Wes Anderson adapting Stefan Zweig via Ernst Lubitsch for the invented Europe of The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Peter Bogdanovich adapting Larry McMurtry via John Ford to capture a Western community for The Last Picture Show.

Working in a genre that's catnip to Oscar voters and audiences only mission was not to fuck it up. Probably anybody could have done this. Yet he still manages to bring a personal touch, not getting in the way of the story, yet offering a strong piece of cinema with superb performances. Morten Tyldum offers us another World War II tale (with a gay twist!) in The Imitation Game; Norman Jewison offers us a musical epic in Fiddler on the Roof.

He's got a personal stake in the material, having shaped aspects of it from his own life, but he doesn't let that cloud his judgment. The performances he coaxes from his actors delve deep -- you know them all too well. Richard Linklater reportedly riffed off aspects of his childhood for Boyhood; John Schlesinger was more than willing to own up to the autobiographical elements of Sunday Bloody Sunday

Raised eyebrows when he took on the project, as it's not exactly his "box", so to speak; not so much his "thang". Yet this is the one that makes people look up, and even his former critics find themselves applauding. Alejandro G. Inarritu traded in his mopey human dramas for showbiz comedy in Birdman. William Friedkin, known for niche stage adaptations and zany comedies (weirdly), became a power player with his cop thriller The French Connection

Carefully-composed shots and a very deliberate tone, with observations and revelations tailor-made to make people think a little more deeply about things, man. Problem is: this emperor has no clothes. An empty, dull, unfocused horror. Yet it's fooled everyone. Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is a worse offender than Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, though. Even more agonizing: these guys are usually great!

A further look at the filmmakers of 1971, after the jump.

Peter Bogdanovich for The Last Picture Show
Doesn't lose himself in nostalgia, but doesn't steep too far into melancholy either. There's definitely a combination of both, but he never goes completely one way or the other. Works wonderfully with the ensemble of newcomers and vets. Love those moments when the actors break the fourth wall, the soundtrack goes out -- it's such a dangerous, magical headspace he captures.

William Friedkin for The French Connection
Handles action and flatfooting equally well, using comic beats to sell the reality. Case in point: Popeye and the Frenchman getting on the subway, off the subway, on again, etc., each keeping an eye on each other without looking. And it'd be crazy to discuss the movie without mentioning the incredible chase sequence between a car and a train, as Popeye speeds along, crashing into cars, narrowly avoiding strollers...breathtaking.

Norman Jewison for Fiddler on the Roof
Jewison grounds the film in reality, keeping everything muddy, grimy, dirty, wooden, cold. Despite the sense of dread hanging over the whole proceedings, Jewison still delivers a wonderful, often funny, classic movie musical. He's also generous with the cast, letting his camera linger not just on the leads, not just on the introduced supporting players, but on the familiar faces we see throughout, creating a true community.

Stanley Kubrick for A Clockwork Orange
Unforgettable images, and at least maintains the same bizarre tone throughout. Still, certain scenes, like the final one between Alex and the Minister, have an air of disinterest. Pace-wise, it moves at a deadly crawl, what my father would call the speed of a thousand startled snails.

John Schlesinger for Sunday Bloody Sunday
Understands the viewpoint of each character, presenting them without judgment, but not without passion. There's a real love for everyone on screen. His deft handling of transitions between reality and more, shall we say, spiritual moments -- sudden flashbacks, breaking of the fourth wall, etc. -- is seamless, sensible. Thank God: even in the bigger moments, these characters act like people.


It was, unexpectedly, the year of The French Connection --  absolutely, yes, Friedkin earned it. AND YET! Friedkin's name is not the box I would tick. Rather, I would go for...


Up next -- Original Score! Ah, the beauty of a film soundtrack...
From 1971: Mary, Queen of ScotsNicholas and AlexandraShaftStraw DogsSummer of '42
From 2014: The Grand Budapest HotelThe Imitation GameInterstellarMr. TurnerThe Theory of Everything

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